Regular reader Louis Bright-Raven was nice enough to send along an article about his local comic book store, Heroes & Dragons in Columbia, South Carolina: "The Southeast's Coolest Comics Shop!" Read on below the cut!
Heroes & Dragons is located at 1563-B Broad River Road in Columbia, South Carolina 29210. The web site is here, although it looks like it could be updated a bit. It has an eBay store at: heroesanddragons29210803. The owner is Chris Foss. Louis also lists the managers: Well, until just recently, it was Chris Sims of the Invincible Super-Blog fame, who is starting to get enough work in comics and elsewhere to go full time as a writer himself; now it's Brian Eison of THE DOLLAR BIN podcast and comics website for Comics; Tracy Hollingsworth - Toys & Collectibles; and Ben Burnside - RPGs. Other Employees: Matt Penn; Matt Gossett.
My friend and former CBRian John Norris (CBR Name: Figaro) and I are regulars at H&D. John took the photos of the store, so everybody say thanks to John.
So, let's get to the point: Why is Heroes & Dragons so cool? Well, as I jokingly refer to it, it's "Wal-Mart for Pop Culture Geeks." The size of the place is immense; I've been to 3 of the other 5 stores in the local area (say a sixty mile radius of my home), and if the two I haven't been to yet are roughly the same size as the three I have been to, H&D can fit ALL of them in their one store and STILL have room left over. Yes, it's that large. (And there's a reason for that; over the course of the past 25 years owner Chris Foss has been working as a comics retailer, he at one time had six locations that he eventually merged into this mega-store.) The photos you're about to see don't even begin to detail it - I'll just be giving you a rough layout of the place and letting you catch a glimpse of things.
John and I usually go to the store on Thursdays around roughly 5-6 PM, so the place is generally empty (Wednesday's crowd having come and gone, and the weekend crowds not coming in until Friday / Saturday). So don't let the lack of people in the photos bother you. That's how we intended it. We wanted to avoid the insanity of the store on the weekend.
So let's take a look at the store. [As always, you can click on the photographs to make them giganti-normous! I tried to make the ones with writing on them as big as possible, but if you click on them, you can see what's written on them.]
This is a shot of the store from the parking lot of the restaurant across the street because the store's so big we couldn't get it all in a shot without doing so. Those windows with Superman, Conan, Spider-Man and Boba Fett - they're approximately 20-25 feet tall.
Now since this place is so large, I'm going to have to break it down into different sections of the store. The main comics section is the largest, so we'll save that for last, but don't worry, folks, there's plenty of worthwhile things for everyone to see before we get there. Let's start with the gaming room.
To enter the gaming room, you turn to your left as you walk into the store, walk about fifteen to twenty paces, turn right and walk maybe four to six paces, turn left and pass through a semi-private office storage area, and step into this:
This area is where all the HeroClix, Collectible Card Gamers, and Pen & Paper Gamers come to gather and play. Usually on Wednesday nights and Saturdays, and sometimes Gaming Manager Ben schedules other times as well. As you can see there are several ten foot tables with miniature sets underneath. Ben and Tracy pull those out and set them up for the gamers every week, usually spending 1-2 hours on that alone each time they have to do that. Yeah, they could just leave the sets up, but when they need the space to sort new comics on Wednesdays (or whenever they buy a large surplus of back stock), they'd have to put it all away anyway, and this way it just looks cleaner. This is mostly for the HeroClix crowd and other gamers who bring their miniatures to play.
Along the left side of the photo, we see a glimpse of the CCG and Pen & Paper gamer tables. There are 6-8 eight foot tables with four chairs at each. Gamers can rearrange tables for larger parties, but this seems to be a workable set up most of the time. That couch you see in the background is one of two (the other's behind John when he took the photo). That's for "timeouts" from gaming, or for the folks who bring a spouse / friend / child who isn't into gaming so that they can relax and read a book (or comics) or do whatever to pass the time. Behind that wall and black metal fencing is the Storage area and the Vault (the latter of which we'll get to in a short while). Sometimes people can be found painting miniatures here, also. This section of the store usually has between 30-50 people in it on gaming days, and I've seen it get as crowded as 120 people.
I hate to say this, but the size of this section of the store alone is larger than many of the comics shops I've been in, during my travels all over the country. The photo really doesn't do the space justice.
