Little Shop of Heroes is located in Dunfermline, Scotland, and was an Eisner Spirit of Retail finalist in 2023. Check out the video clip above, which is not included in the text interview, where I ask Alby to wade in on the “death of comics” discourse and general anxiety around the direct market. As always, please support your local comic shops!
Ben: Walk me through the origin story of Little Shop of Heroes.
Alby: About 12 years ago the company I worked for closed half of their stores, including mine. So at that point, I was kind of a loose end and didn’t know what to do. I’d been doing entertainment retail for a long time and grown a bit weary of it, not really feeling that my voice was being heard. So I took about six months out, which is a lovely way of saying I was unemployed for six months. Then just by accident, a group of friends of mine took on a tiny little space upstairs in an office building. And the idea was to sell all our stuff. So we opened up a little kiosk. It was a tiny room, eight by eight, probably off pitch upstairs, no frontage to the street. And bizarrely people started coming along and buying our things. Collectibles, games, statues, books, comics, records. It really was a mix of everything.
And after a few weeks, myself and my wife, Louise, were walking along our favorite street in Dunfermline. The buildings were built in about 1900. It’s a really lovely location. And there was a vacant shop that had a handwritten note in the window saying, if interested to call, and a number. And we just looked at each other and thought, well, at this point, what have we got to lose if we just see how much this place is going to cost us? And we gave the guy a call and ended up taking it. When we opened up, everything in the shop was previously owned by me.
Ben: What was year one like?
Alby: It was a year of blissful ignorance. Louise and I both knew that we wanted a friendly store that people could feel comfortable, safe, and at home. We wanted people to feel a sense of ownership in the space. I knew that the only way to do that was to be open and honest, share our story with people, share what our hopes and dreams were so they could adopt those hopes and dreams as their own. And really, the first year was all about that.
When I say we started on a shoestring, our shoes did not have strings. We were almost a Monty Python sketch. But yeah, it was one of those moments where it was utter madness. We opened on the day with not a single penny to our names, hoping that we would make some money so we could pay the things that we knew we had to pay at the end of the first day, and we’re still here 12 years later.
Ben: Did you immediately start selling new single issues?
Alby: A friend of mine in the industry very kindly allowed me to buy my comics at a discount through him, before I had an account with Diamond. It was a hilariously tiny comic book wall. Our pulls were those folding cases in your desk that have dividers in them. And I would get random comics on a weekly basis just because people in Dunfermline hadn’t ever had a comic shop. So we were trying to bring in as many of the other things as possible so people would have an opportunity to see if they liked them, and we were pretty confident that people would pick them up because, and I’m not trying to be flippant when I say this, there wasn’t any other choice.
Ben: There was no other shop in the town.
Alby: People were keen to get their hands on material that they’d maybe only heard of or they’d maybe seen in a magazine, but now they were physically able to come in and get it. And it was a lovely opportunity to build up and create a sense of belonging and community. People would come in, we’d give them a coffee, and we’d sit and we’d chat about life, the universe and everything.
Ben: Douglas Adams, love it.
Alby: For the first year, that was pretty much what it was. We allowed the business to become the thing that we wanted it to be without forcing it.
Ben: What’s the comics and pop culture scene like in Dunfermline?
Alby: It’s a vibrant community in Dunfermline. It’s a loyal community of people. I think the best example, the clearest example of the culture is when we put on our first Dunfermline Comic Con, and it wasn’t a pop culture convention, we said from the offset this is a comic book convention. Guests are all writers, artists, letterers, colorists. There’s no actors, there’s no TV stuff, there’s no Funko Pops, it’s a comic book convention. And we built it and they came.
Ben: How did it go?
Alby: It was a massive success. Great artists and writers from not just the U.K., but the U.S.A. as well. It was a sellout and it was a fantastic uplifting day about art and writing. It was at a huge parkland in the center of Dunfermline. No one would’ve thought that it was a possibility that such a thing could happen, and that’s when you’ve really seen that the community was out there. It was a real, tangible example of thousands of people turning out for the event, which is uncompromisingly about comic books. It was wonderful. And we’ve done four total.
