A tale of two comics shops

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The comic shop profile is a staple of newspaper coverage of the comics industry and two recent store stories point to the past and the present of comics retailing pretty sharply.

AM COMICS A tale of two comics shops

From Miami, we have A&M Comics, voted the Best Comics Shop locally, and one of the oldest comics stores in the country — in the top three, says the piece. (We’re a little dubious about that — what say you, group mind?)

When you walk into A&M Comics on Bird Road, you might think that you’ve walked into a taping of A&E’s Hoarders. It’s stocked from ceiling to floor with comic books, collectible figures, T-shirts, and posters. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the array of comic book paraphernalia, and even the owner admits that there is no kind of inventory taken, per se.

A&M Comics carries collectibles that are hard to find anywhere else, such as an original Cuban cavalry uniform from 1943, a Superman #10 signed by its creators Siegel and Schuster, and original Peanuts animation cells. Good grief. The shop even carries antique dolls, although Jorge’s biggest clients are still comic book fans.


As you can see from the photos, the Hoarders comparison fits a little too snugly — complete with a pizza box from God knows how long ago. Coming from the ’70s, A&M truly represents the proto comics shop as it sprang from the Cambrian ooze — an antique store for printed comics.

And from Albuquerque, NM, we have Astro-Zombies and owner Mike D’Elia, which represents a more modern variation of the comics shop as neighborhood social club/bookstore:

D’Elia wanted to re-create the social atmosphere in comic shops that he said has dissipated over the years, combining amiability with expansive product knowledge to nurture friendly employee-to-customer relationships. “Most people start out as customers and become friends with everyone that works here,” he said. “We’ve done things like go to the movies to see a new comic book movie come out with like 40-50 people. It becomes more of a social atmosphere. Other than the fact that we have a large enough store that we can allow people to come in and interact, we’ve got people who come in here who have never met, and they can talk for hours.”


The story didn’t have any good pictures of this store, so we plucked one form the Astro-Zombies website.
201009070358 A tale of two comics shops
As you can see, a different style, or even evolution, one reflective of the change in comics from a collectible to a readable.

That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be some fun in poking around A&M Comics, looking for buried treasure. There are a few stores even in Manhattan that resemble the A&M model. But we prefer the Astro-Zombies look: it’s not only sociable, it’s socialized.

What’s your local comics shop like? Is it an A&M or an Astro-Zombie?

Comments

  1. Al™ says:

    Around here, comic stores follow the Astro Zombie model, in that they categorize their books and sweep the floors.

    But not so much in the social atmosphere or ‘interactive bricks and mortar’ scene. The only get-togethers are on Free Comic Book Day, where the long term regulars brush elbows with families of young children, out for some free cake and comic glomming.

    Staff range from the ‘mostly daydreaming’ to the ‘I will follow you around the store’ type.

  2. Hanley’s is more bookstore, Forbidden Planet more tradiotional comics shop, and Treasure Island the proto-shop, where comics are just a part of paper and pop culture ephemera. Half used bookstore/antique store, half comics shop, as TI does carry new comics.

    Kanesville Kollectibles in Council Bluffs, Iowa, sold LPs along with comics collectibles (but not new comics), while The Dragon’s Lair in Omaha once sold movie posters before concentrating on games and comics.

    As for evolution, I thnk most older stores came from the antique/flea market community. Some were comics fans, others were nostalgia merchants. A few migrated from science-fiction retail, as gaming, comics, and SF fandoms overlapped.

  3. Steey Dan says:

    I generally don’t like the design of Marvel’s books from an aesthetic point of view, but I have to give them credit that, even without being able to read the text on the spines in the photo from Astro Zombie, I can tell which books on the shelf are published by Marvel.

  4. David T.G. Riches says:

    I understand the dichotomy between the two places. My favourite local comicbook store that I have been a patron of since it opened 23 years ago recently announced they were closing. 20 years ago they expanded to upstairs taking over the space of a small theatre and placing all their overstock on display. At various times the upstairs looked as some would say to something out of hoarders to that of organized nirvana and back again.
    That place some called the smallest comic shop in Toronto is Excalibur Comics at 3030 Bloor Street West will be sorely missed for the character of the place and the person who ran it during all that time owner Rob Chin.

  5. I can’t believe The Beat blogged about a comic shop that didn’t close down, get robbed, shot at, catch fire, or its owner arrested for child porn!

    Good job!

