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To comic book aficionados, the little strip mall on University Avenue in Hillcrest is still known as Comic Kingdom, even though it was long ago split up into five different stores, among them a dry cleaner and a hair salon.
Three of those stores still sell printed materials. They include a used book store, a comic book shop and a used magazine shop called Magazine Scene. Its owner, who asked us to just refer to him as Mike Alexander, offers display case after display case stuffed and piled with old MAD Magazines and National Geographics, Vanity Fairs and GQs. And in a back corner of the store, just out of view of window shoppers, is the business’s lifeblood: Playboys and Hustlers and more explicit adult periodicals. They keep his business going.
We paid Alexander a visit on Thursday to talk about the rapidly changing business climate for local hawkers of bound material in the digital age and his love-hate relationship with technological advancement.
When he bought the store a little more than a decade ago, business bustled. He couldn’t have predicted the calamitous impact of the internet’s rise. It’s gotten worse each year. Fewer people want printed magazines, meaning fewer people come to his shop to buy and sell them.
Alexander knows about the internet but doesn’t use it. He is fascinated by the availability of digital information but doesn’t quite understand it. He likes the printed page and is uncomfortable with the idea of anyone being able to get on a computer and look him up. That’s why he asked us to withhold his last name. “I’m paranoid about digital stuff and where all that information goes.”
How many magazines do you have in here?
No idea. Thousands and thousands.
Were you always in the magazine business?
I was in adult stuff. I worked in an adult bookstore downtown.
The guy who owned this place happened to ask me one day, when I was doing business with him, he says, “Do you know anyone who would like to buy this place?” I said, “You’re looking at him.”
How did you get involved with adult magazines?
I bought the stuff myself. I went to this store downtown right across from Horton Plaza. It was a different Gaslamp then. I don’t even recognize this city anymore.
You had all these adult magazine places, liquor places, bars, strip joints. Most of that’s gone. I tried to get in downtown but CCDC (the Centre City Development Corp.) wouldn’t let me. It’s the zoning.
Did you want to turn this store into just an adult magazine store?
You can’t do that unless you get an adult license, and that’s like $1,500 a year.
The way to do it is, you can have adult material as long as the selling space doesn’t exceed 15 percent. I fudged on that and some guy who’s an activist complained. In comes the guy from the city compliance department with his industrial ruler and starts measuring. He’s telling me I’m violating the ordinance. I knew I was.
I had to move that big display back. I told him I want a letter from the city that I’m in compliance, which he gave me. I carry it in my pocket.
What about all these other magazines?
This stuff sells too, don’t get me wrong. It’ll outdo the adult stuff some days. People come in for the celebrity, you’ve got fashion. The art magazines are surprisingly good. But the adult stuff is what keeps it afloat, there’s no question.
How much do you sell them for?
I used to get a higher price for all of this stuff because it was more in demand. But now there’s the internet. There’s still a niche, people still buy it. There’s people like myself that don’t have access to computers. We’re like a silent bunch. You don’t hear about those people. It pisses me off when on TV they say if you want more of this or more of that log on here, or log on there.
Where do those people go? You feel more and more alienated now. Everything is on the internet. Look at Comic Con. You used to be able to go down to get tickets the same day. Now you have to log on to get tickets. It’s sold out so I can’t go.
When did you start to realize the internet was impacting your business?
When there was no money in my pockets. That’s when you get it.
People used to pass your store and see your store. Now they’re going like this (he imitates a person typing on a cell phone). Whatever the hell they’re looking at or tweetering or whatever they’re doing, they’re not looking here. They don’t see you.
Where do you get your magazines?
All kinds of people bring them in. Some of them I don’t take. I tell them in a nice way. I hate to turn people away because those are the people who keep me in business.
I have to be very selective now. Some of those will sell, like the Vogues and the In Styles are pretty good. Even the Victoria’s Secret catalogues sell.
You’re selling fewer magazines today?
Yeah. I used to do pretty good here but there’s fewer and fewer. Because you can download all this.
How’d you learn about the internet?
You read about that stuff. You talk to people. I see what’s available. It’s instantaneous.
It’s become an impersonal world, really. There’s too much information. It’s just like “1984.” Orwell was right. One guy came in here and had a little thing this size (he points at my iPhone) and he took a moving picture of me right here. It’s amazing.
It’s just nonstop. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a good thing if you want to look up something about a baseball player or a movie star. You can look it up on Google.
That’s why I don’t understand why they want to appropriate a bunch of money for a new library.
You heard about this?
What do you need a goddamned library for? You’ve got a library right here (he points at the iPhone again). Why not open up a store and put little machines in there where people can come in. The library downtown, if you’ve ever been down there, it’s a homeless center anyway.
It’s interesting to me that you say that, because you’re a person who deals in printed material.
Yeah. Well, you gotta be realistic about things too. This is what the culture’s become. You can’t fight it.
But you’re still here. Are you trying to make your business succeed or are you just trying to ride it out to the end?
I’m riding, period. It is the end. It’s the end of a certain era. Everything comes to an end, unfortunately.
What do you like about magazines and being able to flip through them?
Information. You’re learning. That’s the whole thing about life, is learning. If you’re not curious, why be alive? Why just meander and take up room and all that shit?
You ever think about shutting down?
Oh yeah, a lot of times. You get light days and frustrating days. Like yesterday, yesterday would have been a good day to shut. That’s part of the business though.
How old are you?
No, no. People don’t like that. It’s not an old people’s world. It’s more young. Everything’s geared toward young now.