Years ago I graduated from college and had to endure the shame of my generation – I moved back home. At the time my parents were living in Naples, FL and while the city is quite nice, I was struggling to find my place in it.
Then I heard of this comic book store called Bigkatts.
I immediately realized that in many ways Bigkatts had a secret identity of its own. Located in a storage facility, the store wasn’t an eyesore like so many of the businesses on the busy streets of South Florida are. Instead, it was tucked away and looking like so many other storage spaces, its exterior came off as mundane.
Then I walked inside and what I found was…wonder.
Not only were there comic books, but there were also books (new and used) from all genres, table top gaming, and all types of merchandise from nearly every type of fandom. More than that, the store was welcoming to people from all walks of life and it was a place where everyone could come as they were and feel accepted.
Sadly, I recently learned that one of the owners, Robert (Bob) Kobzina, passed away. Given that so much of the business was Bob, Bob’s wife and Bigkatts’ co-owners Christina (Chris) Kobzina and their daughter Lisa have decided to end this chapter and close the store.
Once a store is gone, it is only a matter of time before people forget that it was there. And while I can’t completely stop that, I want to take a moment to share Bigkatts’ history, its success, and why I feel it was so important to the Naples, FL community.
The Origin of Bigkatts
The store was founded in 1980 and reflecting on the start of this business, Chris explained that they initially “opened up the store because we wanted to have a business that if/when we had a family, we could have our children there. Books and comic books seemed like a good idea.” Additionally, Chris continued, “we also had 15000+ comics in our collection with another 7500 in duplicates.”
The location of the store was selected because of flexible zoning laws and the storage design of the store made it easier to load and unload the vast quantities of books that they would have to move. “We were looking for a warehouse type space and the zoning on this building was very flexible,” Chris said, “we did a lot of shows for the first five-ten years and wanted a place that made it easy to load/unload comic boxes. They are heavy. At one point, we were up to 50 shows a year and it was necessary to be able to unload and reset the shop quickly.”
Because they were a comic book store in a warehouse, the business was originally called “Comic Warehouse.” However, due to there being a “Comedy Warehouse” in Ft. Myers (which was less than an hour north of Naples) the store was inundated with calls from people confusing the two operations. “We got a lot of their calls,” Chris recalled, “‘what time is the show?’, ‘is Jessie working tonight?”, ‘Why won’t you tell me if Jessie is working tonight?’” and “a lot of very drunk people calling all of the time.”
Not wanting to be confused with the comedy club, Comic Warehouse became Bigkatts. This name grew from Bobkat, a nickname Bob’s closest friends had for him. The name did change slightly over the years. After buying another bookstore’s collection, it became Bigkatts the Book Trader, but it returned to Bigkatts a few years later. And even now, as the store is closing, there are those customers who have been there since the beginning that still refer to it as the Comic Warehouse – a testament to the loyalty that the store has earned over three decades.
When the store first opened, it capitalized on the fact that it had little in the way of competition in the Collier County area. As Chris told Scifipulse, there was “no one who sold as many comics or gaming products.” There were moments when other stores tried to enter in this market – “the Book Trader carried new comics and sold older comics at times, [and] Atomic Comic was open for a few years.” A common mistake that many people make when getting into this business is that they assume rabid fans will be flushed with cash and easy to find. In reality “it takes a lot of work and effort to sell any collectible item,” Chris said, “and a lot of patience.”
Bigkatts was able to capture lightning in a bottle. Chris, Bob, and French Delair (another long term employee at the store) know how to make the customers feel welcomed. So while they did spend money on print ads, the word-of-mouth spread about the store and they were able to quickly earn a loyal fan base.
This was an important element to Bigkatts that I always appreciated, that fact that everyone was welcomed as they were. And it was a goal that Bob, Chris, and French prided themselves for having. As Chris stated, “We always wanted everyone to have a place where they could come and talk about what they were reading and playing. With the games, Pokémon and Magic the Gathering, we thought that if we were going to sell it, there should be a place where young people should be able to play it. Everyone was welcome as long as they were respectful of each other and each other’s differences.”
“And a lot of that was Bob,” Chris recalled, “he always loved talking to people and hearing their stories. And he always had an opinion that he wanted to share.”
