Social media, creative thinking help hobby shops thrive in pandemic

Apr. 9—The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown brought worries and panic.

It also brought time for house cleaning and nostalgia.

For some, being locked down with nothing to do led to rediscovering childhood collections of sports cards or comic books. Some even jumped back into the hobbies. Those pandemic days turned into hours scouring eBay and hobby shops looking to complete a childhood set of baseball cards or starting fresh with modern product.

"This interest in collecting, flipping and investing was due in large part to people staying home and finding new ways to spend their time, including finding long-forgotten collections out of attics or getting nostalgic and having more time to reignite their passions," said Bob Means, eBay's Director of Trading Cards. "Many folks also turned to trading cards as a hobby while sports were not live."

On the other side of the coin were those who immediately posted their old belongings on online auction sites, hoping to make a pretty penny as comics, sports cards and other collectibles shot up in value during the pandemic.

Suddenly collectors wanted these items that had waxed and waned in interest for many years. But the shops that sold those items were just as locked down as those seeking them.

Running a hobby shop is about passion for the product and love for the customers. Now, when big money was waiting to be made, there was no shopping.

So hobby shops across Indiana got creative. While many shut their doors over the past two years, others found unique ways to stay engaged with their customers and sell the products being sought saw it through those dark early days of the pandemic and were able to reopen their doors.

Geek Street Kokomo

Kingdom Cards and Games, 126 W. Walnut St., is like many other game stores across the nation. It's not just a place to buy things. It's a gathering place. People can come in, sit down at one of the shop's long tables and jump into a game of "Magic: The Gathering," role-play an elven warrior in "Dungeons and Dragons" or save the galaxy in a game of "Star Wars Legion."

Those same gamers become paying customers when they need new dice or want to buy a copy of the game they have been playing in store.

So when the pandemic hit and the lockdown came into effect, customers were surprised when they wandered into the store and found no gaming tables.

"'That's because I can't let you hang out,'" Jason Van Haecke recalled telling them.

Despite the lockdown, Van Haecke continued to come into the shop each day, even though there were no customers.

"That was rather disappointing because this is a place where people come to hang out," he said.

Van Haecke said some of his customers saw the lockdown coming and stockpiled games. They bought best sellers like "Ticket to Ride" and "Settlers of CATAN." They bought paint and gaming miniatures. But the most popular purchase during the pandemic? "Pandemic," a challenging cooperative game where players work together to stop the spread of a virus.

Kingdom Cards and Games is part of Kokomo's Geek Street, a group of hobby shops near the town square. There's Comics Cubed, Kokomo Toys & Collectibles, American Dream Hi-Fi and Chapter Two Books—something for every fanboy and girl.

Comics Cubed's owner, Shawn Hilton, was the first to arrive on Geek Street when he opened his comic shop 12 years ago. He's watched the community grow over the years and become a bit of a mentor figure for the others.

Van Haecke sat inside the closed store and promoted items on Facebook. He took orders via credit card and went as far as to hand deliver those orders to his customers' front doors. When he saw Hilton selling comics books on Facebook Live, he began selling games on his own livestream with the help of local Youtubers who run a channel called "Let's Open it."

A block away the owners of Kokomo Toys & Collectibles, 11 E. Sycamore St., were also experiencing the pandemic loneliness of an empty store. Like Van Haecke, owners Amber and Todd Jordan came in each day. Despite the normally busy shop being closed, they continued selling and shipping items from their equally busy eBay store.

They also had assistance from Hilton, who offered to deliver some of their shipments to local customers.

When the toy store finally reopened, they put a lot of focus on masks and cleaning. Their front door still requests visitors to wear a mask.

They found an increase in people coming in to sell their used toys upon reopening.

"People had some extra time on their hands to go through their houses or their collections and pick and choose what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to sell," Amber Jordan said.

Hoosier Sports Cards

"It's funny saying this but we grew during COVID," said Brian Martindale, who co-owns Hoosier Sports Cards, 19 N. Court St., in Sullivan, Ind.

