An Iowa man's super-powered dream fails against small business realities
Ronnie Free is chasing the American Dream of owning his own business. The 34-year-old opened Black Medicine Comics, which joins several other Des Moines area comic stores. Find out what makes his shop special. Bryon Houlgrave/The Register
Sometime after 7 p.m. Saturday, after the Drake Relays traffic has dispersed, the starter's pistols have gone silent and Drake University students and alumni prepare for a raucous night of partying, a sad and quiet ceremony will take place at 4817 University Avenue.
Ronnie Free, owner and lone paid employee of Black Medicine Comics, will snub out a hand-rolled cigarette and drag in a hand-painted black-and-white sandwich board sign with the business' name from the sidewalk for one final time.
Black Medicine Comics, the little shop that almost could, will close for good after just more than a year in business.
"By all metrics, the shop is growing," Free told me on a recent night after hours. "But in a year, the best I've done is break even. I've never been able to pay myself."
Free knew the end was nigh in early January, but held on to make it a full year.
He knew opening a one-man shop on the second floor of a nondescript office building next to a tombstone shop and a hardware store was a risk.
But Free loves comic books and loves selling them to people. He sold comics at both incarnations of Cup o' Kryptonite, first on Fleur Drive and later in Beaverdale.
When the Cup morphed into Capes Cafe at the Des Moines Social Club, Free went his own way, selling comics online under the Black Medicine moniker — an old-fashioned term for coffee, another of Free's passions.
Free decided to take a chance at a brick-and-mortar retail store in the same office building as a hairdresser, tax accountants and the tattoo shop where his wife, Molly, works.
He limited his inventory to comics and a few select graphic novels and trade paperbacks. He kept a lean inventory.
He sold no toys, games or other pop culture accouterments that are more profitable than single issues of comics.
But Free operated on low cash flow in a cramped space. He couldn't afford to have merchandise sit for months unsold the way larger retailers with more space and buying power, such as Jay's CD & Hobby and Mayhem Comics and Games do.
Free also couldn't compete with major online retailers such as Amazon.com, which often sell new trade paperbacks and graphic novels at 20 to 30 percent discount.
If he tried to match those prices, he would make only a few dollars off books with retail prices of $40 or more.
I mourn the loss of Black Medicine Comics, though less for what Free sold there than the environment he created.
It became an unofficial meeting place for a small, loosely connected band of pop culture connoisseurs, a gathering place to chat about not only the latest comics and movies but politics and society.
I often winnowed away after-work hours in one of the shop's two chairs, chatting with a collection of people I would have otherwise never met.
There was one guy with a ponytail who carried 20 knives at any given time and could tell you the purpose of each one.
There was the grandfather from Dubuque, a retired Wisconsin schoolteacher, who came on Saturdays to talk comics and pick up a few books.
There were the seamstress and crafter who once made me a custom Wonder Woman throw pillow out of a T-shirt and pressed me buttons of some of my favorite pop culture characters.
There was the would-be firefighter who detailed his training regimen for the upcoming Des Moines academy and the soft-spoken lawyer who griped about the flaws in state courts.
Free was socially conscious. Of American Indian heritage, he gathered clothes, food and financial donations for protesters of the oil pipeline running near Standing Rock in the Dakotas.
Free gave away old comics free to small children and introduced superhero-addicted buyers like me to more artsy and experimental titles.
And, as always, there was a pot of hot coffee, free to visitors.
But what made it such a wonderful commune of genre culture did not make for great business.
Free survived a year. Only about a third of small businesses survive their first two years, and more than half fail within five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"Those first two years are the toughest," said Dave Lentell, spokesman for the SBA's branch in Des Moines. "You can have the best first year and be going gangbusters and then something happens in that second year, and bang, it's over."
Free didn't make it that second year. He wanted to, but he and his wife have two young children. It was time for him to bring money in to support the family.
It's a strange thing. The city of Des Moines is offering incentive packages to Federal Home Loan Bank and Voya, both big businesses that are moving a few blocks and renovating.
But Free could never quite find the help he needed. He considered small business loans but was told to establish himself first. He considered other loans, but his cash flow wasn't big enough.
And, so, like a comic book canceled in the middle of its adventure, Black Medicine closes Saturday.
Free meets the end with melancholy. He is sad to let go of his comic shop dream, but he delights in the memories made there.
"I'm proud of what I accomplished here," he said. "I'm ready to move on."
Daniel P. Finney, the Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.