Walk into Stephen A. Geppi's office, but watch where you step.
You don't want to damage that 1938 Terry and the Pirates miniature book over there. Careful with your elbow, you might disturb the Little Lulu paint book old enough to have belonged to your grandmother. Sure, check out the Oriole Park built of trading cards, but don't bump into the original drawing of Mr. Geppi shaking hands with Superman.
In fact, on this day, an extensive comic-book collection he just acquired occupies most of Mr. Geppi's office at the headquarters of Diamond Comic Distributors, so he is temporarily working out of another spot in the building. You might say he has been booted from his office by Spider-Man and the Flash.
Which seems only fair, because they helped put Mr. Geppi there in the first place.
Starting from his weekend diversion of trading comics at flea markets about 20 years ago, back when he was working as a letter carrier, Mr. Geppi has gone on to become the biggest distributor of American comic books, supplying approximately half the market. That's good for sales of more than $200 million a year.
(And to think, just like every other American mom, Mr. Geppi's mother threw away his childhood comics collection.)
Such success enables you to operate out of nearly two floors in a striking glass office building in Timonium. It lets you indulge a childhood dream and buy a big piece of the hometown baseball club. And it also allows you to purchase a signature hometown publication, as Mr. Geppi, 44, did last month in acquiring Baltimore magazine.
Beyond saying he'll increase the magazine's size, Mr. Geppi won't reveal many of his plans for the publication. He plans to retain editor Ramsey Flynn. The editorial staff, cut under previous president Susan Souders Obrecht, seems likely to increase. The "Best of Baltimore" issue is a keeper. But don't look for many more covers that blare "Cancer City."
Q: Why did you buy Baltimore magazine?
A: Being a Baltimore resident all my life, I thought it would be a unique privilege to own something I consider so important in town. . . . The bottom line is I saw it as an opportunity to interact with the Baltimore community. I own Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest distributor of comics in the world, but that doesn't really give me a lot of opportunity to interact with the business community here. So I saw Baltimore magazine as an opportunity to do that as well.
Q: How much did you pay for the magazine?
A: Well, we haven't told anybody. The best I've told anybody is that it was in excess of seven figures.
Q: Did you view this strictly as a business venture or partly as something of a civic-minded nature?
A: It's more driven by that than it is business, though I do expect to be successful with it. I wouldn't do anything that I didn't think I could be successful with it, but it is more driven by the other.
Q: How did you get into the comics business?
A: When I was about 13, I had to quit school and go to work to support my mom. . . . I was always working. I worked at a zillion different jobs. . . . Then I got a job at the post office as a letter carrier, and I was there five years. And it was during those five years that I rediscovered comics.
I was on vacation in Wildwood, N.J., when my nephew, who's now 29 years old and a regional manager in my company, was reading a comic book. I got a tremendous nostalgic flashback, and I decided I was going to check this out. Lo and behold, I started knocking on doors of people on my mail route, and I found some old comics. The interesting thing is I found out the value of these . . . so I started doing conventions and shows on the weekends. Before I knew it, I was making more money on the weekend than I was on my job.
One thing led to another, and I decided to quit my job at the post office -- a nice, steady job -- and open an unprecedented comic-book store. I never dreamed I would make any money in the store. I thought I would just keep doing conventions and shows. But it turns out there weren't any stores in town, and I was an attraction to collectors in town and out of town. . . .
In 1980, after I opened my store in Harborplace, I started to distribute almost by default. People would come to me and say, "I'm going to open a little comics store. Can you help me out?" . . . [His distributor] was going out of business, and I saw a value in his company. . . . I made deal with him to take over the business, and suddenly I had a warehouse in Boston, Florida and, of course, in Baltimore, plus a large sub-distributor in Philly. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q: What do you like about the magazine?