Politics & Policy

When Minimum-Wage Hikes Hit a San Francisco Comic-Book Store

Brian Hibbs (far right) with his Comix Experience staff.

‘I’m hearing from a lot of customers, ‘I voted for that, and I didn’t realize it would affect you.’”

So says Brian Hibbs, owner and operator of Comix Experience, an iconic comic-book and graphic-novel shop on San Francisco’s Divisadero Street, of the city’s new minimum-wage law.

San Francisco’s Proposition J, which 77 percent of voters approved in November, will raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 by 2018. As of today, May 1, Hibbs is required by law to pay his employees at Comix Experience, and its sister store, Comix Experience Outpost on Ocean Avenue, $12.25 per hour. That’s just the first of four incremental raises that threaten to put hundreds of such shops out of business.

Hibbs opened Comix Experience on April Fools’ Day, 1989, when he was just 21 years old. Over two-and-a-half decades, the store has become a must-visit location for premier comic-book artists and graphic novelists, and Hibbs has become a leading figure in the industry, serving as a judge for the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards and as a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s board of directors. He notes with pride that his store has turned a profit each year — no small task — since its very first year.

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But that may not last. Hibbs says that the $15-an-hour minimum wage will require a staggering $80,000 in extra revenue annually. “I was appalled!” he says. “My jaw dropped. Eighty-thousand a year! I didn’t know that. I thought we were talking a small amount of money, something I could absorb.”

He runs a tight operation already, he says. Comix Experience is open ten hours a day, seven days a week, with usually just one employee at each store at a time. It’s not viable to cut hours, he says, because his slowest hours are in the middle of the day. And he can’t raise prices, because comic books and graphic novels have their retail prices printed on the cover.

What is a small-businessman to do?

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Hibbs is not the first person to encounter this problem. On February 1, San Francisco’s renowned science-fiction bookstore Borderlands Books published the following on its website:

Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in princip[le] and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco — Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.

Its plight eventually drew the attention of The New Yorker, and a crowdfunding campaign thought up by concerned customers found some 300 sponsors, all of whom agreed to pay $100 to help keep the store afloat until at least March 31, 2016.

Hibbs has considered doing the same but notes two problems: “By saying, ‘Give me money,’ you’re sort of saying you’re not viable.” Furthermore, “There’s a limitation on how much crowdfunding can be done. When you’re the tenth one, I don’t know if it’s going to be easy for you.”

“Despite being a progressive living in San Francisco, I do believe in capitalism. I’d like to have the market solve this problem.”

Hibbs is not inclined to circumvent the market: “Despite being a progressive living in San Francisco, I do believe in capitalism. I’d like to have the market solve this problem.” That applies not just to his plight, but to the question of the minimum wage: “We’re for a living wage, for a minimum wage, in principle. . . . But I think any law that doesn’t look at whether people can pay may not be the best way to go.”

“Why,” he asks, “can’t two consenting people make arrangements for less than x dollars per hour?”

And the problem goes still deeper. While forcing hundreds of Bay Area small businesses to close, cut staff, or overhaul their practices, San Francisco lawmakers have given multimillion-dollar tax breaks to lure or keep technology giants such as Twitter and Zoosk. “There’s lots of room for the rich and the powerful,” Hibbs observes, “but, really, they’re not doing anything to help small business.”

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It threatens the whole economic ecosystem of San Francisco, Hibbs argues: “We’re the reason businesses like Twitter want to be here — because of arts and culture. Without stores like mine, without stores like Borderlands, this city would be a poorer place. We’re selling art, commodities, people’s dreams. To have fewer places to have those things on sale, I think, diminishes San Francisco.”

So how is Hibbs addressing the squeeze on his own business? He and his staff have launched a curated “Graphic Novel-of-the-Month Club.” Subscribers will receive a new graphic novel each month, handpicked by the staff, as well as an invitation to monthly book-club meetings, visits from and after-hours events with featured writers and artists, and various other goodies. For those not located in the Bay Area, the novels will be shipped and in-store events will be streamed, so that club members nationwide and internationally can participate.

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It’s a solution that Hibbs and his staff think reflects their core values: It allows the market to solve the problem, it draws upon the staff’s comic-book and graphic-novel expertise, and it fosters community.

Hibbs and his staff are upfront about the reasons for the club — and they have been encouraged by the response. They say they need 334 subscribers to remain solvent with the new minimum wage, and in the first month they are 40 percent of the way toward that goal. If they get more than their target number of subscribers, Hibbs plans to divvy the extra cash as raises or bonuses.

Hibbs’s employees — students, aspiring artists, and just plain and simple comic-book lovers — know that “the value of their work is respected here,” he says. And he knows that that work should be appropriately compensated. He has been able to do it for a quarter-century by dint of a passion and acumen for his business.

Continuing to do so in spite of San Francisco’s overzealous progressivism does not require superhuman strength, but it might be nigh heroic nonetheless.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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