The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
A few weeks ago, I did something I don't do very often these days. I wanted something-- specifically, I wanted the swell new R. Dorothy Wayneright figma. Yep, the same one that Dave reviewed here. I noticed that it cost around forty-five bucks online, shipped. That's pricey for a specialized little action figure, but hey, the yen-dollar rate is bonkers these days. A friend of mine had already gotten one of the Dorothys (Dorothies?) at a local store for about the same price, and tipped me off via Twitter. So what I did was, I went to a physical store and I bought something at it.
Yes, it's shocking but true. In this day of seemingly instant gratification (give or take a day or two) via Amazon, Hobbylink, Right Stuf, or other expansive online outlets, I went to a brick and mortar location, selected the item I wanted from a crowded store shelf, and had a flesh-and-blood person ring me up. The whole process got my mind working, because with the advent of digital distribution and-- well, let's face it, piracy-- the role of anime retail in North America has changed dramatically. DVDs that were once bread and butter might now sit on the shelf for years, gathering dust, still stultifyingly priced at $29.95. That full run of Paradise Kiss manga looks tempting... until a roving buyer snatches volume 4, with no means to order a replacement copy, and the gap sticks out like the one between David Letterman's teeth. That case of twelve Ghost in the Shell figures just might end up yielding four sales, and eight tiny boat anchors, hanging forlornly on the peg, yellowing in the sun. It's a daunting business.
The story of the store I visited, Animadness ("We're committed!"), is an interesting one. The place is owned and operated by Mike and Mark, a pair of jovial, beard-and-ponytailed fanboys who spent several years working at another Boston-area anime fixture, Tokyo Kid. As Mike puts it, "We woke up one morning and realized that our houses already looked like anime stores, so we struck out for ourselves." Their store is relatively expansive, featuring well-stocked shelves of figmas and nendroids and plush toys, cosplay accessories and trading figures and video games. It might be far away from well-trafficked Harvard Square, but it's oddly close to the old site of Mr. Big's Toyland, the long-dead paradise of die-cast Yamato and Force Five toys. I had to hop in the car to get out there, but the trip was worth it.
"Foot traffic is light," Mike admits. He and Mark elaborate that they've depended on local conventions like Anime Boston for both revenue and precious advertising. "We've also got twice as much space as a downtown store," adds Mark, "for about half the rent." So there are benefits to setting up shop off the beaten path, in addition to challenges. One thing that I found very, very interesting is the fact that the store is quietly phasing out their DVD and manga stock. The actual media that fuels the entire anime business apparently can't quite generate enough heat to support themselves at specialty stores. Mike and Mark's views on this are succinct and pointed.
"Downloading hasn't killed the business at all," declares Mike adamantly. "Sure, there's been attrition thanks to online viewing, but what about simple buyer's fatigue?" Mark adds, "The fans have learned that the shows that come out on DVD now for $60 might get re-released next year for $30. Single volume prices are all over the map, and collector's versions either sell out immediately, or get heavily discounted." Pricey collector's editions are especially contentious, because publishers like Aniplex USA don't even offer theirs to retailers anymore, making them effectively competitors with their own partners. The DVD game is a difficult and risky one for small retailers to play, and end buyers, the customers who put the money on the table, are burning out on wave after wave of priced down re-releases. Mike and Mark wouldn't impugn any specific publishers, but something that leaps to my own mind is Funimation's Casshern Sins - just one year ago it was released as two single-format (DVD or blu-ray) sets for $50 each. Now, you can put down half the money and get the whole series on both formats. The pair also complained about odd shortages and off-putting behavior from the anime publishers, whose policies sometimes make it hard to keep popular titles in stock. They'll continue to stock easy-to-order hits like Disney's Ghibli titles, but for the forseable future, they see DVD as too great a risk. Manga is similar-- even strong publishers like Viz allow their titles to go out of print, and the AniMadness duo don't want to offer their customers any books that they can't get complete series runs on. That list shrinks every week, and distributor problems exacerbate things as well; "Diamond sucks!" the pair points out, a sentiment that's since been echoed by every comic and anime retailer I've talked to. Too bad they have a monopoly!
