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Retailer Interview: Blackbird Comics and Coffeehouse

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Retailer Interview: Blackbird Comics and Coffeehouse

I walk into Blackbird Comics and Coffeehouse on a Saturday afternoon and it’s busy. It’s exactly the right kind of busy for a shop that is half comics and collectibles and the other half a bustling coffee shop. Folks are seated in comfortable chairs drinking frappes and teas, most people are chatting, others are reading, while several people browse the shelves for the latest comic book issues. There is one guy in the corner music area browsing vinyl records. Blackbird has a fun, energetic vibe, moreso than most other comic shops I’ve been to. Some shops can feel like a nerd dungeon with shelves and longboxes from floor to ceiling…that’s not Blackbird. It’s warm, open, and welcoming here, where you want to take a seat and have a chat.

Owned by David Craig and Candice Falkner-Craig, the shop was originally opened as Bamf! Comics & Collectibles in 2018. The coffeehouse side opened in early 2019 and they rebranded as Blackbird. It’s located in a small commercial plaza near downtown Maitland, which is a cool suburb about 20 minutes from downtown Orlando. 

I sat down for a long conversation with David and Candice about the origins of Blackbird, navigating the pandemic, and the direct market in general. Significantly, we discussed Blackbird making the finalist list for the Eisner Spirit of Retail award in 2022.  

Hi, David and Candice. Can you take us through the origin story of Blackbird Comics and Coffeehouse?

Candice: David and I met over over Todd McFarlane’s Spawn 30 years ago. We met over that and ended up falling in love and getting married and having kids. I’m a former teacher and David, you wanna say what you were doing at the time? 

David: I was an economist for a company and living in Orlando. 

Candice: I taught primarily at a public charter in Winter Springs. Almost every week, David would say, as we were passing an empty building, that would be a great place for a comic shop. And the stress at our jobs, mine at teaching and David at his position became so much we felt David’s health was in jeopardy. So one day I was just like, you know, maybe we should just do it.

David: You build up a pretty healthy 401(k) when you work a standard job. So, when the company that I was working for is owned by venture capitalists, they’re even better at investing your 401(k). So it built up pretty quickly and I had a nice little chunk of money and I was like, we could just cash this in and start a new venture.

We funded all the construction, all the demolition, all the new product outside of what my collection couldn’t provide. That was the saddest part of starting the store is that my collection provided a lot of the startup product on the shelf. So all of those years of collecting books and toys became the store’s product. I slowly would watch them go out the door with people, new parents, and it felt like I was losing little children all the time.

I built up a stock of buying stuff for three months before we opened, so we had three months of new material and then years of old material. Because a comic shop doesn’t make it without both sides.

Was that scary to do what you just described, cashing in your 401(k) and putting up all the money up front to open the store?

David: We just talked about it three days ago. I thought about it because it was really busy in here, and I said, do you remember on a normal business day back then, I would sit and eat a bowl of cereal and watch X-Files in here. That’s how few customers were coming in the door. And I thought, do you remember how scary that was and how crazy it was to leave two good jobs that provided all of our income? 

Candice: I stayed in mine for three months when we opened. I think David bore the brunt of the fear because I was still teaching. And there is that weird dopamine effect where you’re starting a business and it was exciting and terrifying. [To David] You hid it well. But it is terrifying.

David: I hid it well because it was a different stress than career stress. So you don’t recognize it as stress. It’s a driving force. The challenges are new. 

I imagine you were living your dream, right? Like, you’re enjoying this every day even though it’s very stressful. 

David: I started the store in my forties. I had always wanted one since I was 12. So a 30 year dream, realized. 

How’d you settle on this space in Maitland? 

Candice: We lived in Maitland at the time and we still live in Maitland. And it just happened to be kismet that this place was sitting empty for over a decade. David mentioned it a hundred times over the years, and then finally he called and we got it.

