Diner Talk: Chris Eberle

Chris Eberle is a great human being. I’ve known him now for a few years off and on, but one thing has always remained true. He has a passion for this industry unrivaled. As you will see through this telling interview, a man who generally has nothing going for him. I mean, go check out his website and find a picture of him for christ sakes, has the cajones to start up a comic book store catering to JUST a comic book audience, and is succeeding.

Let me also state for the record that Chris is a good sport, and sometimes comes across a bit femme in both his speech patterns and his mannerisms. He lives in his own little world where every experience is enjoyable. We don’t bring attention to it, other than calling him a homosexual and laughing at the way he speaks.

So please sit down with us at the booth. Welcome to Diner Talk.

Tonight’s featured diner is the Time To Eat in Somerville, NJ. Our interviewee is Chris Eberle, a retail store owner in Kenilworth, NJ. Eberle translating directly to “The Wild Pig”, he owns Wild Pig Comics II.

James: What day is it?

Chris: Today is Wednesday, August 25th, 2004.

James: We are here with Christopher John Eberle, proprietor of wild Pig Comics, in fabulous Kenilworth, New Jersey.

Chris: Wild Pig Comics roman numeral 2.

James: Sorry, Wild Pig Comics, Eye-Eye.

Chris: I must say I’m happy to be here. I’ve been looking forward to this all day. A few hours with you… few things could be finer.

Dani: Are you hitting on my man?

James: Also joining us is the beautiful Danielle O’Brien, my girlfriend.

Chris: So, what is standard procedure? Shall we begin after we’ve ordered? Is that the usual?

James: Usual? I’ve done one of these.

Chris: Ah, well you know I do wish to inflate everything about your existence.

James: *childish snicker* So what do you want to inflate?

Chris: Oh, just your Asguardian-like life. The mythic resonance of your voice.

James: ..my cock..

Dani: Are you Thor?

Chris: I was thinking more of Volstag.

James: I was thinking more of a Loki, but who is Volstag?

Chris: The big fat one. He rises to battle by Thor’s side.

Dani: Honey, I don’t think you’re fat.

Chris: I don’t either, I just thought it was fun.

James: So do you want to touch my mjolnir? It’ll come right back to me. Okay okay, why don’t we start up. Why don’t you tell us why you created a comic book store?

Chris: The inspiration for the store was two-fold. I had several horrible jobs right after college. Typical college going nowhere jobs. A video store, farmers market, which didn’t last long, delivering pharmaceuticals – all kinds of things. I hated most of my bosses, and didn’t respond well to authority.

James: These vague loping hand gestures aren’t going to translate well for the interview.

Chris: I’m Italian, I can’t help it. So I said, all right, I want to own my own business. THEN! My former partner, Randy Rosca, said ‘Why don’t you open up a comic book store?’ and thus, the legend was born. I decided I could combine my passion for comics with my desire to be my own boss.

James: How long had you been reading comics?

Chris: I have to estimate back to single digit age, probably somewhere around the age of six or so.

James: First foray into comics was?

Chris: Again, I’ll have to guess. Probably an issue of Marvel Tales, reprinting Amazing Spider-man 128 featuring the Vulture.

James: One of your first forays was with the Vulture–

Chris: Well my father would read them to me and do all of the different voices.

James: Can you give us an example?

Chris: I was a child, I don’t remem–

James: Do the voices.

Chris: I’m not a machine, I ca–

James: DO THE VOICES!

Chris: Rawrk! I’m the Vulture! Frushfrushfrush *hands flapping* [he is at this point making voices and gestures]

James: So you are telling me that your first experience with comic books was an issue with the Vulture, and you kept reading comics afterwards?

Chris: Absolutely! I know he’s a second string villain. It was an early 1970’s Spiderman comic, that was a great run! Gary Conway scripting, Ross Andrew art, a lot of subplot development. it was fun.

James: So you decided you were going to open up a store.

Chris: Correct.

James: Why don’t you explain the financial outset.

Chris: A saga, to be sure. I realized that I would have to have another job, and I still didn’t know what I was getting into at the time. I was totally out of my league. I didn’t have enough experience, and I didn’t know anybody really. I knew a couple of people that had worked in comic book stores, but not how to open one. There is no manual. So Randy and I just flew by the seat of our pants.
So in 1997, I got my first teaching position. I was trained to be a teacher.. wait, that sounds too important. Teaching is one of those things that they don’t give a shit about in college, you just have to go out and do it. So, I started teaching, to save money towards the store.

