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Kickstarter Interview: Menachem Luchins and Escape Pod Comics

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Wednesday, July 04 2012 and posted in Features

Menachem Luchins has an idea for a new type of comic book store, and he's taking to Kickstarter to help him get it up and running.

It never hurts to dream big, and Menachem Luchins is doing just that.  He has an idea for, as he calls it, "a new kind of comic book store."  Luchins envisions a space that not only serves as a retailer, but also as a cultural and educational center for comics.  As Luchins describes it:
Far from just a store, Escape Pod is a place for the people of New York and all the denizens of the web to come together for signings, workshops and other events. A place to learn about current and classic comic books, as well as the history of the medium and the complex process involved in creating graphic stories.

Luchins is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for his new store, and he spoke to The Outhouse about why he wants to open a space like this, his views on the shopping experience, and what got him into comics in the first place.

Note: this interview was originally conducted over the phone, but due to a technical glitch, the conversation was not recorded.  Menachem was kind enough to answer the questions again via email.

The Outhouse (OH): What made you want to open a comic book retailer/cultural center?  What needs do you think Escape Pod Comics will fill that aren't being met now?

Menachem Luchins (ML): To be fair, there are lots of great comic shops out there filling the need we're trying to fill, it just so happens that none of them are anywhere near where we're opening. You've got Meltdown Comics is LA, Page 45 in Nottingham, England and lots of other great places that act as a lot more than just shops. The need that's there is to not only sell people comics or turn them on to the medium, but to educate them in how to create their own and how to appreciate what's out there. Lots of people are interested in comics but don't know where to start, or love them but can't seem to find new books to enjoy. What we're aiming to do is to make a comfortable atmosphere in which someone who knows nothing about comics can learn about them without feeling like a novice and where someone ready to move on to a different kind of comic can get that much needed helping-hand in selecting where to move on in their journey.

OH: Why is education about comics an important thing to foster alongside retail?

ML: As I've pointed out in my recent updates on the Kickstarter page, many people have an interest or love of comics without really knowing why. But as we grow, we change and that means our tastes change as well. Sadly, many people think of comics as just another genre- something they liked at a certain point but have "moved past." When one is educated about all that the medium offers and see it as, as the French call it, The Ninth Art (meaning a form of communication on par with Film, Literature, etc) they see that there are great vistas open to them. An educated consumer is a better consumer, they can see the beauty in the layout of a page, even if they don't like the story and they can appreciate stories that aren't their "thing" but that are told wonderfully.

But more than that, as we move deeper into the digital age, stores must provide more than just a physical location to pick up physical goods, they must be places where the customer is getting an experience that is as valuable (or more) than the items purchased- and having a small gallery of comic art and classes and a knowledgeable staff are all things that can contribute to that.

OH: What does your location bring to the table?  How does placing the store inFootlooseGallery Huntington, NY benefit your plan for Escape Pod?

ML: Huntington, if you've ever been to it, is just one of the most perfect retail areas in New York, if not the entire East Coast. The main drag covering Main Street and its offshoots is chockablock full of interesting stores, restaurants and service centers. Walk around Downtown Huntington on pretty much any day and you will see hundreds of people who work in the area or who came just to shop strolling around, going from shop to shop.

Now, for a "standard" comic shop, this wouldn't be such a big deal, they mostly service their hardcore fans and people who know what they're looking for. Escape Pod, though, is very much the sort of shop that you can just mill around in, check the activities board, or just put your feet up in. Our iPads for digital reading are available to anyone who comes in and our children's drawing area means that you might actually have time to get through a story if you're with your kids. Huntington already has a very successful independent bookstore (Book Revue) that people can and do spend hours in, just browsing. It's a very literate and artistic community. The local library has Manga classes and discussion groups and the local Arts Council has it's own designated gallery space, not to mention the 3 or 4 other galleries in town. All this adds up to a community that will really be receptive to what we're trying to do.

OH: How do you plan to reach beyond your brick-and-mortar space, for those who aren't located on Long Island?  How do you plan to use the internet in your business?

ML: Well, for a start, many of our classes, lectures and workshops will be streaming live and archived over the internet, but you need membership to access them (Membership is included with almost every Kickstarter pledge above $20). Besides that, we will be offering exclusive art and prints on the site as well. As much as we would love to sell our books online, the daunting task of putting our entire catalog online is something that we're just going to have to defer for the first year or so.

