“I was adamant it would work” — Nabil Homsi, Travelling Man
BY Daniel Chapman
“We started in a 200 square foot shop, filled that; moved to a shop in the Corn Exchange, filled that; went to York, filled that.
“This place – the Travelling Man Ops Area – felt huge when we first took it on. And now…”
That list misses Nabil Homsi and Travelling Man’s current shop in Leeds, and branches in Manchester and Newcastle. It also skips the imaginations filled with wonder by more than twenty-four years of Travelling Man providing comic books and games, first to enthusiasts in the know, and now to ever-growing numbers of people.
“Sometimes I get up on a morning and I just think, what is this business actually about?” says Nabil. “Because it’s more than just selling comics and games. It feels like a lot more.
“We just do such strange things, so it never feels like we operate like a normal business. I guess a lot of stores just want their customers in and out, but we want Travelling Man to be a place where people want to hang out.”
The space to hang out with Travelling Man has grown gradually over the years in terms of physical space, just as the space for like-minded comic and game fans has grown to become almost limitless on the internet. But back when Travelling Man began, it was already providing those connections before internet infrastructure made it easy.
“They were called Play-by-Mail games,” says Nabil. “I started one with my friend Simon, who is now our head buyer.
“We were in our early twenties and did a game called Star Marines. It was futuristic, based around a sort of Aliens concept; the Star Marines were going out to colonise worlds and planets.”
The game was set in the future, but today when you explain how it was played to someone from the internet-enabled generation, it sounds like something from the ancient past.
“We’d send stuff out to customers, and they’d send it back by post, with £1.50, and play a turn. It was a very descriptive role-playing game – we’d send people a scene and they’d come back and say they’d decided to do this and that. Then we’d write back and tell them what happened to their characters. We did a really detailed rule book, but it fizzled out, unfortunately.”
Future worlds and unexplored galaxies were the subject of the games and comics that captured imaginations in the late-eighties, but the reliance on Royal Mail rather than spaceships, on suburban addresses rather than intergalactic coordinates, contributed to an almost clandestine, underground feel to fandom.
“1977 was my year,” says Nabil. “My mum and dad owned a newsagents, and I remember the 2000AD comic coming into the shop with a little gift. I saw it and thought it just looked so futuristic, and I begged my mum to let me have it.
“Around the same time Star Wars was just hitting the cinema, and that was it for me: I was hooked, lined and sinkered. I went from there to roleplaying games, Dungeons and Dragons and that sort of thing, so I was a complete nerd as a kid.
“It didn’t feel like it was as accepted at that time – it seems normal now, but Star Wars was ground breaking for me. I used to always cross the street from punks, I was always scared of them! But now I think, what was I scared of?”
Nabil was far from the only kid to have been inspired by Star Wars and 2000AD, and as his fandom grew, so did the wider interest in and market for futuristic and fantastic games and comics in the UK. While Star Marines explored space turn-by-turn, Travelling Man the store was taking shape in the pre-internet universe.
“It seems weird now when you can just type something in to a computer and get it, but back then there were so few places where people knew they could get stuff from. In the background of Star Marines I was also selling roleplaying games and comics by mail order, and that started taking off a lot better.
“In my bedroom I had a couple of shelves that I was gradually trying to build up week-by-week with the stock I was carrying. It was what I wanted to do, and it carried on building up until eventually I thought, I can’t really stay in my mum’s house in the bedroom doing this all the time. I decided to get a store in Leeds, at Hyde Park corner, just a tiny 200 square foot shop.”
Travelling Man opened in a little row of shops on Headingley Lane in August 1991, between Joe’s Garage and Ged’s Barbers, near the Final Curtain second-hand clothes shop and a florist.
“It was quite a humble beginning,” says Nabil. “Comics and games weren’t as mainstream as they are now. I remember some of my friends saying, ‘Why? You’ll never make a business out of this, nobody is interested, nobody wants to buy this stuff.’ But I was adamant it would work.
“We used to get people coming from all around the country to Hyde Park corner. They’d drive from the Midlands, from Scotland, just to see us. It was quite amazing and quite humbling that people travelled so far to see us, and actually it still happens to this day.”
Of course there were always other comics and games shops across the country where fans could get their fix, but with ever-expanding choice and space at a premium, Travelling Man became known for having the right products.