David: The cool thing about it is this is the original Melting Pot Restaurant for the Orlando area. It opened in 1974 and was in operation until 2008. And odds are I brought her here on a couple of dates <laughs> because when you’re either a poor college student or you’re broke, the Melting Pot is an easy place to impress your date. It was about 80 bucks for two people to eat and you cooked everything.

Candice: You take them and we’re cooking everything. And then they see the building and they’re like, oh, this guy’s got it all. $80 for dinner. <laughs>.

I’ve done that exact date!

Candice: The corny but beautiful thing about it is it actually is still the melting pot here. 

David: It’s become a melting pot for the common community we’ve built here. 

Let’s talk timeline for a moment. So the comic shop opens in August of 2018. The coffee side opens in January, 2019. The pandemic hits in early 2020. We start having lockdowns around March of 2020. So you’re really only open with the version of the store with the coffeehouse for about a year. What was that like? 

David: Oh my God, what is going on? We have to close our doors. 

Candice: We were terrified. We were worried we would go into a tailspin. I want to share one of the things that happened. We announced we were going to close. It ended up being about seven weeks. We announced and something happened that was such a beacon of light for David and I. We had this group that plays D&D on Wednesday nights. 

On our last night open [before the lockdown], they came up and gave us this crumpled little brown bag. They said, oh my gosh, we just finished the final boss. You know, there was a loot chest and they were going on with all this dramatic detail…and this loot was in here and it had your name on it. And I opened the bag and it was filled with cash, and they had collected money and it was considerable. Because they didn’t want us to go anywhere. It was enough to give us hope.

David: It was hope the community would be there when we got back. That’s what was amazing. 

What did you do to keep the business going through the pandemic? 

David: So if you’re a brick and mortar, you can’t have people coming in the store anymore. We did live social media, online sales shows, and interviews. We reached out to creators and the good thing about the industry is the creators reached out and they were like, hey, I’m hurting if you’re hurting, if you want to have me come on your show, I will be there. And so the biggest thing is we’re lining up to be on interview shows and talk about creator projects and just really kind of have a BS session.

It ended up working. And we would sell comics. And we were selling comics and we started a delivery service where we would pick one day a week where me and Candice would drive around and deliver everything.

Candice: People calling us and ordering things because they just wanted to help. It’s like, wow, you don’t normally buy graphic novels? Oh, I need these six graphic novels. It’s amazing the community that has built up around us. It’s incredible.

I want to ask about your community. I walked in here today and I look around and I think this is a really busy Saturday afternoon. There is a great energy here. How did you build the community? 

David: For me, we had three core principles when we started the shop. One was to be honest about what we’re selling, never try to empty their wallet. Two is to be authentic when we review something, it has to be something that we believe in. And lastly, I’m gonna invest in the community, whether it be through charity events or through school support, and I’m not gonna ask for anything in return. Let the return make its way to you. Almost like a synchronicity effect. You hope it reflects upon what happened and go, I don’t want that to go anywhere. I want it to be here when my kids grow old. they can come back and visit from college and say, that was my comic store when I was a kid. That was the coffee shop we met at.

We didn’t start this to squeeze Maitland for every retail dollar we could. Let’s just be a place where people can gather and talk and make human connections. Because even in 2018, we were all pretty separate entities. Social media dominates the landscape. People don’t get together anymore. And if they do get together, they realize how magic it is to be with people. Let’s just be a place where that happens. And I think that authenticity and no pressure atmosphere led to people saying this is an important place and it’s gotta be here. 

Candice: Speaking of our community, we have a family that is here every weekend, almost religiously. They have a daughter, who was in kindergarten, and she wanted to show me something. So we went over to the boxes with back issues in it. And she was showing me how she measures her growth. So when she started coming here, her eyes were just at the handle. And now they’re right at the top of the second box. And that’s how she measures her growth. She tells me, when I first come here, I had to look through the handle to see the books, and now I can see everything. It was a touching moment, but that’s the kind of thing I was looking for.