We'll leave the gaming room now, retracing our steps back to the main walkway. No, no, don't turn your head left. I know you're all wanting to see all the cool stuff in the toys and the comics area ... but follow me -- Greg Hatcher needs to see something first, and there's some vintage comics coming your way, I promise.
As Mr. Hatcher will remember me telling him repeatedly in response to his varied columns, I'm always wondering what to look for for him in his search in the crazy fanzine, pulp fiction and paperback world. Here's why:
Yes, that's a huge wall of pulp fiction magazines and paperbacks dating back to the 1940s - about 10-12 shelves worth, along the right hand side of the aisle. Most everything Greg Hatcher's ever talked about in his columns, I've seen it on these shelves at one time or another. Along the left hand side are boxes upon boxes of media magazines and fanzines. And that's just one aisle. There were three of these aisles (they've expanded the width of the aisles since the photo set so now there's only two, but it makes it easier for wheelchair patrons to get around, so that's a plus), not to mention the hardcover books. And what's that gated section with comics in the background you ask? That, ladies and gentlemen, is "The Vault." But first look at the price guide along the top of the bookshelves. That's right - all this stuff is $2, $5 or $10 on average. Same with the paperbacks (and the same with the main store's back issue section, which we'll get to later on). And hey, why go looking for books or items for your friend or family member who doesn't like comics at another store? We're not prejudiced here! We've got sports, medicine, military, history, cookbooks, romance, hardcover special editions of SF, fantasy and horror (I remember they once had a whole set of Robert E. Howard Conan hardcovers) ... it's one stop shopping!
This is why whenever I walk into this section of the store, I inevitably want to call up Greg and say, "Hey I found something cool that you might want!" (Though I never do because given the time difference, he's off at school teaching.) And they tend to rotate the stock out every 2-3 months, so even if you spent a decent amount of time in the section, by the time you've finished really looking through everything, they've rotated the stock and you have to start over. I find that to be a sign of a great shop. One of the biggest pet peeves I have of comics shops and bookstores alike is a store's inability to rotate stock. If you always have the same stock in your store sitting around gathering dust, what's to make someone a repeat customer?
Okay, okay. I know you saw those comics behind the cage; just hold your horses, Sparky. That's ... THE VAULT (see above). This is the Golden, Silver and early Bronze Age books that are of high end quality - the "big bucks" comics, if you will. You'll see a few modern variants that are autographed along the wall, too, but mostly this is the 1940s through the pre-Crisis stuff, and most of it is of the "fresh off the presses" quality - the kind of books that you send off to be graded between 9.0 and 10.0. I don't do a lot of shopping back here, because A) It's only open by appointment or when they have a sale, and B) I can find most of the stuff I want from these eras back on the main floor, just in lesser condition. Do I want to buy a comic for $10 or $40? Or a comic for $40 or $400? But if you're one of those "gotta have it in pristine mint" collectors, this is most definitely your haven.
Let's step out of this section and head back to the main store, shall we? As we exit the Vault and Books Area, you can see we're passing through the original art and prints section (see above). They've reduced the size of it a bit from the way it used to be, but it's still big enough to get your attention. There's prints and original art of all sizes and shapes by Ceasar Romero, Rudy Nebres, Joe Jusko, and various others ... including little ol' me. Yeah, that whole top row in the second photo, with the Iron Man and Spider-Man in color - that's all my stuff. That was my 2008-09 batch, with a few of the prints sold out entirely. The store is very pro-active in supporting the local talent; they have prints, comics and sketch books by local talents like Greg Adams (whose stuff is in both pics, much of it in the second pic below my art), Sanford Greene, Jeremy Dale, Steve Epting, and Buddy Prince, to name but a few. Moving right along ...
WHOA! Look everyone - it's the Caped Crusader, perched on a ledge surveying the store ...
And not to be outdone, Spider-Man is watching as well!
What could they possibly be looking at? Well, probably they're keeping an eye on Freddy Kreuger and that brat Anakin Skywalker, over in the toy department ...
Along the left hand side there is all the crazy Star Wars stuff. From Pez dispensers to the Japanese Pepsi Soda cans (unopened, naturally) to every statue, action figure, play set and goofy assed toy you can think of, it usually appears in this section sooner or later. The 501st Carolina Garrison Star Wars cosplay members come in the store frequently to get goodies. I can think of a few Star Wars geeks at CBR who would probably think they'd just walked into a SW mini-con. (And they actually shrank the size of the SW section down some in their remodeling! It used to be extremely overwhelming.)
