Comic Relief struggles after founder’s death

Comic Relief on Shattuck. Photo courtesy of Allan Ferguson.

Comic Relief, once regarded as one of the best comic bookstores in the U.S., is in danger of closing its doors unless it gets a new infusion of cash.

Money has been so tight in recent months that the store has laid off two employees, according to Sophie Yanow, the public relations coordinator for Comic Relief. Its distributor, Diamond, is no longer sending Comic Relief new releases because of the cash flow problem, which was first reported in the East Bay Express.

Without new releases, there are fewer customers, said Yanow.

The store on Shattuck Avenue has never been the same since its owner, Rory Root, died two years ago at the age of 50, according to people in the comics industry. Root was a giant in the comics world, a magnetic personality and a great ambassador for comics, said Eric Stephenson, the publisher of Image Comics in Berkeley. He encouraged new artists and set up huge booths in some of the biggest comic festivals in the country, which gave the store high visibility. In 1993, Comic-Con International awarded the store the Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award in honor of its exemplary work in promoting the genre.

Root had been suffering from health issues for years before he died, and he told all his friends and business colleagues that he had left Comic Relief in his will to his long-time manager, Todd Martinez, according to a blog post by Stephenson. But when Root died, in 2008, his family could not find the will. Since Root died intestate, his assets went to his closest relatives, his brother and sister Roger, Ron, and Karen Root and their mother Nancy.

Rory Root.

The Roots live in northern California and have been overseeing the store from a distance the past two years. The siblings had little retail experience. and soon dismissed Martinez soon left, prompting a number of loyal employees to leave, said Stephenson. The store has been dying through benign neglect, he wrote.

“A seemingly never-ending series of colossal blunders by Rory’s family has put the store on life support, and now the store is a shell of what it once was,” Stephenson wrote on his blog, It Sparkles. “Comic Relief hasn’t received new product in weeks. For anyone even the least bit familiar with the business of selling comics, it should be vodka clear: No new books means no business. No business means no store. And, far from being some sort of solution to the store’s troubles, the Roots are actually the cause. They took the store over against Rory’s wishes and have run it into the ground with such force, you’d think they were blasting for oil.”

The Root siblings could not be reached for comment.

There is hope, however. The Root family is talking to someone interested in buying the 23-year old business, according to Yanow, who declined to provide details except to say the potential buyer is an avid comics fan.

“There is a deal,” said Yanow. “If it were to go through the store would be better than ever.”

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  • Luckypaul

    Thank you for a brief and concise explanation of the sad plight of Comic Relief and the neglect that has caused its problems. Stephenson’s comments jibe with what (former) customers have thought about the current condition of the legendary store. Curious why the story was edited to suggest that Martinez left for his own reasons rather than being forced out by the family that clearly ignored Rory Root’s intentions to have Martinez take the store over.

    Also, sad that the East Bay Express article suggests the cause of CR’s problems are the economy, changing market forces and perhaps even Rory Root’s eclectic tastes. (Surprised the Express didn’t blame bad downtown parking and the homeless as well for CR’s problems.)

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Reality check time.
    “beginning with the immediate dismissal of Kathleen Hunt – Rory’s attorney and best friend – as executor of his will.”
    If he actually had a will, why didn’t his attorney have a copy?

  • JJF

    The Express article had its problems, but let’s not pretend that everything was fine before Rory died, or that there wouldn’t be problems now if he was still with us.
    I was his friend for 26 years. I was his distributor for a while. I worked for him for 12 years. He was a visionary and a charismatic leader–but it was never all just fine. The store has usually struggled, and undisciplined ordering was one of many factors contributing to this.
    But yes, things are far, far worse now than they need to be. The problems Rory left are only the background to the current situation–they are not its proximate cause.

  • As this article is getting more play on the internet, I think I should clarify that last quote: if the ‘deal’ to which I’m referring goes through, things could be really great. Better than ever? I must have misspoken in overstatement, because I can’t really say. Rory is still gone, and the future is unwritten.

    Luckypaul: the correction regarding Todd’s move from Comic Relief was made at request after I looked over the article with James Friel (long term Comic Relief employee, and my co-worker here at the bookstore). Todd left (as in quit) because he was offered a better deal, and the respect he deserves, at Image Comics. To say that Todd was ‘forced out’ is the kind of nonspecific language that shouldn’t be used in what amounts to a brief overview of the store’s troubles and history. With a more detailed history, there might be room for that kind of speculation.

    I’m not going to bat for the Roots here. For further transparency, I have nothing to gain by that anyway, because I’m leaving the store soon (as I’d planned to do before the stores troubles even became so apparent).

  • Kathleen Hunt

    The family could not find a signed copy of Rory’s will and trust. They HAD a copy from the attorney’s files, unsigned, along with the attorney’s statement that this was the final document. Rory had not made a copy of the signed documents, and the family refused to go through the proper legal process to pass his estate on — either by accepting the unsigned writing as a constructive trust (as permissible by law) or by going through probate (as required by law if he had actually died intestate). Legally, there is no living owner, nor anyone authorized by the court to operate or sell the business.

  • Rick

    I can only hope this situation gets resolved with the store getting a new life and owners who care for it. Rory was always friendly and quick to laugh when we spoke, and everything I know about him says that he was a true friend to the comics business and to aspiring artists and writers. I’ve been buying comics in Berkeley since Comics and Comix opened in 1972. I watched the slow, tortured death of that store; sad to see that it might be happening to the best remaining comics store in town. The fans and Rory’s memory deserve better.