I pulled up to my store early in the morning. New Year's Eve day. Typically, I give everyone the day off and work it myself. It was the height of rain season (yes, it does rain in California) and traffic was fierce. Folks in California love to brag about their driving prowess, but throw a little water their way and all semblance of common sense and sound decision making out on the roads deteriorates into madness and hostility.
All of the usual thoughts ran through my head. Have to put out the box for the umbrellas by the front door. Have to make sure the temperature is just right so there's not too much humidity in the shop. Have to get out the larger plastic bags so customers' comics are well protected when they make their purchases and head back out into the world.
I unlocked the door, turned off the alarm and stepped onto the shop floor. The rain sure was loud that day. It almost sounded as if I were still outside.
Slosh. Slosh. Slosh.
My feet seemed to disappear into the carpet. I turned on the lights and realized just how awful a day it was going to be. I decided to call my partner.
"It's raining," I said into the phone.
"I know," my partner replied. "I'm looking out the window. Hopefully, this won't affect our sales."
"Oh, I think it will," I said. "See, it's not just raining outside. It's raining in our store."
Like a modern-day Dick Tracy, he shouted "I'm on my way!"
I stood in two inches of water. It rolled over my shoes like a small stream. The wall at the back of the shop was literally crumbling off in pieces, the flowing waterfall tearing them away in chunks. Our beautiful maple fixtures sat in puddles, their bottoms already graying as they soaked up the wetness like a sponge.
There was no stopping it. Liquid Kryptonite had infiltrated our fortress and our store was dying all around me. I cursed myself for leaving those longboxes filled with back issues sitting on the floor. "I'll get to them tomorrow," I'd said to myself. I was happy to just leave them on the shop floor. After hours, no one would care. I picked one up. The bottom fell out completely and the comics inside sprayed out into the lake, floating toward the register.
"The register!" I shouted, sprinting to the front of the store. The floodgates had broken at the back of the store and the water was rushing in toward the front. One-quarter of the shop was underwater and growing by the second. Eventually, it would reach the three- quarter mark, but the ship had only just started tilting.
Frantic, I unplugged everything and began piling them onto the counter. Register, computer, phone, surge protectors. Our filing cabinets where we keep our subscriber hold files were most certainly in the line of fire. I emptied the bottom drawers and stacked them in Diamond boxes. In the midst of disaster, I was thinking about my customers getting their latest comic books. How could I not?
The bookshelves were toast, but only at the bottoms. The water was surely rising, but there was still time. Everything up high. Everything to the front of the store. High, front. High, front.
I ran into the back room, water pouring onto my head, and rushed up the back stairs. All of our overstock is stored upstairs in our building. Boxes. Statues. Action figures. And comics. So many comics.
The water had run all along the roof, thin lines running every which way. The lines had broken away the paint and created small ravines. Mini streams flowing in all directions. Water truly is the deadliest super-villain in comics. It takes only a drop to make them disintegrate. Back and forth. Back and forth. I saved everything I could and let the liquid take the rest.
By the time my partner Carr arrived, I was sitting among a mountain of product, wires, office supplies and anything I happened to toss toward the front door. I was watching the water taunt me as it relentlessly made its way forward. It's not an easy thing, watching your hard work and future dreams disappear beneath the waves.
Carr stood with me, our mouths agape at the assault in progress.
"Guess we're finally getting rid of this ugly carpet," Carr said. We laughed together, knowing tears were close behind.
It's a Godsend to have a partner in times of turmoil. You have someone to share the burden of worry. Someone to remind you that two heads (and hearts) are better than one.
We went directly into emergency mode together, making the calls and reaching out to the right people. "We need an ambulance, stat!"
Building owners, insurance agents, staff, family and friends. Anyone that could help us stop the bleeding. In truth, all we could really do was pray the rain would subside soon and evacuate whatever we could.
Later that afternoon, the downpour tapered off. We couldn't really get a sense of how bad the structural damage was until the rain had completely stopped and the insurance agents could assess the severity of the damage. It was obviously bad. But there are different levels of bad and we hadn't a clue just how far down the food chain we'd slipped.
It was a day of sheer lunacy. The phone still ringing, customers still coming to the front door.
