In a part of town dominated by auto repair shops and self-storage facilities, you’d think a comic book store would stand out. But Koch Comics Warehouse, a 5,000-square-foot space, has virtually no signage, making it more like a speakeasy than anything else. As seen from 41st Street in Sunset Park, a Captain Marvel poster inside a window on the second story provides one of the few clues about what’s inside. Then it’s up a staircase, and, if you ever attempt the journey, after a few tries, you’ll find the right door.
Joseph Koch, the owner of Koch Comics Warehouse, sits at a desk just inside. Koch started the business three decades ago, when he says there were 60 comic book shops in Brooklyn. In the mid-1990s that number fell to just six, according to Koch, and it remains about there today. But Koch Comics has ridden the ups and downs of the comic market—as well as the advent of the internet—by filling a gap in the market. Koch almost exclusively sells used comics, while other New York City comic stores sell mostly new comics.
Koch, 67, is German-American—his family moved here when he was 10 years old—but when he speaks, he sounds like a lifelong New Yorker. He’s tall, with thick white hair and a quiet enthusiasm for his business, which he opened after he crashed his cab and “the company didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.”
“There’s too much stuff in the world, but a lot of it’s pretty cool,” says Koch, referring to the massive amount of media and pop culture goods produced in the last several decades. Invoking Springsteen’s 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On), he adds, “now’s there’s 1000 channels, and there’s always great stuff on.” This notion also applies specifically to comics, and it’s his job to curate it, he says.
The curation aspect of the business may not be immediately apparent to a new customer. The warehouse is jam-packed with aisles of floor-to-ceiling shelves. While most of the shelves are filled with comics, there are also records, posters, figurines, toys, books, and other media. On this particular day, Jackie Chan’s voice blares from a vintage tabletop TV that’s microscopic by today’s standards.
Koch says he will buy and sell almost any piece representing American popular culture. Is your Beanie Babies collection lacking a Stretch the Ostrich? Koch Comics Warehouse has you covered. The 1990s fad of, well, fads, including Beanie Babies, pogs, and Furbies, also influenced the comics market, says Koch. The height of the comics fad occurred in the early ’90s, with the 1992 storyline in which—spoiler alert—Superman dies. According to Koch, the issue was wholesaling for $10 two months after it came out (a typical retail price for a comic was in the $1-2 range). He says that massive print runs and speculation in the market led it to crash shortly after that issue.
Koch has accumulated inventory in part from the comic book stores that have since gone out of business, but also from individuals selling their comics for all sorts of reasons—people lose interest, move away, need to pay for college. And in New York, as rent goes up and space is at a premium, many simply can’t afford to store their collections.
Koch says endless supply is the niche they fill, but the business has also likely been helped by steadily increasing interest in comics again since the late 1990s, at least as measured by sales of new comics. Industry websites Comichron and ICV2 released a report this month estimating that new comics and graphic novel sales in the U.S. and Canada came to $1.03 billion in 2015, the first time they’ve crested $1 billion since the inflation-adjusted high of $1.4 billion in 1993. Koch says technology is in part responsible, thanks to the ability for smaller print runs. Increased cover prices and the popularity of The Walking Dead, which began as a comic book series in 2003 and is now a hit TV show, also helped revive the market.
While the warehouse holds public sales and welcomes private appointments for interested buyers, the bulk of its business relies on mail-order sales, which constitute 80-90 percent of its revenue, says Koch. Orders come from all over the world, including far-off countries like Nigeria and Pakistan, that may not have easy access to American comics.
The mail-order sales have always been the foundation of the business, but the internet has changed the way that Koch Comics interacts with its customers. The business used to have a physical catalog, but now it only lists their inventory online. The internet has also changed the market of collectibles overall, adding much more supply. He used to compete with other stores, Koch says, but “now every person is potentially competition.” He recalls when someone came in with a complete collection of LIFE magazine. He looked online to see what the very first issue was going for, and he was surprised to find it was a mere $25. Again, Koch says that the large volume of supply has helped the store stay afloat and competitive.
Hank Kwon, 51, who owns Bulletproof Comics in Flatbush, has also ridden the ups-and-downs of the comics market. He began his business 24 years ago by selling just comic books and collectible card games, and he nearly went out of business during the crash of the mid-1990s, he says. His shop stayed alive by adding video games to their inventory, but lately that part of the business has slowed, as physical discs and devices are not needed for gaming.
“So we reinvented again a few years ago,” says Kwon, by selling comic books with exclusive covers. The insides of the books are the same, but they have covers that can only be bought through Bulletproof Comics. People, many of them collectors, order them from all over the world, says Kwon, with their biggest clients coming from Britain and Australia. The exclusive covers account for about 60% of their business, but they also still sell the cards and video games, and have expanded into skateboards. “We’re doing really good,” he says.
Back at Koch Comics Warehouse, the next challenge is likely to be increasing rent. Nearby development, such as Industry City, Koch says, is starting to get hot. In some respects, Koch isn’t worried. Given that most of their sales are by mail, he says, “we can do this in Arkansas.” But Koch isn’t ready to pack up anytime soon. He’s wary of the potential for rent to go up, but, he says, “rising rent can also mean rising opportunity.” He mentions the possibility for a higher profile and more retail sales. But in order to take advantage, he says, they need to be better organized and make a better space for hosting events.
He’s also thinking of bringing back the print version of the catalog. Why? “It would be something novel.”