The culture at Bigkatts was one that was so welcoming, it accommodated to Bob and Chris raising their daughter, Lisa, and having her in the store at all times. “Having Lisa in the store always helped too because Lisa knew that the store was really hers as well. She grew up there and was very comfortable giving out recommendations on books and comics,” Chris said, “and, especially when she was younger, the people made allowances for her schedule. Tuesday night magic players all played while watching Disney videos for a long time.”
For people who rarely interact with comic books, brick and mortar comic books stores rise and fall by the store’s ability to have a welcoming environment. As Roland Mann, a Creative Writing Professor specializing in comic book and graphic novel writing at Full Sail University, stated about comic book stores: “Comic stores offer a unique cross section of the community the opportunity for equalization. Doctors, lawyers, clerks, students, black, white, red, are all equal in a comic shop. As I student I used to shop at the same store as one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons. In the comic shop the two of us were boiled down to fans of the medium. Quite simply, we loved comics and we loved talking about them.”
It is an opinion that is also shared by Rob Briceno, a professional photographer and Bigkatts customer for over twenty-years. As Briceno stated, “One of the best things about going to the Comic Book store was that the characters, and I don’t mean the comic book characters. I am talking about the people that would go in there to buy the comics. It was great to see a lot of people from different backgrounds, different point of views and for a few moments forget all that and just have fun geeking out on comic books.”
Overall, Bigkatts was a place where you knew someone cared – making the experience of shopping there so much more than just the normal consumer transaction. “All three of us enjoyed people and hearing their stories,” Chris said to Scifipulse, “And most people were happy when they left – finding the book, comic or card you were looking for makes you happy.”
Adapting to the Economy’s Ups and Downs
In regards to economics, Florida and the comic book industry share an important characteristic – there is almost no stability. Yet, Bigkatts built a loyal and consistent customer base that allowed the store to weather the frequent changes in the comics industry and Florida’s turbulent economy.
One of the many changes in comic books that Chris noticed over the decades was the increase in quality and relevancy. As she told Scifipulse, “The quality of printing, the advances in computer technology made for slicker, higher quality books and allowed for faster adaptations of ‘real world’ influences to show up in the books.”
Due to the economy’s problems being more prevalent in Florida than in other parts of the nation, many of Bigkatt’s customers were hurt and had to adjust their spending habits. “The impact of the economy was felt in the number of people who had to sell their collections [or] stop getting their books because they lost their jobs [and/or] their houses.” The 2008 market crash also coincided with the increasing popularity of ebooks. Given that Bigkatts had also become a book store over the years, books sales took a hit. “When our local economy crashed, book sales diminished greatly,” Chris explained, “[and] our book sales turned into more of a lending library where people brought back their old books and traded them in.”
Bigkatts also downsized for a short period because “we could see what was happening and didn’t want to be one of the many closing stores.” To give a sense of how badly Florida was hit by the economy’s downturn, Statista reports that in 2006 only 991 businesses filed for bankruptcy in Florida. In 2007 that number increased to 2,029 as the economy was beginning to slow down, and in 2008, at the height of economic downturn, the number of business bankruptcies in Florida increased to 3,923.
Interestingly, this economic downturn forced the store to fall back on its comic book sales. Despite book sales dipping, “comics, however, stayed constant.” As Chris stated, “comic collectors still want to physically hold on to their books.” This is in contrast to the behavior of newer or sporadic readers who, according to Chris, “will readily order digital versions [because] instead of hunting for the titles, it is much easier to go online and download all the issues at one time.”
In addition to these changes in Florida’s economy and the comic book industry, the store has also adapted to the increasing popularity of board games – a shift that forced Bigkatts to change how it approached this audience. As Chris explained, “we stopped carrying board games, role-playing games and only carried Magic the Gathering and a few other card games [because] board games and such are available at most chain book stores, Amazon and even places like Wal-Mart.” In other words, as the demand for certain board and table top games has grown, newer customers are less interested in seeking out these products in smaller stores and instead purchase them from larger stores.
Despite all of these economic obstacles, Bigkatts was still surviving and its owners were beginning to look at expanding the store again as the overall economy continued to improve. However, with Chris deciding to move in a different direction, the store will be closing down and leaving the community with less access to literature.
A Book Desert – A Community With No Book Stores?
