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How To Fill A Niche: An Interview With Dave Pifer Of Secret Headquarters & Vacation Vinyl

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Sunset Junction is home to many, many things. There are coffee shops and a few places to get cocktails, some nice restaurants like Black Cat and Cafe Stella in addition to interesting retail personalities like Undefeated and Reform School. The grouping of these businesses exude a very specific, hip aura that is reflective of both Los Angeles and the young counter-culture the city has been known to produce.

You wouldn’t think that a comic book store somehow fits into this cool quilt, would you? What about a record store? They both make sense, in a way–and both actually are present in Sunset Junction: Secret Headquarters and Vacation Vinyl, a retail tag-teaming happening in between Hyperion and Lucile. The two stores are related in many ways from music related comics and zines to records with hefty, artfully illustrated sleeves.

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The connection doesn’t stop there: the two stores are under the same umbrella of ownership, a connection made out of a love for both worlds. Dave Pifer is one of the co-owners of the stores and is a constant presence in them as he is a dedicated fan of both worlds. He’s a smooth voiced casual guy with a beard that could easily cause him to be mistaken for an Intelligentsia regular. He sits at the front of Secret Headquarters in one of their leather reading chairs, looking into the store and greeting customers as they enter.

“People in this area are happy with this store,” Dave says as he watches visitors read. “We were hoping they would be. My business partner David Ritchie and I always talk about how comics are such a niche of a niche business. Even though it can get a ton of attention in a lot of ways, it doesn’t have hipster or cool kid attention.”

“We don’t get the same notice that a bar or a restaurant, fashion or fine art or even books get. That’s totally fine too. We wonder had we opened a different business if we would have caused any waves in this area. Since we do comics and people don’t pay attention, we were able to cause some notice. People seem to notice us on this part of town: people care that we are here.”

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As you can tell, owning a business in the Silver Lake area requires a delicate balancing of identity–and owning a comic book shop is a particularly interesting contribution to the area. The world of comics is a weird one because people always forget that they still exist despite pop culture being so entrenched in them.

“It’s funny,” Dave says. “People still come in the store–even though movies are out and there’s so much hype around comic book characters–and they will say, ‘They still make these?’ Comics can be so off people’s radar–and it was totally off mine as a kid.”

“I grew up in South Florida,” he adds, contextualizing his introduction to this world. “I first read comics a little bit in late elementary school, probably when I was under ten. Around 1985, a buddy of mine got the Dark Knight Returns and I was too young to understand the book–but I definitely was not too young to understand the art and how cool it looked. I read a few things from that guy. It wasn’t until years later that I got into comics because none of my friends were into them: it just wasn’t on my radar.”

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“It would be the very, very end of high school that my younger brother started getting into comics and I would read his. I started reading Grendel and got into that. I read a ton during my first semester of what was community college, in the early nineties. That was it: everywhere I lived from then on, I had a subscription at a comic book shop. I did that up until moving here, which was nine years ago.”

“I would say I’ve been a voracious reader since 1991,” he clarifies.

Around high school was actually when Dave met his now-partner David. “We met in ninth grade and he was in tenth or eleventh grade. At some point, we became buddies and started hanging out. We just kept in touch over the years no matter where I moved to. He had moved out to Los Angeles kind of fast after going to college.”

“We had talked about opening our own business and he had been working in skateboarding for years and years and years–and both of us were skaters as kids. We thought that we were going to open a skate shop. I was living in New York, previous to here, and we knew the plan was to move out here. New York was always temporary and we knew we’d open some sort of business in LA.”

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Dave eventually made the West coast hop at some point in the early aughts. They quickly got into retail mode, attempting to brainstorm how to make one work. “I worked in production for a while as he and I tried to figure out what to do. We started ramping up how to open your own business and what to stock and what it would look like. We did as much research as we could on how to make a skate shop work and rapidly realized it was a bad model because skate shops are lifestyle shops, which is more based in the sneakers and the gear–the soft goods. We wanted to be the hard goods, like the stores we went to when we were younger. That stuff doesn’t sell though.”

“We had taken a long time to read up on city details and didn’t want to give up because we didn’t have a backup plan. We thought to do something else immediately and David said, ‘Well, I have this idea for a comic book store.’ knowing that I still read comics and that he was a subscriber to a store and had been for years.”

“It’s funny because we hadn’t really talked about comics at that point,” Dave says, punctuating the comment with a small smile. “His idea was basically this place and he had the name, which I thought was great. That was it. I knew right when he hit me with the pitch that there was nothing else like it and we thought it could work.”