“It’s hard to keep up with everything, and that’s the difficult part of the business now,” says Nabil. “At one time there were 200 comics a month, and now there are thousands. We try to be as selective as we possibly can, but to give the best choice as well – we’ve always worked to that philosophy.
“Where I’ve been lucky is in getting great people around me, and I suppose that’s where my limited entrepreneurial skill lies – I’ve always managed to get people who know a lot more than I do and have clearer thinking brains than me.”
It also helps to be serving people who are informed and enthusiastic about the worlds they want to explore through Travelling Man.
“Quite often we ask our customers what they think, because a lot of them know more about what we’re selling than we do. We’ve got an incredibly engaged customer base, probably more than in any business I can think of. There’s so much to know and learn.
“A lot of buying decisions come down to pure gut instinct. Has a comic got the right writers or the right artists? Does a game look different, quirky, interesting somehow? It’s hard to put your finger on it when you’ve been doing it for so long, but sometimes we’ll sit for ages and talk about what amounts we’re going to buy of certain games, and in the end we’ll literally write numbers down and all show our numbers at the same time.”
Such an unscientific, instinctive approach might appal a marketing executive who has just spent thousands on trend spotting research, but it works for Travelling Man – eventually.
“When Pokemon first came out we had the biggest order in the country. We had heard how big it was in Japan and we just thought, come on, let’s go for it. And it didn’t sell.
“We got this shipment of thousands of pounds worth of Pokemon, and we were just selling a few packets at a time. I thought – what have I done? I could have bought a car! I could have put a deposit on a house! Instead I had all this Pokemon.
“Then suddenly – bam. It just started flying, and I was so glad that we had such a stock – it was a limited first edition and we had loads of it.”
Such a Pokemon rush was bound to catch the attention of bigger retailers, and as the market became saturated Nabil had to look again for the next thing that would appeal to his customers. Remaining nimble, though, and keeping the customers at heart, has been crucial to remaining open.
“I sometimes think about that,” says Nabil. “Like when Borders opened up in Leeds, it was this amazing new store and they were doing graphic novels as well. You can feel a bit scared when a big chain comes along that might harm your business, and I find it hard to believe that they’ve closed down and we’re still moving forward and carrying on.
“I’ve always tried to keep a real personal side to the business. With shops, now more than ever, you have to build a community. It’s so important. We’re about to launch a comic night here in the Travelling Man Ops Area” – a first floor office space opposite Kirkgate Market – “and we’re hoping to get a few independent artists and writers together to create comics, which is something we do already in our Newcastle branch. We have board game nights here, and card game nights, and I like to think we’re genuinely building a community.
“Over the years you think – wow, Amazon, they could destroy us in an instant. But they haven’t. And I think it’s because people want something more than just the product. They want somewhere to go, and to feel part of something.”
Nearly a quarter of a century of being that place in Leeds has helped the city become a home for more comic book and game stores, and for artists: Wayne Reynolds and Ralph Horsley were both Travelling Man customers in their youth and have gone on to become internationally known fantasy artists, both still resident in Leeds. Thought Bubble arts festival was begun by Lisa Wood when she was working at Travelling Man, and helped along by Tamsin Isles, who had a standing order when she was just thirteen: “We always used to save variant comics for Tamsin,” says Nabil. “She was so polite and nice, so we’d give her exclusive covers.”
“I think I was one of only three women who were coming in at the time, back in the nineties,” says Tamsin. “I used to just think I was really lucky – wow, I got a variant again! Amazing!
“Travelling Man was great, because I’d gone into other shops and people had been really unfriendly. I’d ask a question about a comic book and I’d be met with derision – but then I found Travelling Man and I felt welcome in the shop from the start.”
That inclusiveness has become an integral part of Thought Bubble Festival, and Travelling Man continues to be a place where fans of fantasy, sci-fi, roleplay, comics, art and stories can all go, whether they’re diehard fans schooled in comic book heritage, or part of the modern, adult breed of My Little Pony converts – bronies.
“We get whole groups of people who will meet up in Leeds, and go round all the science fiction or comic book stores,” says Nabil. “We get the anime societies, the comic societies, they all meet up and come to our store.
“There’s a big group of bronies, which is something I never would have predicted. You see people marginalising them for that interest, but I’m quite open to it all. I don’t think I could get into My Little Pony myself – and I don’t think I fully understand it all!
“But I embrace it even though I don’t understand it. I’ve always liked to think I’m that kind of guy.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 17.