Like any stock-market bet or Vegas gamble, the owners of a couple thousand comic-book stores in the United States try to pick the right mix of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and lesser-known book titles that might sell.

And if they don't?

"That's money sitting in a box," said Chris Brady, 38, who co-owns 4 Color Fantasies in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Brady was among the more than 100,000 people who descended on the annual San Diego Comic-Con International that started Wednesday. It's an event that has increasingly crowded out its main commodity -- comic books -- in favor of films, television shows and other pop culture that's based, sometimes loosely or not at all, on what's been printed and later sold at stores like Brady's.

There are 2,076 comic-book stores in the United States, plus another 260 or so in Canada, according to Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., which sells comic books to retail stores.

Brady said he's confident that when people want a comic book, they go to a comic-book store, he said.

"I still want my collectors and guys who have been collecting since they were 10 years old," he said.

Brady, a fan of Green Lantern, has been a collector since the age of 12. But he said he also wants his 5-year-old store to appeal to families bringing in younger readers, the next generation of collectors.

It has brightly colored shelves and a large Hulk statue inside. He makes appearances at a local movie theater where fans can get their picture taken with superheroes or have their face painted with comic-book icons.

"We want to break that stereotype of the dark, dingy dirty dungeon," he said. "I'm in business, and I want to sell things."

Judy Kemp, 68, drives to Los Angeles each week with her 92-year-old mother to pick up her weekly orders from the distributor.

Before, the cost of shipping the comic books to her accounted for about $40 of a $163 bill, she said.

Kemp opened Kemp's Komics in a cramped Riverside storefront in May -- her third attempt at being a comic-book retailer. She had another Riverside storefront from 2000 to 2006. She was in a shop in Rubidoux, near Riverside, for 10 years before that.

For the past four years she has stored her comics and collectibles in a warehouse and sold some at antique stores.

"You've got to sell a lot of comics to make any money," she said.

Raif Balentine, 43, from Ontario, Calif., was in Riverside visiting relatives when he wandered into Kemp's store on a recent Sunday.

Balentine, a collector, said he seeks out comic-book stores wherever he is and prefers shopping in person to finding collectables online.

Visiting a comic-book store and flipping through the boxes of comics is much like visiting a record store, where there's the chance of finding "little hidden treasures," he said.

Kemp has relied on word of mouth and the ingenuity of her prime customers, like Balentine, to find her store.

"A comic-book person will always find a comic-book store," she said.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)

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