DIY to Eisner Winner
By Katherine Keller
September 21, 2009
I first heard about Tate’s Comics several years ago when my husband, Ralph, came home and talked about a really delightful guy named Tony, who had dropped by that day. Tony’s son, Tate, owned a comics store in south Florida, and Tony and Ralph had gotten into a long and pleasant talk about comics and comic stores and the industry in general.
A few years later, Tate himself stopped in and he and Ralph got into a long and pleasant talk about comics and the industry and owning a store.
Because of the good vibes Ralph got off of both Tony and Tate, when a friend called and mentioned he was moving to south Florida and wondered if we knew of any stores down there, it was easy to tell him to check out Tate’s Comics, because it seemed to be run by a guy with the right ideas about what makes a good store.
It seems that Ralph’s not the only person who thinks that Tate’s Comics is run by a guy with the right ideas about what makes a good store ….
Sequential Tart would like to congratulate Tate’s Comics on winning the 2009 Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award and for taking time out of a busy (and do we mean busy) schedule to answer some questions for us.
Sequential Tart: You started Tate’s Comics before you were even out of high school. What made you want to start your own store?
Tate Ottati: At around 12 I started collecting comics. Over the years my collection grew and grew until one day I had so many that I wanted to sell some off and trade up for better stuff. I took them to a local store and they didn’t offer me what I thought they were worth. They kindly suggested that I try to sell them myself at a comic convention … so, I tried it! At that first show I ended up selling only a few and buying lots more!
Around that same time in my economics class at Deerfield Beach High School, where I was a senior (1993), we played a national stock market game as a class project. I put all of my imaginary stock money into Marvel Comics (10,000 shares at $16 share) and was inspired to invest some of my childhood savings into buying some stock for real. In the real life stock market I bought 100 shares of Marvel stock. At school we watched and tracked our investments. In just a few months Marvel stock split four times and grew in value! The game at school was coming to an end and my stock pick was at an all-time high. Because of my “imaginary” $16,000 investment in Marvel stock I ended up winning first place in the Florida State High School Stock Market Game Competition! There was even a trophy in the school’s case for years after I graduated!
Back in the real world, my original $1,600 investment had grown substantially. I invested the money I made from my Marvel stock back into the comic book industry by opening my own comic book store at the age of 17 (March 1993), while still a senior in high school.
ST: Had you had any previous retail experience?
TO: No, not really, outside of small comic shows. I worked at an Italian bakery filling cannolis and cleaning dishes. I was also a bag boy! My father was a high school shop teacher, but he had previously owned a Juice Tree at a mall in the 70s.
ST: Did you have any problems getting loans, distributor accounts, licenses, etc.?
TO: Because I was only 17, everything had to put in my father’s name. No, there were no problems, really.
ST: Did your high school have any sort of program that helped you get credit for work like this?
TO: No, not at all.
ST: Who was good to you as you got the store started?
TO: My father. Without him we would have never opened in the first place! He was very supportive and always worked with me day to day.
ST: What do you think is the most important lesson you have learned about starting a business?
TO: When you are starting a new business you need lots of money! Don’t expect to make any money for a few years. Have a good lawyer to look over contracts. Do not overspend and get in a deep hole!
Managing a business? Managing the business is not that bad, it’s managing people who work for you that I have trouble with. It is a constant learning process. Be flexible and ready to evolve as time goes on.
ST: Not only has Tate’s Comics survived, it has thrived! You’ve moved into larger locations several times and you’ve even got two spin-off businesses. What do you see as the key to your success?
TO: Trying new things that may not normally be in a comic book store has been instrumental. We have such a diverse mix of products appealing to a really wide range of clientele, even though it all works well together under the pop culture mantle. Over the years I stocked stuff that I personally like. As time went on, my manager, JoAnn, was given more responsibility to order the things she was into and my wife, Amanda, does the same. It is important to have someone who actually cares about the product be in charge of cultivating its growth and variety.
