After years of shopping at Ann Arbor’s much-beloved comic book shop Vault of Midnight, I finally had the occasion a few weeks ago, at an event hosted by Concentrate Media, to meet the store’s founder Curtis Sullivan. What started as a friendly conversation on the current state of Ann Arbor retail quickly escalated into an interview on everything from the spark that motivated him, as a young man of 19, to open his first store, to his current thoughts on expanding online, and into Grand Rapids. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
MARK: Perhaps, to start, you could tell us a little about how you came to launch the original Vault of Midnight? What made you decide to open a comic book shop in Ann Arbor? Was it just that you loved comics, and didn’t want to do anything else, or was there also a sense that there was a niche that wasn’t being filled? How much, in other words, was blind love, and how much was shrewd business acumen?
CURTIS: I was in the restaurant business about five years and had a fair amount of success. I was opening new locations and training staff for Morrison Restaurants, the company behind Ruby Tuesdays. I was also a lifelong comic book/action figure/video game/movie super nerd. So I knew a little bit about business and a lot about comics. I started thinking seriously about a store in 1993, after the repeated nudgings of several friends. I started putting together a notebook filled with logo ideas and drawings about what the store might look like, what comic books and toys we might sell. It’s important to mention that right from the beginning my lifelong friend Steve Fodale and my wife Elizabeth Sullivan were there helping/slaving away. After a year or so of talking with suppliers, and bumming a couple grand from friends and family, we were ready. (Sullivan laughs.) We found/lucked into a strange spot at 322 South Ashley, a couple of buildings down from the Fleetwood Diner. At the time, there were a few comic book shops in town. Dave’s was on the corner of State Street, by William, and Underworld was on South University. Fun-4-All, Hobby Town and Labyrinth comics have all come and gone in downtown Ann Arbor since then. That said, we thought we could offer comics and toys that other stores did not… more independent, lesser known items… and make our place that way. So, mostly blind love, and maybe the tiniest crumb of business acumen.
MARK: Did you know people who owned stores downtown? Had you worked in retail at all? If not, how in the hell did you learn how to run a store? Was it all trial and error, or did you get advice along the way, from other store owners in Ann Arbor, or from the owners of comic book stores in other parts of the country?
CURTIS: I’d spoken to other comic shop owners and managers about my desire to open my own store. Most blew me off, probably because I was 18. Joe, the manager at Dave’s Comics, told me to order what I really liked, and I took that to mean that I should let my tastes and personality set the tone. I’d never worked retail prior to having my own store. I totally learned how to run a store on the fly, but working 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week definitely helped.
MARK: Prior to opening Vault of Midnight, where did you go to buy comics?
CURTIS: The first comic shop I remember going into was the legendary Eye of Agamotto on State Street. Named after Doctor Strange’s amulet, and run by one of the coolest/smartest/nicest dudes I’ve ever met, Norm Harris. It’s highly likely that it’s his fault that Vault of Midnight is here at all. After the Eye closed in 1986… I think… I’d shop mostly at Dave’s Comics. Joe was the manager and knew his stuff, always making good recommendations. He put me up onto Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 – a real game changer.
MARK: Your mention of Eye of Agamotto, and the pivotal role it played in your life, makes me wonder if you give much thought to the fact that you could be playing a similar role for the young people who come into Vault of Midnight each day. Is that the best part of the job… turning young people onto stuff that they really connect with? And, I imagine, it’s also a lot of responsibility…
CURTIS: I think everyone can remember their first pivotal piece of fiction/pop-culture whether it was G.I Joe or Lord of the Rings, My Little Pony, Pac-Man or The X-Men. That stuff is a big deal and informs us as we grow up. Being part of that on any level is as gratifying as anything I’ve ever done. Recommending someone their first “Conan” is huge… It changed the course of my life I’m sure. As an example of this, I got a card recently from a patron of our first location, all the way back in 1996… a fellow by the name of Ming Chen… thanking me for the store. He now works at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, and is a co-host on Kevin Smith’s show Comic Book Men on AMC. So, yes, it’s quite cool to maybe have more of an impact than you might with another specialty niche retail business.
MARK: What was your first comic?
CURTIS: I got a big stack of “Savage Sword of Conan” comics from an uncle when I was maybe 7 years old, and have feverishly read comic books ever since. Batman is my all time favorite superhero.
MARK: Why Batman?
