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Miami's oldest comic-book store was on the verge of closing due to COVID. Enter Batman.

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 7/20/2020 By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

In May, the future seemed bleak for A&M Comics and Books, the oldest comic book store in Florida. No new comics had been published since March 25 — the first such stoppage of the industry since World War II. Sales at the store had plunged 80 percent. And even though the shop remained open by appointment, there were few takers.

Enter Batman.

Jorge Perez, who has owned A&M Comics and Books since 1990, said a two-issue story line pitting the Dark Knight against his arch-enemy the Joker in issues 93-94 of the “Batman” comic has been the biggest seller since the store reopened in June.

Another big hit: “Negan Lives,” a one-issue spin-off focusing on the nefarious villain of the popular “The Walking Dead” series, which creator Robert Kirkman wrote and released on July 1 to help struggling comic book stores.

Also popular: “Empyre,” a new limited series that folds in most of Marvel Comics’ popular characters. Most of the issues and their related spin-offs will be published in July and August.

Still, Perez said that although interest from collectors remains high, business is only 50 to 60 percent of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the store to close.

“Even though 70 percent of my client base has come back, there are still some who will never come back because they can’t afford to collect anymore,” he said. “A lot of my customers are waiters and bar-backs and bouncers, and they’re still unemployed because Miami has become the worst place in the world with its rate of infection.”

Located at 6650 Bird Road on the western edge of a nondescript strip mall, A&M Comics and Books is a veritable museum of pop culture paraphernalia, crammed with toys, T-shirts, action figures, trading cards, statues — and, of course, 100,000 comics.

Loans denied

Perez, 55, has been paying the $1,900 rent on the 1,000-square-foot shop since April 15 using his own savings. He pays another $1,000 per month in utilities. He applied for a $5,000 small business loan with SunTrust but was declined.

“One of my customers works at the Greenberg Traurig law firm, and as a favor he asked one of his assistants to help me apply for a PPP loan,” Perez said, referring to the federal Paycheck Protection Program. “We’ve applied 10 times and have been denied, because I don’t use a standard 1040 payroll.”

Because the trickle of new comics is still nowhere near what it was before the pandemic, Perez has only hired back one of his usual assistants, high school and college students who make $7 an hour.

“I have one kid who comes in three times a week to file new titles, but that’s it, because there’s nothing else for them to do,” he said. The store is open six days a week, and Perez himself has been opening and closing the store.

After a Miami Herald story published in May reported the store’s economic woes, customers and fans told Perez he should start a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to help pay the bills until things get back to normal.

But Perez shot down the idea, instead placing his belief on the devoted client base he’s grown over the years.

“I don’t have cancer, my house didn’t burn down and I don’t need people to donate money,” he said. “I just need people to come in and buy things. I was watching “Judge Judy” and there were these two millennials who put up a GoFundMe page because one of them wanted to buy a dog and she got $4,000. That’s crazy.”

Instead, Perez has gotten creative. For example, he put his copy of “The Incredible Hulk” #181, which was published in 1974, up for auction. At the store, the price for the highly sought-after book, which marks the first appearance of the clawed mutant Wolverine, was $1,200. At auction, the comic sold for $3,900.

Signs of improvement

And although business at the store is still slow, there are plenty of signs already that it will eventually pick up. During a 20-minute conversation at the shop on the afternoon of July 13, the phone rang every four minutes. One caller asked if Perez had any interest in buying a first edition Pokemon hologram card. (“No,” Perez said.)

Another asked if the latest batch of Marvel Legends, six-inch figures of popular heroes, had come in yet. (“He’s called me 11 times about this toy,” Perez grumbled.)

Some big-ticket items are moving — sort of. In June, a customer told Perez he wanted to buy a large collectible bust of Spider-Man for $1,800.

“Two weeks ago, he called to say he would pick it up next week,” Perez said. “He didn’t show on a Friday. I called him on Saturday. Finally he shows up on a Tuesday with $200 in hand and says he’s waiting for a check from the government so he can pay off the rest. So over the course of a month, he’s only paid 11 percent of the price. Meanwhile I have this giant box sitting on top of my “Fantastic Four” back issues because the crate is so big I have no space to keep it behind the counter.”

Does Perez think the customer will eventually come up with the rest of the money?

“I hope so,” he said. “People did that all the time before the virus too — asked me to hold stuff for them and then disappeared for two months. But they usually come through. I’ve been doing this for a while.”

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©2020 Miami Herald

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