Florida’s population is expected to only increase in size over the next few years. This increase will not only push Florida to become the third most populous state (passing New York), it is a growth that will also impact the Naples area. According to one study, Collier County’s 2013 population was 333,663 is expected to increase by 14.8% to 383,200 residents in 2020. Similarly, the county immediately north of Collier, Lee County, had a population of 643,367 in 2013. This number is expected to increase by 20.2%; bringing Lee County’s population to 773,500 in 2020.
While I personally believe these estimates are on the conservative side, it is still clear that the Naples area is growing while the number of bookstores available is shrinking. In the time Bigkatts opened till now, the store has lived on as other new and used bookstores have come and gone. When asked about all of the bookstores that have folded while Bigkatts was around, Chris doesn’t remember the exact number, but she does know that it was a lot.
While there is no single listing of all the bookstores that have closed in area, I know that since I have lived in the area two Books-A-Million stores, a WaldenBooks, and several independent bookstores, including one owned by Ernest Hemmingway’s granddaughter, Mina, have shut down.
Reflecting on how the bookstore market has changed Chris shared that “For awhile, we were the only independent new/used book store around. We bought out the original ‘Book Trader’ owned by Zena and Larry Sellers. They ran a wonderful book store. They were one of the very last true bookstores, I think.”
“Nowadays,” Chris told ScifiPulse, “most people head to Goodwill or Hospice stores for their used books.”
The last significant bookstore in the area is Barnes & Noble and with this company constantly on the verge of having to shut its doors, it is possible that the Naples area could become a book desert – an area with no or limited access to a physical bookstore.
While book deserts are rare, there is some evidence that they are becoming more common as bookstores of all shapes and sizes are closing down throughout the country. An example of this can be found in Laredo, Texas, when, in 2010, the city lost its last bookstore. At the time Laredo had a population of about 250,000 people and the bookstore’s closing meant that the nearest physical bookstore would be a 150 miles away in San Antonio, TX.
“I see it as a sad sign that our culture reads less and less,” Roland Mann told Scifipulse, “and depends more and more on sound bites delivered to them in short chunks. People are less inclined to sit down with a good book and enjoy it for hours! Sure, I think the digital revolution has an effect as well, but I think the bigger issue is the attention span for reading.”
When asked if she worries that the Naples area will one day be without a bookstore, Chris responded: “Yes, I really do. Part of the joy of looking for a book is physically being there, being able to pick something up, skim a few pages and choose. There are a lot of authors and stories out there. Without a store, how will people know about the new ones just starting? Ditto the comic books – people get drawn to the cover and want to see what it is about, or see someone buying a comic and asking them what they think? That person to person interaction and sharing is a very vital part of any bookstore.”
Do know that I am in no way a Luddite. I fully acknowledge that many book lovers in these areas will probably buy their books online. I also, like millions of others, own a tablet and enjoy reading on it. I also realize that maybe bookstores closing will inspire people to become more invested in local libraries.
But there is something about being in a bookstore that simply isn’t equaled by ordering a book online, reading an ebook, or going to a library. Being able to walk into a bookstore, knowing that I can buy a book that captures my attention while being towered over by stacks of books – each a world unto themselves – is still an experience that fills me with wonder…the same feeling I had when I first walked into Bigkatts all those years ago.
Bigkatts closed its doors for the last time on July 25th, 2014 – marking the end of over three decades of history. When asked about her happiest times in the store, Chris couldn’t help but share so many: “The magic players singing the Pokémon theme song to Lisa. People coming in and letting us know how they were. Watching parents who had been customers as children or teenagers, introducing their children to comics in our store. Helping people who swore they never read find books and comic books that they enjoyed. Being able to be together as a family and working together. Having Christmas parties with French dressed up as Santa and Bob as the Christmas elf. The brief period when we sold air soft and having a spontaneous battle breakout between Lisa, Bob and French. Celebrating our customers’ successes and just enjoying all the stories of the day.”
With this store closing, Chris acknowledged that “I am not sure what all we will do. We have been blessed with wonderful family and friends,” she continued, “Everyone has been very supportive. We will just have to see.” Though she doesn’t know what her immediate future holds, I do hope that she, her family, and the community that Bigkatts created will be able to find another place to call their own.
You can contact the writer of this piece at @nicholasyanes