First Stop…JAF Comics!
It was some time in the 1990s. I was around seven or eight years old and my teenage cousin picked me up from elementary school. As we walked home, we stopped at a corner store called Pam’s Candy. I remember feeling so cool hanging out with my cousin. As we walked into the store, there were shelves and shelves of candy, but my cousin stopped there for an ice cream cone. A “nutty buddy” to be precise.
He asked me if I wanted one, too which I of course answered “yeah!” This ice cream cone could only add to my coolness factor. Yet, even with all of the candy in this small corner store, I was lost in a gaze elsewhere. There was a manually revolving magazine rack, loaded with comic books! I recall telling him that I would ask my mother for the money to pay him back, if he would buy me one.
So he did. Spawn #30…Al Simmons hanging from a noose. Just mere hours before my school teacher was reading my class The Hungry Caterpillar, and now I was about to read Spawn #30. I walked out of the store with my cousin, clutching my new comic book and eating my “nutty buddy” (which I thought was awful at the time, and am now fairly certain that I’m allergic to peanuts).
Not a year later, Pam’s Candy was closed. Swallowed whole like most other small business that couldn’t afford to stay profitable against bigger brands and markets.
This leads me into the greater point of this diatribe. In the 1990s, you could find comic shops anywhere. Comic book stores were in abundance, but then the over printing started, and the great crash began. All of those people who stock piled Image firsts, would soon realize that comic books were never truly meant to be bought and sold on secondary markets, but read and enjoyed.
People dreaming that they too would be buying in on the next Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman were sadly mistaken. Even in today’s market of buying and selling, most modern books can only be sold for fun money. Not the real money that the 1990’s media and tabloids would make the comic book outsider believe. Stores began closing. Video games became so much more prominent, and comic books were no longer “cool”.
Yet here we are today. Comic books, at least in the mainstream, are as cool as ever. It’s no longer looked at as a nerdy hobby, but there still are only so many places you can get them. Hell, my local Barnes and Noble doesn’t even sell individual issues anymore, and comic book shops are few and far between.
Like the toy market did to KB and Toys R Us, it seems comic books are becoming more and more a cyber retailer. Mega shops do the majority of their selling online. Which is why I've thought up this new article.
I, along with some others writers will be highlighting local comic shops around the world and giving you an inside look at what some of us consider a second home. A safe haven if you will.
My tour starts at JAF Comics. This store boasts two locations, both in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Their original store can be found at 224 Nazareth Pike, Bethlehem, PA 18020, and their newest location can be found inside the Palmer Park Mall with the address 143 Palmer Park Mall, Easton, PA 18045. They are also on Facebook.
I myself am partial to the original location, but the fact that they have had the ability to open a second location, in the digital and cyber world of commerce is impressive. Now I’ve stepped foot into well over 100 comic book stores across America, most having some pros, and plenty having many cons. What I believe sets this particular store apart from others is the cleanliness, the customer service, and the comfort when you walk in. It’s colorful, it’s clean, and perhaps one of the nicer aspects, the staff don’t shove their opinion on subject matter, or personal comic book agenda down your throat.
What some of the charismatic and friendly staff may lack in “comic book knowledge” (the solo knock if you read their laundry list of exceptional reviews), they easily make up for in their interactions with customers and giving their customers their full attention when questions are asked or concerns are had. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few of the staff members on a friendly basis, and am happy to call the owner a friend.
Their original location boasts beautifully organized books on walls and racks. All of the new releases are bagged and boarded for the convenience of the customer. They obtained a massive collection of books from the late 1980s-present.
They stock dozens of boxes of $1 comics, as well as 25% off comics, and everyone’s favorite “wall books”. I’ve been eyeing up their copy of Detective Comics #227, but I digress. They also have a fine selection of trade paperbacks, collected editions, action figures, pops, busts, and statues.
Their newest location (the mall location) caters a bit more to gaming. Still a comic shop first, the shop has large private rooms where customers can play Magic the Gathering and I’m sure whatever other card games are popular. This location also has new releases and over 20 boxes of $1 comics.
It is still adding more premiere books to the walls, but some that can be found are Marvel Super Heroes #12, NYX #3, and a CGC 9.2 The Walking Dead #19. I just recently purchased a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #569 (2nd printing) on a black Friday deal. I was also able to sit down and have a brief Q&A with the store owner John.
Me: “Every comic book character, every major comic book for that matter has an origin story. That being said, what is JAF Comics origin story?”
John: “My origin story would be that we started by selling just action figures (the shop was originally called Just Action Figures). We bought them from a storage unit. Tons of action figures. When we moved into our first location we went from selling just toys and figures to customers coming in and asking ‘why aren’t you selling comics?'
They were telling me about their experiences with shops forgetting books and not ordering particular books, and I figured that I could do it better. I built my own system that managed all of my customers, and then we started purchasing comic books through Diamond, when we originally were just buying toys.
Shortly after we got going, the owner of another local comic store had passed away, and his wife had reached out to me close to three years later after she had tried to run the business herself. We made an offer and bought everything in the store.
Simultaneously, we moved from our little 600 square foot space and the next day we moved into our current space which is around 2,400 square feet. From there the subscribers just started coming, and that’s what it comes down too.
Supporting our subscriber base, and from there it just started to grow. We ended up opening a second shop after just running the mall store for the holidays, so now we’re at our second shop.”
Me: “What was it that made you change from Just Action Figures, to JAF Comics?”
John: “A customer of mine would come in and say that he told his wife he was going to ‘JAF'. So I thought that seemed easy enough. From there I decided we just call it JAF Comics instead of Just Action Figures.”
Me: “With the Lehigh Valley being a hotbed for comic book shops, what differentiates JAF Comics from other stores?”
John: “I feel, and I don’t know if other stores do this or not, but I feel like we listen to our customers. When they say they like something we do, we keep doing it that way. If they don’t like something, we morph. We’re not afraid to change.
I think that the stigma of a comic shop is sometimes a dirty, musty, type place, and in some cases those are great shops too. But we stay clean and organized. If people want to dig through the dollar boxes and look for something, we have that.
If someone is looking for something specific it should be in order somewhere for them to look for it. So I believe cleanliness and organization sets us apart from other shops.”
Me: “In the late ‘90s comic book stores took a major hit, obviously you know that the market has ebbs and flows. What has made your store not only successful in one location but two locations?”
John: “You can look at this either way. I’m not a personal collector, so for me it's business. I absolutely love the comics. I just pulled four first appearances of X-23 out of a long box, and to me that is so exciting, but I enjoy selling them even more. So I like having them in my possession, I thinks it’s amazing, but then it’s that much more fun to sell them.
I think because I don’t have a personal collection, when I buy collections, they’re not coming to my house. I think a lot of stores do it because it’s there hobby, and not because it’s a business, where they’re trying to make money and give people jobs. So as fun as it is, it is a business.”
Me: “What do you believe the future is for JAF Comics?”
John: “Honestly, I would like a few more stores. I’d like to be in strategic areas, where we can build a community of comic book, cards, and gaming fans in that neighborhood and be a part of their communities.”
Me: “Very few comic shops have had success franchising out. Newbury Comics, Mile High, and Midtown come to mind when I bring this up. How can you sustain profitability and success, while also not stealing your own clientele from your current stores as you continue to branch out?”
John: “At the end of the day, it’s all about training your staff and having the right staff. As far as I’m concerned if you have the right staff in your store and the good business model behind it, you train that staff to treat the customer correctly and handle the process that you’ve put together.
I think it’s an easy process. It’s very easy moving along if it’s all the same, but it all starts with the person behind the counter. Staff is the first thing a customer sees, and they dictate whether the customer will come back or not.”
Me: “In 2018, what are the main characters that customers come in asking about?”
John: “Venom. Definitely Venom. Anything Avengers related. Black Panther. People are going absolutely bananas over the new Green Lantern story. And of course Image keep coming out with these little crazy books that people go crazy over, but they normally won’t last. Although mostly at this point, it’s Marvel.”
Me: “What is the best seller at your locations?”
John: “Our subscribers. The people who come in on a regular basis and pick up their books. The other things are just the add-ons and that’s why we focus so much on our subscribers. They are the ones that keep the business functioning.”
Me: “Last question, with you not being a comic collector, what is the coolest comic book that someone has come in with trying to sell you?”
John: “The Avengers #1. By far that was the coolest book. I hated selling it. It has to be one of the coolest books I’ve ever seen. I was floored when it came through the door. It wasn’t the best condition, but still, just to hold that book and the history behind it was super cool.”
As always, thanks for visiting the City Supreme, and don't forget to turn out the lights tonight. There are more shops to see and more ghouls to hunt down. I’ll give JAF comics a solid 4 1/2 beers out of 5. Now I’ll drink to that.