Ben: I heard your store space is quite small. How small is it?
Alby: 300 square feet.
Ben: That would be the smallest comic book store I’d ever been in if I visited. Have you ever thought about expanding or moving?
Alby: There are arguments for us expanding, but not necessarily to increase the amount of books and comics we have. I think it would be something along the lines of Blackbird Comics with a cafe, because that opens up so many other opportunities to have group meetings in the evenings. It just gives you this whole other opportunity in your business. So potentially that would be something that we would love if we were in a bigger store. We actually used to have a coffee store when we lived in Inverness. So it is something that we’ve already done. The problem is that we love the street that we are in. There is not a better place in DunFermline in our view. We really do feel our identity is tied to the shop, and it is called The Little Shop of Heroes, after all.
Ben: I wanted to ask you about that. Did you have a couple of other names, good or bad, where you were very close to naming the shop? Can you share anything?
Alby: We thought about the name of the comic store in the Tarantino film, True Romance. Heroes For Sale was the name. It was going to be Heroes for Sale and then a shop opened up in Inverness and called themselves Heroes for Sale.
Ben: Ah, they took the name.
Alby: I’m so glad they took the name, because Little Shop of Heroes is very much more our identity.
Ben: It’s a wonderful name. Don’t ever change it. I want to get into the Eisner nomination. I have so many questions about that. So you were an Eisner Spirit of Retail finalist in 2023, which is the top 5.
Alby: We have no idea who nominated us. Absolutely no idea. We are humbled and incredibly grateful. I thought, well, this is madness.
Ben: How surprised were you when you ended up on the finalist list?
Alby: It wasn’t on our radar to be an Eisner nominated shop. Were we pleased? I mean, there were tears. We couldn’t believe it. We’re incredibly grateful just because someone’s put out the time to make that effort and say to another organization, these people need some sort of recognition. It was astonishment. We’re so tiny, and it’s usually a lot of U.S. stores. We were grateful for the top 25 nomination. I think there were four non-US stores nominated in the long list of nominees, and we made absolutely no plans at all based on any potential of there being a next stage.
Ben: What was your reaction when you did finally get a phone call that you were in the top 5.
Alby: I got an email. The time differences mean the emails arrive at a really weird time. So it’s like, look, 11:30, an email. I opened it up and it said, just quite matter of fact, you have been chosen as one of the finalists. So passes will be available for you to pick up at the venue and the Eisner Award ceremony is on such and such a night. There is a table for Eisner Award winners in which you’ve been allocated seats.
Ben: What happened next?
Alby: I told Louise, and before I’d even got the whole phrase out, she was already sobbing and simultaneously texting. So text, sob, and then my daughter Sinéad was crying, and then Sinéad contacted one or two of her friends. There were lots of Kleenex, there was lots of crying. But then there was a problem because we found out about it a week before Comic-Con.
Ben: Really? You found out one week before, and you’re like, now we have to book tickets and make arrangements?
Alby: We had no passports.
Alby: We had no visas because you have to get a visa from the U.K. to get into the U.S. So everyone will tell you that it’s impossible to get everything sorted in a week.
Ben: Of course it’s impossible.
Alby: What I’m here to say is that, no, in order to get everything fixed, to take your family across to San Diego for a week in one week’s time, what you have to do is have lots of friends and a flagrant disregard for financial competency. Really what you need to do is you just have to give up. So with the passport office and the visa people, the visa people that’s in the lap of the Gods, you fill out the form and hope that nothing flags up about you. The passport office, you have to throw money at them.
Ben: I can’t believe you got all that in a week. That’s incredible.
Alby: We didn’t decide we were going until Friday and we were flying out on Monday. We applied for passports on Friday. So you just give them lots of money and they give you an appointment and you go across and you get your passport right there and then.
Alby: We then had to complete our visa application, because you fill out your visa application after you have your passport. We couldn’t prepare in advance. Just literally the day before we were flying out, we were sitting looking at our emails, waiting to see if our Visa had come through from the U.S. and we couldn’t wait that long to book. So we had to book our hotel and our flights, even though we didn’t know if we were going to be able to go.