Also, having a good image and website is key. Doing basic marketing for yourself is really important! I have been really, really lucky since my wife is a graphic designer and has also learned to do our marketing over the years. I suggest that you either learn the tools yourself or hire someone who can create flyers, signage, events, and a website for you. Focus your downtime at your business on constantly improving and growing it.
Always be doing something new to get people to come into your business! It is a constant challenge, but worth every minute and dollar you spend on it.
ST: If a woman walked into Tate’s Comics, what would she see?
TO: A well lit awesome pop-culture super store. There is lots and lots of stuff for all ages and genders. *grin* They would likely see a woman at the front register smile and say hello.
ST: If a woman walked in and asked you to suggest some comics for her, what would you suggest?
TO: That’s a tough question. It would depend on what they were interested in! We really have a wide selection available, from photocopied indie comics to the big publishers.
ST: Many businesses that sell both comics and games are in the same location, you’ve got your comics store separate from your gaming store, a few doors down in the same shopping center. Is it simply because you didn’t want to move to an even bigger location, or is there another reason?
TO: Comics and gaming are really two completely separate types of businesses. The customers and habits are totally different! Also I don’t personally have any knowledge in the world of gaming, so it made a lot more sense to us to give them their own dedicated space with separate managers and employees. The crossover of customers is actually really small, and having the two locations keeps them from bothering one another. They can play games as loud as they want! I don’t think we could have done it right any other way!
The first Gaming Satellite was really tiny, they’ve grown a lot over the years too — we are very happy to be able to afford for them to have their own space! It is a luxury that many stores cannot afford, which is why I think many are more “combined” businesses.
ST: What is the Bear and Bird Boutique? How did it happen?
TO: My wife and I have always wanted to add an art gallery to the store. Many of our closest friends are artists and we were sickened by hearing some of the horror stories they told us about some of the galleries they worked with in the past. We wanted to have a place where artists could show their work and actually be treated with respect, be paid on time, etc. When we expanded our store in 2003, we got a great little loft area that was previously used as offices. We tore down the walls and pulled up the nasty old carpets. Underneath was some lovely wood, which we sanded and sealed back to some sort of glory. We are really lucky in that we have this great little space that doesn’t cost us any extra in rent each month. I think it is really hard to have an art gallery and run it as a solo business. Keeping the gallery running is a lot of work and take a lot of time and energy, but it is worth it! Especially since my wife, Amanda, is the one doing all of the work!
We also wanted to be able to offer something different and unique to our area. It is a natural evolution in a way. Everyone who shops here is a collector of some kind or another. Whether you collect comics, toys, or even art books — there will come a time when you are ready to upgrade to something different. Our goal is to turn collectors into Art collectors. With that goal, many of the shows that we host are designed with the “new collectors” in mind. We do twice yearly art shows that are open to all local artists (over 100 artists participate in those), which gives new artists an opportunity to show here and really brings the local community together and into the store! Having new art events every month is a great way to get publicity and encourage people to come to your business! We have so much more to offer them once they get here that they will come back!
ST: What comics do you currently enjoy? What are you looking forward to? (How do you find time to read with three businesses?!!!)
TO: Believe it or not I just now got into reading Fables! I’ve read almost all of the graphic novels in about a month. How do I find time? To be brutally honest, I read only on the toilet!!
ST: Are you a member of ComicsPRO?
TO: Yes, absolutely! It is really valuable to get together with other retailers and discuss business. That is one of the best things about winning the Eisner, getting instant respect from other great retailers around the world!
ST: Earlier this year, Diamond Distribution changed their minimum requirements and this impacted several small presses. Has this had an impact on your store?
TO: No, not really. We get a lot of our small press books through Tony Shenton. He reps a whole bunch of truly indie creators.
ST: Finally, what’s the best thing about being your own boss?
TO: Being able to bring our dogs to work every day and take off a day without asking permission from anyone! Also, it is fun getting to experiment with new ideas and seeing how they work out.