Having won the title of World’s Best Comic Book Store, Ann Arbor’s Vault of Midnight plots global domination

    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:

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      18 Comments

      1. Tyler Weston
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        We would love to have midnight vault in Ypsi and I have some great spaces in mind. I wonder if he already ventured that idea or not?

      2. Edward
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        I don’t know that the city fathers of Ann Arbor know how important VoM is to downtown. Without it, Main Street is lost. Someone should pin medals on the chests of Sullivan and the store’s co-owners, or buy them breakfast somewhere.

      3. anonymous
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        I like the idea, Tyler, but Ypsi would be far too close for a second location. If he ever gets priced out of his spot on Main Street, though, it would be awesome to have Vault of Midnight in a spot like the old Kresge building, where they could operate a bar like the one he envisions in the basement. (While I love Bona Sera, I think there are likely more appropriately sized spaces for them in town.)

      4. Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        The Vault is the only local store I actively support, mostly because when I buy stuff, they don’t treat me like an asshole. It’s a dedicated part of my monthly budget.

        More power to Liz and Curtis.

      5. Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        Curtis inspired me to wake up this morning and make a new Batman slapping meme. (see above)

      6. Elf
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        I must have missed the issue that dealt with Batman being a five-star chef. Was the Joker in that issue a customer who kept sending food back?

      7. Mr. X
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Three things.

        One. The owners of the building deserve some credit as well. While I suspect they’re collecting pretty good rent from Vault of Midnight, I’m pretty sure that they could be getting more from a national chain. As I understand it, though, they love books, having once run a bookstore in that space themselves, and this was something that they wanted to do. Landlords like that are increasingly rare in Ann Arbor.

        Two. I’d be curious to know from Curtis, if he reads this, what his five favorite comics were this past year.

        Three. Does owning a cave make you a spelunker, or do you need to earn that title?

      8. Mr. X
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        The other big story here is that they’re looking at Grand Rapids, and note Art Prize as contributing toward that decision. I wonder how many other entrepreneurs around the midwest are doing the same thing.

      9. Elliott
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        I like the idea of a VoM in Grand Rapids, but I wish he’d focus on making the bar happen in Ann Arbor.

      10. Mr. Y
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Weird. Just flipped on Reddit and found this.

        “Kelly Sue DeConnick, Marvel Comics writer, on why there aren’t more female superheroes.”

        Here’s the discussion:

        Q: Why do you think it’s been so difficult for Marvel to establish a female hero who isn’t 1.) based of a male counterpart, 2.) made to give gender balance to a team or 3.) made to be the love interest of a more popular male hero?

        A. Marvel is a publicly-owned company. They exist to make money. Period. If there was an idea that extra dollar could be made with female-led comics, Marvel would have more lady-led books than Avengers titles–with multiple variant covers, no doubt.

        Why are there so many Avengers titles? They sell. Reliably.

        Right now, we’re stuck in a cycle. The perception is that women do not buy comics in significant numbers and that men do not support lady-led books, unless those books are loosely-disguised T&A books.

        Retailers are stretched very thin. Comics are not returnable so whatever they buy, they’re stuck with.

        Let’s remember this, okay? It’s important. The publisher’s customer is not the reader. Follow? The publisher’s customer is the retailer. Once the retailer orders the book, from the publisher’s standpoint, THAT IS THE SALE.

        Those sales figures you see on icv2 or whatever? Those do not indicate the number of readers who pick up a book, they indicate the number of copies ordered by stores.

        We all together on this? Good. Okay.

        So.

        Ever wondered how a book could get cancelled before it ever hits the shelves? That’s how. Once the orders from the retailers are in, those are the sales figures. Period. Doesn’t matter what the internet thinks of the book(1), doesn’t matter who reviews it favorably on IGN or CBR or whatever. It matters how many copies of the book the retailers order before the book even hits the shelf.

        The retailers have limited budgets, limited shelf space, and hundreds of new comics that come out every week. With rare exception, comics lose their value quicker than used cars (quarter bins, anyone?) so retailers must order very, very carefully. Every month, they have to try to determine exactly how many copies of each title they can sell through. If they over-order on just 2 titles per week, think about how quickly those stack up (literally!).

        What’s the takeaway here? Change is hard. Retailers, understandably, cannot take risks. Perception becomes fact.

        If our “base” won’t reliably support female-led books (and that is a whole other conversation that I do not have time for) then we need new readers. Strictly from a sustainability standpoint, we need new readers–our readership is aging and dwindling and the goodwill we should be getting from the comic book commercials commonly called “tentpole movies” we are, in large part, squandering. As an industry we put up high thresholds against new readers–whether it’s something as culturally repugnant as this whole “authentic fangirl” crap or just our mind-boggling practices of shelving by publisher and numbering books into the 600s.

        Think about the manga boom for a minute. The American notion had always been that women would not buy comics in significant numbers. There was even a commonly bandied about notion that “women are not visual.” Who bought manga in the US? Largely women and girls. At ten bucks a pop, no less. Women spent literally millions of dollars on what? On comics.

        Now, some people will argue that that had as much to do with the diversity of genre in manga as anything else–and that is a fair point. But I would argue that there is nothing inherently masculine about the science fiction aesthetic, nothing inherently masculine about power fantasies or aspirations to heroism.

        So what else was it about manga that got women to buy in in huge numbers?

