Some thoughts from the past year.
2023 was at the same time Little Deer’s 5th year, 3rd year and 1st year.
Our 5th year as a business (started selling in markets in 2019), our 3rd year in retail (opened our first pop-up in 2021), and our 1st retail year in one place (we moved multiple times in 2022, exhausting! I highly recommend staying put!)
LINE GOES UP
On a whole, we did better than previous years. We sold more books and more money traveled through us (I hesitate to say we made more money because my bank account is still empty, ha). But with doing more came a lot of growing pains and amateur-hour mistakes that I’m trying to learn from in 2024.
The main challenge I ran up against repeatedly in 2023, especially from the summer onward, was balancing the buying against increased demand. People wanted a lot more books from Little Deer, which is good! But since book margins are very narrow, it's difficult to scale up without overwhelming our budget.
In 2023 my weekly buying budget rose from €200-300 to €400-600. On average it costs me roughly €10 a book, so that's us going from 20-30 books a week to 40-60 books a week. Those are little league numbers in the world of bookstores but huge for us.
An unexpected side-effect of increased buying is that way more of my week is spent logging books now than before. What used to take me 2-3 hours now takes me 2-3 days to get everything onto the webshop (online sales passed 50% of our business this year!) When the number of books coming in rose even higher towards Christmas I ran out of time to read any comics myself!
There were tons of new releases (more than previous years? Or maybe I was just more aware of the sheer amount of book releases?) and customers were requesting a lot more books than before, both new release and restocks. As a result of the new releases and increased requests, Little Deer ended the year with a lot more "staples," books and artists I always wanted to be in stock to recommend to people. Like I always want a Jillian Tamaki book on hand, and I always want a Ben Passmore book to point to. And classics like Maus, Fun Home and Persepolis that folks are always looking for.
It came up repeatedly when Fun Home The Musical was playing at the Gate Theatre over the summer. We couldn't keep that book in stock. We still can't keep it in stock. I desperately wanted to collaborate with The Gate during the Fun Home run, but despite multiple attempts to message them we couldn't make contact. It was a real bummer, like what are the odds of there being an indie comic shop and DCAF and Fun Home The Musical all a few minutes from each other and we couldn't collaborate.
My family's personally hectic summer means I couldn't even attend the musical, which I'd been looking forward to all year, which was just an extra disappointment during a rollercoaster 2nd half of the year.
Balancing the list of Best Sellers with the list of New Releases and harder to find books was about keeping the shop well rounded, so a parent doesn't ask where all my Picture Books went, while I shrug and say "sorry, I needed to buy two dozen copies of Monica this week." This year demand finally forced me to loosen my "no serials" rule to stocking. With Amulet and Heartstopper coming to an end in 2024 more and more requests are coming in for serials so I needed to stock more serials. It's difficult, because you play whack-a-mole keeping a series in stock but you never have the volume a customer wants.
The simple solution would be to "stock what sells," but this is where the increase in demand met the limits of my buying budget. By the end of 2023 I could sell any number of anything. I was pushing my orders to 80+ books a week and I was still dozens if not hundreds of books shy of what I could actually sell if I had it. I didn't need 1 copy of Joe Sacco's Palestine, I needed 25 copies. And there were so many books like that this year. There was a huge demand for some comics and all I could do was drip feed 1 or 2 copies a week of all of these different books, that then sold immediately and I had to wait another week or two for the next copy.
I did feel like that by late autumn I really got a handle on keeping all the various genres full. There was a time in past years where I'd neglect a particular genre until it disappeared off the shelves.
A welcome addition to the online shop was Shopify finally updating to give customers the option to only view "in stock" books. Which was our most requested change and until this latest shop update was hidden behind a paywall we couldn't afford. For the first time it also gives me a quick glance view of my total stock. In general Little Deer always has almost 1000 items in stock and almost 2000 out of stock.
I've said before, that I could spend €10,000 without blinking on comic stock. I've got lists of books I want to stock and restock a mile long.
Add in things that Are Not Comics and I could probably spend €25,000 without blinking.
I brought some things into the shop this year that Were Not Comics and it was pretty successful? I've always had a Wait These Aren't Comics section, but some buying opportunities came up this year that allowed me to expand on that.
