Of course, I'm not really a newbie as a comics fan. I was hooked at the tender age of eight, when "Batman: The Animated Series" appeared on the airwaves every weekday afternoon. Still, there wasn't a place in town that served as a dedicated comic shop. If I wanted my "Batman: The Animated Series" comics, I needed my parents to drive me to Media Play, a now-defunct big box store that catered to pretty much every type of entertainment one could ask for; they sold books and movies and TVs and action figures and baseball cards and musical instruments and -- seriously, anything you wanted, it was probably there. (It's also where I met folk singer Judy Collins, but that's a story for another time.) I got my comics, but I didn't have anyone to talk to about what I was reading. The same held true in dedicated bookstores. They had magazine racks of comics, but comics were not books, and they were not widely read. (Until Superman died, but that caused more problems for comics companies and readership than it solved.)
As I grew up, my interest in Batman and comics in general faded. That was kids stuff, and I had a college degree, and I needed to quit it with all that nonsense. Which I did. Except I spent an awful lot of time writing about superheroes in my theatrical work. Which led to me doing some research, which led me back in the door of a comics shop looking for Superman books. Which led to me feeling embarrassed by the gentlemen manning the counters in several Chicago shops I stopped in.
It wasn't until I moved to Philadelphia that I found a comics home, as it were. I lived in Bella Vista, near the Italian Market area of South Philly, and on Eighth Street, I discovered this little comic shop tucked between cheese steak stands and divy-looking bars. It was either called Atomic City Comics or Showcase Comics. The sign outside said one thing, and the Internet told me another. Regardless, this shop had bright lighting, primary-colored walls, an indie comic section, a wealth of trade paperbacks, several staff members dedicated to back issues searches, and maybe most importantly, women on staff. I discovered Astro City at that shop, and had long conversations with the guys at the counter about what to read next. Everyone there was friendly, and the staff members sometimes brought their kids in, which was always a blast; you haven't lived till you've seen kids playing superhero in a comic shop. I went in regularly enough that everyone there recognized my face, and as a result of going there often, I realized the shop had a bevy of female customers, either my age or younger. The manager clearly wanted everyone to stop by. The all-ages comics had a prominent spot up front, and the staff hosted anime nights on weekends. Once I went in, and there was a kung fu movie playing on the television up front starring the staff members. Apparently, filming was what they did for fun on weekends.
Possibly my most cherished memory from that shop came right about the time I was on my way out of town, headed to grad school. I missed Free Comic Book Day because I had to work, but I thought I'd stop by the shop the next day, to see how the event went, and browse through some comics while I still had a comics home to come to. The manager saw me walk in and flagged me down before I could head to the racks. "I held some stuff for you," he said. I didn't know what he was talking about. "I didn't see you yesterday," he explained, "so I held a couple issues back for you." I think they were a Peanuts comic and maybe a Superman comic; I know he told he had to give the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic he was holding to a kid, because come on, he's a kid, and he likes the Turtles. I honestly don't remember what I got. I just remember feeling happy and sad because I was leaving, and I wasn't sure I'd ever find a comfortable community for my comics shopping ever again.
Turns out I was wrong! This post is actually a two-pronged ode. I moved back to Chicago this fall, and I was reintroduced to a shop I'd been to a couple times before with my now-roommate. It's called Challengers, and this store is great. It has an excellent selection of trades, single issues, and several racks dedicated to Chicago comics creators. The Challengers staff is approachable and easy-going, and every time I enter the store, they immediately ask if I need help or recommendations. They have a graphic novel lending library, and they have cool artists come in for signings all the time. Bonus: I see women in there all the time -- every single time I go in, in fact. Maybe what's most important, though, is that I feel like there are people there I can talk to about comics, or about the comics industry, or about anything. I set up a pull list there this week, which means I can buy the few individual series I follow from a human person, rather than through an online service, and I can support a local business. If you, too, have been looking for a place to shop for comics, check out Challengers. I'm a newbie at the moment, but everyone I've met there is great. I cannot recommend this shop highly enough.