Steve Geppi: Comic book HERO Timonium firm is dominant U.S. distributor

August 22, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Mike "Toodie" Geppi likes to tell the story of how his kid brother once passed up a chance to buy a Superman No. 1 comic -- now worth at least $65,000 in mint condition -- from the proprietor of a store near their home in Little Italy.

"He was having a fit," Mike Geppi says of his brother Steve, then about 10 years old at the time. "He thought he was being ripped off because the old man wanted to sell it to him for $5."

Steve Geppi blew that deal, but he hasn't blown many since.

Starting with a single comic book shop on Edmondson Avenue, Mr. Geppi has built a pulp powerhouse that dominates the U.S. comic book distribution industry.

His Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors holds the largest market share in a $500 million-a-year industry. He's been projecting $220 million in sales this year, but that's probably too low because this summer Diamond bought the largest comics distributor in Britain.

Now, with a fortune built on comic books, Mr. Geppi, 43, is buying himself a chunk of the Orioles -- he's part of the syndicate assembled by lawyer Peter Angelos to keep ownership of the team in Baltimore.

Mr. Geppi is one of the lesser-known members of that group, which includes novelist Tom Clancy, television announcer Jim McKay and tennis star Pam Shriver. But in the comic book industry, he's the equivalent of the computer world's Bill Gates.

Diamond "could be the single most important entity in the industry," says Steve Massarsky, whose company publishes such popular titles as "Magnus: Robot Fighter" and "Turok: Dinosaur Hunter." Mr. Massarsky, chief executive of Voyager Communications, has been selling his comics through Diamond since 1989, and describes Mr. Geppi as the industry's marketing and distribution leader -- as well as its "historian and keeper of the comics flame."

Nineteen years ago, Mr. Geppi was a mailman with a wife and a child but no college education. He did, however, have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books, a boyhood enthusiasm that was reborn at age 21 when he saw a comic book his nephew was reading.

"I got this tremendous nostalgic flashback in my mind," he recalls.

Before long, Mr. Geppi was asking people along his postal route if they had any old comic books. And he began to hawk comics at weekend gatherings of collectors -- where his earnings from such wheeling and dealing soon outstripped his postal pay.

In 1974, he took his chances on what he saw as a growing demand for old comic books. He quit his secure job with the Postal Service to open his first comic book store, paying $100 a month rent for a shop in the basement of a television repair shop.

"Everybody told me I was crazy," he said in a recent interview in Diamond's gleaming new headquarters building off Interstate 83.

Mike Geppi, five years older than Steve, recalls that when he heard of his kid brother's plans he went to him to express his concern. "He said, 'Toodie, I know what I'm doing.' I told him if he ever needed help to come to me. Well, he never needed my help."

By 1980, Steve's business had expanded to three stores and was going so well that Geppi's Comic World wangled a spot for its fourth store at Harborplace, the crown jewel of Baltimore's urban revival. It was an odd choice for such a high-profile location -- comic dealers were regarded as low-end operations dealing out of marginal locations.

Mr. Geppi still remembers the opening date: July 2, 1980. It was a nervous time. "Nobody had a clue to how well we would do," he said. But when Harborplace opened its doors, "it was like we were there 20 years." Soon the Harborplace store was putting up some eye-popping numbers, and it continues to do business

there today.

An American art form

Mr. Geppi, who calls the comic book an American art form, doesn't look like an industry titan. Even in an expensive suit, there's more of the mailman than the mogul in this shortish, grinning man with a character actor's face, Perry White physique, and mile-a-minute patter.

But in 1982, Mr. Geppi made a Fateful Decision that turned him from humble local comic retailer into Diamond Man.

With one of his main distributors on the brink of bankruptcy, Mr. Geppi decided to move into wholesaling -- largely to ensure that his stores had a continuing supply of new comics.

He named the business Diamond Comic Distributors, after the small diamond symbol that comics publishers put on their covers to designate books printed for distribution in the "nonreturnable" market. Ironically, Mr. Geppi says, publishers dropped the symbol a month after Diamond began operating.

The distinction between returnable and nonreturnable comics was important, though. When Mr. Geppi started Diamond, most comics were distributed through drugstores, convenience stores or other retailers who returned the comics to the wholesaler if they didn't sell. Retailers were protected against loss, but their profit margin was thin because dealers charged high prices to cover the costs of handling returns.

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