Value Added: A profile of Barbarian Comics in Wheaton by Thomas Heath

By Thomas Heath
Monday, May 3, 2010; A11

Didn't everybody love comics as a kid?

My dad would pay me an allowance, about $1.50 a week, and I would run to the drugstore and buy the latest Spider-Man, Captain America, Incredible Hulk and, if I really had saved, some monster magazine that ran for at least $1. (I loved monster movies.)

Software specialist James Wu, 36, looked a little deflated when I told him I pretty much gave up the habit around age 12.

After all, he and his brother Thomas bought a Wheaton comics bookstore called Barbarian Comics for $150,000 seven years ago so they could indulge their passion for Spider-Man, Batman and other superheroes.

Barbarian comics is a labor of love.

"I can read all the stuff I want," James Wu said. "I like talking to other people who are passionate about the comics universe, and what is happening and what's going on."

Wu and his brother don't make any real money on it, but they hope to someday -- maybe after they retire. (Thomas works for a credit union.)

They have used the profits to pay down a $75,000 loan from relatives and are starting to chip away at their own investment in the company. The good news is that they are creating some equity in the business.

James Wu, a University of Maryland graduate who manages a software team at a Northern Virginia high-tech company, started reading comics in the 1980s at Montgomery Blair High School.

His family emigrated from mainland China in 1981. He worked part time at a drugstore, and spent $20 to $30 a week on comics. His father is a chef.

Wu has saved like mad since he started working (as do many entrepreneurs), which came in handy later on. Now he has around 15,000 comic books in his personal collection, including a 30-year-old Batman.

"Batman is what got me into comics," he said. "For me, it's the visual effect. I like the art."

His brother reads Japanese comics called manga, and is into collectible card games such as Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh!

Wu's thinks the most valuable comics in his personal collection are worth around $100 and were bought at conventions, where writers and creators autographed them. The Wu brothers were regulars at Barbarian when the owner asked if they were interested in buying the small retailer, which is nestled into a strip shopping center on Triangle Lane.

To come up with the $150,000 price, James used $60,000 in savings and Thomas chipped in $15,000. The other $75,000 was a loan from the extended family.

The Wus buy about $1,000 worth of comics a week -- 300 to 500 issues -- from a Baltimore-based distributor. Comics cost about $1.50 to $2 each wholesale, depending on the subject. The Wus sell them at about a 100 percent markup, which is standard in the retail business.

So the comics sell to customers for around $3 to $4 each. (I think I paid 12 cents as a kid.)

Sometimes they get a small discount, depending on how many they sell.

The big sellers are the usual suspects: Avengers, Batman, Captain America and Spider-Man. Blockbuster movies featuring, say, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Spider-Man kick sales up a little bit: Barbarian's customers are comic purists, unswayed by the latest Hollywood spectacle.

Their best year revenue-wise was about four years ago, when they turned a $10,000 profit. That was rolled back into the company so they wouldn't run short of cash.

Things have slowed during the recession. The company lost $20,000 last year on sales of $172,000; about $100,000 of the costs was the comics and toys. Rent is more than $20,000 a year, and the part-timer earns more than $5,000. About $1,000 a month goes to pay the $75,000 loan from their relatives, which is almost paid off.

Thomas collects a $12,000 annual salary, which goes toward paying back the $15,000 he spent to buy the company. Then James will start taking $12,000 a year toward the $60,000 he is owed.

A visit to Barbarian is like a tour back in time. Old Spider-Man, Batman and Superman comics hang on the wall, bringing back memories from the 12-cent days. I once devoured these things, too; I was a Marvel brand reader, and my favorite superheroes were Spider-Man, Hulk and Captain America.

About 70 percent of sales are from new comics, many of which are standing preorders from regular customers. That sometimes backfires: One customer preordered $5,000 worth of comics but never came in and bought them.

The biggest sale was an old DC Comic (home to Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) that sold for $1,200, earning Barbarian a $600 profit.

"We probably have 50 people we set aside and hold comics for every week," he said. "Some like alternative to mainstream comics, like non-superhero publishers." Think Archie, Pokemon, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Simpsons, romance and comedy. At any given time, there are 20,000 to 30,000 comics in the store.

James Wu said he and his brother are constantly analyzing comic book trends, but he acknowledges that "we don't know where the comics business is going."

They learn more from their clientele.

"We talk with customers about what's going on, which superhero is going to come back, who is going to die," he said. "Ten or 15 years ago, Superman died. That was a big deal."

One of their biggest sales spikes came not too long ago.

They sold more than 100 copies of a Spider-Man comic that featured President Obama.

Where is Spider-Man when you need him?

Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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