I had contacted Editions Sulo a year before to become a stockist for their lovely jigsaw puzzles, and they finally reached the distributing capacity to get back to me! It's great fun to support other small businesses with my small business. There's more of these kind of things I want to stock in 2024 if budgets allow.
Based on common customer requests I realized my postcard/greeting card section was lacking so I tried to beef that up before Christmas.
And on a Halloween Whim (followed by a Christmas Whim) I tried my hand at Vinyl LP's and WOW it turns out folks love records. It's a lot more difficult to price CD/DVD/Blu-ray/Vinyl, they're more expensive than books and incur a customs fee that books are exempt from, but I think because Ireland is an island economy that has to import everything people are very forgiving of prices. I always knew when I made the mistake of pricing something too low (accidentally undercutting myself and selling at a loss) because things sold the instant I listed them.
But since Not Comics aren't the focus of Little Deer, I don't need to be aggressive with my prices. And I'm only stocking things I'd want myself anyway. If I was way off on the whole record idea and no one wanted a Totoro soundtrack, I'd take it home myself and listen to it.
And it turns out, like some of the comics I stock, I happened to be the only place on the island with some records? There's so much unmet demand in Ireland, it's crazy.
Buying more stock helped Little Deer grow, but I personally wasn’t taking home much more money than the year before and we still haven't replenished our savings which were wiped out by starting the business in 2021 and moving the business twice in 2022.
Add to that some unrelated personal finance problems (sometimes the non-Little Deer parts of my life require money, who knew!), and familial health issues in the second half of 2023 and I really felt the lack of buffer.
So Little Deer is a bigger business now than it used to be but we’re still walking the tightrope without a safety net. Which is foolish. It would have been wiser to slow down the growth and end the year with money in the bank.
Instead I've been spending the week between Christmas and New Years still paying off 2023 debts (and I'm still working on it).
This was kind of a silly idea that got a lot of attention? It felt weird that our most popular social media posts were about struggling to make rent, but I guess that's an Algorithm Problem that we can't control. Once I introduced the Rent-O-Meter, it was hard to go a month without mentioning it. When we didn't mention that rent was coming up, sales kinda dipped, or dwindled. It was a funny dynamic!
But like showing people our electricity bills and our Dublin City Council rates bill, or the disaster that was our flood, being transparent in our business costs seems to help our business. Showing people my face also makes difference now that Instagram holds your audience hostage until you include a photo of a human in your feed. Humiliating!
A funny side effect of the Rent-O-Meter popularity is that artists who wanted their books stocked at Little Deer would contact me based on a viral Rent-O-Meter post, which ironically and unfortunately is when I don't have any money to buy their books.
In response to The Flood, I added a donate button to the website and people have been incredibly generous. We're very fortunate and very grateful to have customers that alongside buying books also give when they can to support Little Deer. It gives me hope that there may be a fundraising future if we ever need to take a big financial leap.
WHERE TO NEXT?
Especially since 2024 is the end of our 57 Manor Place lease! Will they let us stay? We don’t know. The landlord doesn’t respond when I ask what their plan is come November 2024. Maybe they don't have a plan yet. They have planning permission to redevelop the building, but maybe they’ll delay again (like they did when I moved back in in 2022). But I think planning permission lasts 5 years and I believe they were granted this planning permission in 2021 (during our first pop-up) so the clock is ticking.
It would be a dream to buy the building but (going by its 2021 sale price of 300k) that would require 100k+ in cash before the bank will even talk to me about a commercial loan.
So between now and November 2024 I need a safety net to cover any potential moving costs that might come if we can’t extend our lease.
If we need to move, there is so so little available retail to rent. Lots of empty buildings in Stoneybatter, Smithfield and Phibsborough, but a lot of unserious asking prices and landlords so rich they’re happy to leave their buildings vacant for years and decades (or sell on the building to someone else who will leave it empty until they sell it off to someone else who will leave it empty…)
In November I absolutely got suckered into a meeting with a local “mom & pop” landlord, who heard I was looking and came to me to show me a retail space he was considering bringing back on the market (after 15+ years vacant!!). But it turns out the retail space was derelict, not vacant, and he was not really looking to give a small business a home but fishing for info on local rent prices so he could up his asking price.
