At Port Jeff comics shop, doing the time warp, again

Read all about it: A large selection of literal page-turners sets the tone at Port Jefferson's Red Shirt Comics.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Holy old school! In a digital era decidedly defined by screens large and small, a forward-thinking entrepreneur is turning back the clock by inviting customers to turn actual pages.

At a minimum, un-caped crusader Joshua Darbee is turning heads at Red Shirt Comics, a relative newcomer that’s already feeling right at home in downtown Port Jefferson.

Since opening in May, the friendly neighborhood industrialist has made plenty of fans, attracted precisely by what Darbee envisioned as the 1,000-square-foot shop’s biggest draw: a large selection of real-world artworks customers can truly have and hold.

“Digital is definitely a thing, but it’s not quite the same,” he told Innovate LI. “When you read a book, it’s the same experience whether you hold a book or read a screen.

“But there’s something different about reading a comic book.”

The difference, Darbee added, has to do with “the comic book’s organic nature.”

“Someone put pen to paper and produced it,” he said. “When you buy an issue of ‘Spider-Man,’ it’s like buying a page out of his photo album. People don’t want to download that onto their device – most prefer a physical copy, something they can own and can potentially increase in value.”

That was the thinking when Darbee (and his wife) decided to leverage his 20 years of retail experience – including 12 in sales and management for the now-defunct Golfsmith chain – and fulfill a lifelong dream.

“Comic books are how I learned to read,” Darbee noted. “It was just something I always wanted to do. If you’d asked me at 16 what I wanted to do when I grow up, it would have been, ‘Open a comic book store.’”

So, with his retail-management experience, a five-digit Small Business Administration loan and a dose of entrepreneurial gamma radiation – courtesy of the New York State Department of Labor’s little-known Self-Employment Assistance Program, which lets individuals continue to receive unemployment insurance benefits while working full-time on a startup business – Darbee took the plunge.

The thinking-man’s entrepreneur spent significant time on his business plan, starting with location – “Downtown Port Jeff is very walkable, very shoppable” – and his dream shop’s name.

“I had about three dozen names I was playing with, but none really stuck,” he noted. “I wanted something simple, something easy to remember – and a primary color would be nice, too, in terms of branding.”

“Red Shirt Comics” beamed into his brainpan, naturally, while he was watching an episode of “Star Trek.”

Your ears are pointed indeed if you catch the reference buried in the shop’s phone number (631-474-1701), but even non-Trekkers will likely get the “red shirts” joke: Popular culture has embraced the reference to the doomed background crewmembers forever getting zapped, reduced to salt piles or otherwise alien-ated on Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi classic.

Darbee wasn’t gunning for such fatalistic undertones, not even with his clever “We’re Dying to Serve You” slogan, but instead rolling out a red carpet for the red shirt’s 21st century brethren.

“Eighty percent of the people on those ships are the red shirts,” he noted. “They’re the everyman. They’re the ones who fix the watermains and keep everything working, in addition to trying to not get eaten by the monster.”

After nailing the name, Darbee set out to stock his mothership. Signing onto current-issue mailing lists was easy enough; even building an inventory of classic comics was fairly smooth sailing.

“You just put up a sign that says you’re opening a comic book store, and people come running to you,” he said. “I still get calls almost every day from people wanting to sell me their collections.”

Combined with careful utilization of other shops’ overstocks and online opportunities provided by eBay and the Facebook Marketplace, Darbee quickly amassed thousands of old issues, dating back decades.

But as his May debut approached, little did our hero know that dark forces were lurking. Unfortunately for Darbee, his lifelong dream burst into action just in time for one of the worst stretches in recent comic book history, thanks largely to a sputtering performance by Marvel Comics, owner of every notable superbeing not secretly named Kal-El, Bruce Wayne or Diana Prince.

Despite a cinematic era dominated by “comic book movies,” comic book sales are way down in recent years – and “if the publishers are not doing well, that means the retailers are not doing well,” according to Darbee.

In the six months since he opened Red Shirt Comics, things have “started to level out” for the industry. Blockbuster movie releases like this month’s “Thor: Ragnarok” don’t always generate retail sales, but they do encourage a “potential for rebounding,” Darbee noted, and a fast-and-furious slate of holiday flicks – “Star Wars” and “Justice League” entries are also coming soon – just might lure a few customers into his not-so-secret lair.

“For the tertiary fans, it might create a little more interest,” he said. “‘What’s Thor up to these days? Let me take a look, or pick up that old issue I remember.’ It can make them wander into a comic book store and give stuff a try.”

And getting customers into the shop is the name of this retailer’s game. In addition to “competitive prices and a decent selection,” Darbee has hosted special events including Dungeons & Dragons Thursdays and a monthly “discussion group,” sort of a book club for the Stan Lee set.

He also attracts foot traffic with his non-comic wares, including games and collector’s items and special-order memorabilia. Certainly, a wider selection awaits enthusiasts online, but according to Darbee, just like with the comic books themselves, there’s something to be said for real-world physicality when it comes to a selecting the right “Predator” figurine.

Plus, there’s a “certain spontaneity” involved with what are largely “impulse items,” he added.

Shelf life: For Joshua Darby, owning a comic book store was a longtime ambition.

“They’re not going to say, ‘I’d rather order this online and get it in three days,’” Darbee said. “If their kid is with them, they’re going to buy it.”

Foot traffic figures to increase during the holidays – the entrepreneur noted Port Jefferson Village’s annual Dickens Festival with particular anticipation – and Darbee plans to capitalize with print ads in local gift-buying guides (he already advertises online, in the local paper and on-screen at area movie theaters).

The way Darbee draws it up, a strong holiday season will help the startup end its first calendar year on a high note – and continue the turnaround for a comic book industry that’s “definitely showing good signs.”

But already, Red Shirt Comics is enlisting plenty of regulars – the prodigal everymen who are the backbone of any local retail business, according to Darbee.

“You’ve got to have good relationships with your customers,” the entrepreneur said. “It’s the No. 1 rule of small business. And the hope is that just getting them into the store will get some readers back into old buying habits.”

Red Shirt Comics

What’s It? Your father’s comic book shop

Brought To You By: Old school entrepreneur Joshua Darbee

All In: $100,000, part self-funded, part SBA loan, for inventory and physical renovations

Status: Able to leap tall online retailers


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