Like most small business owners, Matt Ashland was blindsided by the pandemic.
All of a sudden some employees were no longer able to come into Matt’s Cavalcade of Comics for work and many customers were staying home.
“It was scary,” Ashland said.
During the first few weeks, one employee ran the Corvallis store (Ashland also owns The Mattcave in Albany) Mondays through Fridays and Ashland took over for the weekends. Only a few people at a time were allowed into the store to browse and make purchases.
In addition to fewer employees working the shops, Ashland was forced to shut down the gaming area in the back part of the store where “Magic: The Gathering” sessions were held.
Instead of sitting back and waiting for a swing of good fortune allowing people back in swarms, Ashland was proactive.
“I delivered a lot at that time,” Ashland said. “When I got off of work at my other job I would come and deliver anything $50 or more. We even delivered to some people who we weren’t sure if they had COVID or not, so we would just leave it at the door.”
There were some unforeseen benefits for the business. Game sales skyrocketed and Ashland put more emphasis on internet transactions.
“We had a lot of people buying games because they were stuck at home. We sold just tons and tons of games, “Pandemic” being one of them. We sold a lot for the first four or five months. (And) we were able to get a lot of work done that we couldn’t do before because we were so busy, and so being less customers in the shop (and) doing more curbside, doing more delivery, stuff like that, we actually got some projects done that we were way behind on. Now we’re busier than ever.”
“We really ramped up our online. That helped a lot, too, because everybody was ordering stuff online. The stimulus checks definitely helped stimulate us, and we only lost one employee and we actually hired more and we’re going to be hiring more in the next couple weeks.”
Ashland’s decision to diversify the store years ago has helped him weather the storm.
Matt’s Cavalcade of Comics is not just a comic book store. Sure, there’s a big selection of comics and graphic novels. But you can find games and a variety of collectibles.
“From the get-go, 28 years ago or whatever it’s been, we’ve just always listened to our customers,” Ashland said. “If it didn’t have anything related to comics, we tried not to get into it. Like Beanie Babies we really didn’t do because they didn’t have licensed characters. We do a lot of the Funko Pop!s because they license everything. And so we just kind of listen to our customer base and see what they want us to get into.”
Comics were Ashland’s passion and remain a foundation for the store. He said he currently has between 600,000 and 700,000 comics.
“That was my main thing when I opened the shop,” he said. “I started buying collections and I would take out what I wanted and sell the rest to other local shops or garage sale or whatever. And then I started buying out shops, and I ended up with way too many comics. I couldn’t move around my house anymore, so a shop in Albany actually talked me into opening up.”
Ashland’s start coincided with the comic collecting boom of the early '90s.
People who had no interest in reading most of the titles were grabbing as many copies as they could with the idea of a big payday at some point.
“When I started, it was the most comics ever sold, but it wasn’t healthy. People were coming in and buying 100 copies of the same book. Now we have thousands of copies of those books that we bought back at a nickel or a dime apiece,” Ashland said.
“It was “Death of Superman,” “Spawn” No. 1, “X-Force” No. 1, “X-Men” (1991 series) No. 1, all of that stuff. It ended up crashing the market. When you sell 3 million copies of a book and there’s only 700,000 people that actually want to read it, the math doesn’t really work out.”
“Spider-Man” and “Groo the Wanderer” were among Ashland’s favorites through the years, but he does not have a title he follows regularly after “Walking Dead” ended.
As Marvel and DC movies became hits and are now a regular cash cow for Hollywood, there was a resurgence of interest in comic books.
But like the effects of the collecting boom, there’s been a negative backlash.
Many of the characters have been changed for the movies and Ashland said people walk into the store, pick up a title and don’t recognize the characters.
“I used to get every Marvel comic back when they actually had a Marvel universe that was comics. Now they only care about the movies and don’t care about the comics at all,” Ashland said.
“They’ve basically chased away all the old-time fans because they’ve changed all the comics to match the movies now and the comic book isn’t one universe. Any writer that comes on can do whatever they want to the character. There’s no continuity and so once they stopped doing continuity, I stopped reading most of their stuff.”
Comic stores throughout the country have had their share of problems even before the pandemic. Distribution issues hit the business, and COVID-19 worsened the situation by shutting down warehouses.
“A lot of places weren’t able to stay open like we were,” Ashland said.
There was talk of some comic book producers going online only, and Ashland said there was a rumor that DC was going to stop producing comics altogether.
“There’s a lot of rumors out there. I’ll just wait and see and roll with the punches,” he said. “We’re so diversified now, half of our money is in 'Magic: The Gathering.' We do a lot of online sales. 'Yu-Gi-Oh!' is coming back. 'Pokemon' is huge.
“We’re going to do more eBay. Our eBay sales during (the pandemic) have gone way up. We’re going to do a lot of online stuff, but we always want to be the friendly neighborhood comic shop, the friendly neighborhood game shop. We want people to come in.”