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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Bellingham comic and gaming business take sales virtual

Businesses like Comics Place find a digital means of staying open during the pandemic

Jeffrey Figley and Roman Stadtler pose for a portrait inside The Comics Place on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. The Comics Place is one of many nonessential businesses that have had to restructure their business model because of COVID-19. // Photo by Jake Tull

By Tyler Brown

Since Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation on March 23 was extended to nonessential businesses and workers, multiple small businesses in Bellingham say they have been forced to make adjustments to maintain a presence within the community.  Comic and game stores owners say they are receiving community support as they are going through these changes. 

Jeff Figley, co-owner of the Comics Place with Django Bohren, said in an email that he and his business partner made the decision to close their doors several days before Inslee’s order was put into place. Figley said sales were above average during the week they decided to close, but the effects were felt immediately after the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. 

Figley said having a strong social media presence and a website that allows the store to receive orders is one of the reasons they have been able to stay open and available. He said that orders are being made and delivered locally two to three days a week but they have not offered curbside pick-up for shoppers, feeling that it encourages the opposite of Inslee’s order.

“The website is the only way we’ve been able to take in orders,” Figley said. “And social media gives us something to do each day to feel in contact with our customers, who we miss dearly.”

The comics retail market took a hit in March when Steve Geppi, chairman and CEO of Diamond Comics Distributors Inc., the primary distributor of comic books, posted on the company’s website that on March 24, Diamond would stop accepting new orders for comics distribution due to the ever changing climate of the novel coronavirus.

 “Therefore, my only logical conclusion is to cease the distribution of new weekly product until there is greater clarity on the progress made toward stemming the spread of this disease. Product distributed by Diamond and slated for an on-sale date of April 1 or later will not be shipped to retailers until further notice,” Geppi said in the statement.

This was felt not only by comic book retail outlets but also by the biggest publishers in the industry, including DC and Marvel. All publications planned to be shipped for their weekly Wednesday release date have halted for the foreseeable future according to Diamond’s website.

“A prominent comics writer reached out to us and graciously offered to pay off a handful of subscriber files who weren’t able to make it into the store,” Figley said. “That’s something more and more creators are doing.

Figley said that he and Bohren had also reached out to prominent comics artists star Jim Lee, the chief creative officer and publisher of DC comics, asking for assistance in his current campaign to raise money for local comic shops by auctioning his art online. Figley said that he and Bohren have heard nothing back, but understand that there are many stores across the United States, over 2,600 according to the Diamond website, and that whatever helps the most stores is going to be the best for the industry.

Endgame Bar, another Bellingham business that combines board games and pinball to its pub atmosphere, is one of the many restaurants and bars that resorted to take-out deliveries via Uber Eats and DoorDash to meet its industry needs and stay open during the pandemic. 

Austin Sines and Michael Lamere, owners of Endgame, said their schedule has been hectic meeting the needs of customers and the bar began feeling the effects of the pandemic at the beginning of March.  

Sines and Lamere said there has been a 20% drop in customer visits in March. The only way to mitigate the impact of the stay-at-home order was to immediately switch to online delivery, takeout and gift certificate sales, the Endgame owners said.  

“Additionally we offered services such as miniature painting and online game sessions, with varied success,” Sines and Lamere said via email. “Unfortunately our ventures weren’t generating enough revenue to justify staying open, so we decided to close up three weeks after the mandate went into effect. This decision was very difficult to make but we felt it would be better for both our physical and mental health.”

Both Endgame and the Comics Place have applied for small business loans, but both said the loan application process has not yet yielded anything.

“Unfortunately the SBA loan has not been helpful as of yet,” Sines and Lamere said. “We received a small initial disbursement for the advancement just this week but we are still waiting on the full evaluation and disbursement of the disaster emergency loan. Thankfully, our community has been super supportive in this uncertain time and have helped with our monthly expenses through a GoFundMe.”

Chris Pressley, manager at Dark Tower Games, said the store has switched to online operations, taking orders with around one to two employees in the store at a time. The store has maintained its connection with its customer base by having customers sign up for games to play online with a large selection of staff ready to play role-playing and tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Bubblegum Shoe, and Starfinder at their demand.

“This is a very community-driven store here and it has some of the best set up when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons,” Pressley said. “We have an extensive team here. There are about 14 [Dungeon Masters] here and we still host over 20 games a week. There has to be about over 200 players who want to play every week online.”

Pressley said sign up is made easy for customers by going to the store’s website, playing through the website roll20.net and using the website and app Discord for communications. Roll20.net allows for webcams and a virtual gaming experience using maps and layouts from homebrew (homemade independent D&D adventure) campaigns prepared for the customers.

The store currently does not have a means to play regular board games with customers but Pressley said tabletop role-playing games are easily accessible to play over the internet.

Both curbside pickup and local deliveries are available during store hours from Dark Tower. Pressley said as long as deliveries are within reasonable boundaries of city limits for himself and store owner Nathaniel Williams, they will continue to provide this free service.

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