Les Toil, Kevin Pope, me and Jack Kirby in 1992 at Comic Relief
I just read a little about Comic Relief in Berkeley, CA closing. I call it Comic Relief, Berkeley cause I worked there when they split off into two stores. One in Berkeley and one in San Francisco. I worked at both, along with many of my friends from the Bay Area like Ben Catmull, Landry Walker and Barry Futterman. Comic Relief was an institution and is currently being fondly remembered all over the internets. I figured I should add some thoughts. Mine aren't fond for the store, they are fond for a group of people that worked there. Normally I hate doing stuff like this and would rather spend my time working on the future than reliving the past. But I've got some thoughts that need to be typed out.
In 1987 a new store opened up in Berkeley. I was at Berkeley High which was right around the corner. I'd go to CR as much as humanly possible. I'd bought comics from Best of Two Worlds where Rory Root worked (and I think where Kristine Anstine and Mike Patchen worked?) and so it was a great continuation of the old Berkeley comic store tradition I'd grown up with. But pretty quickly it became a different store. A lot of what I've read online and in the trade journaling basically gives one of the owners all the credit. And I don't want to take any respect away from Rory Root. But I do want to set some of my thoughts down.
It was clear from day one that this store cared about other things besides old comics and hot new Marvel/DC comics. Berkeley comics shops always supported the indy boom which got recontextualized as or changed into the black&white glut. I remember seeing new Elfquest and Cerebus issues (when both series started) in Best of Two Worlds and Comics & Comix. Rory, Mike and Kristine had continued this tradition, they supported Bone early on and helped with so many other books. But even that wasn't totally abnormal. Many big, good comic stores have helped make the careers of many of us in independent comics.
What Mike, Rory and Kristine did was hire some of the most knowledgable and comics loving people in the world. When you look back at the legacy of "the comic BOOK store", the lesson to learn is twofold. One, the secret to running a good business is finding good people to run it. Unfortunately none of them besides Todd Martinez ever found much reason to stay with Comic Relief beyond a few years of employment. Todd is a rare kind of person and I'll get to him in a minute. The other lesson about running a business that you can get from the Comic Relief experiment is that the reason the store itself was so good was that the employees loved comic books. Selling things that you like is easy and you aren't lying to people.
Kristine was the first manager of the store and then Comic Relief, San Francisco and in my honest opinion she made both stores. Most importantly, She hired me and was a tough boss but she worked so hard that I could never argue with that. I had a conversation with Rory one time where he was complaining about how she wouldn't do what he said so much of the time (like give me a raise). I said "There isn't a problem though because she is doing everything she does to make your business great, you just disagree with how she is doing it. Your goals are the same." Mike and Kristine split off from the Berkeley store to just run CR, SF as a separate business after a while. Kristine's management skills kept both stores afloat during her time there. But in the end they raised the rent on CR,SF (on Haight st.) and it closed.
So, Mike and Kristine and Rory laid a groundwork for a great store. But it was the employees (including Kristine) that made the stores what they were. Rory and Mike each loved their own brand of Fantasy comic. Mike was WAY ahead of the curve on the books that would become Vertigo and he constantly read comics. I mean, I read a lot of comics and he impressed me enough to remember it 20 years later. Rory came from gaming culture and was a fan of the classic gaming type comics. But within a year the store was staffed by punks and alternative culture people. They started a tiny mini comics section where, in 1988, I bought the comic that would lead to my life in comic books: "Whiplash Comics" by local skate punks. Even in the early days they were still more in the tradition of a classic Berkeley comic book store. But thanks to two of their hardest working employees and Kristine they'd become a completely different kind of store.
Josh Petrin is actually the person most people should thank for making Comic Relief into an alternative mecca. He is the one that took their tiny mini-comics shelf and turned it into a section. He was deeply involved with bringing in the giant array of counter culture books. Josh fought like mad to make that store what it got know for. He co-ran a distro called Wow-Cool and made sure that Comic Relief was always stocked with Eightball, Monkeywrench, Eric Haven comics and about anything cool in comics.
And in his footsteps came Steven Fujisaka who is still, to this day, pretty much the hardest working person I've ever worked with. Steven and Kristine were the ones who made sure that Comic Relief was always fully stocked with then new magazines like Grand Royal and Answer Me, that we were selling hundreds of. Steven and Josh were obsessive counter culture aficionados but they also knew EVERYTHING about comics, art, film, music, computers and what-have-you. Steven is one of the first people I remember pushing art manga before anyone was publishing manga. They are why Comic Relief had a functioning film and art section for years in the 90s. They made sure those books sold and kept people coming back in. Josh is the person who introduced me to a then teenage Jason Shiga in 1995. Steven and Kristine had done such a good job as orderers for the store that a headhunter for Virgin Megastore (before they opened) called to ask for the Comic Relief book buyer.
If you were a fan of Comic Relief in the 90s you owe that fandom to Kristine, Josh and Steven as well as the full spectrum of employees they supported and hired. Once they were gone there was almost no hope for the store. It slid away from being run by people who cared about what they were doing. Still, I'm sure there were people who worked there who cared about comics but maybe very few on the level of Josh or Steven.
AND then came Todd Martinez who'd been floating around the store for years. I don't know a lot of the behind the scenes drama but I can tell you that the only reason that store stayed in business after its early 90s glory days is Todd's skill as a manager. Todd didn't just care about comics, he cared (and cares) about people. He is genuinely the nicest guy in the world. He was the day to day face of the store and ran it as well as he could considering the already legendary mountain of debt that had been built up. When Rory wanted to go to San Diego with and ever larger set of booths it was Todd that made it possible. Todd was the life support for a store that was past its prime, he made it shine like a vintage car with a fresh coat of paint. But the problem was that fuel the car was running on was poisoning it.
Once Rory died Todd was supposed to get the store. And didn't. The store was burdened with a family of people that didn't care about comics. Todd moved on to a much better situation, and if you ever run a business it is somebody like Todd you should be looking for. He really is all the stuff people lie about being on resumes. Actually it is people like Kristine, Todd, Josh and Steven you should be looking for. They are why that store is even worth talking about as opposed to the thousands of other stores started in the 80s that died in the 90s comics store massacre.
I know I'm leaving some people out, but I was only an employee for about three years and moved away from the Bay Area in 1997. I did go back every few months and stayed in touch and did follow a lot of the behind the scenes goings on. Until last year. I don't think it was just the family that killed the store, I think it is more complicated. There is a lesson to be learned from the whole Comic Relief experience. I tried to explain it on my silly Yelp appraisal of the store, but I think those lessons are lost on people who think they know how to do everything. I learned SO much from working with four of the smartest, hardest working best people I've ever met. In their own way, they each left a giant stamp across my face that says "If you care about what you do, you can keep doing it for a long time." Sure they aren't perfect, only Kristine and Todd are still directly involved with comics (that being the measure of perfection). But for being given a tough job, and overcoming pretty intense odds, they deserve most of the credit. Rory and Mike, they deserve the credit too but mostly for setting up a giant sandbox that the rest of us could build castles in.
I realize that this is all just my rambling, whacked-out, long after the fact appraisal. I'm probably wrong about some things and I'm sure I've insulted somebody. But to quote Bad Finger "I don't mind". I feel like I've got to say something, in a few years nobody will care much at all. The problem is, if you want to start a business that is any good and keep it going, you have to care a lot. Ultimately, it is the people who bought the comics that the people at Comic Relief cared about who are really responsible for the store. But maybe it is a symbiotic relationship of people who love comics that makes good stuff happen in comics. I'd like to believe that is the truth.