Half a century of history lines the walls of Capital City Comics on Monroe Street in the form of a few thousand comic books. Among them are popular titles like Superman and the X-Men as well as the alternative (and sometimes obscure) comics that the owner, Bruce Ayres, prefers. Regardless of genre, Ayres said that he’s read most of what the store sells.
Ever since the first comics were published at the start of the 20th century, they have represented and sometimes even shaped the era in which they were created. Batman was first introduced in 1939 and is still wildly popular, thanks in part to mainstream television shows and movies like Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight trilogy.
With the advent of the digital age, some comics have transitioned into web-based format and some have gone out of print. According to Ayres, this does not mean that the comic book industry is on its way out. Proof of this is the fact that Capital City Comics has been open for almost 40 years and still prospers.
In 1972, Bruce Ayres co-owned an antique store called the Buffalo Shop. When the comics he sold out of the back became more and more popular, he decided to branch out and opened Cap City Comics in 1975. According to Ayres, this shop was the first in Madison and is the oldest store on Monroe Street that hasn’t changed its name.
“I’ve spent pretty much my whole life in Madison,” Ayres said, though he has also lived in Toronto and Washington D.C. “My parents encouraged reading in any form, so I would go to the library a few days each week.” It was this love of reading that lead to his interest in comic books, and like most of his customers, he is a collector. “I always think, as a comic book collector, what would I want from a store?” Ayres said. If he had to choose, he said that he would rather sell a comic to a collector than an investor because the collector cares about the product, not just about its monetary value.
Just three people run Cap City Comics, not including the life-sized figure of Spiderman that stands guard in the center of the shop. “I’ve known both of my employees since came to the store when they were teenagers,” Ayres said. “I wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t really know comics.”
The comic shop is filled with books from floor to ceiling, but there is hardly a duplicate copy in sight. He stores these in the back rooms, along with especially rare comics or those that have very little value. Ayres sells individual comic issues and omnibuses spanning entire series as well as a few action figures and related paraphernalia, including a life-sized figure of Spiderman.
The sight of thousands of comic books stacked along the shelves at Cap City Comics is almost overwhelming, especially when it seems there is no organization. “There isn’t any rhyme or reason,” Ayres said. “It used to just be Marvel, Capcom and then everything else, but now you have to take into consideration different sizes, storage, and that kind of thing.”
Customers come in to Capital City Comics for a variety of reasons. “We have customers come in who have bought comics here since the 70s,” Ayres said. He went on to mention one customer in particular who brought his children in and now his grandchildren in to buy comics every once in a while. “We get multiple generations of families in here.”
In the United States, Wednesday marks the release of new issues, so it can be busier in the middle of the week than it is during the weekend. Ayres says that there are about 60 customers that he will hold new comics for, in the event that they cannot come in when they immediately become available.
“We have to pay an accelerated fee to get new comics here on Tuesdays so that we can process them all before we open on Wednesday,” Ayres said, but this doesn’t mean that he gets to read the latest issue before it goes on the shelf. “We are too busy to read while we’re here working.”
Ayres considers Capital City Comics to be an alternative comic book store because unlike most, he carries back-issue comics and sells more than just the popular superhero comics. One of Ayres’s favorites is a comic called ‘Action Philosophers’, written by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. “In a sense, comic books are the literature of yesterday,” Ayres said. “Reading them is a learned skill.”
“The vast majority of comic book shops are pop-culture stores,” Ayres said. “Five percent or less have back-issue comics, and if they do, they’re probably just leftovers or recent back-issues.” He went on to say that selling new comics and selling older back-issues is a different kind of business, and caters to a different kind of customer. “Back-issue collectors are more interested in the artist, whereas contemporary collectors are more interested in the characters.”
Cap City Comics has hosted signings for artists like Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve), Dave Sin (Cerebus), Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets). “When we have signings, we try to pick people who aren’t being paid attention to, people who we think are talented.” Ayres said. “We tend not to have signings with people who are big names because they don’t need any promotion.” By having less well-known artists do signings, he hopes to expose customers to comics that he thinks they will appreciate, but also to help those artists continue to produce.
Comic books were at their most popular during the 1940s thanks to readership from soldiers and baby-boomers. According to Ayres, the later sales burst in the 90s was spurred by Tim Burton’s Batman movie. “New superhero movies somewhat affect the comic book industry,” Ayres said. After a movie like Joss Whedon’s The Avengers premiers in theatres, some audience members want to learn more about a certain character, so they begin to read comics. Some even become collectors.
The same idea applies to the Internet. “People surfing the web are exposed to a wide variety of content, including comics,” Ayres said. “Some of the people who will read them online for free will come in and purchase them for their library at home.” He went on to say that the Internet also requires the ability to read, and that some of the people who read comics for free online will come in and purchase them for their libraries at home.
The Internet has also made business easier for Ayres because it enables Capital City Comics to sell their comics online. “We have shipped comics to every continent but Antarctica,” Ayres said. It also allows him to find out what prices certain comics are selling for as opposed to relying on a price guide that he does not think is entirely accurate.
“The Internet is the coolest thing that’s ever happened,” Ayres said. “But it also makes it easier for people to be criminals, even honest people.” He mentioned that it has become a highway for thieves, particularly with the popularity of file-sharing software that allow for a slew of illegal downloads.
To avoid comic book piracy on over the Internet, Ayres believes that distributors will charge readers for each time they wish to read a comic through Internet browsers. This would prevent downloads of digital copies which could be posted for audiences on pirating sites. “Some people will use those sites to access lots of comics for free all at once in order to do research or like a library,” Ayres said.
Another popular trend comes in the form of comics that are free to access on websites that make revenue from advertisements. Some of these webcomics have become to justify print editions – Ayres has shelves dedicated to such webcomics.
“We’ll carry them if they’re physical products,” Ayres said. “Only a minute fraction of them get published.”
You can find out more about Capitol City Comics is in Madison, WI. They don't have an official website, but you can check out their ebay store here: http://stores.ebay.com/Capital-City-Comics-Madison