The owner of a popular trio of comic book and anime stores in Ottawa says he’s in danger of having to close them down because of personal financial troubles that snowballed over the past three years.
Stevens Ethier and his staff are now crowdfunding online to save the 31-year-old business.
“There’s no easier way to put it. We’re down to what might be the final hour,” Ethier wrote in a long appeal for help on his GoFundMe webpage.
Ethier first opened The Comic Book Shoppe on Clyde Avenue in Nepean in 1987. He’s since expanded into two more locations; the second Comic Book Shoppe is located on Bank Street downtown and the Anime Stop, a sister store he opened in 2006, is located next to the west-end shoppe.
The three stores are popular destinations in town for comic books, graphic novels, board games and a wide variety of comic book-related merchandise, some of it rare and “high-grade,” according to one manager.
Ethier admitted that he fell behind on filing his tax returns in recent years and also “made mistakes” with some business decisions, saying in an interview on Thursday that he accepts responsibility for the situation he’s in now.
“I kind of took my eye off the ball,” the local businessman said at The Comic Book Shoppe’s Bank Street location.
But at the same time, he said a run-in with Canada Revenue Agency caused “a series of cascading financial woes” that hurt his ability to recover.
Ethier said his staff suggested he try crowdfunding back in November, but he didn’t like the idea. He’s only doing it now because he’s exhausted all other options and it’s his “only hope” to keep the business afloat.
“I find it difficult asking for money,” he said. “But I don’t know what else to do.”
A ‘downward spiral’
Ethier claims the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) told him in 2015 that he owed the government $230,000 in back taxes — a figure that triggered a “downward spiral,” he said.
The longtime businessman insists that figure is three times larger than any amount he’s ever made in a single year.
“They began demanding payments, and freezing my business spending accounts,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page. “Then, on top of that, I got slammed with fees, interest, and penalties for an amount that I didn’t have, and shouldn’t have owed.”
The amount he owed to the government was reduced significantly after the CRA conducted an audit, but the audit dragged on for more than a year and a half, he said — to the point where he wrote a letter to his member of Parliament to spur some action.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the CRA said the agency could not comment on specific cases for confidentiality reasons. The spokesperson said the time it takes to complete an audit depends “on a number of factors,” including the scope of the review, the state of a taxpayer’s records, potential delays due to missing records and consultation with other tax specialists at the CRA.
Ethier said he wasn’t able to reinvest profits back into the stores for several years because he had to transfer huge chunks of income to the CRA, leaving him with little cash to pay his suppliers.
“Fewer suppliers meant less product. Less product meant less money made,” he wrote online.
Ethier said he continued to “fall deeper and deeper in the hole,” going as far as to cash out his RRSPs and approach predatory lenders.
The local businessman claims he’s since caught up on his tax returns but needs the $150,000 the GoFundMe campaign seeks to raise in order to pay down the remaining income tax he owes and other outstanding debts, and keep the business “viable.”
“My suppliers are close to cutting me off. My rent payments are past due,” he wrote. “I’ve mortgaged my home to keep The Comic Book Shoppe and The Anime Stop running, and it looks like it still wasn’t enough.”
‘I’d be losing something that I actually love:’ Comic Book Shoppe manager
In the stores, Ethier said he’s “trimmed the fat in dozens of places,” including cutting staff. There are approximately 20-25 employees between the three stores.
He had to reduce some jobs from full-time to part-time and then didn’t replace two part-time staff that left in 2018, he said.
“It would be a bit of an understatement to say it’s a scary situation to be — not just because it’s my job, but also because it’s something that I’m passionate about,” said Aaron Kurtzer, who manages The Comic Book Shoppe’s Nepean location.
“I’ve been buying this nerdy merchandise for over a decade from this store, before I ever worked here.”
Ethier says he feels terrible about the precarious situation he’s put his employees in, describing it as “devastating.”
“I would’ve never have believed that I’d be where I’m at today,” he said. “Those people count on me.”
Ethier insists the stores’ financial troubles are not a symptom of a struggling comic book industry and says the strength of Ottawa’s comic book scene is one of the reasons the businesses have “managed to stay afloat.”
“The most profitable years that my stores have seen were 2013 to 2016. We smashed sales records month after month for almost 40 straight months. And we would still be going strong, if not for the problems that have gathered at my feet,” he wrote online.
To people asking whether his employer will “change his ways” so this situation doesn’t repeat itself down the road, Kurtzer has said he will attest that the stores have already taken “corrective steps” to “right the wrongs.” He described the GoFundMe has his employer’s “last, last resort.”
The manager said he’s also already received an outpouring of support from customers in the hours the GoFundMe has been live.
“People I’ve never spoken to outside of a work setting are finding me on Facebook and sending me like: ‘I hope you’re doing okay, I hope everything’s alright, I hope everything can work out in the end,'” Kurtzer said.
“The sense of community is something that I’ve always loved about The Comic Book Shoppe — before I worked here and now especially that we’re in this situation.”