Cards vs. Comics

So, I had some free time this past Sunday, at which point I headed up to the north part of town to check out Bad Wolf Trading, as it came up when I punched “Houston Comic Book Stores” into Google, and I hadn’t been there before. And heck, the name of the place is a Dr. Who reference, so there’s that. However,  once I got there and poked around a little bit, I realized something.

Bad Wolf was not a comic book store. Bad Wolf was a magic card store.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Magic: The Gathering. It’s a popular game, and there are lots of ways to have fun with it, so there’s that. Heck, they’re even making noise about a Magic: The Gathering movie which I have the feeling will turn out to be an overbudget fiasco, a-la the D&D movie. If we’re lucky maybe we’ll get someone chewing the scenery like Jeremy Irons did, but I digress.

This said, I’ve noticed that magic card stores are a far different beast from the archetypal comic book store. There’s really an easy way to tell the difference at a glance. Walk into the store in question and look around (preferably on a day when not much is going on, so you can see what the store looks like in a non-busy state). A magic card store will have the majority of its floor space taken up by gaming tables & chairs, where a comic book store…won’t. Furthermore, I’ve found that comic book stores tend to have more decorations put up on the walls- maybe it’s ’cause the publishers/distributors give them more swag. It’s a little thing, but I personally prefer a store that’s got more stuff on the walls- makes it seem a little more inviting and interesting than just a bunch of empty tables, y’know?

Also closely related is the miniatures-gaming store, where the way to tell is if the tables have model scenery on them, and some dude tries to sell you whatever the new Warhammer 40k army is.

This isn’t to say a comic book shop can’t run magic tournaments or whatever (as I’m sure many of your local stores do), but it’s really a matter of specialization. Comics and games are often lumped together- and rightfully so, as the target audience for either tends to cross over. This said, I kind of wonder if the business models for each kind of store are a little different- something about putting all your eggs in the same basket, you know?

I understand the market on magic cards is somewhat volatile, as well. There’s card speculation and insider tips and everything; I kind of envision it as a bunch of guys wearing sport coats over their dragon-logo T-shirts and yelling “Goblins! Buy Goblins! Sell elves! Buy more goblins!” like they were on the New York Stock Exchange. I may do a little bit of actual research into magic economics later, if I’m feeling ambitious. There’s probably a mana bubble or something.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Houston’s older, more established comic shops (Third Planet, Nan’s, & Bedrock City Comics) don’t feature any play space whatsoever. Sure, they carry card/board/role-playing games, but they’re just there to sell them, not to serve as a social space for players. And, given the variety of stuff these stores sell, they’re not dependent on running magic tournaments to keep the lights on.  More of a bookstore model than a social space model. Of course, with the decline of brick & mortar bookstores in general, I imagine the typical comic book store is running on a fairly thin profit margin.

In any case, I found the marked difference in layout and ‘purpose’ between two similar kinds of store serving similar audiences pretty interesting. Again, speaking from a layman’s point of view, here, but I imagine the more magic-focused stores have a shorter lifespan, since they’re pretty well tied to their one ‘cash crop.’ Admittedly, since M:tG’s owned by Hasbro these days, there’s a smaller chance of it fading out of the marketplace, but what happens if the next expansion is a dud? Or if the player base declines? Or if people make it a point to buy their cards at Wal-Mart or something, and just play at the store? What do you guys think?

So there you have it, folks.  If I get real ambitious, I’ll post some in-depth reviews of individual stores as the blog goes on. Stay tuned?

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2 Comments

  1. Tamesh

    Long time Houston nerd, Magic player, and make-believe undead cyclops monster here. Figured I’d share my thoughts on the matter since I spend a lot of time and money at both sorts of stores.

    So Heroes Collectibles, a store I frequent for Magic whatnot, used to be a pretty big purveyor of comics and roleplaying books and all that sort of business. But with the advent of digital distribution and piracy and all that, the market has become more and more niche in recent years. At least from a store-owner’s perspective. In the meantime, Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary in charge of Magic, has been taking all sorts of initiatives to try and promote hobby shops by coming out with exclusive products available only to sponsored stores, or promoting special events for the release of new sets. So just because of the ways comics and card games have bifurcated themselves from a business standpoint, it kinda makes sense for stores to focus on one or the other, regardless of overlap between audiences. Like how Radio Shack doesn’t sell Mountain Dew and obscure Japanese pornography.

    More traditional comic stores proper have had to adapt a lot too. Most that you walk in these days probably make more money selling mugs or t-shirts or those weird little giant-headed action figures painted to look like characters from the hottest HBO series. Hell, it’s pretty rare you won’t see a box of Magic booster packs.

    So that was a whole lot of information that didn’t really go anywhere, but I think that’s probably an appropriate sort of supplement to the blog post proper.Hopefully it clears things up a little somewhere.

    • Now this is the kind of discussion I started this blog for! (Don’t worry, other folks, you’re allowed to comment even if you’re not a pretend-game horrible cyclops monster).

      The split does make sense, from a business perspective. However, as somebody who doesn’t play magic, I tend to get a kind of a ‘vibe’ from some Card Stores. I think part of this stems from at least one fairly terrible Card Store I once visited in St. Louis- the joint had a single glass counter for single cards, a shelf in the corner with a handful of old Shadowrun supplements, a couple of TV’s & X-boxes, and then the rest was just empty space for card tables.

      Now, I’m sure this suited the store’s bare minimum needs, but at the same time, it’s not that appealing, either. It’d be like going to a grocery store or a wal-mart where most everything is just stacked on industrial shelves.

      Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the Sams/Costco’s model, but I have absolutely no need for a pallet full of magic boosters.

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