CURTIS: Despite his tragic origin, or perhaps because of it, he becomes a great force for good. Training himself to the peak of human ability, a great inventor possessed of keen intellect, a master detective, martial artist, spelunker, five star chef, marksmen, munitions expert, race car driver, pilot and so much more. Also he’s a billionaire with a secret Batcave and a kick ass Batmobile. And his costume is the best. Some people may ask, “Why have a cape?” I would ask, “Have you seen Batman?”
MARK: You mentioned raising the working capital to open the store from friends and family. Did you also make use of other sources? Did you secure a bank loan to purchase inventory? Did you somehow convince publishers to take a chance on you, and send you stuff without payment upfront?
CURTIS: I was able to scrape together maybe two grand in cash, maxed out a few credit cards, and took advantage of the fact that, quite often, checks take upwards of two weeks to clear. I also used my personal collection of comic books and toys, which were a large part of our starting inventory. No suppliers would give us terms, and no bank would loan us money.
MARK: You mentioned (at the Concentrate event), if I’m not mistaken, that you didn’t really have a formal business plan for the first ten years that you were in business. Is that something that you’d recommend to other would-be entrepreneurs?
CURTIS: Being really good at, and totally in love with, your thing; comic books, food, yoga, whatever your thing is, is the most important aspect of small business in my experience. But, yes, you should probably put together a business plan sooner rather than later.
MARK: What precipitated the big move to Main Street? I can see the appeal of quadrupling your square footage, and it’s beautiful space, but it also seems risky. It’s clearly expensive space, and I imagine you must have had some doubts as to whether the Main Street crowd, which, to a great extent, is an upscale dining crowd, would come in and spend money… I think, If I’d been in your shoes, given that you already had a large, loyal audience, I’d have considered going for less expensive space farther from the Chop House. What made you confident that this was the right move… which it clearly was, given your success?
CURTIS: The new owners of the building on Liberty, where we’d moved after South Ashley, wanted us to sign a new five year lease, and I wasn’t happy with the location. And we were quickly outgrowing the square footage. We also wanted to take it to the next level sales and statement wise. We learned that the 219 Main Street location had opened up, and we put our names in the hat as it were. Steve and Shelly Kelly, the owners of the building, took a chance and gave us a shot. I’ve lived and worked in Ann Arbor my whole life and thought we’d fit right in on Main Street. We wanted to have walk-by traffic as well as being a destination for fans and loyal customers. I felt we could bring our base along with us, and grow with the added visibility. We were also crapping our collective pants from all the added rent and space.
MARK: What can you tell us about the big award that you recently won.
CURTIS: In 2010, we received the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. That was huge. We had to write the history of the Vault and make a 5 minute video highlighting the shop, service and staff. (See video below.) It’s a global contest of the best comic book shops in the world, in which we all go toe-to-toe in a no-holds-barred death match… Not really, but it’s close… We were nominated by Jim Ottaviani, writer of a bunch of fine graphic novels, including: Feynman, Dignifying Science, and T-Minus… And, now that we’ve got the award, we’ve got to earn it. It’s a big deal.
MARK: And, now, you’re growing, right? I hear that you’re going to be opening a store in Grand Rapids, and making a push to grow your online presence…
CURTIS: Since opening in 1996 we’ve never had a down year, with 2012 being our best ever. Our web store just went live. New store scouting begins next week, and our first stop is Grand Rapids. We’ve done some homework and think we could fit in there. It’s time to road trip and see.
MARK: What is it that you like about Grand Rapids?
CURTIS: I’ve done some recon in the last few years as to where a second Vault could work. We’ve thought about opening another store for a while and even considered Chicago at one point. We had a change of heart about branching outside of Michigan, though, and starting looking at cities here, in hopes of finding one that we could be compatible with. Grands rapid is the right size, has a college campus, a diverse population, Art Prize is kicking butt, and the city is working hard to redevelop and stay progressive. Our good friend and lead comptroller of graphic design, Jeremy Wheeler, is a Grand Rapids native, and we’ve scheduled a tour of potential spots. It’s still conjecture at this point as to where it will be… maybe Grand Rapids, maybe somewhere else. But the hunt for Vault #2 is on. It’s still early in the process, but another store is a definite.
MARK: This is a bit of an aside, but I’m wondering if you’ve heard about this free online course being offered by Ball State University on gender roles in comics.