As frustrating as that meeting was, I still want to say if anyone has any contacts with anyone who owns a building (like if you're renting an apartment that's above a vacant retail space - I'm looking at you, Chili Shack!) please let me know! DM, email email@example.com, come by the shop, whatever! Notice a new For Sale or For Lease sign during your morning commute? Snap a photo and let us know!
I obsessively check Daft, and I still regularly bother our landlord (a realtor) about a live/work property they were selling in 2021 that we attempted to buy before we opened in Maureen's but it didn't work out (it's still unsold, still vacant, going derelict!)
Property was central to a lot of Little Deer’s challenges this year. The shop flooded, twice. My landlord couldn't be bothered. We had to deal with pests, mould, rising damp shorting out the electricity, a phantom smell that seemed to travel up and down between multiple buildings on Manor Place for two months?
You might wonder why would I dream of buying a building with so many problems, but part of it would be to actually invest in the building and maintain it. We’re in a very expensive short term lease. I’ve told the landlord if the rent was lower and the lease longer I would pay to repair and renovate the building. But he isn’t interested. They’re very happy to get their 20k a year from me for a space that almost fell into total dereliction when they left it vacant for 10 months in 2022 (our brief relocation to Inchicore)
PRIDE OF PLACE
2023 felt so long that it's hard to believe that at the beginning of the year the shop was still painted grey and only had half has many bookshelves as it does now!
We did so much to improve the shop! We painted the facade! Gabriela came back and did her gorgeous sign painting! Which gets us international attention, even if the audience is too far away to buy our books.
The Grangegorman Educate Together moved buildings and gave away all their bookshelves and desks and chairs, of which we took several (and could have taken even more!)
A lot of this beautification was for the Stoneybatter Festival, which was like hosting a fifth DCAF in the year but totally in and around the shop? It all came together last minute but our activity tents were packed and the shop was decimated!
It was the first time I really experienced the total chaos of a shop rush, books getting knocked over left and right, having to shoo away kids who were trying to climb the shelves to reach the Sex and Erotica sections. Madness.
BEYOND OUR CONTROL
While things like the shop flooding were only partially within our control (we have to keep cleaning out the upstairs neighbours' cigarette butts from our drain before every big rain!) there were some things in the second half of this year that were well beyond our control.
UPS shuffled their staff over the summer. And the two drivers that knew Little Deer and knew I picked up the kids from school midday, and knew they could leave my boxes with anyone, or even swing by my house while I was feeding the kids lunch, they were transferred to other routes.
And whenever they came through Dublin 7 picking up extra shifts I had to tell them how much I missed them.
From summer onward UPS was so short staffed that sometimes our boxes would sit in their depot for a week (the depot is in Finglas, so only 15-20 minutes away, if you think, "why don't you just go collect the boxes yourself, matt" it's because they don't actually know where the boxes are in their system, the one time I spent my day off driving to Finglas to get them, they didn't know they'd actually loaded the boxes onto a truck, so while I was in Finglas my boxes were on a truck driving past the shop).
There was a rotation of new drivers (and freelance delivery guys UPS was farming out work to?) who kept missing me midday. Who didn't know they could leave my boxes with a neighbour, or who thought 57 Manor Street was the same address as 57 Manor Place and would leave my boxes outside the door to Joli cafe?
I spent all of autumn explaining to every new driver our hours and where they could leave the boxes for us, and it's all mostly sorted out now. Hopefully the same driver we met in November and December and who knows us now is still with them come January.
The UPS issues came to a head in early December, when I was trying to place my last orders of the year, and 4 boxes (100 books, 1/10th of my total stock) after a week of delays got delivered to a neighbour with no notice to myself or UPS's tracking system and UPS couldn't find the boxes or knew which driver had delivered them and no one knew where the books were until my neighbour finally stopped by and said "oh here you go."
That particular UPS disaster came at the heels of the Dublin Race Riots and a freezing two-week cold snap. No one wanted to buy books. And who could blame them. Then when things finally started to thaw, we couldn't get any books for more than a week.
On my sales graph for the year, Little Deer grows almost every month of 2023 until December. Following the trajectory of the rest of the year, December should have been a hit. We should have been able to pay off debts and start saving. But sales just went cold for 3 weeks. And then the last 3 weeks of the year were just us clawing our way back to 2022's numbers.
