I just got back from another epic road trip, which means that I stopped at a number of new comic book stores. As soon as I get into a new city -- or just any city that isn't the one I live in -- I immediately have to track down every comic book shop and go to it. This has led me to visit dozens of comic book shops between the New York City/Nashville/St. Louis triangle that my boyfriend and I road trip at least once a year to visit family.
This has also led me to declare one comic book shop as my favorite comic book shop of all time: Star Clipper in St. Louis, Missouri. I first discovered the shop back in November 2010, when I first spent Thanksgiving with my boyfriend's family. Admittedly, my love for the shop didn't hit me immediately, but Star Clipper's space, their attention to local artists, their fun staff and extensive selection of trade paperbacks and hardcovers impressed me. The space is well laid out and well decorated with absolutely no cardboard long boxes in sight. The store's located in a fun part of St. Louis referred to as the Loop, which is packed with other locally owned shops, theaters and restaurants. Every time I went back, though, and the more I saw of other comic book stores in other states, the more I fell in love with the store. Now visiting Star Clipper at least twice in one visit is a must every time I go to St. Louis, and it was no different a week ago.
We arrived in St. Louis from Nashville on Wednesday evening, and visited Star Clipper following dinner. I got to see Star Clipper's new Comics U program in action, as I walked in at the tail end of their weekly course. They were watching a Stan Lee documentary, one that I was bummed to have missed (I was of course alerted to the night's topic of discussion via Star Clipper's comprehensive and entertaining social media presence). But the place was packed with people of all ages and types, all there to learn about comics and be around other people who like comics. I saw a surprising number of couples there, too, which delighted me. The best thing about Star Clipper is that they regularly provide events designed to get people together to talk about comics, which I believe has to become the main function of comic book stores as the digital marketplace expands. Star Clipper does just that, and that's a service that I wish I had while growing up.
My childhood comic book shop was Box Seat Cards and Comics in Hendersonville, Tennessee. That's where I bought my first back issue ("Uncanny X-Men" #188) and it's where I bought my first barcode-less direct market comics, like "X-Men Unlimited" #1. The shop wasn't big, and I'm pretty sure the owner smoked packs on packs inside the store, but it was still my first comic book shop and thus maintains a special place in my fan heart. The owner was also a woman, by the way, so add that to the number of girls in my 3rd grade class just as excited about the new "X-Men" cartoon on Fox as the boys were, and I had absolutely no idea that society had deemed comics a boy thing.
When I hit middle school and moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, I started shopping at Timely Treasures -- which quickly changed its name to Outer Limits just as soon as they switched from antiques with a side of comics to comics with a side of more comics -- and, by the time I hit college, I moved on to a store called Grand Adventures. While both of those stores basically resembled Box Seat and had plenty of cardboard hanging around, they did add a few new experiences into the mix: the pull list and the community experience. I now had titles I kept up with that were set aside for me, and I had store owners and workers to talk to when I picked up my stack. I had no comic book reading friends, so this was where I got that fix. Even though everyone there was obsessed with Geoff Johns' work and teased me for freaking out about Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men," I still liked my weekly trip to the shop.
New York City, where I now live, is different. NYC offers a wide variety of shops, from ones that put a modern look and hip feel first, to others that are basically your uncle's basement with a cash register. My home store is the Times Square Midtown Comics location, and I love that shop. It's clean, well lit, presents itself as a confident and thriving business with the perfect amount of fun events and social media presence to make it feel like a happening place. But even though I've shopped at that store for almost seven years, no one knows who I am. I don't talk to anyone there. That's not a knock on the staff, who are some of the most outgoing and friendly I've ever encountered; it's a knock on the traffic, which is actually a great thing for a comic book store. But I'm not missing comic book talk at the comic shop, because I now get that need fulfilled by my friends.
So of all the comic book stores that I have called "home" over the past two decades, Star Clipper has won my heart by having a quirky-yet-professional atmosphere, providing a great selection of comics, having a staff that feel like they could be your BFFs, and offering great community building events. But there's one thing it doesn't have.
And that's the deal breaker for some people, isn't it? It used to be for me, and that lack of back issues is probably what kept me from proposing to Star Clipper on our first date back in 2010. But Star Clipper's many strengths trump its lack of complete "Secret Wars II" runs or quarter bins full of "Wetworks" comics.
I do love back issues, though, but I've yet to find stores that carry back issues that also have everything modern-facing stores like Star Clipper offer. Midtown Comics definitely comes close, as they have an impressive collection located within each one of their three great stores. Two back issue heavy shops that I've visited in my travels illustrate two of my biggest turn-offs, and they're problems that have become problematically and unfortunately tied to the phrase "comic book store": grossness and rudeness.
I went to a store last year in Middle-of-Nowhere, Ohio where I found great bargains on Silver Age "X-Men" issues. What did I not find? A working toilet. Instead of just closing the bathroom to the public, the owner decided it was cool to make his customers fill up a dirty bucket in the sink and toss it in the toilet to flush. The owner was also in a constant state of purchasing and re-organizing back issues, and valuable comics were just strewn all across the floor in stacks. My boyfriend and I were the only ones in the store the whole time (it was he who encountered The Bucket), so there was no sense of life or community. The owner directed a ton of attention our way... but that was fine because he was one of most genuinely pleasant people I've ever encountered in a store. He was passionate about comics old and new, and projected way more love towards the industry than cynicism. Despite his shop being a bit of a mess, he made the experience enjoyable just by being super nice. But I can't prefer a shop that has a great owner and a ton of old comics that sacrifices things like organization and cleanliness.
I did find a back issue heavy shop that matched Star Clipper's put together look on my recent trip, though. It had great floors, matching furniture, attractive glass cases housing an amazing Silver Age collection, plenty of natural light, and every single new comic was bagged and on sturdy shelves. It felt like the grown up, put together version of No Working Toilet Comics. But the owner was nowhere near as fun to be around. Sure he was talkative and surface-level friendly, but he also tossed around serious casual misogyny and possessed a holier than thou attitude. After every phone call, the owner felt compelled to tell me and my boyfriend (yes, I drag him to every comic shop) just how dumb the person on the other end of the convo was. Other people came into that store and had lively chats with the owner, but that didn't feel like a community I wanted to be part of.
Star Clipper feels welcoming. It feels clean. It feels fun. It feels knowledgeable and passionate. It feels like the kind of place that I would make time to go to every single day if I lived in St. Louis, either because they had a fun sale going on (I bought comics by the pound over July 4th weekend!) or a fun event (tonight's Comics U class focuses on Superman!). It sucks being in a long distance relationship with a comic book store I love, but it just makes the time we're together even better.
See you in November, Star Clipper.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).