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Tales from the Comic Crypt

The nearly hidden comic book shop has survived for years thanks to customer loyalty and an industry that refuses to go digital.

Drive along too quickly and you’ll likely to miss the sign, settled among a collage of colors and fonts and sharing space with a combination architect and planner and a company that installs automation controls. Even if you happen to know where you’re going, actively seeking it out, the blackened windows facing the street can be a deterrent to the uninitiated, giving the place a kind of shades drawn, do not disturb vibe.

It’s the Comic Crypt, a place for the collector, the lifelong fan. It’s off the beaten path on White Street, without a prominent downtown location or backing from a prominent filmmaker. Located on a corridor without any other retail and virtually little promise of the walk-in customer, the Shrewsbury comic book store could be considered a hidden gem. That designation suits them just fine.

“Most of our guys like it that way,” Crypt owner Brian Stretton said. “No one just wanders in without knowing that we’re here before hand.”

Stretton has been owner of the Crypt for four years, working as a clerk at the store prior to purchasing it from the previous owner. It’s not a surprise that the shop has been able to stay in business for as long as it has, even with what could be considered a retail-unfriendly location. Attracting window shoppers isn’t how real comic shops do business anyway. This is something he knows. The guys who shop here are guys just like him, avid childhood comic book fans who grew up to become avid adult comic book fans.

And while the notion of comics as a children’s medium has long since been squashed thanks in part to the artistic evolution of the form and its now-ubiquitous place in popular culture, Stretton isn’t willing to give up on those things that helped draw him to the industry as a young fan. The interactions between fans, the discussions about story arcs and characters and alternate timelines, and simply hanging out is what keeps his customers coming back.

“This place is like a clubhouse,” he said. “I’ve tried to create the best atmosphere. I’m willing to talk (comics) with anyone, and people who come here feel like they’re really welcome.”

It’s that kind of communal approach that defines much of the comic book industry these days, Stretton said. During the comic book boom of the 1990s, shops opened up all across the country by people who didn’t read comic books. Similar to the massive music stores that popped up in malls and retail centers, corporate comic book shops attempted to strip the industry of its personality. However, like those music stores, comics as fast food failed, leaving stores like the Crypt behind and returning the balance to the comic book universe.

“Loving comics is integral. If you don’t love it, get out,” he said.

It was his love of comics that lead the 34 year old to turn what had been a passion into a business. Starting work in comic shops as a clerk, Stretton was eventually given the opportunity to own one of his own.

The way Stretton describes his acquisition of the Crypt is as if he were handed a torch. He paid for it, of course, got loans from family members who knew with his knowledge of comics and the industry that he could make it work, but Stretton considers it, in many ways, as if it were bestowed upon him, a gift of fate like Thor’s hammer or Green Lantern’s power ring.

“The previous owner was a great guy. He was my Obi Wan,” Stretton said, likening the guy who sold him comics to the Jedi Master. “I had been to stores, had guys not give me the time of day. He treated me better. I don’t know if it was because of the size of my account, but he treated me well.

“One day he offered me the store. I haven’t hated getting out of bed for work for the past four years.”

But loving what you do isn’t enough. As a comic shop owner who happens to love comics, Stretton has taken steps to ensure that comics pay the bills, too. There have been partnerships with groups like Dr. Sketchy, an adult-themed drawing party that travels from venue to venue, and game nights, where Stretton hosts tabletop game play and card tournaments for games like Magic in the store. And when comic cons pop up in the area Stretton often packs his car and does the convention vendor thing for a day or two.

He’s also aware of the challenges facing the industry. A recent disappointment has been DC Comics reboot of its entire line of comics called The New 52. Stretton thinks it’s terrible, his costumers think it’s terrible, and the industry, at large, he said, is pretty certain it’s terrible, too. Though it attracted plenty of attention, and, presumably, plenty of week one sales, it’s become a disappointment since.

Then there’s the digital threat. With the proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers, comic book publishers are offering their books in digital formats now, giving fans the chance to download current issues and back catalogs. But Stretton’s confident digital media poses less of a threat to the industry and his business than poor stories do.

“Collecting will never disappear. It’s a hoarder’s hobby,” he joked. “A computer file isn’t worth a thing. Art, art is always better to have in a more tangible medium. It’s got to be something you can hold.”

Unlike books, where the transition to an electronic format has gone relatively smoothly, despite the protestations and price fixing of the publishing houses, comics aren’t going out of print, Stretton said. There’s just too much loyalty. In his shop he’s got new and old issues from all of the major publishers, as well as a collection of indie graphic novels, which is a segment of the industry that’s grown significantly over the past few years, especially with the prominence of comics like The Walking Dead.

And there’s the inherent nature of comic book ownership. The whole thing just lends itself to collecting. Though the story is paramount, a Marvel app on your iPad doesn’t compare to carefully stacked boxes of cardboard backed comics protected by polyethylene. True collectors are loyal to a fault. Stretton said fans will even suffer through bad story arcs to get to the other side, adding to their collections all along the way.

Compulsion, maybe, but aren’t all hobbies?

For more information about Comic Crypt, including hours of operation, visit the shop's Facebook page.

Brian Stretton October 16, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Thanks for the great article Ed!

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