Tim Finn is more than just the owner of HUB Comics, one of the best comic book stores in Greater Boston. He is also an author, comic book artist and professor who teaches animation and comic book art at a local university. Comic books are his passion, and have been since he discovered G.I. Joe comics as a kid. Tim, like so many small business owners, have made that passion their livelihood. Also, like other small business owners, getting others, namely paying customers, into his store to support that passion is a challenge. In this interview, Professor Finn, or Tim as he likes to be called, shares how he manages to meet that challenge.
(Photo courtesy of HUB Comics)
How does a professor of animation at Lesley University College of Art and Design (LUCAD) find time to run a small business?
I’m only part time at school, with two classes per semester, and my four wonderful employees are in the store every day, running the register and interacting with customers. I do something for the store every day, and that tends to involve my home computer, either ordering books or reading press or Photoshopping a poster or banner. I’m at the store about twice a week, but both jobs have flexible hours and somewhat plastic demands.
With such a passionate staff committed to the trade, how much responsibility do they have of the day-to-day management of the business? How much of running the store is still in your hands?
Most of the day-to-day is the staff. They open and close the store, and they’re saying hello and goodbye to every customer that walks through the door, and making recommendations to many in between. I pay the bills and order most of the books and wade through a lot of press releases and catalogs to figure out what we should carry. I attend odd events like MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo) as a buying expedition, and I set the displays at the store, so in those ways, the character of Hub Comics is a reflection of my tastes in comics, with heavy input from my employees.
It’s not easy to make a living selling paper, and it’s not for the faint of heart if this is your sole income. It’s part expertise, part passion, and part gamble. Certainly teaching offers some flexibility, but Hub Comics is fortunate to be supported by a consistent customer base, a vibrant local artist community, and a population that loves to read.
What challenges did you face in starting up and maintaining Hub as a growing concern?
The biggest challenge in taking over Hub Comics was wrangling inventory. There were a lot of great books and a variety of categories, but the store needed breathing room and to feel welcoming for having less stuff. I don’t have an MBA, so this was nuts and bolts. Here’s a bookshelf of 300 titles, and 150 have never sold, and 30 of them are crummy. It’s more inviting if that shelf is the 150 that have sold. Or maybe the 50 popular or critically lauded ones, and then we can spike it with 2 or 3 oddball personal favorites that we can hand sell.
What advice to you have for small business owners who are considering getting into the comic book store business, especially in the Boston area?
To start on a negative note, maybe don’t open a comic book store. They operate on tight margins. Certain large publishers don’t support us well, and some stores operate week to week; a bad month can kill them. Some reputable stores in the United States have closed in 2016 and more closings are expected for 2017.
If that doesn’t dissuade you, do your research. Your store should offer something that the competition doesn’t. We have amazingly, four other comic shops within a three-mile radius, but each is different and has its own flavor. Don’t sell things you don’t know much about. We don’t really know gaming, so we don’t sell Magic, D&D, or HeroClix. The nicer way of saying this could be learn what you’re selling. Also, location, location, location.
Since everyone sees super-hero movies as a boon, I feel the need to give real credit to librarians who have been on the front lines of getting kids into comics for thirty years. It took some time for publishers to respond with a critical mass of excellent titles, and at last we have arrived! Scholastic deserves special mention for starting its graphic novel line in 2005, putting titles like Raina Telgemeier’s “Smile” and Jeff Smith’s “Bone” in front of school-age kids across the country. Those kids want more and they come to comic book shops. Marvel Comics and DC Comics have been lackluster in their efforts to cultivate young readers, but young readers might become life-long readers, and will have disposable income in a decade or three, and then they might have kids, or nieces and nephews with birthdays. So while there are tall hurdles in front of a potential comic book store owner, sales are up and the future shows great potential.
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This article was written Mark McLaughlin for CBS Small Business Pulse.