  6. I’ve had a few “local” shops. Ann Arbor, Vault of Midnight definitely follows the AZ model, though they have a funky basement space for digging through the old issues crates. The late Rocketship, in Brooklyn, was even better, with a more intimate feel and even more of an emphasis of what you call comics as a ‘readable’. If they’d slapped a coffee machine in that joint, I would have spent all day there. Quimby’s in Chicago is a bit darker and funkier, but still nowhere near A&M. And one last one, also sadly defunct, there was a brilliant little comics shop in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. It sometimes tended toward the hoarding mentality, but the selection of indie comics was always top notch and again, it was in that AZ/Hanley’s mold of clean, well-lit places that didn’t assault you with fanboy misanthropy. I miss that place. Oh, and a shout out to St. Mark’s Comics!

  7. Growing up we had about 45 minutes of highway between the homestead and the comic shop – Grand Slam Comics in Olean NY – was definitely the former. One big wall of comics, all loose and starting to fold over on themselves, long-boxes tucked every which where, a rack of gaming manuals, toys on the top shelves and more vintage, silver and golden age stuff on the walls. The place was packed. For brief time, just about the time Valiant was launching, another shop – Athena’s World – opened.

    For a while Athena’ was just a small room in an office building, but eventually moved to a nice, incredibly prominent location on the main stretch, directly across from the mall (which was possibly the worst mall ever, and I HATE malls). Athena’s was the first place I ever saw Solar #10, with the black cover, and a $110 price. Grand Slam had been around for a while, but its location wasn’t as ideal during those boom years. It sat on a main street, but with less parking (unlike the promenade fronting Athena’s) and more commercial traffic. but once the gimmick market flattened, Athena’s couldn’t hang on. They tried to tap into the MtG market, but here Grand Slam had the advantage – a dank, musty basement – the perfect place for high schoolers like me, the St Bonnies kids, and the local fanboys to flip and tap to our hearts content.

    Looking back on it, I feel the whole situation was really as much a matter of location, or at least reflective of it. Olean was a minor oil and railroad town, along with manufacturing until the 1950s, but has declined pretty steadily since then. It was rust belt, and if there is one thing I’ve always found to be true of the rest belt, it’s that the residents and businesses love that mystique, that forlorn romantic vision, but the effect is that they would rather spend more time bemoaning the bygone golden era than actually trying to forge a new identity.

  8. The problem with the direct market is that too many comic shops look like the photo on the top and not enough look like the photo on the bottom. If the shop in Miami is anything like the other shitty comic shops I’ve been in, not only does it look like a disaster, but it probably smells bad too.

    The one comic shop near me not only looks cluttered, messy and dusty, the shop owner chain smokes cigarettes. The place reeks.

    Shops like these create a shopping environment that only the most uber comic geek will tolerate. Even I wont step foot in my local comic horder-style shop. You can forget about expanding the base with there are too many shops like these.

  9. James Van Hise says:

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    There was a comic book store like that near me and the whole shop stunk of cigarettes even though in California it is illegal to allow smoking inside a business facility, but the owner didn’t care. The store closed when the owner had a stroke and was found dead on the floor by an employee.

  10. The Atlanta area shops that I’m familiar with tend to be a mixture of both. Most are well maintained, well stocked, and (relatively) well organized, but each of them has a corner or two where you will see a stack of long boxes that they just don’t seem to know what to do with. One that I went into recently had a long box that had a note on it that said “If you aren’t , then these aren’t your comics, so don’t touch.” Or something along those lines. It was very odd.

    As for social things, the store I go to mostly (Galactic Quest) tends to have activities beyond the usual Magic/Pokemon/whatever tournament. They’ve had local bands come in an play. I think one of the two branches used to do a movie night (not sure if this is still true).

    They also seem to do a good job of staying active in the community. They put together a comic art exhibit at a local museum a few years back. Just a week or so ago, they set up a table at a local book festival. For the past few years they’ve also done a drawing comics tutorial for the libraries in the metro area. They do what they can to promote the store and comics in general rather than just sitting behind a counter reading the latest Spider-Man.

  11. It has been years since I went to A&M Comics, so I can’t really provide any context to the picture. It was also on the other side of town for me, so I didn’t go there week-to-week.

    That said, everyone loves “hole in the wall” stores because they are a find. They make the buyer think that they’ve discovered something that they can call their own.

    Nothing against A&M or stores like it, but as a regular week-to-week comic book store, the “hole in the wall” can get tedious.

    I don’t like shopping on top of other customers in a store the size of my cubicle. I’d like to be in a store that has parking. Is easy to get to. Has more than one person working the register and doesn’t make me feel like I’m in a dirty book store circa 1978.

    Take Austin Books here in town. They’ve been in business since the late 80’s (maybe longer). They started as a small “railroad” style storefront and then slowly expanded and purchased additional space (and then did massive amounts of reconstruction).

    The result is a very clean store with tons of space for a diverse amount of product and they keep it running with a knowledgeable staff (multiple people on the floor at any moment) and frequent events.