TRYING NEW THINGS
Kate and Kat have done wonderful things with workshops and activities at Little Deer this year. Zine making, figure drawing, still life, sketch club, comic jam, it's a full dance card!
We're still working out the audience side of things. We'll get requests for an event, but then tickets don't sell whatever reason (money, scheduling, our social media posts buried in the algorithm), so we have to cancel the event due to low turnout, followed then by fresh requests to host an event.
We're trying to get over that hump in 2024 by advertising more. Going to print some flyers and put them up around town, newsletters, whatever we can do to let people know what's happening in the shop.
For a brief period I was trying to buy a used projector and screen to facilitate workshops with a video/computer aspect but couldn't justify the purchase price.
I managed to nab an old free B&W photocopier over the summer but it wasn't a goer for zine making. I guess it's RISO or bust. I gave it up for more bookshelves when we couldn't get any traction with it.
Bluesky has been good for us despite the comparatively tiny audience there. Often more people see our posts there than Twitter or Instagram! What a novel idea for social media! Showing your followers your posts.
Our international reach has grown. Folks are choosing to visit Little Deer during their visits to Ireland (and even making stops in Dublin before/after UK visits!), artists are coming by and bringing me comics to stock. Which is amazing, because getting books to Ireland from across the water is always a challenge.
Little Deer got mentioned in several newspapers this year, both good and bad (being included in a list of trendy shops and restaurants to entice people to pay more than a half-million for an old terrace house, while we struggle to pay rent) but it means people are more aware of us now.
We still get customers who live a stone's throw from Little Deer who only just found us for the first time, so we still have a lot more people to reach.
With the kids getting older, school pickup times have moved on from 13:30 to 14:30. I've left Little Deer's public open hours as 10-1 & 3-5 because sometimes I need to run some messages but most days I'm in the shop an extra hour each day. It's improved our sales (obviously we make more money open than closed!) but definitely leaves me more rushed on the housework I used to do during that midday break.
That rushing doesn't help my perpetual lateness opening the shop. I know customers don't appreciate it, but Little Deer needs to be flexible. If the shop becomes some rigid imposition on the rest of our lives it'll fall apart. So sometimes I'm late and a customer is inconvenienced. All I can do is apologize and open the shop. We aren't a big shop with a full staff and long hours. We may never be! We can only do what we can.
The shop growing and getting busier and our budget fluctuating meant I had to cut out my Donut Friday excursions to Proper Order / No Messin' Bakery. A truly heartbreaking loss that often left me wondering if the cost of comic book shop success was too great.
The Dublin Comic Arts Festival continues to grow, and sometime run up to the limits of our budget and reach. We have a big audience and community but can't seem to get many volunteers to put out posters or flyers. And we can't seem to raise much money beyond what it takes to put on an event. So our advertising and budget is a continual bottleneck.
The DCAF committee continues to shoulder more of the weight, and I'm much less stressed as one of ten instead of just one. We still need to balance the load. Even with ten people, one or two end up carrying too much.
Our October event was the most attended ever! Which also brought with it our highest number of anti-masker confrontations (only 5 out of 800+) which was stressful but we gotta keep at it because we're not about to get everyone sick for wanting to sell some zines and draw with friends.
For the second year in a row I had to miss the December DCAF. This time I thought I'd figured out all the logistics to keep the shop open and attend DCAF at the same time, but yet another household bout with Covid scuttled those plans unfortunately. Once again demonstrating why we need to keep masking!
And while I wasn't together enough this year to host my own giveaway on Little Deer's opening anniversary like I did in 2022, I was at least able to contribute to DCAF's fundraiser for Palestine during the Christmas Market which was a successful experiment I hope we can repeat.
Big challenge ahead is saving money for the unknown that is our November end-of-lease. Honestly, that's the main thing and everything else takes a back seat to that until we either have assurance we can stay in 57 Manor Place or we secure a new location before the end of the year.
I'll keep growing the shop little by little (might need a new bookshelf or two) but I need to hold the reins firmer and make sure I'm splitting the shop's income between savings and stock.
Thank you everyone who supported Little Deer this year! Thanks to Kate, Kat, Eli and Charlot for keeping the shop open when I couldn't (the personal rollercoaster of the 2nd half of the year meant I needed to lean on kind Guest Shopkeepers more than usual), and I look forward to selling more comics to you all in 2024!