When I initially scoped out Fantastic Realm, I gave it a fairly positive review, but after becoming a customer it quickly became clear that the shop was beset with problems which made its survival highly unlikely.
First off was its location. Stuck behind a bus station in Finsbury Park, the place was never going to get much casual custom. Lack of footfall past the door meant that to have any hope of building a base it would have to garner a strong reputation among the capital's comic collectors. By offering a guaranteed 10% discount to all customers willing to commit to a standing order, it made a strong start. Sadly the discount is where the good news ended.
Those, like myself, who took advantage of the discounts on offer quickly found that their pull list often had items missing. Sometimes the wrong books were put aside. On occasion no books were put aside at all. A simple excel spreadsheet detailing the want lists of standing order customers would have gone some way to sorting this problem out, but no spreadsheet in the world can make up for the fact that, more often than not, the shop flat out failed to get books in on time!
Anyone who knows the habits of hardcore comic collectors knows that they like to get their books on new comic day. In this country that means Thursday. Yet to save money, a large percentage of the books on Fantastic Realm's order sheet were delivered by Diamond USA rather than the UK arm of the distributors. I presume that this has something to do with the fact that Fantastic Realm UK was a small part of a larger American company who were getting big discounts on large orders from the States. Whatever, the important thing to know here is that taking books from the US meant that many of them were not arriving until the Friday or, in the case of trades, until the following Monday when the shop wasn't open anyway! This is just not acceptable for a shop competing with a number of well established retailers who can and do offer their customers books on the day of their release.
Another major issue for the shop was its emphasis on variant covers. This suicidal obsession with over ordering heaps of non-returnable issues to get hold of a few 1 in 100 covers to knock out on ebay, might have recouped a few bucks online, but it left the shop in Finsbury Park with thousands of comics which it had absolutely no hope of selling.
To compound the situation, the manager often complained that he was taking delivery of many more issues of specific titles than he had in fact ordered. Why was this happening? The US arm of the business blamed Diamond, but was it really a fault at Diamond's end, or was someone in the US tinkering with the UK order so that they could snag a few precious variants for themselves? I'm not accusing them outright, but I think it's a fair question to ask. At its heart, Fantastic Realm is a mail order company that does the bulk of its business on ebay. Check out their ebay store and you will immediately be bombarded with a huge number of expensive CGC variants. You don't get hold of those variants without ordering LOTS of the regular covers, and you don't strike it lucky with 9.9 and 9.8s at CGC without submitting a fair few issues for grading. Seems an odd coincidence to me that the UK store was being lumbered with hundreds of extra comics every week while at the same time rare high grade variants of those same issues were popping up on the American led ebay site.
Yet even if the UK store wasn't being used as a dumping ground for unwanted comics, the fact that its staff were expected to do much of the ebay work while also running a bricks and mortar shop did not help matters. Firstly there weren't enough staff to do both, and secondly the back room of the shop was piled high with longboxes of unwanted and unsellable comics, making it impossible to do the backroom stuff in the backroom! As a result, the back issue bins in the middle of the shop floor were used as a table for packing and sorting online orders, meaning that customers could not access those back issues.
A shortage of staff also meant that the shop was closed two days a week - another ridiculous situation. Did the owners really think they could make a success of a shop with irregular opening hours, inaccessible back issues and an inability to get comics in on new comic day? I have to think that in reality they didn't honestly care that much, which is an odd way to run a business, but there you go.
From a personal point of view, I'm sad to see the shop go. I'd secured a 20% discount - which makes a big difference when you buy as much as I do, and, after some initial difficulties, had established a fairly decent rapport with the manager who often picked up missing items from my order from other comic shops. On the other hand, it will be something of a relief to return to the West End where the shops are run like proper businesses and I know that I can pick up the comics I want on the day they come out.
Back to the magic triangle I go!