An old story on Lincoln’s comic book stores

This was a story I did for an April 2006 issue of the short-lived Lincoln weekly, ‘Switch.’

Fifteen years ago, the first issue of the new X-Men series sold over six million copies.

The Comics Journal estimated that more than 9000 comic book stores were in business across the United States.Now, in spite of the success of movie adaptations, a new issue of “X-Men” is lucky to sell 80,000 copies. The number of comics stores has dropped to around 3000. And the cultural presence of comic books has been greatly diminished.

“People come in here off the street wanting change for the meter and say ‘Wow, I didn’t know comics still exist,’” said Larry Lorenz, owner of Trade-A-Tape Comic Center at 145 S. 9th.

Along with Comic World at 233 N. 48th, Trade-A-Tape is one of two Lincoln stores to survive the rise, fall and slight return of the comic book culture over the past twenty years.

Originally dedicated to selling 8-track tapes, Trade-A-Tape was founded in 1975 by Lee Aronsohn, a New York native who ended up in Lincoln.

“Lee had worked at a store in Boulder called Trade-A-Tape that sold music, so he brought that here,” Lorenz said. The store focused on the music, but Aronson sold some comics in the back.

Lorenz, who had sold comics in high school at flea markets with a friend, moved to Lincoln for college in the fall of 1976 and started working at the store.

At the age of 20, he bought Trade-A-Tape from Aronsohn. “The first day I bought it, I switched it around and put the comics up front and the music in back,” Lorenz said. Although he kept the name, the focus has remained on comics ever since.

Since that time in the mid 70s, Lincoln has seen quite a few comic shops come and go. Time Machine was downtown not far from Trade-A-Tape’s current location. Fantasy Unlimited was based in Belmont. Comics Inc was in Piccadilly Square.

Not all can blame their demise on a fluctuating industry or saturated market.

“Owners can screw up even when times are okay,” Lorenz said. Gothic Comics, housed in the Centrum at the end of the 80s, was one such example.

“Everything had to have a gothic theme,” Lorenz said. “They wouldn’t sell X-Men, but they’d sell you Batman. They wanted to tell people what they could buy. They’d buy stuff from me and take it up there and sell it for a 20% discount – they weren’t exactly Harvard business school grads.”

Sometimes Lincoln itself made business difficult.

“My stores keep getting demolished,” Lorenz said.

The original Trade-A-Tape was now on the block housed by the Grand Theatre. The second location was on the infamous Block 35.

“They had a grand vision for a shopping center there, so they got all this bond money and gave it to Embassy Suites,” Lorenz said. “That was really a neat block. You had Arturo’s, Dirt Cheap, Pickles, and KZUM was there. It kind of had a feel like the Old Market.”

“The next time the city knocks down the building I’m in to bring in an out-of-town business, I’m out of downtown,” he added.

Comic World, which operates out of the Super Saver shopping center on 48th Street, opened in September of 1993. Current owner Rochelle Dvorak purchased the store in 1999.

Perhaps the most prominent store now absent from the Lincoln landscape is Cosmic Comics. Brian Schur founded the store in August of 1986 in East Park Plaza.

John Doan, now with Trade-A-Tape, got his start at Cosmic in its early days.

“A friend of mine was working at East Park and found out a comic shop was opening down there,” he said. “Just from shopping here, we knew who Brian was, so we went down and asked him if he needed help.”

Cosmic’s success led to eventual expansions to Van Dorn Plaza and Edgewood in Lincoln and Harvey Oaks Plaza in Omaha.

“Brian brought in a lot of creators,” Doan said. “He really knew how to promote things.”

By the early 1990s, speculative collectors influenced the direction of the industry. Publishers began using gimmicks like alternate covers to drive up sales. Record-breaking print runs flooded the market, rendering many of the previously hot comics worthless.

“That was kind of when the comics business got really bad,” Lorenz said. “Once the speculators got out, a lot of the regular collectors got out too.”

According to The Comics Journal, more than 4500 of the 9000 stores in the United States closed in just a few years.
Cosmic Comics had closed its two Lincoln expansions by 1997, and by 2002, it was out of business entirely.

The loss of young readers has also affected comic sales. “Back when I worked at Cosmic, we had a lot of junior high, high school aged kids,” Doan said. “Now they’re most customers are in their 20s or adults.”

Before the direct-market comic store was created in the early 70s, comics were only available on the newsstand. This helped bring in younger readers.

“It used to be that you’d go to the grocery store with your mom, and to kill time you go to the comic rack,” Lorenz said.

“Part of the problem selling to kids is the direct market has been so successful, it’s kind of squeezed out the drug stores and grocery stores,” he added. “You don’t just one day walk in to a comics store and say ‘I’m going to start collecting comics.’”

Losing that introductory channel to young readers has closed off a potential audience that now gets exposed to characters through cartoons and movies without realizing the comics exist.

“I think it’s a genre that’s more accepted than at any time, if you count the people who go to the movies,” Lorenz said. “They just don’t feel the need to go read the comics.”

“So you have to do things differently to stay in business,” he added.

As a way of introducing younger readers to comics, Trade-A-Tape participates in Free Comic Book Day, which falls on May 6 this year. As the name implies, the store gives out free comics to its visitors.

Comics stores have also survived by diversifying their product. Many comics stores now sell trade paperbacks – collections of multiple issues into a bookshelf format, figurines, t-shirts and other related merchandise. Comic World places an emphasis on games, often hosting events for customers inside the store.

“I carry comics and games because I am interested in almost everything I carry,” said Rochelle Dvorak, owner of Comic World. “The store, for better or for worse, is a reflection of my interests,” she added. “This is not really a huge money making kind of business, so I have to like what I am doing.”

The stores have also been able to depend on the loyalty of their customers.

“It’s a bit of a pain for some people to come downtown, so I appreciate their loyalty,” Lorenz said. “We have some people who shop here from even before my time. And I picked up quite a few people who were loyal to John when he came here from Cosmic.”

“If anything,” Doan said, “comic customers are more moral. In 20 years, I’ve probably caught 2 kids shoplifting.”

The few who do try to rob the comic shops encounter an extra obstacle.

“We have an unusually large number of artists who hang around,” Dvorak said. “A few years back, someone robbed the store at gunpoint, got away with less than $50 and the employee behind the counter was an artist. When the police arrived, they were presented with a sketch of the person, which led to his arrest and conviction.”

Lorenz and Doan both expressed their admiration for the customers that come in each week.

“They’re kind of your friends,” Lorenz said. “We see the same people every week, people who are really interested in their hobby and want to talk to you about comics.”

One Response to “An old story on Lincoln’s comic book stores”

  1. don Says:

    I remember cosmic comics so well.the staff were friggin’ morons who just cared about watching mystery science theater and pulling stuff for themselves and their friends and when u had the same comic on your hold list it mysteriously did not get pulled. i can’t blame them all . john was the reason to go there and the rest were just dumb asses . it is sofunny to see them at trade a tape now telling him once i win the lottery john , i ‘m going to pay you back for all the stuff i stolded friom cosmic while you were running it.

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