    Another store in town, Dragon’s Lair (which has also been in business for years), moved locations two times to expand and add space to their store. It’s more of a gaming store, but it’s polished and professional.

    Older stores can innovate and they can be successful (and look more like the Astro-Zombies model).

  12. Mr. Knav says:

    I have to say being in LA, one is spoiled by at least three great comic shops and each of them is quite different from the other. You have the classic Golden Apple on the west side, which is a classic superhero-centric kind of place. Quite cleanly arranged, but you know what you’re getting when you walk in.

    Then there’s Meltdown Comics on Sunset, which is more of the modern comic readers type of place. Lots of mainstream books, yet filled to the brim with art and indie comix. A plus: lots of shelves with comics organized by author or publisher.

    In the same vein in Silver Lake, is the Secret Headquarters. I would argue that you won’t find another shop like it. It’s laid out more like a classic book store with minimal shelving and a fantastically curated selection of books. You can find your New Avengers, but you’ll also find the latest collected Moomin lurking about.

    The one thing they have in common: organization. I’ve walked into a store like A&M and while I could spend some time there, it becomes an overwhelming museum of pop culture. My eyes can’t take it.

  13. In Boston/Cambridge, comic shops all used to look A&M. Now they all look like Astro-Zombies. Nostalgia aside, I think that’s a major improvement.

    Now, if retailers can figure out that clean accessible stores are good for business, why can’t comic publishers figure out that clean, accessible comics would also bee good for business.

    Fun post. I love seeing shop interiors.

  14. The store I’ve been going to for over a decade, The Comic Connection, used to look like a crowded version of Astro-Zombies. Great selection and clean, but over time it became too much stock in too little of space. Thankfully a year or more ago, they took over the store next store, knocked down a wall, doubling their size, so there’s now plenty of room to move around. They have a really great selection of trades, which the always sell at a discount, which keeps me coming back to the store despite the fact that I live closer to other comic book stores.

  15. Eric H. says:

    Clint’s Books and Comics has been open here in Kansas City since 1967. So I don’t think that A&M “opened in the mid 70s” is the “oldest” comic shop in the country unless Florida is its own country.

  16. Doug Wallace says:

    In my area of Ontario, Kitchener/Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph, there are about 500,000 people and 5 stores that sell comics. Carry On and Lookin’ For Heroes are evolving from pre-cambrian to modern, they are about half way there. Back issue bins and monthly comics are the thing they do, GN’s/Trades are new product lines. J&J’s is more like a grim Wal-Mart, or a Home Hardware, than a hobby store: aisles stacked high, and a terrible comic selection; I shouldn’t even include them. Retro Rocket is a more modern clubhouse feel, but lacking still. The Dragon, in Guelph, is by far the best comic shop in the area. A finalist for the Eisner, they are the modern comic/hobby store. Clean, bright, located in an upscale urban shopping area, and they host a wide variety of events and signings. They promote their kids section like few other stores I know of, and have the reputation of being the place to go for great kids comics. They have begun monthly kids comic art classes, inviting top creators into the store to teach comic art to kids. They participate in literacy festivals, sponsor and participate in a national comic award, and work with libraries and schools to put comics into classrooms and reach reluctant readers. It’s a bit of a drive, but well worth it.

  17. A bit off-topic, but I couldn’t help but notice a comment by each of the store owners that really bugged me:

    A&M’s Jorge Perez: “…[creators] put their stuff on the internet, which is good and bad. They get published, but they lose control of their work. People can take their ideas.”

    You hear that kids? Don’t put your ideas on the Internets because people will steal them!

    And from Astro-Zombie’s Mike D’Elia: “…the shop opened 11 years ago in conjunction with a growing trend in comic book movies that D’Elia thought would adversely affect his business. “It was something I was kind of fearful of,” he said. “I was like, ‘Great, they’re going to do this whole thing like the last time with comic books movies, and they’re going to destroy comics and close more stores and destroy the industry.’”

    Um, yeah. Because the comic book movies of the mid-90s destroyed comics, closed stores, and destroyed the industry.

    Sorry, sorry. I promise to be more positive with my next post :-)

  18. Alexa says:

    @Jay – I agree. I came to Comicopia in Boston after shopping at That’s Entertainment in Worcester for years. While That’s E. isn’t nearly as bad as A&M, Comicopia was such a breath of fresh air in the AZ vein, even my own hoarder tendencies don’t miss That’s E.’s selection and atmosphere that much.

  19. Jim Sheridan says:

    Cave Comics in Newtown, CT, is not really a cave. It is a homey place that is neat and organized but does not look new or corporate. They traffic mostly in superhero stuff but get enough alt material (esp on their bookshelves) that you can find some more esoteric material. I love the idea that a store can foster a sense of community, a scene – this place is OK for that, though the scene is more the role-playing gamesters.
    I do wince when anyone there starts talking politics. Otherwise I love it. The woman who runs it started setting aside books for me without my even asking her – how can you beat that?

