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Vincent Zurzolo grew up in Rockaway Beach on Long Island in the 1970s and 80s. Ever since he could remember (and before he could even read), he loved comic books.
This didn’t surprise his parents. He had older brothers. Little boy Vincent would tag along with them when they went to the neighborhood luncheonette. He bought his first comic book there when he was only five years old.
And he was hooked.
By grade school he began trading with his classmates. He’d routinely dig deep in his parents’ couch looking for spare change to buy more comics. He’d walk to the business district between 129th and 134th Streets to Allen’s, a candy store filled with wooden bins of candies and a rack of comic books. He’d walk further to 116th Street to regularly visit the tobacconist who sold comics.
Serious about his hobby, adults couldn’t help but admire this growing boy. Zurzolo remembers an elderly Chinese couple who ran a luncheonette being especially kind to him.
By the time he reached high school, he was actively buying and selling comic books. His hobby had become a small business. One by one, his friends moved beyond their childhood collections. They happily agreed to take money for their comic books. (Zurzolo used the Overstreet Price Guide to determine a fair price.)
But it was the selling that excited him the most. He remembers his first really big sale. He and his friend “had no idea what we were doing, we thought we knew what we were doing, but we were never sure,” he recalls today. “We bought an attic full of comics (Silver Surfer #4 I kept), we parceled off a portion of the collection to a dealer and made $400 each. We thought it was a lot of money.”
To give you a sense for the accuracy of Zurzolo’s then young eye, a 9.8 grade (considered “investment grade”) Silver Surfer #4 is listed with a fair market value of $14,500. Even a lesser 9.6 grade is currently bidding at $4,500. Makes that $400 seem like chicken feed.
For Zurzolo, however, the best was yet to come. But not before he nearly had the rug pulled out from under him. Not once. Twice.
Initially, Zurzolo sold only to people he knew. “I started ‘officially’ dealing when I was 16,” he says. “I bought and sold through high school and college.” Studying marketing at St. John’s University provided Vincent with several opportunities that opened his eyes. Comics wasn’t merely a hobby-turned-side-business, it could be a career.
First came the opportunity to sell to a new market. “One of the things that pushed me to pursue comic books as a full-time job was working at an internship for Gannett Outdoor Advertising as a senior in college,” says Zurzolo. “I’d bring in comic books and I’d sneak into the art department and sell them comic books.”
It was during this internship that an incident occurred that would change Zurzolo’s life. Juggling both school and the job would prove a challenge. At one point, school required he go to a conference in Buffalo to present a project for a competition. He went. He came in second place. He was disappointed. He returned.
Through a misunderstanding, his office didn’t realize he was away on school business. They thought he was skipping work. “I came to work and they all looked mad at me,” says Zurzolo. “We had just come in second place. I was heartbroken over that. The next thing I know, work was trying to fire me. I was scared. I thought, ‘I’m not going to graduate if they fire me.’”
Cooler heads prevailed. Once Zurzolo explained the facts, work understood. They didn’t fire him.
But they did change his outlook. Zurzolo remembers the emotion vividly. “I’ll never forget that moment when I realized someone else had control over my destiny—no way!” he says. “As graduation neared, I had to answer this question: Do I want to work for someone else in Manhattan—1½ hours each way in a suit—or work in my basement in my shorts and make more money.”
For Zurzolo, the choice was easy. “When I graduated, I was selling comics on the streets of Manhattan in the financial district,” he says.
Of course, telling his parents wasn’t as easy. Every kid who has been in a similar situation can imagine what Zurzolo went through. Fortunately, his parents raised their family to show initiative and work hard. “Going into business for myself was never an issue,” says Zurzolo. “However, when I graduated and told my dad I was going to sell comics, he looked at me and said, ‘I sent you to four years of college so you could sell comics?’ I quickly told him I’d used what I learned as a marketing major in my business.”
In fact, that education, as well as his own street smarts, served Zurzolo well and propelled him further and faster than a more traditional career might have. “Dealing wasn’t something I had to consciously learn,” he says, “It was something I loved doing.”
Not that there weren’t any challenges and disappointments along the way. But Zurzolo learned early and he learned quick. “Early on some people took advantage of me” he says. “One guy wanted to split a deal 70-30. After that I insisted 50-50. I also had a lot of very good support from the older dealers. They’d take me under their wing.”
Still, Zurzolo didn’t want to be just like any other dealer. He looked at his budding business and remembered a professor once told him to write down his goals. “From Day One I wrote down I wanted to be #1 and I had no idea how I would, being behind everyone else,” he says. “I decided ‘customer service’ would be the differentiator.”
“Customer service” meant he would become more than an intermediary who gets a commission. Zurzolo wanted to learn the wants and desires of his clients so, when the opportunity for a choice deal popped up, he knew exactly who to turn to.
