Zap! Comics are a tough business
Comic book industry has up and down years, so Kenmore Komics is in a superhero class after surviving 20 years
**The following article was originally published in 2007 to honor the 20th Anniversary of Kenmore Komics & Games.**
Published May 5, 2007 By Paula Schleis Akron Beacon Journal
He can't shoot webs from his wrist, outrun a speeding bullet or soar through space on a surfboard. But John Buntin Jr. has proven himself stronger, faster and more able than the competition. His store -- Kenmore Komics & Games -- turns 20 this month, a rare milestone in an industry that has experienced more twists and turns than a graphic novel. After the Batman films rekindled interest in the genre back in 1989, Buntin counted 16 comic book shops in the Akron area, many launched by young entrepreneurs who smelled money. Five years later, most of them were out of business. Today, the phone book lists just four in all of Summit County. Growing up in Jackson, Mich., young John was a collector of stamps, coins and, not surprisingly, comic books. He became a certified nerd when he received a bachelor's degree in electronics engineering from the Ohio Institute of Technology. The new graduate found work using computers to look for oil out west, but when the field started downsizing in the mid-1980s, "it wasn't fun anymore," he said.
Buntin returned to Michigan and injected a little "fun" into his life by working in a local comic book shop while mulling over the next step in his career. He didn't realize he'd just taken it. He was managing the shop for the owner when he met a man from Akron who talked him into moving to Kenmore to help set up a comic book shop. The doors of that shop opened on Kenmore Boulevard May 9, 1987. It was always the plan that after the store was running smoothly, Buntin would be free to go off and find his next electronics job. But as fate would have it, Buntin ended up buying out his partner within the year, moving the shop down the street to its current location, and permanently settling into a neighborhood he would grow to love. His business strategy was pragmatic and methodical. "I knew right away if I wanted to be successful, I needed to diversify," he said. Comic books alone wouldn't pay the bills, so he quickly added cards, games and accessories to his inventory. He went to every comic book convention he could squeeze into his schedule -- once fitting 50 shows into his 52-week year. The conventions allowed him to promote his business while making purchases necessary for building his stock.
Buntin couldn't have picked a better time to hawk comics. The Michael Keaton Batman film sent droves of new fans into his store. He hired five employees. "It really kicked off the industry again," Buntin said. Today, he's down to two employees and makes half the profit he did then. The boom, as it turned out, had been fueled by inexperienced buyers who thought stacks of comic books would send them into early retirement. But what Batman ushered in, Superman took out. His well-publicized demise in 1993 marked the pinnacle in an escalation among comic book publishers to cater to speculators by outdoing each other with dramatic plots and gimmicks. Superman's fatal battle with Doomsday sold an unheard-of 3 million copies worldwide. (By contrast, top titles today sell about 100,000 copies a month.)
But a few months later, a redesigned Superman was back, as comic book veterans who had seen too many resurrections knew he would be. Buntin, who had sold his 400-count supply of Superman's "last" book in just two hours, couldn't sell half of the 150 books he ordered of Superman's return. The folks who invested in the earlier book came back trying to unload them, only to find the flooded market had collapsed their dreams of making a quick buck. "Ten percent of the comic book stores in the country went out of business that month," Buntin said, recalling reports the industry put out after the boom went bust. Buntin was hurting, too. "I need to sell 85 to 90 percent of what comes in to pay the bills and make a profit," he said. "My sell-through for that month was 64 percent." Yet he survived, thanks to his careful attention to cycles, shrewd purchases, and diversification into noncomic products that account for nearly half of store sales. This week's release of Spider-Man 3 will bring a few new fans to the store. But after a spate of superhero movies in recent years, Buntin knows the routine. In six months, the little flurry will vanish. And it won't hurt him a bit, with the foundation of his business built to withstand cultural fluctuations. Meanwhile, he continues to watch the industry evolve. More fans are moving away from traditional comic books that cost an average of $3 a piece, take 10 minutes to read, and ask you to return next month for a new installment. Growing in popularity are trade publications (graphic novels) where $10 will get you a complete story and at least an hour's worth of entertainment. But if you think business acumen is all it takes to be successful, Buntin will set you straight. Crediting community He gives a lot of credit to mutual loyalty between him and his adopted community, where Buntin is a well-known civic leader. He's currently president of Kenmore Kiwanis and will talk in detail about the group's fundraising efforts to collect money for RIF (the national "Reading Is Fundamental" movement.)
He's also a past president and active member of the Kenmore Board of Trade, a group that does everything from arrange Easter Egg hunts and Halloween parades to summer concerts at the local gazebo. "I love Kenmore," he said. "I saw a community I wanted to be involved in. . . . I've had many people wonder why I don't move on. I've had chances to go elsewhere. I don't want to." It's easy to see why. Kenmore Komics has become a gathering spot, a clubhouse where people hang out and socialize. And despite the ups and downs of his industry, he respects what comics and games mean to his customers. "People come in here and find something that brings them joy," Buntin said. "I can't ask for more than that."
Kenmore Komics & Games is located at 1020 Kenmore Blvd. Akron, OH 44314. Please visit kenmore-komics.com for hours of operation and more information.