It’s a whole different set of worlds located in The Factory in downtown Farmington where Ethan Smallen is the proprietor of E&A Collectables.
Starting in September of 2021, and sharing an entrance with friends Vincent and Lisa Howard at Aesop’s Treasury, Smallen’s business is located in Suite 109 and specializes in comic books and collectables that cover the whole spectrum of fiction and is a culmination of almost a decade of trading in comics and related items.
“It started off as a weekend thing doing conventions until my neighbors at Aesop’s talked me into moving into this space,” he said. “I haven’t looked back. Conventions are fun, but having reliable sales every day instead of weekends once a month makes a big difference. I’m starting to get regular customers now.”
E&A carries graphic novels, Manga and comic books, action figures and toys. Smallen said he has several commissioned artworks by mainly local artists, although a couple are from St. Louis.
“Funko Pops are my number one thing,” he said. “When they first came out, it was like ‘What are these things?’ They are vinyl bobble heads, but they span every franchise. No matter what you are a fan of, there’s probably a Funko Pop of it: NFL, NHL, UFC, Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, it’s all there.
“I have a lot of folks that will sell their collections to me. I get a lot of obscure items that are no longer available. We are the only shop in the county that sells graded books. They are sent off to a company to get graded on a scale of 1 to 10. They come back in a hermetically sealed capsule.”
As part of the décor, Smallen has Star Wars droids in various locations around the store, including a gonk droid he made out of plywood.
Having an average of 90 customers per week in October, Smallen says he gets a lot of repeat customers that come in after school and then people getting off from work about 4-5 p.m.
“I’ve had a couple from Oklahoma, several from Arkansas, and a lot from Illinois coming to the state parks,” he said. “Iowa was the farthest away.”
It’s the age of the customers that is intriguing. For Smallen’s business, the age tends to be those who are over 25.
“Over 60% of my customers are in the 25-45 age range,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of high school kids. Most of my customers are in or out of college and want to spend what little they have on what makes them happy.”
As with real estate, business value is based on “location, location, location.” Having his business in The Factory, Smallen gets a lot of collateral foot traffic.
“A lot of folks — the (Factory) Diner gets them in the door,” he said. “They come to visit family or they stop on the way to Taum Sauk and such. They find Aesop’s, they find us and the card shop.”
Another foot traffic draw took place in August with Maxcon in the Factory. Previously hosted by Vincent and Lisa Howard at the Civic Center, it was renamed Maxcon Expo and held in the corridors of The Factory.
“We had toy and comic book artists and authors in the hallways,” Smallen said. “We charged the vendors a small amount of rent to cover the insurance and advertising. It was free to the public. It was free advertising for all the stores here in the building because of all the foot traffic. We had a costume contest with over 30 applicants.
“The public voted on who their favorite costumes were. All the winners got a certificate and cash prize. I had a good time, I was dressed up as Kingpin from the comic books. I accidently became the de facto face for Maxcon 3, I don’t want to do that again. All the vendors had a good time. Customers came back several weeks later and said they had never been here before Maxcon.”
Smallen got his start in the collectable business at the age of 20 while going around flea markets with some friends.
“We found a long box of comics and was digging through it,” he said. “After this, we hit Not Just Comix in Park Hills. We started flipping comic books weekend to weekend. It was fun. I tried a flea market stall at Delassus and did all right, but it wasn’t the right time for the rent I was paying and what I was making. I started doing flea market stalls where I was finding a long box of comics and going to auctions and flipping stuff. It was more generalized. I started the convention stuff, and that’s where I really narrowed in on what I sell today.”
With such a wide open “universe” of collectables, how does Smallen know what to stock?
“I have a few friends that run businesses similar to this,” he said. “One is in St. Charles, so he is far enough away that we are not hurting each other’s business. I kind of stalk his Facebook page to see what he is getting in. A lot of it is seeing trends. Manga, the Japanese comic books, are really hot. For most folks in the area, they have to go to Arnold or Cape Girardeau to get a lot of what they are looking for.
“I also look at Barnes and Noble would be carrying. I can’t do the mass inventory, but I can see what they are selling and try to see what moves and what doesn’t. Every time I make an order I try to add something new to bring into the store. That way I can slowly expand instead of going whole hog and losing on it.”
So much of the business depends on catching and capitalizing on those trends and quickly stocking the new popular character merchandise.
“For this business, I watch out for movie trailers,” Smallen said. “Superheroes are so big in theaters right now. Black Panther is coming out soon, so I am ordering Black Panther toys for Christmas.
“If they announce that next spring we have this DC Comics movie about an obscure character, I will do my hardest to find items or books related to that character to get in store, because it’s going to be on the top of people’s minds.
“We just had ‘Werewolf by Night’ come out for the Halloween Marvel special and I was able to get my hands on Werewolf by Night #1 and get it up on the wall, get it posted on Facebook and it was gone within three days by posting it on Facebook. I follow toy stores on Facebook to see what new products are coming out.”
Having a store with a large amount of merchandise based on movies and comic book characters — some that are close to a century in existence — the question becomes how to sustain selling merchandise and keeping it fresh for new generations of collectors. Smallen gave a primer on how it all keeps going, starting with the original Star Wars movies that were released in 1977, 1979 and 1983, the newest of which is almost four decades in existence.
“With Star Wars, it was pretty much the Disney purchase,” he said. “Even though there are fans that don’t care for the new trilogy, that has opened the door to so many new television shows, cartoons, comic books; reintroducing Star Wars to the last two generations.
“As much hate as the prequel trilogy gets from 1999 to 2005, I grew up on those three movies. That reintroduced Star Wars to me as a child. Kids are going to grow up with Rey, it’s part of their childhood. They are going to search out other sources of media action figures, toys and artwork that bring up that feeling when you are a kid sitting there watching that.”
Turning to Superman, Smallen said that comic characters are often revamped every 10 to 20 years.
“In 2008-2010, they did a universal renew on a lot of these DC Comics characters,” he said. “We are getting new origin stories.
“I think there are a few runs where Superman is the same as when he was introduced in the 1930s, but for the most part, when you pick up one of these comic books, it’s going to say that his ship landed in 1994 or 1986. There’s a Superman for almost all generations.”
E&A Collectables is open from 9 a.m.–8 p.m. every day except Wednesday and can be contacted at 573-330-1803 or on Facebook.