“We ran all the numbers and as crazy as it seemed it was a sound model. We kind of look at it like a mix of weekly releases and a subscription model mixed with the ease of a small purchase model like a coffee shop. If we have people coming in for the next chapter of coffee, these three dollar items, this probably could work.”

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Obviously the formula did work and Secret Headquarters has been going strong for years now. Their being the most concentrated place for comics on the East side has also lead to many different connections, one of which was actually the start of Vacation.  “We got together with the guys from Hydra Head Records because their offices are around the corner and they would keep coming in here and buying comics.”

“Over the course of years I connected Tom Neely, who does comics, with Aaron Turner, who is one of our partners next door. The two were fans of each others’ work and they talked about doing some sort of collaboration and it became a Melvin’s box set. Hydra Head released it, the box was designed by Tom, and he did a comic for it. It was a nice cool package. They then decided Secret Headquarters would be the only place that sells it–and that was the start of our doing stuff together. It came from a bit of mutual admiration.”

Thus, Vacation Vinyl was born from Dave, David, Aaron, and Mark Thompson’s relationship and was originally opened on Hollywood between Vermont and Hillhurst. The area seemed nice but, strangely, it wasn’t quite right for the store. “That location sucked which is a shame because we took so much time in the space and loved it. We didn’t even get to fill it out how we wanted to! That block is gnarly. The old Vacation space is still available, too!”

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“We weren’t strong enough for that area,” he says. “We were brand new and there is a giant tree in front of that space. It’s so silly but it made it hard to see the store. So, we moved. We did it in one day too: we were selling records in the space on Hollywood and the space here, in Silver Lake, on the same day. We didn’t even close the doors!”

Secret Headquarters and Vacation now have a nice retail relationship that provides them with a certain level of confidence given both stores’ understandable niches. There are other stores like them both in Los Angeles, sure, but they are the only ones doing it in their part of town. That said, Dave is in no way cocky about what they have: he is very aware of their relationship to other stores.

Dave also takes pride in Secret Headquarters being a bit more understated in how they operate. They have no desire to be the always working, always-on retail store many in LA have become. “Meltdown does a ton of events and Golden Apple do stuff too: both of them say yes more, which is great because there are fans for everything. We don’t do as much but, if we do an art show, it’s really great because people come out to support the artist. Those things work out great. We’re such a small space physically that it can be a pain to wrangle it all together: I’d rather spend the time finding something cool to bring in.”

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As for their record store, there is a different type of retail math for that: it’s a kind of store that works because a specific culture of patronage exists in a city like Los Angeles. “With Vacation, we were stoked because we added to this two block thing. Since we opened, ten other records have opened in the Eastside, which is insane. We have our fans but what I’ve found is that people who are buying records are going to all the record stores, period. Though everyone has their speciality, most record shoppers rotate stores. A few people would lose their minds if we disappeared but the other stores would eat up the rest of the lost income. If any of these stores start to close, there won’t be too much of an uptick. It’s a strange deal.”

Dave and David won’t be changing Secret Headquarters or Vacation: they like them just the way they are–but they do want to expand and polish what they already have. In fact, they have already started this expansion by opening Highland Park’s Thank You. “We opened in September and I’m trying to concentrate on filling out that store. We’re predominately comics in there but we are going to stock more novels, art books, photo books, and magazines: were going to make it the neighborhood book shop.”

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“We’re also going to try to publish more,” Dave says in general. “We’ve done a handful of minis and I’m going to try to bump that up more and maybe get a book out. I’d love to see, at the very least, some small comics produced. We’d definitely like to revamp the shop this year, too. We’re not exactly sure to what extent but new paint, new curtains, chairs, rugs, redoing the floor, redoing our sales desk, and on and on. We’ll close it up for a few days and reopen it to look the same but cleaned up. That’s what I’m looking at, specifically for this space.”

“This place has always been here too,” he reminds, tying Secret Headquarters back to its Sunset Junction surroundings. “We’ve entertained moving it somewhere else within two blocks of here because a space will pop up that’s larger or more interesting or has a bigger back room or whatever–but every single time we’ve said no. Before we put the record store in, we could have put Secret Headquarters in there and put the Vacation in here–but once again we decided to let it be. We don’t want to F with the mix and the energy of the space.”

“And I just like being here,” he says with a smile, getting up to attend to some business from behind the counter.

For more on The Secret Headquarters, be sure to check out their Facebook, Twitter, Online Store, and website. For more on Vacation, check out their Facebook, Twitter, and website. Both always have events too and, coming up soon at Secret Headquarters, you can check out Charlie Houston at the store on July 13, Ben Jones at the store on July 26, and their latest art show with Jay Howell on August 9. You can also check out Thank You in Highland Park, too.

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