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Comics & Games Retailer

The Rise of the Asian "Art" Store

By Oliver Chin

Whenever the trade and mainstream press say how "hot" anime and manga (A & M) are I have two reactions. My eyes could roll and my shoulders shrug. But instead, I think, "Well, not everyone knows about a trend simultaneously, and things could always get hotter."

But actually, I think A & M's increasing temperature is due to broader selection than anything else. By that I mean the lifecycle of the market is not the same as the particular titles that comprise it. Why do storied properties that enjoyed long and sustained careers in Japan face shortened lifespans in the West?

As Japanese cartoons broke through the cultural ceiling to become profit centers, domestic licensors have felt the heat of rising expectations to acquire surefire hits. Pressured by overbearing TV companies and Japanese licensors on one end and overspending competitors on the other, mainland producers have less incentive to develop audiences and cater to niches, and quickly abandon properties that don't provide immediate profits.

However here is where the market's prospects rise. Surely as A & M's fan base has expanded in both age and sophistication, so have their awareness and tastes. A fan can instantly search and access more information online about a series and character, and then consume more related products.

Even as the books and DVDs have successfully integrated the aisles of the big box retailers, a few new outposts are capitalizing on catering to the hobbyist lifestyle itself. Therefore, I examine the expansion of "Asian-themed" stores that serve increasingly specialized tastes which may trickle down to you.

Asia on my Mind

A decade ago the only way A & M fans could satisfy their appetite was to go to the source - Tokyo. Now if they couldn't afford a plane ticket and didn't know the language, the next best option was to visit a transplanted retailer like Kinokuniya or get a mail order catalog from a rare anime importer. Fast-forward to the 21st century where digital entertainment has become globally distributed, and Asian-o-philes can indulge themselves on a whim and a click.

But back in 1994, the magazine Giant Robot began chronicling these same fixations with Asian pop culture. Founded by UCLA grads Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, "GR" was aimed at like-minded youth enamored with chop-socky movies, music, and menus. Magazine starts-ups and self-publishing are not for the faint of heart, so the combination of both can be lethal. But GR benefited from a rising tide and secured distribution through Big Top Publisher Services (415-643-0161), Diamond Comics, and Tower Records among others. Thirty plus issues later, GR's ten-year anniversary brought it recognition from such late-to-the gamers as the New York Times.

Now GR is extending into retail. Three stores (West Los Angeles and San Francisco) and a website (www.giantrobot.com) purvey the same rainbow of merchandise that the magazine pays homage to. These range from the expected print products, stationary and toys, to accessories (Wallets, keychains to Jewelry), Artist specific goods, and "functional" items (from CDs, DVDs, to Watches and Skateboards). After GR nourished its readers by feeding them a steady stream of the Asian underground entertainment world, it made sense that it sell them the goods they worship as well.

Robots aren't for Kids

Nothing attracts like success. So a handful of retailers are trying to expand this addicting Asian niche. Also operating three locations and a website (Haight Street in San Francisco, SoHo in New York, and the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA, www.kidrobot.com), Kidrobot began in 2002 to sell "urban vinyl" toys. The birth of these limited edition "rotocast" plastic figures is widely credited to Hong Kong's Michael Lau, who started customizing existing toys (such as G.I. Joe) back in 1997. Bringing a sense of hip-hop humor and cult collectibility, he helped launch a burgeoning field of artists who now span the globe and feed a web of specialty retailers.

As opposed to America's concentration on comic superheroes, TV characters, and movie-tie-ins, these designers stoke their celebrity by creating outlandish figures (from tiny Kubricks to 12" statuettes. Based in the ethos of scarcity (series being 500 pieces or less), this movement flies in the face of the American model of mass-production and sales. But as aficionados has reputedly paid up to $10,000 for one toy, this has spurred giants such as Sony Japan to get into the act and crank out "Capsule Toys" for vending machines.

Interestingly, Kidrobot which has tried to make its stores centers for more than commerce. For its December 15, 2004 opening of its Santa Monica location, Kidrobot featured the artwork of Gary Baseman (creator of the TV series Teacher's Pet, illustrator for the board game Cranium, and toy series by Critterbox, www.garybaseman.com) and has continued to stoke its customers' fire with regular gallery announcements on its online discussion boards, and cross promotions with Rockstar energy drinks.

Kidrobot even has touted its fashion connection as it partnered with Barneys New York and NIKE to produce a limited edition Air Max 1 shoe (originally manufactured in 1987), with "one of five blind-chase sockliners" packed with a matching keychain in a complementary foil bag and shoebox. Retailing for $150 on February 11, 2005, this custom sneaker exemplifies the crossover between Japanese inspired design, Western urban buzz, and micro-marketing.

Super Saiyan Sales

Back in San Francisco, Super 7 (www.super7magazine.com, www.super7store.com) has entered this trendy sandbox. Mark Nagata was a successful commercial artist (painting 40 covers for Scholastic's Goosebumps book series by RL Stine), but also owned an extensive Ultraman toy collection. Following the Giant Robot model, he decided to publish Super7 Magazine and indulge his passions in toys and art. Eight issues under its belt ($5.95/64 pages, #8's featured the diecast toy line "The Godaikins" and other topics such as the Ugly Dolls), the title is distributed through Ingram Periodicals, Diamond, Last Gasp, Hastings, Tower, and Small Changes.

Then Nagata and three partners spun off a store too. Situated in the heart of Japantown between restaurants and souvenir shops, it also focuses on the intersection between toys and print media. Not every store has its own Blog, but Super 7 complies, as well as plying author and artist events.

Last but not least is the new store Double Punch (www.doublepunch.com) in the North Beach section of San Francisco. Founded in 1996, the company Ningyoushi (Japanese for "dollmaker") also launched in auspicious times, as anime, toys and Michael Lau were soon to take off. Since then the growing import toy market and its online community, has made being "the coolest place to buy the hard-to-find exclusives from the best artists" a hard tagline to monopolize. But this retailer's site does provide a toy lover the promised selection of designer, Japanese and American products.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York have the largest Asian-American communities, so not every city could sustain even one of these specialty stores. But due to the exponential nature of the net, we can learn how a store can be more than just a sum of SKUs. Adding culture and attitude can produce a "hot" spirit that a customer can wholly identify with.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.