San Diego Comics photo courtesy Facebook
"It is with a heavy heart that we must inform you I'll be closing San Diego Comics with the end of May," posted the current owner of longtime local comic book store San Diego Comics on Saturday, May 9. Located on El Cajon Boulevard just off 70th Street in La Mesa, the shop's history dates back to the beginning of the retail comic industry and the early days of the San Diego Comic-Con (later Comic-Con International).
"Because of the COVID-19 virus, [our main distributor] Diamond will not be distributing any new books until May 20th," said current shop owner Bob Bellman on Facebook. "I can't hold out that long."
The entire retail comic book industry is serviced by one distributor, Diamond Comics Distribution, whose sales of comics, graphic novels, and pop culture collectibles distributed for last year reportedly topped $529.7 million dollars. “Product distributed by Diamond and slated for an on-sale date of 1 April or later will not be shipped to retailers until further notice,” announced owner Steve Geppi on March 23. "As everyone knows, the world faces ever-increasing challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Its effects on the comics & collectibles and tabletop gaming industries have been felt far and wide. We are hearing from thousands of retailers that they can no longer service their customers as they have in the past, many of them forced to close by government action or resort to in-person or curbside delivery...therefore, my only logical conclusion is to cease the distribution of new weekly product until there is greater clarity on the progress made toward stemming the spread of this disease."
Diamond Comics Distribution years ago bought out or defeated so many competitors (thanks in part to exclusivity arrangements with major publishers) that it became comic retailers' sole source for nearly all contemporary comic book-related publications and products. When Diamond stopped its weekly shipments of new product due to the pandemic, it created an almost impossible cash flow problem for an industry where comic book retailers must guess in advance how much of any given product they will sell, and place non-refundable orders accordingly.
Diamond says it will begin shipping again on May 17, and publishers like DC have attempted some direct distribution, but many shops, including San Diego Comics, can't wait that long. The shop did host an online auction (a subsequent edition was called off due to a Covid-19 related death), but it's hard to overstate just how important "New Comic Day" is to the lifeblood of a comic book store that depends on new releases. Think of it like motion picture opening weekend box office reports. All too often, not only the product, but the producers and the purveyors, all make or break their investment on those opening days.
New Comic Day is a kind of like staging a world premiere every seven days, a weekly Burning Man, where totems and effigies are scarfed up, coveted, traded, reviewed, and discussed - often right there at the register - with the solemnity and devotion of a religious service. It's the day the majority of the week's sales are made, when most of the local subscribers arrive to pick up (and ideally pay for) a pallet load of pop culture booty they pre-ordered, which the shop had to pre-order. Which, in April and May, never came.
"If you have anything in your pull list box you can come pick it up from us at the store Wed., Fri., and Sat. 10:30am-5pm.," says Bellman in his post. "Curbside service only. Otherwise please bring us your back issue lists for some great deals! You might want to also give your current pull and hold list to a new store, as all previous orders for April and May have been canceled. Thank you for your loyalty to this store."
The store was founded by Greg Pharis, who ran a shop in Kensington called Golden State Comics back in the early days of the retail comic biz, when the local San Diego Comic-Con was just starting up. When one thinks of the early 1970s spread of comic culture into the mainstream via comic book stores, the San Diego chapter of that history is headlined by Comic-Con co-founder Richard Alf and his Comic Kingdom (for years a colorful University Avenue staple in Hillcrest), the Pacific Comics store chain that later expanded into distribution and publishing (Jack Kirby's Captain Victory, Dave Stevens' Rocketeer, etc), and Pharis' Golden State Comics/San Diego Comics.
Pharis started in the late '60s, buying and selling at local swap meets. After buying a mail order comics business from Brain Laurence called Collector's Comics in 1972, he ran that for a couple of years before selling out to Richard Alf at Comic Kingdom, who offered him a job managing that store. Getting fired by Alf in early 1976 (to be replaced by local character Jack Dickens, once seen in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor puking on a San Diego street curb) turned out to be the lucky break that inspired Pharis to go solo.
"When it comes to the first stores that opened," says local comic historian Jamie Gardner, "Pacific Comics was first, House of Comics was second, Comic Kingdom was third, and Golden State Comics was the fourth opening [in May 1976]. Greg Pharis started his business at a warehouse in 1972. Some customers would meet him at the warehouse, but it was not officially a store."
Two years after Pharis opened Golden State Comics on 30th Street near Adams Avenue, he relocated just down the road to 4688 Boundary Street in 1978. He stayed at that locale through December 1989, when he sold it to Ron Bates (who moved it over to 33rd and Adams). Pharis opened his San Diego Comics store in the 1,000-square-foot storefront near SDSU in 1992, using his longtime expertise to establish it as one of the anchor retail comic shops on the west coast, regularly lending his well-informed voice to comic trade and fan publications. In May 2013, he sold San Diego Comics to a customer named Frank Juliano. Present owner Bob Bellman purchased the shop and inventory around four years ago.
Today, Pharis can often be found, selling and talking about the comics he loves, at local events like San Diego Comic Fest.
One of those other San Diego originators, Pacific Comics, was co-founded by Bill Schanes, who later became head of purchasing for Diamond Comics Distribution, the very company whose cessation of new product shipping has put the squeeze on so many retailers.
(See also: RIP Robert Scott: Comickaze Comics operator, Comic-Con is cancelled: What is filling San Diego's Comic-Con gap?)