Just past Anakin you'll find a display of varied statues of various figures. I'm not sure which ones off the top of my head - they change the displays periodically anyway. Along the back wall are all the latest and greatest action figures, as well as up along the right hand side of the photo. And here's another look.
DC, Marvel, GI Joe, Buffy, Babylon 5, Farscape, McFarlane's stuff, anime ... a lot of it is up there, or in the back storage. They have so much stuff they don't have the space to display it all, even with a shop this huge.
Just on the other side of the toy department, behind the main cashier and smack in the middle of the main store area is the gaming section.
It's two long, LONG aisles of HeroClix, modules, cards, boxed game sets, and miniatures for the discerning gamer. Yes, that is a SIN CITY boxed game in the bottom of the one photo (and you thought Frank Miller sold out when he started making movies of his original comics ...) And just in case Bats and Spidey don't deter you filthy rotten elven thieves ...
How'd you like to have THAT drop on you from the ceiling, eh?
Annd here we are - finally - the main comics area.
Now, in this top photo, along the right hand side of the aisle, is all the collected miniseries in singles, hardcover collection edition books, and some trades face out for the kids (a lot of the Boom! Studios Muppets and Pixar stuff, Marvel Adventures Digests and Johnny DC Digests, Bone and the like are displayed). I particularly get a kick out of the miniseries sets, because they have stuff back from the 70s and early 80s mixed in with current stuff and you have to actually look at the section to see if there's anything worth checking out. If John wasn't expected home by the missus at a reasonable hour, I'd probably browse this section alone for a couple hours each week.
Along the left hand side of this same aisle are about 100 back issue boxes ranging between the 1950s-current times, and that whole wall of comics is mostly Silver and Bronze Age stuff that isn't "Vault" quality, and the bargain bin boxes (.25 to $1 a book, depending on the time of year and stock - usually they're dollar boxes, though).
The week's new books are that blur in the back, so let's go back there and check it out. This particular week that the photo shoot was done was a really small one for DC, as you can tell. Usually it's the indie week that's got 2 shelves and possibly part of a third open.
John couldn't fit all five sections in the photo - the section off to his left was their BLACKEST NIGHT display when it was in full swing, but they do a new display of their "event / promotion" monthly. Last October, it was all HELLBOY / BPRD, for example.
Now, where it says "comic club"? That's where guest creators set up, is in that corner. Why? Because they used to have it set up where they could sit creators right inside the doorway as you walked in, but people walked right past and ignored us creators and went back to the back area for the comics, ran to the cashier, cashed out and left without so much as a hello. So now, you have to come back to the creator when you come back for the new books. It also makes it easier with these long aisles to make room for lines for autographs, rather than in front of the cashier / entryway.
Next, I had John step around and take a shot of the entire store from the back corner, as though I was stationed where I would be if I was doing a signing as a guest creator (see above). Now, you can truly see the enormity of the main store, and just how big those wall and dragon displays actually are, just as a point of reference. Something just occurred to me - another factor I like about the shop, which I think you can tell from the photos, is the aisle floor space. That may seem trivial to you, but ask CBR members Darkblade or Cei-U what it's like to be in any kind of store that's poorly laid out and wheelchair restrictive. I think of it mainly because I have two disabled parents in scooters, so for me this is a place they can enter and not be waiting outside in the van while I shop, and even if they just go hang out in the gaming room or something, they're not in anyone's way, and they can get around. But I digress. Back to the photo ...
All those back issue boxes? That's 90 boxes per level on each side of that aisle, plus that whole section on the opposite side where the wall of comics is, for a whopping total of roughly 45,000 comics in singles back issues on display, ranging from fifty cents a book, to the same $2 / $5 / $10 deal that we were introduced to back with the magazines in the books department as a general rule of thumb, with the "Non Vault" Silver Age / Bronze Age stuff being priced as marked. This is where I do 90% of my purchasing of items, if I'm not buying trades. Speaking of trades ...
Quite a supply of those as well, including $1, $3, $5 and $10 trades, if you pay close enough attention. And there's the very cool local creator's section, where in the back of the photo, the store promotes the local creators with their books, ranging from ashcans, fanzines, sketch books and mini-comics to the regularly published comics featuring local talent. (Nothing currently on the racks by yours truly, though. Sorry. Hopefully later this year, though.) And next to that is a Disney and Marvel Treasury Edition and other oversized comics section, and then the various art books by the more famous artists, including the way cool MODERN MASTERS collections (which they always keep in stock here).