When you reopened your doors after the pandemic, did everybody come back immediately? Or was it a slow rebuild?

David: It wasn’t slow at all. We went from me and Candice and our girls working here to I had to hire three people within the first two months of being back open. So we doubled our workforce basically at that point. Now we’re at 10.

I’ve read that 2020 and 2021 were banner years for many shops. Maybe the best years ever in comic sales. Would you say that was the case for Blackbird? 

David: So in 2020, the people showed back up, but not necessarily the dollars right away. Then towards the third quarter of 2020, the dollars started ramping up because the government was infusing money into the economy. We just came out of this and we’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of people aren’t driving to work anymore. So now you don’t have your gas charges anymore. You don’t have all of these other bills that go with not working at home. So all of this discretionary money is just building up into your account. 

Coming from an economics background, I could see the numbers and see there’s massive savings accounts out there in the United States and what is United States known for? Blowing our money. <laughs> So immediately when you build up the savings account, you want to do the right thing, which is infuse it back in the economy. And that only got bigger in 2021 because those savings accounts got so massive, probably the biggest in American history. It just flooded into the economy in all aspects. The comics industry was a massive benefactor of all of that money coming back to the economy, everyone found their love of reading again and not necessarily reading on a tablet. So there was the reconnection with a physical product again. I’m not gonna get all spiritual about it, but there was some sort of reconnection with being here and now. 

I would agree with that. I personally have reconnected with reading much more in the last couple years. I’ve always been a reader, but it ebbs and flows, but the last couple years I’ve been reading a lot. Not just comics. But novels and non-fiction. I recognize what you’re saying. 

The pandemic brought other challenges, such as the change in distribution. Can you talk about how those changes the last couple of years has affected your shop? What’s been the good and the bad? 

David: Right before the pandemic hit, it was Diamond. DC was the first one to jettison from Diamond. And basically they created a system where they tried out two companies to distribute their comics. That was Lunar and UCS, which are discount comic book services. So those two companies created these distribution networks because they were the online retailers with the biggest reach and already had the shipping network in place. So it was like a natural progression for them.

At first I said I’m going to stick with Diamond because I believed they were doing the right thing at the time to shut down to keep their staff safe. But when DC said they were going to distribute their books elsewhere, and if you don’t sign on with these companies, you won’t have DC comics on the shelf because Diamond won’t have them. I can’t operate a store without Batman comics. So I switched, because at the end of the day, I’m not gonna have my store without Action Comics and Batman. 

Candice: There was a lot of hand ringing. I was initially upset about it, because it’s always been Diamond. But in a way it felt like a monopoly was being chipped away. Which isn’t always bad.

David: There are arguments we could get into if there is enough market to support all these distribution companies. But at the time, we decided to sign up with UCS because they seemed less predatory because Midtown Comics has a brick and mortar to support. So they should get it. They know the struggle.

So we chose what we thought was the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, UCS lost in the battle we didn’t know was actually happening with DC. And then we had to move over to Lunar. Listen, Lunar I think cheapens the market of the product. They are teaching the public that a trade paperback is worth 40% off the cover price. And I think that is the worst thing to happen to comics. That’s why you don’t see dollar bins in Blackbird. Because if you put dollar comics out there, you’re telling people comics are worth a dollar. It’s not. We went with Lunar because we had to. 

The good thing, and I have to hand it to them, Lunar is the best shipping company out of all of them. They do a really amazing job. They’re on time and often way ahead of shelf date. And perfectly protected. The first year I had Lunar I could count on one hand how many damages I received. 

On the contrary from Diamond, I could have that many damages on one cover of one title. So you can see why we’re not completely upset with what’s happened. Also, Lunar and UCS, to their credit, were charging real shipping prices. They would show you this is what FedEx or UPS are charging us, this is what you’re paying. And I could literally take my pounds that they told me they were shipping, go on a UPS site and see what they would charge. There’s nothing mysterious about their shipping. 

