After serving comic book and graphic novel fans for more than 37 years, Lee Hester shut down Lee's Comics in Mountain View, the last of his eponymous brick-and-mortar stores, on March 17.
Hester said the stay-at-home order was the final blow to his storefront.
"This was an untenable situation," Hester said. "Sometimes you want to fight, and you realize that's a fight you can't win, so you're wiser to make a strategic withdrawal rather than fighting a fight there's no chance of you winning."
The Palo Alto native remembers the exact date he opened his store — July 1, 1982, when Lee's Comics was just a 700-square-feet space tucked behind a Lucky's supermarket in Palo Alto.
"It was very hard to see, and I had very few customers," Hester said.
In 1987, he opened a second location in San Mateo. Three years later, he moved his Palo Alto store to a more prominent location in the city on El Camino Real, before settling down at the 4,000-square-feet building in 1020-F N. Rengstorff Ave. by the Mountain View Costco in 2000. Gradually, Lee's Comics grew into what Hester believes was the most comprehensive inventory of graphic novels and new comics in the Bay Area.
But an "economic crunch" from 1989 to 2000, causing a decrease in sales, forced Hester to reduce the Mountain View location's space. And in 2016, Hester closed his second store in San Mateo.
"We've been struggling," Hester said. "That's why we can't survive this curve."
After the countywide shutdown, Hester also learned Diamond Comic Distributors, the sole distributor of popular comics published by Marvel, DC and many others, were no longer shipping new issues due to concerns of COVID-19, further justifying Hester's fateful decision.
With his store closure, Hester laid off the few remaining staff members. To support local comic book stores and continue his legacy, Hester sold a portion of his store's inventory to Alan Bahr and Phil Schalefer, owners of Heroes & Champions comics store at 574 E. El Camino Real in Sunnyvale.
"This is 38 years of work for me, and I didn't want it to just go, 'Poof,'" he said. "I feel like this work is going to be carried on, so that's the thing I'm happy about."
Hester will continue to sell comics through his eBay store.