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.”