Is there any friction with using multiple distributors? 

David: It’s trickier to navigate. There’s a ton more paperwork. Final order cutoff is a nightmare now where it used to be a one to two hour job. 

Candice: You’re still basically inputting the same amounts, but you’re having to go between different companies to do it.

David: With four different interfaces. So you’re dealing with Penguin’s interface, which is not great. You’re dealing with Lunar, which is so basic, it’s like working on a WordPress document. Then you’re dealing with Diamond, which is the most comprehensive and most advanced, but you hardly get anything from them. So it’s kind of overkill. 

What about FOC windows? How difficult has it been not having sales data and short FOC windows? 

David: It’s terrible. And it puts retailers in a weird position because you have to get your crystal ball out and try to figure out, will anyone want issues two and three? Because we haven’t even seen issue one yet. It’s like swimming in shark-infested water.

There is no science to it. It’s complete conjecture. The way I’m navigating FOC now is with extreme caution. I’ll say let’s go pre-orders plus 25%.

Candice: A few weeks ago we started an FOC Show. And we do it on Thursday nights because the first FOC is due. We do a live broadcast on our Facebook to our followers. We created a great atmosphere on the show. It’s very casual conversation. And we’re not always selling. We’re like baseball announcers and talk about random stuff. 

Every Thursday, 5:30 to 7:00, we talk about the synopsis. We show different covers. What we’re excited about, what we’re not excited about. It helps David when placing orders.

David: For example, if I can’t get these 40 people on the FOC Show to say I’ll take a copy and try it, it gives me a better idea when ordering. 

Nothing’s a science with the FOC but the scariest thing is all of these freaking variants. So historically you want an A cover, because that’s what usually goes up in value long term. Variants usually fall off and the A cover becomes a book that everybody’s seeking. 

Candice: The thing that’s upsetting is if a customer is faced with 15 variants of their favorite character, they’re going to buy as many of those as possible. And then in their budget for that week, they won’t be able to afford to try something different. I think it’s hurting the industry. You know, I’ve gotta have those five Spider-Man covers. I really wanted to try Night Walkers and Nightclub, but I don’t have the budget for it. 

David: There are some great stories that are being missed because of it. 

Candice: Because the collector would say, I want one of everything coming out this week. Oh, I gotta trim that down because I’m getting all seven Spider-Man covers. That’s $28. But if he has a $50 budget, half of it’s going to one title, one issue. That’s not good.

David: Here’s another example. Batman/Spawn, which was the event book of the quarter last year. I think DC had somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 covers. I bought six covers. I really was trying to limit the buying public’s choices so that they would move on to something else. And I feel like I was successful because I sold exactly what I thought it would have. I guessed pretty good on it. And I wanted to have about 20% left over for residual sales because it’s a sellable book forever. 

You’ve got to know your audience, to be able to make those estimations.

David: That’s a very key statement, knowing your audience, because every store has a different audience. We all share some Wednesday Warriors or comic book lovers, but there is a different crowd at almost every store. So you could have an extremely superhero heavy crowd at one store and an extremely indie heavy crowd at another store. 

What would you characterize Blackbird as? 

Candice: I think we have a comic book loving crowd that’s not afraid to shun the extra cover to try something new. So a customer might say I’m not going to get two covers of Detective Comics this week. I’m gonna get one Detective and I’m going to grab Junkyard Joe, because David said it was something to check out and it’s done by a well known creator.

David: Which is really what you want. You know the stories, if people will read them and if they will really look at what the author is bringing to the table. Look at the plot lines, look at the story structure, look at the dialogue and take in the art. You know they’re going to read the second issue, third issue, and the fourth issue, and then it’s gonna make it to trade. 

I think we have a crowd that likes the historical angle of comic books like the superheroes, but they are willing to try something new if we can vouch for it. 