Oh there's more; much MUCH more. This is only about 65%-70% of the store. You haven't seen the huge oil paintings of the Marvel and DC heroes on the wall above those trade collection shelves by Mark Poole. Or the videos / anime section, or the ... well, you get the idea.
To me, the only difference between this shop and a comics convention is we don't have guest creators every week to sign books. But we do have several local / semi-local creators who do store appearances during the year - I've lived here for two years and so far we've had Steve Epting, Greg Adams, Sanford Greene, Steve Scott, Jeremy Dale, Roy Thomas, Buddy Prince, Thor Thorvaldson ... even former CBR Idol contestant and current Marvel writer Troy Hickman's been in store for a signing (back when that Secret Invasion stuff launched last year - really nice guy). [Edit: Troy Hickman stopped by and said that he's never been to South Carolina. It was, in fact, Jonathan Hickman who was at the store. I wondered about that, but as Troy Hickman actually writes comics, I figured that was right. Too many Hickmans, man!] And yes, I've done a couple of store appearances, myself. Hopefully in 2010 we'll get a few new faces, too.
Now, the size and variety of product is one thing, but how are the staff? They're a little camera shy (actually only Ben was on the floor in store when we did the shoot, and we didn't want to make extra trips to get everyone in case someone didn't want their photo taken), but all are quite friendly and helpful.
I don't see the two Matts very often, as Ben is usually the one working the register when John and I visit the store. I've only seen the one Matt (Penn) working the register, and the other Matt (Gossett) I think only comes in as needed for sales / special events. Penn's a quiet chap, but attentive to the customers and quick to call up a manager for assistance when possible.
I believe many of you out there are fans of Chris Sims' Invincible Super-Blog, and yes, he's just as funny in person - when you could get him to come out of his office *laughs* (Seriously, the man was tirelessly working back there). Two years ago he dressed up as Jack Kirby for Halloween, and last year he was a Black Lantern Mexican Luchadore. Brian Eison's got no clue what he has to live up to on that end. (But give him time, he's only been here a couple of weeks - the customers will get him trained. *wink*)
Ben, the resident gaming guru ... well, I admit I haven't gotten to know him very well. I've not been into gaming for a while, and since I don't usually go on the weekends when the gaming stuff is going on, I usually only see him working the cash register. I like that he's direct and to the point in conversation.
Tracy, the toys & collectibles manager, is my favorite employee in the store. He's a drummer in a local rock band (Weekend Bender), so we talk music quite a bit as well as comics. And even though toys are his specialty, he's constantly moving about the store to assist customers, wherever it may be. (And he does know his comics, also; he's usually the guy who travels with owner Chris Foss when they do conventions.)
The owner, Chris Foss, is one of the nicest guys around, and he mostly handles the outside stuff. By that I mean the rest of the crew handles the day to day functions while he's typically on the road at conventions or going to collector's homes to review and purchase collections. How many retailers do you know who do house calls? Most shops expect you to bring your collections to them! And Chris is constantly buying and trading. I'm half amazed when I see him on the floor in the shop (because when he is in store, he's usually in the back, grading and reorganizing stock for display both for the shop and for the Vault / convention displays), but he always makes time for the customers when they spot him.
The atmosphere of the place and crew is open and casual. While I don't take advantage of opening a dialogue with most of the guys on a regular basis - usually only Tracy, or Chris Foss when I see him - I've always seen them engage customers with courtesy and intelligence, and none of them blow smoke; if they don't know the answer to something, they just say so, or they ask someone else on the staff who might instead of trying to show off their intellectual prowess. Having been to many stores where clerks compete for the crown of "King of the Lab" (that's a reference from the TV show BONES, for those not familiar), it's nice to see a crew that appears comfortable with one another and not openly competitive towards one another.
Thanks for going on this little tour with John and I. If you're ever in the Columbia, SC area, make sure you stop by. The only way you'll be disappointed is either you visit after closing and can't get in, or that you don't have enough money to buy everything you want in the place.
I'd like to thank Bright-Raven for the exhaustive tour through Heroes & Dragons. I'm mad with envy! As always, I encourage you to send in write-ups of your favorite comic book store. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always happy to see where people get their comics, so share with us all!