James: How long were you saving for this whole thing?

Chris: Randy gave me this idea in 1995. So from 1995 to 1999 I was saving. In 1997 I received the teacher’s position, so that accelerated the process. Even, though, two years prior I was saving money and we had begun buying inventory. Back then action figures were hot, so we were buying quite a bit of action figures.

James: In 1997, the comic market sucked.

Chris: Again, we didn’t know anything. I had a vague knowledge that there was some kind of upheaval in the industry, but I didn’t translate that to ‘Oh, this is a bad time to open a comic book store.’ I was just fanatical about wanting to open up my own business. I looked around and saw that some of my peers and their parents hated their jobs. I didn’t want to do something for most of my life and not get anything out of it. It’s stupid

Dani: What was going on 1997?

James: It was the post speculator market. Crap was coming out.

Chris: There were some good Vertigo things coming out. Preacher, Sandman… but that was really it.

Dani: That was around when Generation X came out.. there was some good X-Men stuff around then too.

Chris: Imagine that there were a few hearty swimmers going against the stream up a river of pure sludge.

Dani: That’s when the CGC and the card games were dominating the market.

James: Oh yeah.

[At this time the food arrives. Me with my red meat, Danielle with her chicken on a pita, and Chris who had already eaten has a bowl of Yankee Bean soup.]

Chris: Outstanding! The best part about soup is breaking up the crackers, and immersing them into this delightful, savory.

Dani: You know you can break up the crackers in the package…

Chris: Why?

Dani: Because it makes it less sloppy.

Chris: It’s part of the fun! It’s like why I don’t use a straw. I like to feel the beverage on my lips.

James: What else do you like to feel in your mouth?

Chris: Not a penis, I can tell you that much.

Dani: I think he just said he likes penis in his mouth.

James: I heard penis.

Dani: I’m pretty sure the recorder didn’t pick up the ‘not’ in there. I just heard ‘penis’.

Chris: Let’s return to the legitimate stream of questions, shall we?

James: Ok, back to 97′.

Chris: Right, I knew very little, but I was determined to do this. My whole life was geared around what I needed to do to have that business. Another aspiring fact was that I hated all of the other stores that were in the area. I mean, HATED them. They were poorly run. Some were clean, others were not, but most of the people that ran them I couldn’t stand. They were surly or rude, or couldn’t function normally with other human beings. Most of them were thieves. There was no sense of passion or fun for the product. I wanted to do something different. Everything was guesswork and flying by the seat of our pants. We would see what another store would do that we didn’t like and do the opposite.

James: What were some of those things that you immediately turned away from?

Chris: Well we bathed first of all, that was a key factor.

James: I was more talking from a retail stance.

Chris: What did we do opposite of them?

James: What things were other stores doing that you didn’t, or don’t, do.

Chris: Okay, well bathing is important. Maintaining a clean store that wasn’t all cluttered with debris and garbage. Where you couldn’t find anything. I wanted a store that was very well organized, but wasn’t sanitized like an asylum and felt sterile like PLAINFIELD. I wanted a store where you could find things and still have fun. I wanted a fun atmosphere most of all.

James: And if there was no fun, what would you do to people?

Chris: For example, I wanted people to come into the store and realize immediately that the people running the store loved comics. Not in the way that some storeowners will sit there for hours and argue over some tertiary issue – about Plastic Man or something.. I wanted them to come in and realize that we care about the product, but aren’t mutants. We aren’t going to rip them off and we have a great selection of stuff that matters. Not pogs or Yu-Gi-Oh, or what was that last one.. the Pok-ee-mon. Comics, trades… the things that mattered.

James: Do you know how old you sounded right then? ‘What are these kids playing today’ the Po-Kee-Man?

Chris: I’m 31, what do you want?

James: The Yu-Jee thing. Whatever those Japs are producing these days.

Chris: No no.. I have a fine love of their culture and people.

[We take a brief pause to enjoy some food and make fun of Chris’ apparent love of those of Asian dissent.]

James: Next thing. Now being that I know this area and this area’s comic market. Chris, why don’t you tell us what the saturation market is on comics in this area.

Chris: Terrible. The funny thing about that is that it’s not half as bad as it was five years ago or ten years ago. There is still, though, so many stores. Especially if you start here and head north. All the way up into Bergen County, there are huge amounts of stores. I have mail order customers in the south and they have absolutely nothing out there. This area is tough. I won’t beat around the bush, if I heard that so-and-so’s store is going out of business I would click my heels.