On eBay, the trading card category saw a 142% increase in interest in 2020 compared to the year before, said Bob Means, Director of Trading Cards at eBay.

"You have to look at the personal connection to sports," he said. "This was around the NCAA tournament for basketball. It was canceled. The NBA went down. Hockey went down. The NFL draft pre-workouts, all those things canceled. Our thought was we wanted to let people have some type of connection to sports and we thought the card shop helped people experience that."

Martindale runs the card shop with his brother, Brad. They grew up around the hobby, watching their father run his own sports card shop.

While other collectible hobby stores struggled during the pandemic, Hoosier Sports Cards saw their customer base grow. Their Twitter following jumped from 900 to over 2,500 people.

Social media was a big business boost for the brothers. Martindale said they would post a deal of the day on their accounts. Customers could pay via Paypal, drive to the store and have their purchase delivered to them curbside.

"We probably had more people contact us during COVID saying 'hey, what are your hours? Can we come in?'" said Martindale. "Obviously it was very limited but if someone wanted to come and grab something it was almost like a curbside delivery type thing."

Empire Comics and Games

Like nearly every other business, New Albany's Empire Comics & Games, 1636 Slate Run Rd., shut down at the beginning of the pandemic before moving to curbside delivery several weeks later.

"The beginning was pretty dire," said owner George Milton. "We are a store that has in store gaming so all of that immediately went away. We had to rethink our business model."

Like Kingdom Cards and Games, Empire saw an increase in game sales. Milton said that Dungeons & Dragons saw a huge jump in purchases.

The store is active on Facebook and while COVID was at its peak they took orders through the social media app, the phone and from emails. Customers could drive to the store, hand an employee a credit card and the employee would go back inside the shop and complete the transaction, delivering the purchases to the customer's car when finished.

Comic shops were uniquely situated for the pandemic due to a core aspect of their business: the pull list. A pull list is a list of comics a customer wants to buy each week. If a customer has "X-Men," "Wonder Woman" and "Captain America" on their pull list, then when a new issue of the comic comes into the store, that comic will automatically be placed in a folder for the customer. The customer can stop by the shop when it's convenient and buy the comics stored in their individual folder.

"We just kept plugging along," Milton said. "We kept communication lines open with our customers. We posted photos of the new items that came in. And once people could start shopping again with masks on, business just sort of boomed. I had a really good year [in 2021] and it's just continued."

Comics Cubed

Shawn Hilton is the best there is at what he does. And what he does is very nice: He sells comic books.

When the pandemic lockdown began he locked up his Kokomo shop, Comics Cubed, 121 E. Sycamore St., and wasn't sure if he would ever reopen it again. He'd been selling comics since 1989, working in a comic shop as a teenager. Was this the end?

A few days later he was back inside the store with his wife, selling comics on a Facebook live stream.

"From that we picked up a customer base that supported us [during the pandemic]," he said. "Now we've picked up friends and customers in Pennsylvania, Maryland. I send out packages to Missouri. It has definitely helped us connect and rejuvenate a base that might have forgotten about us."

He also helped his fellow store owners during this time. Hilton shook off the notion he was any kind of leader though — before, during or after the pandemic. He's just someone who wants to see his neighbors succeed. And he draws inspiration from those neighbors as much as they draw from him.

The shops of Geek Street have been open now during the pandemic much longer than they were closed. Like many others, Hilton has continued the new practices he started during the lockdown. The Facebook streams continue. Social media posts are frequent. And Hilton teams up with the other shops for advertising.

It's all been a game changer for Comics Cubed, he said.

Hilton calls the pandemic a reckoning for all businesses. It gave business owners a choice: they could stick it out or they could use the opportunity to get out of the business.

Those that made it through the darkest days of the pandemic are rejuvenated, he said.

"All of a sudden there was a spark," said Hilton. "Maybe some people realized they should have gotten out of the business. Or they decided to get on that horse and ride it. I think that is one of the big things I have seen from all of the successful stores. That kick in the pants that it will all go away tomorrow if you don't work hard for it. They are working hard for it now."