OH: In a time when many retailers are trying to figure out ways to cope with the ascendance of digital comics, few of them are planning to actually incorporate them into their business.  Talk a bit about your plans to bring digital and print comics side by side.

ML: As you recall from our now missing phone conversation, I'm a big believer in digital. I already mentioned the iPads for browsing. Our plans are to change out the content on those every week and have one that features staff picks, one that features new or newly digitized books and one that features "classics." This is actually a huge expense that offers very little monetary return to us, but something I felt needed doing. It's easy to tell someone to buy $150 of books (especially if it's your store) but it's much harder to buy that kind of merchandise on the recommendation of a clerk, no matter how knowledgeable he is. Having something that allows us to show customers all sorts of comics with no pressure to buy facilitates not only our desire to educate about the medium but also, the numbers have shown, future purchases.

There's also this aspect of comfort- more and more people are buying their comics digitally and sometimes, their local comic shop or fellow fans give them grief about it. Coming in to a store that not only offers tons of used books that have never been digitized at discount prices but that also gets digital books themselves is a lot more encouraging than facing some poster-boy "nerd" who says that reading digital comics is a sin.

OH: Have you started looking for potential locations already?  How much space do you think you'll need?

ML: We're currently looking at 2 or 3 locations that we like, but anything could happen between now and when the Kickstarter is funded. How much we'll need and how much we could use are very different things. We could easily fill a shop as large as 3,000 Square Feet with all the ideas and sections that we want to have, but obviously that's out of our budget and slightly ridiculous. But what we need is something comfortable to browse through that also allows for room for the lectures and classes as well as the children's drawing area. Each of these aspects needs to be factored in as well as one that is key to our shop and missing in so many others: reading space. There have been multiple stores that I've shopped at that could really benefit from at least a couple of chairs, especially when a family is going together and Junior is reading a book he bought while Mom looks through the racks and Dad shoots the breeze with the guys working the counter. We envision a scattered smattering of comfy chairs with small side tables so that people can settle down with their purchases or just relax with one of the iPads or the dozens of reader's copies we'll have out. All together, we're looking at spaces that average between 1500-2000 SF.

MooresBeardgalleryOH: Escape Pod promises a more personalized comics shopping experience.  How were you able to form your philosophy on comic book retail and distribution, and how you plan to implement them at Escape Pod Comics?

ML: My philosophy is really not a very new one. Stephen Holland at Page 45 and countless others use the same idea behind their shops. The simple truth at the kernel of all good comic shops is that comics are a medium and not a genre- anyone who likes reading will be able to find a comic they like, many even. My personal experiences at comic shops throughout my life (again, currently being chronicled in the Kickstarter updates) led me to believe that comic retail is all about the personal experience. I've worked a variety of other retail jobs and they're all very similar, but the most important aspect is to know your product and to know your customer. It's disheartening to walk into one of the massive book chains and have some guy behind a desk look up a book for you, "How do you spell that? G-A-Y-M-I-N?" Clearly not every employee is going to know every title ever, but part of what we're striving to do is to be willing to admit we don't know everything and to enter into a dialogues with the customer. It's no good pretending that since you have a computer attached to a database of the books your store/chain carries that you are now the ultimate repository of literary knowledge.

OH: You have a lot of inventory already stocked up.  Where did that come from?  How do you plan to add to it?

ML: A large number of the "graphic novels" (ie, not monthly 32 page books) are from my personal collection. When the greatest comic shop I ever had the pleasure of shopping in, Rocketship, shut their doors, I went a bit crazy and bought up a few dozen (ok, maybe it was 100) books to help them defer costs. Besides for those, I have another few hundred I've read that I probably don't need to read a 3rd, 4th, or 5th time. Add to that my long boxes (which hold around 200-400 monthly books, depending on how the books are stored) from my pre-teens and teens and you've got... well not that much, frankly. Luckily for me my brother, who was a much bigger collector than I ever was, is moving across the country and kindly donated some 15 or so long boxes. I had planned on that being a nice little starter stock that would mostly be sold during the Kickstarter. Luckily again, J.M. DeMatties, one of the my childhood heroes [His run on Spider-Man pretty much defines the character for me] had mentioned on Twitter that after his son had gone through his old comics he had about 30-40 long boxes that were going to the recycling center unless someone wanted to come to upstate New York and get them. Suffice it to say, I was up there with a van three days later.