James: The store you own is Wild Pigs II? Why the two?

Chris: Right, back to the saga… the genesis. 1999, Randy and I open our store in Bound Brook, and this was stupid on many levels.

James: Yeah, because Bound Brook is a shit town.

Chris: At that time, the old part of Bound Brook was making a come back. A few outstanding restaurants were opening. They had just opened that club, The Palace. It was starting to come to life a bit. We had found this huge store, bigger than the one we have now, and the rent was $750 a month. It was ludicrous.

On the other side of it though, we had chosen a bad section of this growing town because, and this isn’t meant as a jab – but generally speaking, Spanish speaking Hispanic people don’t buy American comic books. So, that was a very Hispanic area, and we were already making it hard on ourselves. We had saved a lot of stuff, but we didn’t have the things that I now count on. We didn’t have many trades, and that was dumb.

James: How was the trade market in 1999?

Chris: It was there enough that we should have had it. We had some. I pillaged my own personal library for them though. That’s how poor we were starting. Randy was working, and I was teaching, but it still wasn’t enough. Add to this that we were in a place where we wouldn’t make money quickly. We put that on the idea that we had the low rent and the lower overhead and we would make the money over time.

So we have a limited selection of trades, no statues. Now at this point I know nothing about statues. We have thousands of action figures. Tons. At that point the action figure market was starting to collapse. We still had people coming in and buying them, but the profit margin wasn’t as good as it was when we had bought them.

I didn’t know how to order, and I made a big mistake. Randy tried to talk me out of it, and I should have listened to him, but at the beginning I wanted to appear that we had a robust place and ordered a lot of everything. In a few months we were in trouble. Then I got fired from my job.

James: What did you do?

Chris: It wasn’t anything that I did.

James: What didn’t you do?

Chris: It wasn’t so much of what I did or didn’t do. The new supervisor was a bureaucratic toady and wanted to prove he could exert control. I didn’t handle authority well. They wanted to hammer teachers into this certain kind of mold that I didn’t take to. He didn’t like what I did, so we didn’t get along. My second year I wasn’t making enough progress towards what he wanted me to be as well as winning teacher of the year my first year. My personality didn’t suit their school, so they fired me.

Thankfully Randy was at the store full time while all of this was going on. Customers were slow in coming, as were reservists.

Dani: (Gesturing to James, referring to him being an early reservist) They had a lot of scumbag customers.

Chris: No no! Jamie would come in after I called a few times. Now, I must say, do you remember a day you came into the store and I was asleep in the back room?

James: No idea.

Chris: Yes. You came in, and I think you had been in there twice or so by that time, and I was asleep after work. You went into the back and woke me up. You could have taken the store from us and we wouldn’t have known. So…

James: I don’t remember that at all. Heh. But I will say that I had come to your store specifically after having gotten my books from two of the nastiest stores in all of NJ, if not this business.

Dani: It’s interesting how it now comes full circle. Now you are dating his employee and living with him and doing your own part of the comic world with these interviews. It’s just cool is all.

Chris: Okay, back to the story. September of 1999.. there’s ripples in the media about this Hurricane Floyd that’s coming and it might be a tropical storm or whatever. We had been there only five months. We had some good days and some good times, but we are certain that we are not going to make it, and I am not ready to accept it as I was so determined to get this off the ground. I was…

James: Stubborn.

Chris: Too stubborn, really.

James: If you weren’t stubborn then, would you have a store now?

Chris: No. I kind of equate it to some of the fanaticism you see in musicians and artists. They have a single-minded focus, which can be taken to far, but in this case it was necessary to get to where I wanted to be.

My father and I put sandbags outside the doors of the store, just as a precaution. Everybody in the town was doing this. I had a pretty nice selection of wall books. Amazing Fantasy 15. Hulk 181. Tales of Suspense 39. I took the ten best ones. I figured this was overkill, and the water might go a few feet so I left the rest of the wall books up. Thousands of dollars of back issues. Toys. Everything.

The night they say this storm is going to hit, I sleep in the store. Luckily it didn’t hit, if it had I probably would have died. Then, nothing happened, I went home I shrugged it off and I enjoyed my day and think nothing else of it. I’m awoken the next day at about 6 or 7 AM by what sounds like an Army helicopter. I look out the window and I see two firemen floating by in a raft. It was totally surreal. They were maybe a foot below my window in their gear.

