OGDEN -- Rachel Williams owns and runs HeeBeeGeeBeez, a comic book store in downtown Ogden, with her husband, John, who opened the store when he was 18. They optimistically opened a Layton branch in 2009, but when Williams considers their future, she sees it could be grim.
"In 10 or 15 years, I'm not going to have a comic book store," she said.
Comic book publishers have been steadily introducing digital comics distribution into the market over the past three years.
The approach is still relatively new, representing only $6 million in sales out of a $680 million industry, according to ICv2, a group that monitors comics and pop culture.
But digital sales grew 10 percent last year, ICv2 reported.
And "digital is only going to grow," Williams said.
The shift to digital has spelled dark times for other markets.
Tower Records, once a giant in the music store business, went bankrupt.
Hollywood Video no longer exists in the wake of Netflix and Redbox. Blockbuster continues to shutter hundreds of stores.
And on Jan. 27, Amazon.com reported that it sold more Kindle books than paper ones in 2010. Borders filed for bankruptcy two weeks later.
On the other side of the coin, John Irsik, owner of End Zone Hobby Center in Clearfield, is optimistic.
"I think it's a good thing," he said. "I don't see a customer going straight to digital."
For one, a digital copy of a famous comic book issue is not worth the thousands of dollars a physical copy can be, he said.
"I see what they're saying, but too many people like to collect," he said.
Besides that, he and Williams agree that the experience of reading a comic book on a computer screen can never replace the tactile experience of the physical art on paper.
Nor do online stores offer the experience of a knowledgeable store clerk who can point readers to stories or art they might enjoy, Williams said.
Those leading the digital age say they are not trying to leave retailers behind.
In January, the leading digital comics service, comiXology, introduced a digital storefront for brick-and-mortar stores. The personalized website for each store would allow retailers to sell digital comics from their websites as a comiXology affiliate.
"No doubt that the industry is going to change," said David Steinberger, CEO of comiXology.
But digital comics are a mere fraction of the industry, and one that could open up comics to new audiences and "proliferate comic book reading," he said.
Diamond Comics Distributors, which sells comics to about 2,700 stores across the country, is implementing a means to keep stores involved.
DCD launches a program last July in which customers can buy a code for a digital comic from their neighborhood retailer, then go online and use the code to download the comic.
"What if Blockbuster had been more forward-thinking?" posed Dave Bowen, director of DCD's digital division.
Stores deserve a seat at the table when it comes to moving ahead with digital distribution, he said. No one is talking about eliminating a crucial part of comics retail, he said.
Even with brick-and-mortar inclusion, Williams is wary. Digital comics could ultimately mean lower prices, and at $3 an issue already, a price cut could hurt business, she said.
"Something is going to have to give. You can't have your cake and eat it, too," she said.
Jake Ruiz, co-owner of Bookshelf 3.0 in Ogden, shares her caution. If customers want to buy digital comics, why buy them from a local store when they can go online from the comfort of their homes and buy it there, he said.
But the changing times pose another threat to comics. Williams, Irsik and Ruiz agree: Comic books do not seem to be carrying over to the next generation.
"Kids don't read comic books any more," Irsik said. They seem inconvenient in a world of the Internet, digital video recorders and Redbox, he said.
Even the recent flood of comic book movies and cartoons did not translate into new sales, he said.
Steinberger offers, though, that comiXology is introducing a new application to their programs, specifically for all-ages comics, so that parents and children can browse for comic books without the concern of running into adult material.
Irsik shares Steinberger's belief that digital comics may open up the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man to new readers, who will turn to comic book stores for more of their adventures.
For example, Irsik bought his daughter a Nook with the digital copy of "The Hunger Games."
When she reached the end of the story, she asked him if they could buy a print copy so she would have a version she could always return to, he said.
The next generation, he said, could have the same experience with Batman or Iron Man, thanks to digital comics.