Despite Changing Times, Larry’s Comics in Lowell Stays Relevant to Geek Culture Both Locally and Nationally.
Strength, courage, selflessness, the ability to undertake great quests, and larger-than-life personas are all qualities of epic heroes, but their single most distinguishing characteristic is that they are ideal exemplars of their cultures’ values and ethics. No one bears the torch in this manner for comic book enthusiasts better than Larry Doherty.
He doesn’t wear a mask, a cape, or tights (much to the relief of his employees and customers), but Doherty is a savior of sorts.
Since opening Larry’s Wonderful World of Comics in Lowell on Feb. 1, 1990, Doherty has been a constant presence in the comics industry, both locally and nationally. At a time when, according to Doherty, the number of brick-and-mortar, direct-market comic book shops has dwindled to a paltry 1,800 stores worldwide, Doherty’s resolve to be an industry mainstay is stronger than ever.
“It’s a tough business to run,” he says, “but I’m committed to being the last man standing.”
The attrition began about 15 years ago, when Doherty noticed that his business was losing casual shoppers. Bearing the hallmarks of obsolescence, the development greatly concerned him. “I thought I had become the proud owner of a typewriter store,” he says.
Determined to buck the trend, Doherty decided to root out the factors that were causing his hardships, and twist them to his advantage. Technology and the Internet were his prime suspects. Rather than fight the industry’s new online presence, he decided to join the fray by developing a website and social media connections for the store. “Through social media, I’ve made business connections with virtually every publisher out there,” he says.
While acknowledging the obstacles spawned by advances in technology, Doherty also thinks of the new paradigm as a “liberating time for comic creators. The freedoms that the Internet provides allow artists and writers to network their materials on a much wider basis than the insular publishing world ever did before,” he says.
One of the tactics for survival Doherty has emphasized is that collectibility is as important as readability, and he has gotten publishers to create special print editions exclusive to his store. Though tangible, hard copy editions of comics are more coveted by collectors than their e-book counterparts, particularly sought out are versions that feature anomalies or idiosyncrasies. In comic book vernacular, such special-edition singularities are called “variants.” Doherty has capitalized on such mania by having his publishing associates create original releases available only through his store. The strategy lures in die-hard comic book collectors from points near and far.
Despite such adaptability, Doherty concedes that “the entry point to comics has risen sharply,” given the glut of recreational options available in the digital age. But rather than being swept away by this Goliath, he’s made his business a barnacle that’s along for the ride.
For example, entertainment mediums that are seemingly in competition with comics, such as films, toys, video games and television, have become launch pads for some of the most successful comics. This franchising model is ironically symbiotic, as Doherty points out by saying that “comics have become the petri dishes, or incubators, of Hollywood.”
The most recent story that supports Doherty’s theory has been the far-reaching success of “The Walking Dead,” a TV series on AMC. The show is based on a comic book by writer Robert Kirkman, who, incidentally, did an in-store promotional appearance at Larry’s Comics prior to his newfound fame. Kirkman, Doherty says, was simply “a fat kid from Kentucky with a zombie book” before his TV notoriety.
Doherty has buoyed his business by staying abreast of developments within these “feeder” industries. His shop sells associated toys, games, cards, and even skateboards. By diversifying his stock, he has been able to simultaneously stay relevant and sell more comic books.
He believes low- or no-pressure sales and an offering of social gatherings bolster his profit margin. Besides his regular involvement in area comic book conventions (where he found his vocation by selling his college roomate’s collection), he also hosts weekly events such as a Weekly Art Club. A smattering of regulars gets together each Wednesday evening to try their hands at drawing the next superhero apotheosis and waxing poetic about all things comicdom. Don’t be fooled though, these aren’t stereotypical comic book geeks. Ranging from attorneys to deli managers to X-ray technicians, the club coterie represents a huge cross section of mainstream society.
The club has attracted up to three dozen people in a sitting, and has even helped to launch a career. Artist Alex Cormack’s rendition of an Image Comics’ “Skullkickers” scene was published in issue #5 of that series, and that has led to Alex producing dozen of books for local and national publishers.
Whether for the camaraderie, the comics, or the quips, store regular Mike McCarthy sums up the unanimous sentiment of Doherty’s customers by saying, “I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”
Larry’s Wonderful World of Comics