Phones are dead. Electric is off. I go to my balcony and climb out, and luckily can get to my father and brother who had actually come to get me. We go look at the parking lot to my apartment complex to see how my car is, and it is the only car you CAN see as it is floating like a top in the water. All of the rest of the cars were completely submerged.

The next day I break the law and wade through town to get to my store – avoiding police patrols on rafts. I go to the backdoor and I have to see it. I open the door and the alarm goes off and I can’t turn it off as everything is fried. I look around and it looks like a giant walked in turned everything on its side. It was destroyed. That was Wild Pig number one.

Dani: I remember waking up at 6 AM to helicopters just like you said, and going into the living room and my mother is sitting there, and all she says is “Look at the TV.” and there is Bound Brook.

Chris: So after the flood. I had no hesitation, I had to reopen my shop because it never had a chance.

James: Let’s take some bullet points on this:
One – You have, strike that, you had a comic book store for five months that wasn’t succeeding.
Two – You didn’t have dedicated reservists, and even those people that are there aren’t dedicated to a store.
Three – You have no money.
Four – You have no job.

Chris: Yes.

James: Great! I just wanted people reading this to hear what the bottom rung is for Chris Eberle.

Chris: Yes, it was a catastrophic experience. So that’s where I was. All the work that Randy and I had done for four years was for naught. Going to shows and buying back stock and hording everything was destroyed. So after that, once I got my wherewithal, I realized that the government was offering loans.

You had to go through a lot of hoops. It even took us awhile to find that information out as they weren’t spreading word around.

James: For the record, these were loans.

Chris: Correct. Homeowners received grants. Business owners received loans. I went to a meeting in the town shortly after, and many of the business owners were livid about receiving loans and not grants, as they felt they were providing an economy to the town.

The guy who was the most coherent and most competent to talk for us, and we let him because he was so articulate – but he owned a strip bar in town. He clearly had a business sense.

So nothing came of that, and I applied for the loan. It took months, and was not an easy process. So you already have all of this stress of dealing with this catastrophe, and the wonderful federal government makes you work your ass off for a loan.

Dani: And there are still buildings that are boarded and closed to this day.

Chris: It’s a ghost town compared to what it could have been. But back to the story, Randy decides that he wants out of it. He enjoyed putting the store together and building it with his hands, but he hated being there. I loved working on it, making sure everything was organized.

So I’m on my own. My family cosigns the loan, as there was no way the government was going to give me that money. My parents saw how serious and committed I was to the whole idea. Prior to the flood they weren’t sure of my dedication to it, but afterwards they saw it in me that I wanted this to work.

James: And they didn’t mind the whole dressing like a woman thing?

Chris: Now wait a minute. I painted my nails in high school, but never dressed like a woman. Except once, when some of my female friends forced me into it. I was a hideous woman.

James: I think out of the three of us at a table, you and I have probably painted our nails more often than she has.

Dani: Freak.

Chris: I never wore make-up.

James: Nor did I, I had friends who did, but wasn’t my deal.

Chris: Oh, and my hair with the shaved side and the hair down to the chin. The spiked hair with the bangs. The menagerie of horrors.

Dani: He really liked Flock of Seagulls.

Chris: Funny, I never did really like them. I listened to Jesus & Mary Chain late 80’s and early 90’s. I had this amalgamated look of Bender from Breakfast Club and Robert Smith. it was horrible. I would take gardner’s gloves and cut off the fingers…

James: Sometimes get confused and use dishwashing rubber gloves.

Chris: The worst part were the boots. First I had the boots up to my ankle with the buckle.. and I always had to have this stupid f’n buckle. Then it was the jackboot up the knee. The poet shirts with the frills – it was amazing I ever had a girlfriend in high school at all!

James: Okay, back to the story?

Chris: Right! I finally get the loan approved – it wasn’t what I wanted, but it was enough to start. I got 38,000 or so, which was barely enough. I did realize what I had done wrong though, so I was more experienced. First thing was that I needed a good location. Word to the wise, good location means excellent foot traffic and ample street traffic, preferably in a downtown area.

So it took a couple of months, but I find a small store on the outskirts of one of the most expensive towns in the state. It didn’t have excellent foot traffic, but it had unending road traffic, so I figured I would split the difference on that and take it. I enquire and get the place.

It was tiny. Exceptionally small, but I had good friends with great ideas an–

Dani: Don’t forget the inglenook.

Chris: Oh yes, the excellent inglenook for supplies.

James: Can you define an inglenook?

Chris: An inglenook is a little niche space. Where you can place things.

