At the southern end of North Division sits a simple building with blue trim and gold lettering. It says "The Comic Book Shop." Across the bridge, after the curve into downtown, Merlyn's, on the corner of Browne and Sprague, features super-heroes and action characters in its windows. These two shops, which cater to comic books and role-playing games, are among the few remaining stores devoted to that market in Spokane.
"At one time there were eight or nine stores," explains John Waite, the owner of Merlyn's, "but now there are only two."
Waite, whose neat goatee and trim frame belie the comic book-geek stereotype, explains that by catering to a very specific market, Merlyn's -- which has been open for more than 20 years -- is less affected by competition from larger bookstores. "A store like ours can't compete in terms of books in hardcover and paperback. Our industries -- comics and games -- are really small fish. But we can concentrate on those to an extent that a larger store can't. And we're built-in as the place to go for what we have."
Drawing on those dedicated customers was what owner Craig Barnett counted on when he was planning the location of the Comic Book Shop in 1988. "When I first opened the shop, I figured that anybody who shopped at comic stores eventually went to more than one," he explains. "So I drew lines between all of the existing stores in town, and this was pretty much the intersection. In order to go between any of the stores, you almost had to go by mine. That's where the name came from, too. Even if people were going to one of the other stores, and said that they were going to 'the comic book shop,' my store's name came up."
While the two stores are competitors, they have gradually specialized their services even more in order to overlap as little as possible. "John's focus has always been more on games," Barnett says. "And mine has always been more on comics."
Both businesses, however, strive to make any customers who walk through the door feel as comfortable as possible. Waite's mother regularly works at Merlyn's, and store employees are quick to answer the most obscure questions that customers have. At the Comic Book Shop, the clean and well-lit interior immediately presents neat racks of comic books ranging throughout the store. "The average comic store is not the nicest of places," says Barnett. "I wanted to basically build a store that I wanted to shop at when I was a kid."
Waite says that advertising with local television stations has also helped him significantly. "They've given us plenty of play in great time slots. We're a local business, and we regularly put money into advertising with them, and it's great to see it pay off. It's easier to aim at our customers by targeting at Buffy, Enterprise or Making of Lord of the Rings, but to have one of our commercials be shown during a Sonics game -- that's just great and unexpected."
Both Barnett and Waite cite the passion that they bring to their jobs as fundamental to their continued success. "I'm not doing this for the money," Waite says. "If that were the only reason to do it, there are a lot better things. And if you don't do it with any heart, then you get eaten up." He laughs. "Then you're Suncoast."