        Well, for one thing, they didn’t have to venture into comic book stores to get it. No risks of unfriendly clerks or clientele, authenticity tests or the porn basement atmosphere that even if it’s not the reality of most stores, is certainly the broad perception. They could buy manga at the mall. What’s more, they didn’t need a guide. All they had to do was find the manga section, flip the books over and read the description (just like they’d done with any book they’d ever bought in their lives) and then, once they found one that interested them, find the volume with the giant number 1 on it and head to the check out.

        Contrast that with an American comic books store experience for a new reader. First challenge–find the store. Now say you just saw the Avengers movie and you think you might want to find something about Black Widow. Where do you even start? If you don’t have a friendly clerk, you’re going to get overwhelmed and leave. If there’s no BLACK WIDOW #1 on the shelf, you literally do not know what to do. New comics readers have to have a guide.

        Compared to getting into traditional American comics, it’s easier for a new reader to learn to read backwards! Think about that.

        Anyway. That’s it. The summary is “change is hard.” Our industry is built to sell Batman (literally–all of our sales figures are relative to the sales of Batman) to the same guys who have always bought Batman and change is hard.

        So what can we do? As readers, the most powerful tool we have is the pre-order. PRE-ORDER, PRE-ORDER, PRE-ORDER. Why? Because when you pre-order with a store, that is a sale to the store. The store is not assuming any risk. Therefore they bump up their orders with the publisher, which is reflected in the title’s sales, which then becomes a cue to the publisher… hm… maybe these books will sell? Let’s make more!

        With me? If there is a book outside the most mainstream of mainstream–especially books from smaller publishers, but also “midlist” books from DC and Marvel, if you want to encourage those choices, the thing you must do is pre-order.

        Do I hate asking that? Why yes I do. I don’t want to ask people to commit to paying $3-$4 for a book three months before they’ve even seen it. It’s embarrassing. But it’s literally the only way I can see to affect change.

        All right. That’s all I’ve got.

        LINK:
        http://www.reddit.com/r/comicbooks/comments/134f6k/i_am_kelly_sue_deconnick_writer_of_ghost_captain/c7184q1?context=1

      11. Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Mr. Y,

        That was a great find, and thanks for posting it. I’m no expert on comic sales, but I think one thing that would help the industry is follow the manga example.

        Rather than selling these little 22-page books full of ads every month, what if they ONLY printed graphic novels. You could have the same writers, same artists, but instead of releasing a tiny part of the story every month, you could sell a whole story, or half of a story in graphic novel form, and perhaps release them every quarter instead of every month.

        I, for one, would be happy to spend $10-20 for a full story without ads every couple of months, rather than the $3-5 every month that we do now.

        As it is, the Vault’s subscription discount is the only thing stopping me from waiting for a storyline to end and buying the collected editions.

      12. Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        “Retailers are stretched very thin. Comics are not returnable so whatever they buy, they’re stuck with.”

        I wish the music industry would adopt this model. Returns have killed many a label, including my own.

      13. Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        I should say “would have” since music retailers are just about extinct.

      14. jcp2
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

        Music retailers are alive and well with global music sales up in 2012 as compared to 2011. It’s just that they are in the form of iTunes and cousins. Just think, now you can preview up to a minute of potentially interesting songs, buy the ones you want, and make your own album. How cool is that?

      15. Posted February 26, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        I would like to give them a HUGE shout out because they sponsored the showing of The Miami Connection a few weeks ago. Oh my dear almighty GOD that movie is pure comedy gold. The Room lags in a few parts, Birdemic has a touching moment or two but this movie is awesome for every single second. They even showed some horrific 80s previews prior to the film. Some days I just wake up laughin and that is how I felt during *the entire movie*!!! I am 4ever a VoM fan for providing me two hours of giggling like a loon and kicking my little feet back and forth in the Michigan Theater.

      16. Curtis Sensitive
        Posted February 27, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        Some current favorite comic books are: Saga by Brain K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, The Strange Adventure of Luther Strode (http://www.lutherstrode.com/) , Thor: God of Thunder by Jason Arron and Esad Ribic(very good artist), Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel was excellent, Nowhere Men by Eric Stephenson and Nate Bellegarde is modern sci-fi gold and the current Conan comic is written by one of my favorite writers Brain Wood(DMZ, Northlanders, Channel Zero) with art by the magnanimous Becky Cloonan, James Harren and more. These are all current reads, available in single issue and graphic novel formats.
        All time classic must reads include, Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, Preacher by Garth Ennis, Death Ray by Daniel Clowes, Black Hole by Charles Burns and All Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant. Stop by the store and check out the “Best of 2012″ table, hand chosen by Team Vault.

      17. Posted February 27, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, Curtis. This is awesome. We should have a regular feature about comics.

      18. Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

        Easily the best and most-welcoming comic shop I’ve ever patronized–and after leaving the area, my comic readership has suffered. Best of luck to Curtis, Liz and the crew!

      2 Trackbacks

      1. […] Comic Book Day. As I tend to observe the holiday at Ann Arbor’s Vault of Midnight, I reached out the award winning comic shop’s owner, Curtis Sullivan, and his Global Director of Results, Nick Yribar, to discuss what they have in store for this […]

      2. […] through the archive sometime, Dug.) To name a few, over the past few years I’ve interviewed Curtis Sullivan (Vault of Midnight), Lisa Waud (Pot & Box), Helen Harding (Eat), Bill Brinkhoffer (Argus Farm […]

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