Sunday, November 01, 2015

Q&A: Bishop and Klokel on 10 years of Fantom Comics

by Matt Dembicki
Fantom Comics on Nov. 9 celebrates its 10th anniversary. The Dupont Circle store will celebrate on Nov. 7 starting at 5 p.m. with a 10-year retrospective, award show and more. Below, owners David Bishop and Matt Klokel answers a few questions about their store’s decade in the District.

The store has had several locations over the past decade, settling over the past year in Dupont Circle. In retail, it’s often said that it’s “location, location, location.” How is the new location compared to the previous ones?

Matt Klokel and David Bishop
Bishop: No disrespect to Tenleytown, Union Station or Pentagon City Mall, but wow do we really wish we were in Dupont from the start. It's just a fantastic cross section of everything that's happening in DC, and while new neighborhoods have sprung up around DC over the years the vibe of Dupont Circle as a hub for a lot of cultural and business and residential activities is helping to bring all sorts of different folks.

Klokel: Dupont Circle is the perfect mix of residential and business traffic. Union Station had the work crowd, but no weekend traffic. Dupont has them both. It's also a neighborhood, where Union Station wasn't, and that shows in the warmth we've received from residents since our arrival.

Is there something other than location that fosters success?

Bishop: This one is easy: Our staff. Finding the right folks who are energized about comics and about meeting and talking with new people and helping to link Fantom to the broader comic book scene with conventions and creators has had a huge impact. Matt K can add more to this thought.

Klokel: I second Bishop's 'staff' conclusion. We're a success because of them. Equally valid is that a major key to our success is that we've stopped looking at our business model as "selling comic books." We've moved the focus toward "building a community" instead, and as we've done that, with the help of our excellent staff, the books move off the shelves a lot more frequently.

The comics retail business is notoriously tough. What inspired you to give it a try back in 2005? Is it still what drives you?

Bishop: I imagine lots of people who have a love for comics have had some inkling about what it would be like to own a comic book store. Back in 2005 when I ran into Matt, I was looking for some business idea that could plug into one of the many empty storefronts in my neighborhood and even scale to open additional locations in other retail strips that were losing businesses. It was a thought about tipping the scales back toward a more vibrant and diverse mix of retail. But then I met Matt and he had already signed a lease for Tenleytown and we rolled in that direction.

Klokel: I was 28 and it was my last chance to start a business — something I'd always wanted to do — before heading back to grad school and pushing forward in my think tank career. It was now or never was how I looked at it. I'd loved comics when I was younger and was aware that the quality and sophistication of the stories has significantly increased since I was a kid so I did a lot of research and had already committed when I ran into Bishop and it really came together. Back then I went into the comics business because I wanted to start a retail store and comics seemed like the smartest bet. What motivates me now is the community we've managed to build. They're good people, and they're the reason its fun coming to work every day. 

What are two to three things that you’ve learned over the past 10 years that are imperative to succeed in owning a comics shop?

Bishop: The number one thing that we are still learning is how to properly manage cash flow. There are new comic books coming in every week and that means that there is cash going out to pay for those new books and cash coming in when those books are purchased. So it's very challenging to keep a sharp eye and to make sure that things are balancing out. Related to that is how cautions we need to be when taking the available cash and reinvesting it into the business. We made many, many bad bets on investments in the early days, and we are now much more cautious about spending money to ensure that any investment will bring back positive value to Fantom. 

Klokel: I agree, inventory/cash flow is a hard lesson that needs to be learned. We can't return comics we don't sell, yet we upset customers if we don't have enough to sell. This is EVERY comic book store's top concern, and if a store doesn't master it, they won't be around too long.

What have been your proudest moments over the past decade?

Bishop: Making it to 10 years is very satisfying. And seeing the bet we made on a larger store that could support in-store events rather than a smaller newstand-sized store paying off is also something to be proud of.

Klokel: Frankly, every day I wake up and know we're still in business — and actually killing it — when Borders isn't is a source of pride.

What plans to you have to celebrate Fantom’s birthday?

Bishop: Matt K can answer that one.

Klokel: We'll be updating the Facebook event in the coming 10 days as we fill the agenda. There will be a retrospective at the beginning of the party.

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