Ben: That’s literally on a wing and a prayer.
Alby: Yeah. If it hadn’t been for the community of people we have surrounding us, helping us out financially…it costs a lot of money to go to San Diego.
Ben: It must have been a small fortune.
Alby: It’s a horrifically expensive place to be. I don’t know if it’s that price outside of Comic-Con, but during Comic-Con, it’s bewilderingly expensive. So we were in a motel in San Ysidro. The next stop on the trolley bus was Mexico.
Ben: What an introduction to the U.S.
Alby: So that was an adventure in itself, getting the trolley bus in and out of San Diego every day. And look, it was a magnificent, wonderful, bewildering, strange adventure.
Ben: There had to have been a point where you’re like, is this actually going to happen?
Alby: There was always a potential for disaster. Sinéad wasn’t that worried because she already had a passport and a visa. She’s been to the States a few times. If it came down to it, she would’ve gone on her own. So it was just really me and Louise, we didn’t think we were going. I thought I had just squandered everyone’s money and we weren’t going to get to fly. It was the most ridiculous thing I had done since we opened the shop. It was a great adventure.
Ben: Tell me about that night being at the ceremony, sitting at the table and meeting everyone.
Alby: We met the first day at a retailer meeting where they showed the videos we had recorded. We saw the other store’s videos and myself and Louise and Sinéad were kind of looking at each other, and we didn’t know anyone at this point, but we were looking at each other and thinking that we’re not going to win. These were amazing people, what amazing places that they run, what incredible communities they’ve fostered. And of course, after that, we met each other in person. So we knew each other a little bit by the time it came to the meal, and it was lovely, and it was a wonderful non-competitive spirited group of people all wishing each other well. It felt like a very supportive group of people.
I was over the moon when Cape & Cowl won. They’d been in the final three times. This was a third final, and there should be some sort of rule, but once you get through to the final three times, you kind of just get it. I mean, that shows a level of consistency of delivery and quality over a number of years.
Ben: It’s almost a lifetime achievement at that point.
Alby: I would’ve been equally as happy for any of the other nominees to have won, but yeah, there was no way to feel mean-spirited or disappointed or frustrated about it. They’re clearly great at what they’re doing. They love what they’re doing. Their customers love them. They deserve to win. I’m delighted to have done it. I wouldn’t be going this year if we got nominated again.
Ben: You wouldn’t?
Alby: I couldn’t afford that quite two years in a row. Absolutely, no.
Ben: If you made the finalist top five, you wouldn’t go?
Alby: I think we would have to send our daughter. You know what, the temptation to go would be great because you don’t want to not be there and win.
Ben: Were you able to speak with any of the judges that night?
Alby: Jim Lee was great. He came over to the table to speak to us all. The judges were great. They took time out to go through all of the material, I mean, I can only imagine that everyone else’s submissions were as lengthy and detailed as the one I sent in. So it wasn’t an inconsiderable task to go through 25 of those.
I was appreciative of the fact that they put in the time, and there were lots of supportive messages. People loved our little shop and the appearance of our shop and what we were doing. So there was definitely the chance of feeling imposter syndrome when we got across. We know we’re smaller and less able to offer the breadth of product that other stores can, but what we have to try to focus on is the curation of what we have. Everything has to fight for its space on the shelf, and if we get something in and it doesn’t meet our customer standards, then we’ve got to try and move that out and get something else worthy of the shelf space.
Ben: So the whole story about the Eisners and going to San Diego, that’s incredible. I want to shift gears for a couple minutes. So I’m sure you’re aware there’s a lot of anxiety among retailers in the comic space in 2023. How is your business? Are you feeling any of that anxiety?
Alby: The answer is yes. It has never been tougher. The years I look back on where I wish it had been easier…I wish I was in those years now. It’s very difficult. What I would describe our situation as, and this is the irony of the Eisner and meeting these people, I would describe our situation as perilous.
Ben: Talk about it.
Alby: There has been a general economic downturn in the U.K. It’s been brewing since post-Brexit, and there’s all sorts of politics involved we won’t go into, but suffice to say we have made our rod for our own back financially with our trading partners, and that’s made it more difficult for us as a nation to make money. We’ve also got the situation in Ukraine with Russia that has triggered a massive energy crisis in Europe.
