Blog: Dan Merritt

In the comics, as in life, actions speak louder than words. From toughing out road construction projects to the digitizing of print, Green Brain Comics co-owner Dan Merritt covers the survival of the superhero of American art forms, the comic book.

Post 3: Surviving the economy in East Downtown Dearborn With a Little Help From Our Friends!

Our original location was on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, just east of Schaefer Road in a section of the city known as East Dearborn. It had opened in 1985 as Comics Plus, in an 1,100-square-foot space, sandwiched in between a pizzeria and a laundromat. business had relied on a small legion of dedicated customers that had appreciated its convenient location, down-to-earth atmosphere and the friendly, helpful manager, my wife Katie.

When the owner of the business decided he wanted out of the comic book retail business, he offered to sell it to Katie first. At the time I was working as a machinist with little to no job satisfaction and even less opportunity for advancement. Now my experience was certainly not in business management, but I knew comic books, having been a lifelong comic book consumer and enthusiast. Convincing Katie to buy the business and forsake the security of a weekly paycheck was much easier than securing the loan to make it happen. However, we eventually prevailed in finding a financial institution smart enough to identify us as two enthusiastic entrepreneurs willing to do what it took to succeed.

Our first year in business was fantastic, our loyal clientele stayed loyal and the publishers stayed in business. Business was so good that we were looking for a new identity (the name Comics Plus just didn't do it for me) and a bigger location where the business would have more room to grow. By chance we lucked on a piece of prime retail space at the far east edge of the business district. In July of 2002, the newly renamed Green Brain Comics took up residence at 13210 Michigan Avenue, quadrupling our retail space and creating a new era of comic book retailing.

Nine months into our second year in the new location, the Wayne County Road Commission started a three-and-a-half-year-long reconstruction project of Michigan Ave., centered directly in front of our new storefront. Sales tanked as only the most loyal customers braved the mountainous piles of debris, construction equipment and traffic snarls. That's about when I realized we needed to make some new friends.

I first met then Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido at a public forum to address the concerns of local businesses and residents regarding the construction project. There was only so much he could offer in the way of help for those of us struggling with these adversities, but everything he offered I accepted.

And I should mention that I was joined at that public forum by another business owner and friend from the district, Windy Weber, co-owner of Stormy Records with her husband Carl Hultgren, or more popularly known as Windy & Carl. We were pals and fellow victims of the construction project.

Within a year from that meeting, Windy and Carl had moved Stormy Records into the vacant second floor over top of Green Brain Comics, the much delayed construction cleared, and Michigan Avenue had reopened. This was the spring of 2006, and within a year the Great Recession hit Michigan hard. Thankfully, with the relationships created and the experiences gained, we were prepared. And by a long series of careful adjustments, consolidations and the continued rethinking of business practices and purchases, we have weathered economic situations that forced more than a few companies out of business.

The future of comic retailing

Much like the challenges faced by the music industry caused by the digital music player and file sharing, today the comic book industry must confront eerily similar dilemmas.  Digital comics both legal and pirated have moved in to slowly but surely take their share of the audience. The comic book publishers have learned how important it is to transition into these new markets, but where does that leave the brick and mortar stores?

Years ago, my wife Katie and I decided that we would do our best to stand out in a crowd and make Green Brain Comics a unique destination. We declared that the focus would be solely on comic books, graphic novels, and the experience of shopping for them. This meant creating a distinctive atmosphere, making it user friendly, and incorporating as many exciting products and events as we can (creator appearances, art exhibits, comic jams, and our annual Free Comic Book Day Celebration) to add value to every visit while enticing new customers to try something incomparable: my favorite original American art form, the comic book.

In a way, this early business philosophy helped set us up for the future of comic retailing, a future which may already be upon us.

Later this year Diamond Comics Distribution, the biggest comic book distribution service, will begin providing a system for retailers to sell download redemption codes for digital comic books. Now, using a service like that might help usher in a new era, a grand new renaissance for this once proud colossus that in its heyday sold millions of copies, but now struggles to hit 100k print runs.

Or we stick to the plan, the plan that saw us through some of the most turbulent economic times in American history.

Much like our pals Windy and Carl that still sell vinyl records at Stormy Records, on the floor above our shop, I have an unrelenting faith in our product. Physical comic books are to digital comics as record albums are to mp3s. Comic books are best experienced in a comfortable chair, not hunched over a desk or running on a treadmill. Sure, digital comics look nice, and they sure get a lot of attention, but I don't need to recharge my copy of the Watchmen graphic novel between each chapter.

What it really comes down to for us is being a physical store that sells products to physical people. We are building a community with those people, and creating a unique experience that draws you in and makes you feel a part of something special.

Now I'm not declaring that our future business model will mandate a download-free zone. But what I am saying is that we sell comic books. WE SELL COMIC BOOKS!