It was March 17, 2020 — St. Patrick’s Day. But there would be no celebration for Level Up Entertainment or any of the other businesses at the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing.
“I got the email ... and it says (Gov. Phil) Murphy’s closing up malls at 2 o’clock. I’m like, ‘It’s 11!’” said Gregg Mester, who has been one of the store’s owners since its first location opened in 2007.
Thus began a dark period for, well, everyone, but also for comic shops across the United States, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival led to months-long store closings and, for about two months, the near-complete shutdown of the larger comics industry. Diamond Comic Distributors, up to that point the sole major distributor of comics in North America, stopped shipping new books from late March to late May 2020, as its distribution centers were shuttered by state orders.
Shops eked by on digital sales of existing inventory that gave way to curbside pickup that gave way to eventual reopenings. It would take a few months for the industry to recover. Not every store would make it, but the ones that did would be rewarded for their patience.
One sign of that can be found at Level Up, which last week opened its second location, steps from ShopRite and Five Below in Somers Point.
According to Publishers Weekly, as of early 2019, there were about 2,000 comic shops in the country. Hard data on stores isn’t available, so it’s difficult to say how many shops closed permanently last year as a result of the pandemic.
That said, many of the shops that survived saw a notable rebound in sales in late summer and early fall, said Dan Gearino, who chronicled the history of comics retail in the 2017 book “Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture.”
“There was this substantial bounce-back for a lot of shops, to the point that some shops said they actually did better in 2020 than 2019,” said Gearino. This wasn’t attributable to any particular publishing initiative or world-ending superhero crossover event, as gains were reported across publishers, genres and demographics.
Mester confirmed Level Up had a strong fall — and even its most successful December in about six years — but could not point to any lone magic-bullet culprit.
“I really wish I could tell you and ourselves why (that period was) successful so we could replicate it,” co-owner Scott Fine said.
Help during the down period came from a number of places. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation raised more than $3 million in 2020 to support independent booksellers. Creators auctioned off their art and other prizes to help retailers. Level Up customers bought gift cards during the store’s downtime so they could spend the money once it reopened. The shop also received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan in the amount of $13,722 to help it get by.
“The key factor that distinguished the shops that did OK in 2020 from shops that were more likely to struggle was whether a shop had cultivated a dedicated audience, because shops with a really dedicated clientele that they know well, those customers stuck with those retailers, and if anything their spending increased,” Gearino said.
Matt Piskun, of Egg Harbor Township, is one such dedicated customer. He shops at Level Up about twice a month and said he plans to transfer his pull — his account of regular comic subscriptions — to the Somers Point store, as he works in town.
“Level Up does a great job of creating an inclusive atmosphere for a fanbase that responds to such sentiment,” Piskun said. “I’m happy that my support of their business has paid off to a certain degree.”
Plans for store No. 2 began percolating before the pandemic, in 2019, not long after the mall was purchased by New York-based Namdar Realty Group. Brixmor, which leases space in Somers Point’s Ocean Heights Plaza, approached the owners of Level Up about moving, opening a second location, creating a pop-up shop or some other opportunity.
Fine said the new location will allow for expansion of their pinball arcade, tabletop gaming and events/activities, especially as pandemic restrictions are lifted. It also increases their reach at the shore, as Somers Point is just a short bridge trip to resorts such as Ocean City and Longport. The fact that Somers Point is getting a Target in the near future is another bonus.
Plus, Fine said, “I’m so excited for all the natural light,” something a mall store can’t offer.
The big test could come Aug. 14, when Level Up is set to host Free Comic Book Day, a national promotion in which shops give away select comics provided by publishers. Traditionally, the day is marked by sales, creator signings, costume contests and general hoopla. This year, we’ll see.
“Because of the COVID situation, we don’t know what it’s gonna look like in a few months,” Fine said, adding in past years Free Comic Book Day has been a better sales day than even Black Friday. “It’s gonna be pared down from what it normally is, which stinks, but it’s nice that we’re able to do something again.”
Contact Dan Grote: 609-272-7234