Would you say that people coming into Blackbird these days are more focused on the creators and not just the main character of a particular book? 

David: There’s a transition for sure. It went from a character following crowd to following creatives.

It’s a product of so many bad comics for so long. I will tell you as a long time reader of comics, from ‘94 to 2006 was one of the worst eras of comic books for me as a reader. I felt like it was vapid and there wasn’t anything sustaining and everything was flashy and it was just garbage. So what happened was you would find an incredible comic by Peter David and you’d go, I’m getting one comic that’s worth my money. I’m now gonna follow Peter David whether he’s writing Hulk or Aquaman. We were getting nothing for our money for so long that we got trained to follow certain creators. 

That’s a credit to the creators also, but it’s also a detriment to the industry. Because now if Spider-Man doesn’t have a good creative team on it, you might not be able to move a Spider-Man book as well as it should move. 

Do you guys have any titles that are sure sellers every month? And if the answer is Saga and Batman, that’s ok! 

Candice: I hate to say it, but I’m going to say Saga. It’s a go-to for everybody. With Saga, I can get anyone into comic books. That’s my gateway book for people. I had a woman come in here with her teenage daughter. She looked very disinterested. You know, she didn’t want to be here. 

So I just asked her if she needed anything. She goes, no, this is not really my thing. Came right out and said it, which is cool. I said, I’m sure there’s something here. She goes, no, definitely not, I’m just here for my daughter. So I said, I bet I can find something you’ll like.

So I gave her Saga and she sat down. Then they walked out and she didn’t say anything. And I thought, oh no, she read Saga and is offended. And I walked out and I asked her what she thought? And she turned around and she said, I loved it. And she was aggravated that she liked it so much. 

David: For me, I tend to go with something that’s got more redemption arcs and things that people can attach themselves to. Slice of life is very easy to sell people because they can find something in there to either empathize with or relate to. But as far as superhero comics, I wanna be honest, the industry saving thing was Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X

I’m gonna tell you right now, it saved some stores because that book was selling like X-Men sold in the nineties. I couldn’t keep it on the shelf. And when the hardbacks came out, I couldn’t keep the hardbacks on the shelf. And it is one of the most easily accessible things. Now I know folks will say that you have to know a ton of X-Men history, but you don’t, he pretty much gives you a good jumping on point and you’re fresh into the story. 

We’ve talked about what people are reading and buying. If you could give feedback to publishers and tell them what would help retailers and comics in general, what would that feedback be?

David: The challenges of periodical publishing is shelf life. They have a built in expiration date that compounds as it sits on the shelf and subsequent issues come out. The long and short of the problem is new reader jump-on points may seem unattainable. It’s an even bigger issue for Marvel & DC. They have characters with 80 year histories, so it is imperative to have good content, good interior art, and engaging cover art. That’s my feedback #1. 

My feedback #2. A lot of non-Big 2 publishers are turning into TV/Film treatment production houses. I say that, meaning they are publishing content that has a main goal of getting pitched to a studio/producer. They want the cart before the horse…it’s not a good recipe for periodical success. Make a good comic book first, then by all means go for the gold hills of Hollywood. 

Feedback #3. In the old days comics were sold in much the same way as magazines and newspapers. A vendor would deliver them each week and when the sales date was over they would be returned for credit along with the other dated materials. Those days have not existed longer than most comic fans have been on the planet but there are a few publishers that brought portions of that back for an attempt of showing the direct market a bit of appreciation and to share some risk of the actual product that is going to the shelf. The shared risk of the product is imperative. Comic shops simply do not have the financial freedom to risk a lot of money on these things: New creative teams, yet another relaunch, five variants, untested story content, experimental art. The speculator market created and fed by the publishers is waning from option fatigue. The drop in market buyers further shrinks the bucket of spending capital for unproven products. So while Spider-Man is a proven product, a fourth series of Spider-Man might not be. 