"We're having a bit of an Earth-2 'Crisis' at the moment," I'd say, doing my best to sound cheerful. "Check back in tomorrow. Happy New Year!"
It was painful watching my store evaporate. It was even worse to turn away potential customers. By the following afternoon, the pain was unbearable. The phone rang and I ran to pick it up. Carr beat me to it.
"Earth-2 Comics, how can I help you?" he said.
"Do you still have the Superman thirteen-inch action figure in stock?" the voice on the other end of the phone said.
Carr paused, his pain equal only to my own. He turned to me, his hand cupping the phone. "Do we have a Superman thirteen inch that didn't get wet?" I threw aside some boxes and found one, still dry as a bone. "Yes, we have one in stock," Carr told the man on the other end of the phone. "We're having some trouble with our register at the moment, so it'll have to be cash only. And guess what? No tax today if you bring exact change!"
He was a God to me in that moment. I felt deep respect for him. As a partner, a human being and a fellow retailer.
The man came to the front door. I unlocked it and he peered in, staring at the carnage.
"Inventory," I said. "We do it every year." I took his cash, he took the Superman and just like that, we'd made our first sale of the day. I turned around and found Carr and my staff staring at me. I held up the money and said, "We're in business. Let's order some pizza!"
In times of dire emergency, true colors come to the surface. Your staff shows their mettle. Your family rallies. And one more detail comes to light. The most important one of all.
Your customers rush to your aid.
When word got out that our store had been devastated by the rains, we were inundated by calls from our loyal customers. The ones who couldn't get through on the phone got in their cars and rushed over, eager to offer their help and support. They came in droves every day, offering physical and emotional support. It solidified our belief that this would only be a bump in the road on our store's journey. That we were going to fight this and not let a few water elementals derail us.
The roof was old. The drainage non-existent. The wood behind the drywall was rotten. No question the insurance companies would cover whatever needed repair.
"Just move everything out and vacate the building," our insurance agent told us. "Give us an estimate on the damages and how much money per day you'll be losing and we'll reimburse you."
But it's not as easy as all that in the world of comic-book retail. Product still has to be picked up. Wednesdays don't just get put on hold. Customers need their comics every week. If you don't have the new books, they'll have to go somewhere else.
We called a meeting with the clean-up crews. They told us what we could expect. Carpet removal, machines to dry out the walls, humidity tests, wood framing, roof repair, drywall replacement. A whole lot of work. "Could be two weeks, could be eight. Depends on how quick it all dries and how bad the drywall is."
"But the front of our store is completely dry. The water never even touched it" I said. "Isn't there some way we could just use the front of the store while you did the work in the back?"
"Sure" said the lead foreman. "But we'd have to get some seriously thick plastic sheeting and seal it to the walls, ceiling and floors while the machines did their work in the back. It'd be messy, smelly and damn loud, but it's possible."
So that's exactly what we did. We shrunk our store to the size of a pea and did what we do best. As he said, it was loud and messy, but we made it work. For weeks, we used about 15% of our store, we kept the front door open, put out the new comics on card tables and set up a register to ring people up.
And the miraculous thing about it all was that everyone showed up. Our customers came in and shopped as if nothing had happened. Customers waited in line out on the sidewalk, their patience clearly evident. They hung out with us and chatted. They offered their time and made us laugh. They showed us they were family and let us know that our home was also theirs and they knew we would build it again.
I'll forever hold in my memory the new customer who'd never visited us before who stopped in, spent some time with us for awhile, bought some books and never once mentioned what was going on around him. "Nice store!" he said as he left.
So, we started from scratch and used our imagination. We looked at it as an opportunity. A new beginning, not a dire end. We got to put in a new floor. We got a new roof overhead. We fortified our back room and got what fixtures we needed. And all the while, we sold comics. Day in and day out, we kept our doors open and we made our sales.
Without our loyal customers, now our family, we'd have never made it to the other side. How we handle adversity truly defines us. How our store handles diversity defines our place in our community. Because that's what a comic-book store should strive to be. A community. A place where neighbors come and spend time together. Where we relax and enjoy a small part of our day. Where four walls, a roof and a floor don't make up a store's success. Its people do. And not even a raging flood can ever wash that away.
Jud Meyers is the co-founder and co-proprietor of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: http://www.earth2comics.com.