  20. @Alexa Comicopiais a beautiful shop. I’d recommend JP Comics and Games too.

  21. Kat Kan says:

    Neither of my LCS’s look like A&M. The shop where I have my main pull list, Comic Emporium, has a gaming room that takes up almost half the floor space, but everything is racked or shelved neatly and is pretty well organized. The other shop, in its first life was the prototypical man-cave, Comic Guy dank and icky space, but I have since learned it became that way when the owner grew too old and ill to really take care of it, and he couldn’t find a buyer for years. A former worker came back to town several years ago, bought the stock, and relocated to a nicer, more open and light space. The shop’s focus is on comics and some collectibles, but there’s also a wall of graphic novels shelved neatly, a small back room for gaming, and a friendly and open feel. Arena Comics has an artists’ night every Tuesday, where local artists of all ages get together and just draw and have great conversation. Arena also worked with the local library for its first “Creative Con,” organizing the artists to do free artist cards and finding people to participate in the evening’s panel. I was part of that as well. For a small community, I think we’re pretty lucky to have two shops. They’re both small, but everyone is friendly and helpful.

  22. thomas mckinnon says:

    Back in the late 80’s, I worked at Fantaco that was a hoarders style comic shop witha publisher in the same building. You could find weird treasures in strange places throughout the store. Now I stop at Alternate Realities in Scarsdale, NY, it is nicely organized, but it has a friendly vibe to it. The owner, Steve is a former Fantaco customer.

  23. I forgot to mention Krypton Comics in Omaha. They are mostly superhero-centric, but have evolved into a nice mall-based comics shop with a large number of events, a kids section (with chairs!), artist jams on Saturdays, extensive back issues and graphic novels, and some of the best FCBD events! (And Dean Philips is a member of ComicsPro!)

  24. Ryan S. says:

    Apparently I live in the same town as Noah Kuttler, and I can say only positive things about Austin Books. I’ve watched the shop change hands since I first visited circa 1986 (it’s been open since the late 70’s), and grow under the direction of current owner into one of the best, most professional shops I’ve visited. It was never out of control, but I can say that the store seems to be continually improving.

    Its not just that the store is laid out well, inventory is well displayed, and they make a special point to clear out stock that would make the place look like “someone’s basement”, the staff is professional and knows their stuff.

    I know they have some sort of warehouse-ish part of their footprint that I assume is a bit more of a mess, but its behind closed doors.

    Austin Books’ local competitors generally don’t have the same expansive stock, but I think they all keep each other honest, ensuring that the shops in Austin (mostly. Junior’s is a trainwreck) tilt much more toward Astro-Zombies than A&M. And that’s good for comics in Austin.

  25. Alexandra says:

    “…As you can see from the photos, the Hoarders comparison fits a little too snugly — complete with a pizza box from God knows how long ago. Coming from the ’70s, A&M truly represents the proto comics shop as it sprang from the Cambrian ooze — an antique store for printed comics….”

    It’s also like some non-comics stores, such as this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27528906@N04/3358900353/

  26. Alexandra says:

    “…I know they have some sort of warehouse-ish part of their footprint that I assume is a bit more of a mess, but its behind closed doors…”

    Oh, that’s part of *how* organized retail stores stay organized and uncluttered. They need to put their surpluses, not-yet-opened shipments, etc. *somewhere*. :)

  27. Matt Duarte says:

    Kinda late to this party, but I lived in Miami for quite some time, and I’ve been to A & M. Yes, it always looks like that, good luck trying to find anything. That being said, at least the owner has good taste in pizza, because I think that pizza box is from Casola’s (best place in Miami).

    Miami has a lot of comic shops, but they are all on the fringes of the city, so for someone like me that didn’t have a car, there weren’t many options. A & M was one of them, and Mac Comics was another one, which was a small improvement (you could actually walk around the store). Most of the other shops concentrated on other material (manga, trading cards, statues, etc.) and had a very small selection of comics.

  28. you forgot to mention that the owner of A&M was under suspicion of theft as that signed superman was missing from a dead customers collection that went missing once someone broke into the house and helped themselves to the dead mans goods bypassing police tape. That same collection somehow “Found” its way to the owners hands and onto his shop walls.

  29. Long time costumer of A&M comics, and I can attest its worse then the photos make it seem its like that packed to the gills. A lot of busts and statues for those whom collect those, as well a huge amount of back issue both mainstream and indie. They do have great costumer service, for instance if you need a book or something that was not on your pull list you wanted anyway, they will go above and beyond the call of duty to help you get it.

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