Mind you, I believe 100% that comics are going to survive and even flourish again. This is just another tough round in the boxing match comics have had with other creative media for 60 years.

Let’s talk about the Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer nomination. You were nominated and made the top 25 list in 2021. And then were a finalist in 2022. Did those come as a complete surprise? 

David: So in 2021, we got an email at the beginning of the year that said you’ve been nominated for Eisner.

Candice: We were in the top 25. 

David: So that year, that first time got nominated, there are 25 stores selected across the globe and those stores then go to a panel of judges and they whittle it down to 5 finalists. 

Candice: That first year we had pom poms out. We were freaking out. We were so thrilled. We felt so honored to be in the 25. And then last year, we got the 25 again, we were so thrilled. And that’s all we expected.

And then Eryn on our staff calls me and tells us this gentleman called from the Eisners. He wanted to congratulate us on being a finalist. And I had a breakdown on the phone. My eyes are watering right now. I just started bawling because going back to the beginning of our conversation, all of that risk we took and everything that we went through. 

David: It’s chaos. Beautiful. I looked at the stores that were on the list, I’m like, of course they’re in there. That store’s been around 30 years.

Do they give you any transparency on your progress or how you get to be finalist? 

Candice: Once they let you know you’re a finalist, you submit an electronic binder. It consists of photographs, letters, social media presence, and a video that shows the viewer what it would be like to visit the shop. There is actually a lot of work involved in compiling the binder as you have to find a delicate balance between providing enough verifiable evidence as to your shop’s validity in meeting the various criteria, while also avoiding superfluous material that might make the binder seem like fluff.

I really appreciate the work that is requested because it gives us an opportunity to look back over the years at the ideas that worked and the things that didn’t work. Basically, we get to reflect on our progress. I would call it a labor of love.

You send the final file and then it’s out of your hands. 

So has there been an impact on your business because of those two nominations? 

David: It’s an unquantifiable bump. For our regulars, you can tell they feel it’s theirs too, and they should feel that, because I don’t think we would be what we are today without them. It sounds so corny but it’s so true. It all comes back to community. So I would never be able to say the Eisner nomination got us 10 more subscribers. But what it does for me is it legitimizes all of the risk that we took. We ranked third in Orlando Weekly <laughs> but I was fifth in the world and top three in the United States. 

The other thing when being able to do this algebraic equation is it can’t just be one person nominating you because everyone’s gonna go and nominate their shop. 

The thing I love about the Eisner is that anybody around the globe can be nominated. And then these people who are judges, they change every year. So there’s no favoritism building up.

It’s truly based on the merit of what you have cobbled together over the course of the year. 

Candice: And it is nerve-wracking because you begin to work past and forget about it. But then when the announcements come out, because there is a date that it happens, you know, they do the Spirit announcements the same as they do the creator announcements, retailer announcements, and you’re waiting. So it comes back up to the front of your head.

Last question. If someone comes in from out of town, they’ve never been to Blackbird, what do you want them to know? 

Candice: If you come into Blackbird, you’re gonna have one of the best cups of coffee you can find in Central Florida. 

David: I’ll second that. This is a place where it’s just about finding the things that we agree and like together. This is not the place where you’re going to be on the outs, where for any reason we have everyone from the left to the right, where we have everything from visitors in the state to regulars. And it truly is like a melting pot.

Candice: This was a Melting Pot and it’s so crazy because it’s a melting pot again. I couldn’t be prouder. 

David: You can find your place here. This is a place for you to be in the moment. I challenge you, since you’re a remote worker, to come and work here on a Wednesday. I challenge you to come in and see what it’s like by sitting here and working for a couple of hours and just see what goes on that day because it’s not scripted. And if I open a second location, which is our goal this year, will I be able to capture lightning in a bottle again? I hope so. 

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Ben O’Grady is an SEO Manager for Disney Streaming by day, freelance writer by night. He recently started his journey as a comics creator. Follow him on Twitter @benogrady

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