CURTIS: First I’ve heard of it, but it looks fantastic. Those are some of the top writers in comics that are involved.
MARK: While we’re on the subject, I’m curious as to your thoughts on girls and comics. Are things becoming a little less male-centric?
CURTIS: The idea that comics are a ‘boys only’ club is more myth than fact nowadays, in my opinion. Many decades ago, the case could be made that comic books featured primarily one genre – superheroes – and their appeal was limited to teenage boys. Modern comics are as diverse as any media, and attract readers of all kinds. Our customers/clients are at least 50/50 male/female, and span all age groups.
MARK: I’ve heard it said in the past that you consciously decided not to advertise, but, instead, to focus your spending on the sponsorship of those local initiatives that you believe in, like the Ann Arbor Skate Park. Can you talk a little about that?
CURTIS: Almost all of our advertising is done through donations to schools, charities and sponsorship of organizations and events because we can achieve the same level of exposure by supporting local groups and things that we think are awesome for Ann Arbor. Mott’s Children’s Hospital, 826 Michigan, Food Gatherers, Michigan Radio, Community High School, A2 Skate Park, an assortment of public libraries. Being a part of our community is important to us and this is a way we can do that.
MARK: What, in your opinion, does downtown Ann Arbor need? If you had the time, the money, and another space downtown, what would you be doing?
CURTIS: Stay cool and accessible, not too upscale. Good mix of retail, art, coffee and food. Rethink the Art Fair in a big way… If I had another space? Ner- themed restaurant with five-star bar food, stiff drinks and video games. Designer toy and low-brow art galleries.
MARK: Any chance you might ever branch into publishing?
CURTIS: Thought about it on and off over the years and the answer is, “Maybe.” If the right project came up? Oh, hell yes. We would love to do a DIY art platform at some point as well.
MARK: What are you envisioning when you say, “DIY art platform”?
CURTIS: “DIY art platforms” are kind of a burgeoning thing in the collector toy-art scene; they’re usually molded vinyl figures in various shapes that have been left totally white, and ready for a do-it-yourself art project. The figure I’ve been thinking about is a cartoonish human skull with a tiny body made of cast white vinyl, six to eight inches tall.
MARK: Can you talk at all about product mix? In addition to selling comics and graphic novels, you also sell games, toys, models and apparel. I’m curious as to how, over time, that mix might be changing… Clearly, when you came to Main Street, you knew that you needed to diversify, and pull in a broader audience… Was there anything that you didn’t expect? Did anything catch you off guard?
CURTIS: We’ve always had three main product lines, comic books (and graphic novels), board games (games), and Toys (action and vinyl styles). When we moved to Main Street, the added space allowed us to expand beyond the core and broaden our selection substantially. The thought was we’re good at what we do, so let’s expand that and get more sweet. Off Guard? Making sure we have enough inventory, we can’t sell what we don’t have.
MARK: I was just curious if there was anything that really surprised you, when you opened on Main Street. Were customers buying things that you hadn’t expected?
CURTIS: We’ve had to grow everything by leaps and bounds to keep up with what our customers are looking for. It turns out the citizens of Ann Arbor have a pretty crazy appetite for comics and board games, and maybe we were caught off guard by just how much. The amount of space dedicated to board games, for instance, has easily tripled since we opened, and we’re figuring out ways to accommodate still more. I think what’s really surprising is how popular the good stuff is, how ready our customers are for a good recommendation, and how they’ll take that recommendation and still be hungry for more. Historically, in our industry, the books that sold a gajillion copies weren’t always what you might call “good.” Nowadays, amazing titles from unknown writers and artists stand a chance on the merit of the books alone. So it’s a surprise when somebody comes in off the street and asks for Obscure Title X and we’re like, “What?? We love that book! We thought we were the only ones!”
MARK: Any advice for young entrepreneurs looking to go into retail in Ann Arbor?
CURTIS: Be really good at what you do, believe in it and it will work. Jump off the deep end, and use your powers of confidence to win.
MARK: Like a superhero?
CURTIS: Like a very confident superhero. Small-Business Man.
[note: I don’t generally like it when I read interviews that end on a cliche note like that. I think it sounds too contrived. But, since that’s really what we said, I’m leaving it... even though it sounds incredibly, and uncharacteristically, professional.]
Now here’s the Vault of Midnight video that I promised earlier: