Talking Business with St. Mark’s Comics

Originally written for my business reporting class and published here, this is a story about one of the more well-known comic book shops in New York City:

St. Mark’s Comics CEO Mitch Cutler is a three-decade veteran of the business. His store is perhaps one of New York City’s most well-known, a 25-year staple on infamous St. Mark’s place, one of but a small handful of locations that boasts such an extended residency. But these are tricky times for Cutler: last Monday, the basement of his store flooded, and the country is facing its worst economic recession in decades.

Cutler’s business is unique in Manhattan. It lacks the size of comic book giant Midtown Comics, a two-floor behemoth right off of Times Square, but his store is notorious for its St. Mark’s Place status. “After Midtown, there’s everybody else,” said Cutler. “I like to think we do it better than anybody else. There are certain aspects of the game that each of us does better than the other.” 

Customer service, Cutler believes, is such an aspect. “We have lots and lots of regular customers that come in every week and we’ve known them for 25 years and we know their name and we know what they read and that’s all great. We have a tremendous number of new customers every week. Lots and lots of tourists.” 

After handling the basement flood last Monday, Cutler stood behind a counter, surrounded by countless action figures and rows of old comics, arranging a stack of back issues, slapping new price tags on them, and simultaneously greeting browsing patrons. “The level of customer service and the accessibility of staff,” Cutler says, gives St. Mark’s an edge over rival companies. But for a company so reliant on face-to-face interaction, the recession might take its toll; what’s to be done if no one is visiting the store?

“This is the worst Christmas we have ever seen,” said Cutler. “We are always slow in October; it never picked up again in November. November and December were dreadful.”

Still, while many businesses suffer under the nationwide depression, the comic book industry is proving to be resilient. Marvel Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Marvel Comics, which held over 40% of the market share in January 2009 according to Diamond Comics Distributors, saw its shares jump 15% last Tuesday, and its fourth-quarter profit doubled from a year ago. 

A possible explanation? “Comics is cheap entertainment,” said Cutler. And a recent trend towards blockbuster super hero films has been a boon to this pocket of the entertainment industry. “When the movies are good, it helps… ‘Watchmen’ has been a gift from God… this year is full, full, full of mass media introduction of our products… we’re here to take advantage of all of that. Because you’ve got ‘Watchmen,’ and then ‘Wolverine,’ and then ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Transformers,’ this ought to be a swell year.”

This optimism manifests itself elsewhere for Cutler, particularly in discussing the slow business of the past several months. In fact, he contends that the recession might be something of a red herring.

“Everybody wants to write the story about the end of the world and the depression, and that’s just horse shit,” said Cutler. “Something I think people don’t talk about enough is the fact that, at least in the North East, we got the worst winter in a very long time. And more than anything else, the weather affects New York City. This is not Long Island. You do not drive to the mall, you walk places. And when it’s fifteen degrees, nobody walks anywhere. I think that was an enormous factor… that nobody’s talking about. 

I have assumed from the very beginning that once we got to March and April and 50 degree weather, things would get better, and they have begun to move in the proper direction”

Nevertheless, the economic climate also continues to be harsh and frigid. St. Mark’s Comics, Cutler notes, has “no intention of going anywhere,” but nothing is certain for business in the coming year.

“I think it will continue to get better, but I think it will be in very small increments, and it’s very fragile. So any heavy, huge setback would easily derail it… It is inviting the wrath of God to say in an arrogant fashion that we will certainly be here and stronger than ever.”

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