Mike and Mark's caution seems sensible to me, particularly in light of the fate of the store where they once worked, Tokyo Kid. Owner Andrew Cocuaco is closing down the store this winter, after over a decade in the business. I wasn't able to meet with Cocuaco, simply because I kept trying to drop in, but would either find the store closed (their hours have been curbed sharply) or Andrew himself absent. Fortunately, this great article in the Harvard Crimson has done the heavy lifting for me. I used to buy DVDs at Tokyo Kid myself, so I can easily testify that the store's fortunes rose and fell almost directly on their DVD sales; the boom years saw experiments like a Tokyo Kid manga magazine, the store's movement to a bigger location and the opening of a tiny video game-specific satellite downstairs. But more recently the DVDs and manga have gathered dust. With the advent of both downloading and Netflix, the store's voluminous VHS and DVD rental stock has also gone fallow, and so Cocuaco and his staff have turned to other items to earn money. When I visited Tokyo Kid last month, the popular stuff wasn't DVDs and manga, it was cellphone charms and Pocky. But the surging yen-dollar rate has made even Pocky difficult to purchase for a small business. There are other, less obvious dangers, too; savvy fans have known for years that CDs with brand names like Son May and EverAnime are Taiwanese counterfeits, but these discs are mass-produced, with SKUs and availability through seemingly legitimate channels. It's very easy for an informed consumer like me to turn his nose up at fakes, but if I was a store buyer who ordered a case of seemingly legit product and was faced with either selling a bunch of bootlegs and trying to recoup my expenses, or tossing them and taking a large loss... it's a tough boat to be in.
Cocuaco also points out another big problem in the Crimson article - the demographics of anime store customers have changed. When I was first visiting Tokyo Kid (back then, it was called Man from Atlantis), most of the clientele was single men in their 20s and 30s. I was one of these dudes, and i was more than capable of scraping up and paying the $40 that each of those Giant Robo soundtrack CDs cost. Nowadays, stores are largely populated by teenagers with much less spending money - they might stare wistfully at those Master Grade Gundam model kits and Volks ball-jointed dolls, but in the end they'll sigh and spend two dollars on a bottle of Ramune instead. Older fans are still buying the pricey stuff, but very often this is now done online - so actually ordering and stocking Dollfie accessories and Soul of Chogokin die-cast toys has turned from a narrow but tidy revenue stream into a game of chicken. And Tokyo Kid's regretful decline proves that if you can't keep that moneyed customer base, you'll have a hell of a time staying in the game.
Still, stores like AniMadness press on; Mike and Mark don't find the business an easy one, but they're rising to the challenges. "Anyone with a business loan and an AAA Anime account can open a store," says Mike, "so a lot of small shops like ours start with the same stuff. We concentrate on stocking goodies that you just can't download," he adds, gesturing to a large shelf of model kits and figures. "It's important to be creative and cater to a broad audience," says Mark. "Every store will carry Bleach and Naruto goodies, but we dig for weird stuff - this set of Galaxy Express 999 trading figures won't fly off the shelves, but the right person will eventually get them." I rewarded their sense of adventure by snagging a Ranma 1/2 trading toy, a tiny diorama featuring Ranma dousing his dad with water while Akane looks on. It's on my desk at home, because I don't need my coworkers asking me odd questions.
There are other bright spots, too. Last month Kodansha launched their fantastic reprints of Sailor Moon and Codename: Sailor V, which shot to #1 and #2 on Nielsen's BookScan charts. Matt Lehman, who owns and operates Boston's Comocopia comic store, sensed the demand and held a midnight release party... yeah, for Sailor Moon. Feeling only somewhat ridiculous, I showed up for the party, only to find a store jammed with customers, cosplayers, and store employees. There was free Sailor Moon-themed refreshments, a trivia contest... and at the end of the day, more than 50 copies of each book were sold in something like twenty minutes. In a business fraught with risk, it's good to hear stories like this, and even better to witness them firsthand.
Ultimately, I still buy a lot of stuff online. I love to bargain shop, and retailers often can't quite reach the absurd lows that online shops stoop to. Despite that, I think it's important to reach out to your local anime store - not only is it good to support the business that is part and parcel of your hobby, it will help you get out of the damn house and expand your social network. There are anime retailers all over the world, and while most of them won't have the dizzying stacks of goodies that the big Animate! store in Akihabara does, they're bound to have something you'll love. In this column, I've given a hint of exposure to a few Boston outlets. Why not pitch in and talk about your favorite anime store in the comments? My friend Dave Merrill is visiting Boston this week, and has already pestered me to mention Denver's Gimme Anime in this column, so don't let him have the last word!
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