Hey kid. This isn’t a library. Are you going to buy that, or just stand around and read?
Many superhero fans heard that admonition while looking at the latest “Spiderman” on the spinning rack in the drugstore.
It’s an attitude that has survived into the era of the modern comics shop, where proprietors (immortalized as the Comic Book Guy character from “The Simpsons”) often don’t want you to hang around.
Jami Jones was tired of that. “We wanted the place we didn’t have,” said Jones, 39, co-owner of Infinite Realities, the comic book and gaming store in Tucker.
Agreed co-owner Chris Brennaman, “We wanted to be ‘Cheers,’ but with comic books.”
Infinite Realities opened in December 2018 in a former auto repair shop, just across the street from Tucker High School. It quickly became a gathering place for fellow comic book geeks and Magic Card nerds, where younger customers could play Pokemon tournaments and older customers could sit down to marathon rounds of The Settlers of Catan.
Then came the supervillain, COVID-19, which snapped its fingers and decimated their world. The pandemic not only ended in-store shopping at Infinite Realities, it actually brought the comics industry to halt.
In March, the giant Diamond Comics Distributors suspended operations, and for the first time since before World War II, no new comics were delivered to shops.
It got worse. Free Comic Book Day, a yearly giveaway that brings newbies into the shops and serves as a kind of Black Friday for the industry, was supposed to happen on May 2. It didn’t. The comic book conventions, including Comic-Con in San Diego, and MomoCon in Atlanta, were canceled.
As shops shut their doors and resorted to online sales, Infinite Realities swung into action. It could no longer host tournaments, so it adopted a curb-service model. “It was a lot like contact-free food pickup,” said customer Marie Sumner-Lott, a professor of music history at Georgia State University and a fan of the Image comic series “Saga.”
Store owners Brennaman, Jones and Brandon Mealor worked the phones, “curated” choices for customers, and tried to stay open with drive-up business.
They also stepped into the vacuum left by the absence of the big Cons. “We were in convention season, and no one was getting a convention fix this year,” said Brennaman. So the store created an online con, streaming 30-minute interviews with artists and writers twice a day, including such luminaries as Brian Michael Bendis, primary architect of the Ultimate Marvel universe, creator of Jessica Jones, Miles Morales and many other Marvel characters.
They also drew from Atlanta’s thriving comic artist community, interviewing such locals as Tom Feister, who has worked on “G.I. Joe,” “Iron Man” and “Witchblade.”
This month, as deliveries resume, Infinite Realities has taken small steps toward reopening the store. There are still no Pokemon tournaments, but customers wearing masks can come in, 10 at a time, and surfaces are thoroughly sanitized several times a day.
“The only thing we’re not offering that we did before are the events,” said Jones, “and that breaks our hearts because we love the community so much.”
A small silver lining: Families stuck at home have been casting about for games to play with their kids. They call up the shop to say, “Hey, I’m Monopolied out. Can you help me?” Brennaman has got you covered. “Board game publishers have cool kids games that you’re not going to find in Walmart,” he said, “like Aquicorn Cove and Fox in the Forest. Parents get stoked to find out ‘I don’t have to play Candyland again.’”
Will comic shops survive? Joe Field, notable owner of Flying Color Comics in California, who invented Free Comic Book Day, thinks the answer is yes. He told Fortune magazine, “Comic book retailers are the cockroaches of pop culture.”
One thing that helps shops like Infinite Realities is the cross-generational appeal of their inventory, which has gone far beyond superheroes and Spandex.
Matt Miller, 42, of unincorporated DeKalb County, likes the fact that his 11-year-old daughter can find books there by Raina Telgemeier. Telgemeier’s graphic memoir “Smile,” about a sixth-grade girl who damages her front teeth in a fall and must deal with painful orthodontia along with painful adolescence, is a favorite in the tween demographic.
Finally, comic books, games, Magic cards, all of them offer a bit of a respite in a bizarro world of social upheaval and a global plague.
“It’s hard to talk about comics; it seems almost superficial at this time,” said Jones. “But we have to be mindful, that, yes it is escapism, but these days it’s all right to have a minute to yourself.”
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