Ben: I’ve read about it on the news.
Alby: What happened was that most of the gas in Europe is Russian. But not anymore. So what happened was the price of energy has gone up exponentially, and you’re talking about energy bills going up by 10, 15 times.
Our energy bill is as much as our rent. And we use hardly any energy. I mean, we are a small comic store, so we use hardly anything. Domestic energy has got a cap on it, so they’re allowed to charge up to a certain amount, but no more. Whereas commercial energy does not have that cap. Businesses have gone out of business because of the cost of their energy. Restaurants with energy bills have gone up from a thousand pounds a month to 15,000 pounds a month.
Alby: So there’s kind of a perfect storm.
Ben: How are you managing?
Alby: Comics are not a high margin business. In the U.K., we have a convoluted system. The Diamond we deal with is Diamond U.K., which is not Diamond U.S., they just happen to be called Diamond. Diamond U.K. buys their product from Diamond U.S. and then distributes it to the stores in the U.K. So we don’t get our DC comics from Penguin Random House and we don’t get our Marvel from Lunar. We still get all of our product from Diamond.
What that means is that Diamond U.K. is having to buy product from PRH and Lunar as well as Diamond U.S. because that’s the only way to get it. So there’s an extra margin that has to be added on, and then that means three major shippings every month coming into the U.K. because there’s different companies distributing different publishers. Customers cannot expect to get the same discounts and same prices post- the split as we did pre- the split.
Ben: Your margins are getting thinner and thinner.
Alby: Our margins are getting wafer thin, and we are a relatively small store, so we were never one of Diamond’s largest accounts. It’s not like we are generating top tier discounts or anything in the first instance. So what we’ve got is a situation where we are at the lowest tier for all the discounts. Effectively now we are paying as much as we can pay for everything that we now sell costs us proportionately more than it ever has done, and we’re selling less. So it becomes the snake that eats its own tail because you start to be more cautious, then you start to look at risks that you would normally take and then decide against them. The range becomes less encompassing. The very niche title that you absolutely want to support suddenly becomes a liability. And our business is based on the curation of our stock. So if there are a hundred titles, we may only have 20 of them, but we absolutely are committed to those 20 titles now that 20 titles might become 15, because we look at it and go, well, we’ve put out the FOC lists and we put out all our pre-release information, and no one pull listed that.
In the past we would say, it’s too good to not get, I know no one’s pull listed it, but it’s because they don’t understand yet how great it is. We need to put it in their hands and let them look through it to see how great it is, and then they’ll buy it. Well, those conversations are becoming less common now. If someone doesn’t pull list it, we don’t get it. That’s it. It’s a very easy decision. If no one pre-orders it, then that gives us no faith that anyone will subsequently want to pick it up.
Ben: You already kind of alluded to this, are people reducing their pull lists?
Alby: Pull list size is definitely down and volume and number of pool lists has reduced. Friends that have been coming in for 11 years and saying to us, I’m sorry. I’m going to have to cancel all of my pull list.
Ben: Man. You never want to hear that.
Alby: It’s a big deal for them, really, because if they’ve got an extensive pull list over a decade long, it means that they love the thing they’re getting. They’ve probably left that to the very last thing they get rid of. There has been a series of compromises and sacrifices made by them up to the point that they cancel a 50 comic strong 10-year-old pull list.
Now, you don’t wake up one morning and go, I don’t like comics. What you do is you get one less burger or you buy the cheaper pack of this from the store, or no, you try everything you can to keep that thing that you really love in your life. So we are very conscious of the fact that when someone like that comes in and cancels their pool, we are their last chance saloon. They have made the decision to cancel this. It means that X, Y, and Z have gone prior to that happening.
The rest of the interview is in the 15 minute video clip at the top of the article. In it, Alby and I discuss the “Death of Comics” conversation that dominated discourse online, ideas for how to help comics retailers, changes he’d like to see with publishers, and we end on an optimistic note with plans for the future of Little Shop of Heroes.
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