In some respects, Craig Lopacinski set his sights as far as one could expect for a comicbook shop in a city the size of Waukesha in an era of dwindling readers.
The owner of Neptune Comics, which was launched Jan. 7, 2004, certainly tried to be visible. Among other early efforts, Lopacinski advertised on local movie screens, exposing his shop to people who might never have stepped foot into a land of pulp-product superheroes and ink-only characters.
But it wasn't easy and, as he let his customers know this month, the effort simply has become too difficult to sustain in orbit.
In a emailed letter sent Oct. 1 to subscribers, Lopacinski announced the store will close by month's end in the Westbrook Shopping Center, ending a 13-year reign and, for now at least, standing as the last such shop in the city.
He feels it's the right decision, given the Herculean task of keeping the shop going financially and through sheer effort. But like a superhero realizing he is outmatched by a persistent foe, he isn't enthralled with his reality.
"It's bittersweet," Lopacinski said, reflecting on his decision five days after his announcement to customers. "It's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be here longer. ... But in the end, I had to do what is best for my family and me."
Making the effort
Still, as he noted to his letter to customers, he tried, starting from the time first opened in a smaller space on Sunset Drive next door to George Webb restaurant directly across the street from Kmart.
"Neptune Comics has always been in the forefront of service and marketing in the comic book industry," he said.
In what ways?
Subscriptions were managed using a computer system, which resulted in fewer errors, particularly for the rush of comics that went out the door each Wednesday afternoon.
In another cyber-age move, Lopacinski, along with his wife Lisa, who worked in the store when it first opened, started "Southeastern Wisconsin's first full eCommerce web site for comic book retail," far from a standard in the industry that dates back decades in an era of "newsstands." They also generated Skype chats with comic book and animation professionals.
In a more traditional realm, the shop hosted book clubs, "cheesy movie" nights, charity drives, TV/movie premiers, theme parties, a Kids Club and book signings. It started a delivery service, as well, for those who preferred to skip regular visits to the shop.
And, in a nod to the connection between big-screen superheroes and those on the printed page, they advertised on the big screen – taking advantage of a Marcus Theatre's former program that mixed local still-image advertising with other promos which fill theater screens in those moments before the previews begin. They also advertised on the small screen, using local insert advertising offered on cable TV.
"We have done all this and more," Lopacinski noted.
The store moved to its larger space of Moreland Boulevard near Kohl's Department store, adding an employee eight years ago to help staff the store, which was open six days a week, after Lisa left behind her the day-to-day role in the store to raise their newborn son.
But the results, while strong enough to keep the shop going for more than a dozen years, simply weren't promising enough for the future, or the present.
"Unfortunately, all the work that we put in never put us in a great financial position, but we did it for the love of the medium, and our customers, and always hoped things would eventually get better," Lopacinski noted, plainly and openly, in his letter. "Slowly throughout the years the gap widened, and the hole deepened.
"While we were able to live (very modestly) and support an employee, we were never able to pay down our debt or contribute to any retirement fund. Every day has been a juggling act just keeping our head above water.
"I have made the decision to stop digging the hole, and stop trying to juggle all the balls in the air," Lopacinski added. "The stress was impacting my health physically and mentally and sadly my best choice for the future is to close down the store."
In subsequent comments last week, Lopacinski acknowledged that market changes were also a factor, though not in terms of number of retail shops, which has remained between 2,500 and 3,000 shops nationally in his 13 years in business. Most recently, readership among his subscribers reflected a dissatisfaction with comic publisher Marvel's print product, despite the now-Disney-owned property's success on the big screen.
"There hasn't been a lot of growth in comicbooks, and they're trying to change that. ... But I've seen other stores in big cities go down as well," he said. "If they're not making it ... ahhh."
While Lopacinski said another store may fill the "gaping hole" left by his shop's closure, he doesn't believe it will be as service-oriented, or generally welcoming, as he has tried to make his shop be.
Shane Mervyn, an avid reader himself before he joined Neptune as a full-time employee in 2008, echoed his boss's sentiments, admitting he's disappointed such a customer-friendly shop as Neptune Comics wasn't able to survive when other Milwaukee shops with less going for them, other than location, continue to do business.
If another store opens, Mervyn's fear is that "it will be a roach-coach motel," he said, privately noting his disdain for the way some existing shops treat their customers. (Lopacinski has been neutrally recommending his customers "try out" other shops before deciding which ones suit them; Mervyn has been recommending Lost World of Wonders in Milwaukee.)
Faced with practical trappings of the business, Lopacinski's last task is to sell off an inventory deep in comicbooks and other merchandise, as well store fixtures – some of which have been purchased by Waukesha Sportscards, which is moving him several doors in Westbrook this month.
Neptune has begun a graduated clearance sale, with the discount percentage climbing higher as the month proceeds until the stock is all gone, or by month's end. The proceeds, he hopes, will help pay off the debt accumulated in recent years.