Unbeknownst to him, Zurzolo had another advantage. Being young, he didn’t have many expenses, which meant he could afford to keep his cost structure low. This allowed him to survive (and eventually thrive) when the comic book market became saturated shortly after starting his venture. (A similar speculation frenzy occurred in the baseball card market a decade earlier.)
“Comic books had nice growth into the 1980s with the introduction of Dark Knight, Watchman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to name a few,” says Zurzolo. “In the 1990s there was an explosion. In 1994 they started printing too many and the market imploded. Vintage comic books, however, stayed popular. Different genres would gain popularity. It was a challenge not only for the publishers, but the storeowners and dealers as well. Still, no matter what the market, the shrewd observer can spot a good deal.”
Around this same time, and very early in his career, Zurzolo recognized the need to start saving for retirement. “I knew it was a smart thing to do,” he says. “All of the people I modeled myself after did the same thing. I’ve always been a good saver.”
He opened up his own 401(k) plan when most young adults his age were dependent on their HR department to tell them what to do. “I was in my mid 20s and started with putting $400 a month into S&P 500 Index Funds,” says Zurzolo. “I was very conservative with my investing. I was also saving comics, and later art, for my personal collection.”
Being nimble and young, Zurzolo was able to beat out most of his competitors. When the release of the Batman movies reinvigorated the comic book industry, he was well positioned.
There was one guy Zurzolo couldn’t beat, so he decided to join him. In 1999, he joined his friend and competitor Stephen Fishler (“the one guy I couldn’t beat”) as partner in Metropolis Collectibles. In 2007, they launched their online auction site, ComicConnect, adding related artwork and memorabilia to their comic book inventory.
But then the recession of 2008/2009 hit.
What killed the baseball card market (the 1990/91 recession) would have a surprising effect on the comic book market. “The market crash of 2008/09 terrified investors in stocks & real estate,” says Zurzolo. “Afraid of these traditional investments they moved to tangible assets like comic books, art and other physical objects.”
Investor interest brought in an increasing volume of peripheral services. Zurzolo notes, “With the advent of third-party graders, comic book movies (they’ve been great advertisers for us) and a large number of auctions, new books, etc… the comic book market has been strong this past decade,”
Zurzolo has been at the forefront of this market expansion. Through a series of spectacular coups, they have grown their business. Zurzolo hasn’t forgotten his very early decision to make “customer service” his business mantra. It has paid off handsomely.
“You’ve got to know where the bodies are buried,” he says. “We had a customer who wanted Action Comics #1 (this first appearance of Superman), so we brokered a deal. We sold it for $1 million. Another customer said the same thing. We sold that one for $1.5 million because it was a grade higher. We had a similar request for the first appearance of Spider Man. The owner wouldn’t sell it for $500 thousand, but said ‘yes’ to $1 million because he could donate it and write it off on taxes.”
When you get that kind of cred in the industry, it takes you down some fascinating adventures. Nicolas Cage’s Action Comics #1 was stolen from his Los Angeles home in 2000. More than a decade later, Zurzolo played an instrumental role in its recovery. He then sold it at auction for a record-breaking $2,161,000.
Vincent Zurzolo presents an uplifting case study of how a child penny hobby can become a teen’s hundred dollar gig that turns into an adults multimillion dollar career. What kind of advice does he offer “kidpreneurs” that aspire to do what he’s done?
“Believe in yourself,” he says. “Everything is possible. Write down your goals as they are more likely to happen if you write them down. Know what you are good at and focus on that. Find people to handle what you aren’t good at. Work hard. Work smart. Keep learning. Network. Don’t think about making a living. Think about designing a lifestyle.”
As Zurzolo’s experience shows, and as he enthusiastically admits, children learn a lot from their parents’ actions. He tells parents, “The most important thing for a parent to do is to tell—and more importantly show—your kid that there’s nothing off the table, nothing they can’t imagine doing.”
Perhaps most telling, Zurzolo listens to his own advice. He’s always looking for new and better things, especially when it comes to his retirement portfolio. When he saw a gap, he filled it.
“One regret I have is that I didn’t buy more real estate earlier in my life,” says Zurzolo. “I took a course on real estate to understand how mortgages and refinancing works. It was a foreign language to me. If I knew more earlier, I would have made some great moves sooner. As of right now I own three properties. Two are investment properties that have rent rolls coming in. I look at these as another piece of my retirement plan. Diversify. Take some chances. Precious metals, comic books, original comic art, collectibles, there are so many categories to choose from.”
To think, this all started by scrounging beneath the cushions of his parents’ sofa for a few spare pennies.
June 11, 2019 at 11:44AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs