What do Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America and the Green Lantern have in common?
They all are among the comic book superhero characters that allow Pat Robinson to pursue his passion for the genre while making a living selling the product to those who share his enthusiasm.
“It’s a passion for people enjoying reading, and having great discussions in here with customers who have got their own opinions about the characters. It’s just a lot of fun,” said Robinson, who has owned the Columbus Book Exchange since 1980.
The business, which dates to the 1960s, has had several names, including Stanley’s Book Shelf and Twelfth Street Bookstore. It also has been highly mobile, moving from downtown Columbus to Wynnton Road in midtown in the 1990s before venturing north to Hamilton Park Drive a dozen years ago.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited Robinson, 54, recently to discuss his comic book and paperback vocation. Amid interaction with a steady stream of customers, he talked about his love for the business and how the collectibles world has changed through the years.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How many comic books do you have in here?
At least 50,000. There’s some in here and some in the back.
How about paperbacks?
I couldn’t tell you; probably an equal amount. Paperbacks I do because it just kind of serves the public in a way. I don’t make a lot of money off of it. But I enjoy the people who still enjoy reading them. Comic books are the best way to get kids to read, so then they’ll start reading some of the novels.
Why are there fewer book shops?
That’s across the whole country now. You can download some comics now.
Is there a future for paper comics?
There’s still a generation, right now, who would rather read a material comic instead of downloading. So I still think we’ll do OK. For the next couple of decades, I still think it’s going to be fine. I don’t know how it’s going to change. I don’t know what the next technology is going to be. The average age of people who read comics is probably 15 and up ... but the older people who have been collecting like me, they’re still buying them. I have people who are teenagers, and I have people in their 40s and 50s still buying, in their 60s even.
So you’re obviously still able to make a go of it?
Uh-huh (laughs). You’d be hard pressed to support a family with it. But it’s just me, so I can definitely make a living at it.
People think of comics as collectibles, but they really aren’t today?
I sell comics that have got some value to them because they’re just old. I’ve got some 50- and 60-year-old comic books and, yes, they’re considered collectible items because they’re valuable. But I love the reading part. That’s what I have a passion for, because great stories have been written.
That’s the funny thing. A lot of people over the last 50 years have thought that comics are for kids only. Nowadays there’s such a wide variety of things (published) that I don’t even carry a fraction of what’s out there. I just carry the mainstream and then some special orders.
What are the most popular comics today?
Right now it’s Justice League, which is Superman, Batman, Aquaman, those characters that all band together as a team. It’s mostly the superhero-type stuff that people gravitate toward.
Comic fans are also big movie fans?
They are, especially with them making so many of the movies these days based on the comics.
Can the industry really come up with new storylines?
DC Comics did a very interesting thing that kind of set the whole industry on fire and caused some of the other companies to kind of stand up and take notice. DC has been around for 70 years; they’re the ones who put out Superman, which started in 1938. About six months ago, they rebooted the entire company. They literally ended every title and decided to concentrate on 52 specific characters and titles. They made it where adults who wanted to start reading them didn’t have to worry about finding out 70 years worth of history. Most of these characters are early in their careers, where new things are happening. So they can get in on the ground level. That’s worked like a charm and changed the whole business.
The price has risen on comic books?
When I started buying them they were a dime. It’s changed just like gas prices and everything else. The average price of a comic is between $2.99 and $3.99 each. A brand new paperback is $8 to $10 each on average now. When I first started, an average paperback novel was a dollar.
A customer typically gets a handful of comic books when they come in?
They do. I have lists of people who want to make sure they’re getting certain titles every week and not missing them. So, I’m in here diligently on Wednesday before we open, pulling everyone’s lists. A lot of them come in once a month. That saves them on gas and they know I’m going to hold them for them. Sometimes we have soldiers who are going to be in the field several weeks and they come in and say, ‘Hold my comics for me’.
So you’ll still be in business five or 10 years from now?
I think I’ll still be around. I have a joke I tell people, that if the Nooks and Kindles take off, instead of being a book store, I’ll be an antique store. Because with all of the books we have, that’s what they’ll be.
What’s your biggest challenge?
From a comic book point of view ... I still have plenty of new comics. but the back issues don’t sell as fast as they used to, the older stuff. People may not be interested in them, maybe it’s too far back for them. The artwork and stories are different, so it doesn’t appeal to them like it does to me because that’s what I grew up on ... Because of eBay, the value of older comics have gone down. Most comic shops that I talk to have been getting rid of their back issues as much as possible.
How has collectibility changed in terms of monetary value?
Because of the number of products out there today and how many they put out of each one, for a comic book that comes out now to be collectible it would take probably 50 years. The stuff that’s collectible now came out 50 years ago. But back then people didn’t keep them, so they really are hard to find. I read about a gentleman whose mother told him she got a box of comics from his uncle or grandfather. And when she died he finally got the comic box and sold it for over $2 million. So you hear those stories every once in a while.
You and College Collectibles don’t carry baseball cards. What happened?
That business is dead. The collectibility, the interest in it, is dead. Three years ago, Topps acquired exclusive rights for the baseball cards, so all of the other card companies could not put out the players in their uniforms anymore. They’d have to airbrush out the (names and) symbols. Sports cards also did themselves in by not making it fun to collect. Instead, they said you’ve got to get this (card) because it’s worth $50 already or it’s worth $500 already. We probably have 10 phone calls a day from people trying to sell off their cards, especially from the 1980s on up. Those are just not that hard to find.