James: Like a closet… or your anus?

Chris: I don’t know where you get these notions, buddy? I’m as straight as they come, buster. It’s all hetero over here. You bastard… Time passes and we open the store. Everything is better. I have more money. I have experience and know what to do and how to order, which is crucial.

James: Brief note – weren’t you delivering books somewhere in there?

Chris: Oh yes! I forgot. I couldn’t close my Diamond account, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to reopen.

James: And Diamond is?

Chris: The only comic distributor for mainstream titles and things in the United States, and probably the world. So I contact my Diamond representative. They said they would hold my shipments for two weeks, but after that I would have to pick them up or close the account. I start stockpiling books in my old room, and continue to order because I still had half a dozen customers that stayed with me. I, from there, delivered the books to these people’s house. I did that for six months to keep these reservists, and still ordering for these people and a few friends. All the while ordering little bits of odds and ends for the store.

James: Did you have a job at this point?

Chris: No, I had unemployment money because of the flood. I wasn’t sitting around, I was looking for locations for the store and things.

James: Not for a job?

Chris: I was doing odds and ends for my father and other people, but there was no consistent job.

When the store opens though, some of those customers that I did that for came with and there are people that are still customers with me to this day. This was the very small base of people that I started the store with.

The location of this store was so good though. I made more money during the first hour of my initial sale on the opening day than I did my entire first day in Bound Brook. I put in place my reservist system which, I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen it’s better. People started to coming in, but it took time. There were months where I was sweating over paying bills and making sure I could keep the place open. It was tough times, but I was doing what I wanted to do – but I did have to go back to teaching.

James: So you needed to get an employee?

Chris: I did. I needed to get back to teaching. How could I run the store and teach at the same time. I needed to find someone who can fill my role in the store, but my problem was–

James: You’re a control freak.

Chris: Not in an unreasonable way. I just didn’t want a moron screwing up everything that I had done. Most kids aren’t capable of doing what I wanted them to do. They are either irresponsible or their inept. I knew Danielle because she was buying books with me because of her scum-sucking boss never giving her a discount at the Dunellen store.

So I asked her. She had been working in comic stores for three years, and knew she could do it. I e-mailed her with all of what I would do for her as a boss. She accepted – and I must say that there is no better comic book store clerk in these United States. Then came the KOREANS!

Dani: This story has such drama.. geez.

Chris: Well, it’s the way it all happened. These Koreans came in next door and opened, hah, a nail salon. Now my landlady hated them, but at the same time she was trying to sell the building. So, the Koreans bought it, but the problem was that I had no safeguards in my lease. Before the final sale takes place, I go to my landlady and ask her to add an addendum to the lease that allows me to stay open for another year. I do this because I know that once they take this building over, I’m gone. This isn’t petty, this is reality. They will throw me out and fill this store with another Korean business.

The year passes, it is now 2002. I get a letter from their lawyer saying that I am getting thrown out. I have a few months to do so. It was all very circuitous, as I they had made it apparent that they are going to let me keep the place another year. I was livid.

James: ..and Chris is very creepy when livid.

Dani: Things get kicked.

James: Like puppies.

Chris: Nooo.. but here I was now, with a month or two before I’m on the street and I have to find a new store. Literally that night I am pounding the pavement trying to find a place. Luckily, I have a customer named Chuck. Chuck will be happy we mentioned him and he is a realtor. I ask him if he knows any places, and he comes back with this place in Kenilworth.

James: For the record, Chuck is the dirtiest old man you’ve ever met.

Chris: But he’s got his own sense of style. He went to bat and he got me the place at a reasonable price. In March of 2002, we moved there. It was the comic store I always envisioned in having. Plenty of space, a big back room. It was my dream. Now let me say for the audio record that even though I sound like this concerning my comic book store, I am not fat, but have sadly only have had sex twice in the past year.

James: And during one he was used like a piece of meat.

Chris: Hey! Anyway, a few bumps aside, this is obviously the best store we’ve had. Every reservist we had came with us to Kenilworth.

…it is sadly at this time that we are cutting this interview short. You now know the legend of Wild Pig Comics. What it takes to start up your own store. What to do in a flash flood, and above all, why in Gods name would you want to open one of these things to begin with.

Now go check yourself over at Wild Pig Comics II and see it up close and personal.

Please join us next week for part two of the Chris Eberle interview, where we will talk about all of the things that a comic book storeowner talks about the CGC, Diamond Publishers, and tries to once again convince he’s not gay.