The inventory now numbers something like 10,000 monthly "floppies" as well as around 500 "graphic novels" and collections. We're slowly working to catalogue them all properly and they make up the backbone of our Kickstarter rewards. Once the shop is opened I'll be filling the gaps with new books from distributors. But I plan on keeping my eyes peeled for good deals online and large cash purchases at yard sales; anywhere I can find books that are fun reads or appeal to even one person is somewhere I want to be.

OH: What kind of support have you and your Kickstarter gotten from within the comics industry?

ML: The support from the industry has been tremendous- even when I was just shopping around for rewards, asking how much commissions or signed books would cost, the emails I got were both encouraging and helpful. Sadly, most of the "pros" either couldn't give up items that are a cornerstone of their income or were just too pricey for my current budget, but they were all great about it. On Twitter we've gotten more than 50 re-tweets from a variety of people in the field, and even count Peter David and Joe Hill as backers.

I am lucky enough to be friends with some very talented comic creators, so original pages of Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley's Evelyn Evelyn book were donated by the illustrator, Cynthia von Buhler, and can be purchased on the page and a stunning portrait of Stoya by none other than Molly Crabapple is an exclusive print. One of our earlier good grabs was that Lev Grossman, Time Magazine's book critic, really liked the idea and offered to do a lecture at our store, so we've also got that set up as our inaugural lecture, available in the shop and streaming on the 'net to members for free. A lot of the other pros who have liked the idea are interested in doing signings and classes, but most want us to be physically set up before they work out the details, which makes a lot of sense.

OH: Your plans include drawing classes and seminars on comics.  How do you plan to get these together?

ML: Well, my wife draws a webcomic and has been studying the medium for years while I'm a bit of a general know-it-all when it comes to the field. We have a close friend who teaches a variety of art classes in a nearby town and that covers our bases for the first, most basic of classes.  As mentioned above, though, we're in talks with many comic professionals and experts to come out for lectures and workshops, some in conjunction with the local University, some on our own and some with the town library.

I can think of dozens of creators who would much rather give a talk or a presentation about the medium then just sit behind a desk and sign books, and many of them live right here in New York. They're on our list and will be contacted once we have the space up and running.

OH: How much do you know about running an operation like this?  Do you haveHeliosPinGallery plan or a system/business plan in place?

ML: I worked in retail all through my teens and have been a teacher for the last 10 years. My last job in "service" was managing a local restaurant through its start-up so I'm pretty familiar with every aspect of what has to happen for this store to work. We certainly have a business plan, but it's a very long story...(you were warned)

The original impetus for all this was when I saw, about 6 or 7 months ago that Golden Apple Comics in LA was for sale. I sat down with an accountant and reviewed their numbers, checked their books, etc etc. We worked out a business plan to bring  investors in on how to buy the store, revitalize it and turn a pretty profit, but the initial cost was simply too high and we didn't even bother trying to hunt down the investors in this economy. But I was spurred on to put together my own store and after much time re-adjusting figures, doing more research and going over it all until my eyes bled, I put together simple business plan and decided to use Kickstarter to fund.

My business plan is NOT public for a variety of reason, the main one being that people would simply not credit that all I am asking for on Kickstarter is $180,000. Keep in mind that once you deduct the fees, taxes, printing costs and shipping costs we're looking at number much closer to 100,000 and I don't mean on the 6 digit side.
Simply put, the amount I'm asking for is the bare minimum I need to create this store, the store that I know will succeed. If for some reason this campaign fails, we'll re-think things, re-jigger the pricing on rewards, maybe try to gather a few more choice items with the notoriety we've gained but I don't see us lowering the goal needed unless someone wants to get behind the project financially while still allowing us to do it our way. If you know of someone like that and are reading this, please pass it on to them. :)

OH: How was your interest in comics first piqued?

ML: I chronicle this (once again) a lot in the first of my Kickstarter updates that explains my passion, put briefly: The first comic I ever bought was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one that I just had to have because, well... I was 8 and they were the turtles. Little did I know that this black and white comic was going to blow my mind. The story's "baddies" are silent fish men of some kind and the way that their feelings and communications were conveyed through the art really drew me in. I started picking up random stuff in the local bodegas and just kept on buying.

Certain works have, of course, had pronounced effects on me at different points in my life. As a teen, Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics were seminal. Later in life, Dave Sim's Cerebus (and all the from-the-ground reporting about the comic industry that were provided in the back pages spanning years) was what convinced me that comics can literally do anything.

Thanks for your time and, once again, just want to say how saddened I am that the phone records got borked. Anyone who has read through all this and is unimpressed, I promise you the phone call went much better and would have made you want to check out the Kickstarter.

Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch

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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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