America's Best Comic Book Shops
The lines formed early in Seattle. By 9 a.m. they were around the block in New York City. Austin counted 3,000 people by midday. The masses came—and they wanted books.
Was there a break in the space-time continuum? Were we suddenly back in the ink-stained glory days of print media? No, it was just the first Saturday in May, Free Comic Book Day, when shops around the country rack up sales with promotional bait and in-store events.
Leave it to superheroes to save the dying bookstore.
“Nerd culture has shifted the pop culture needle,” explains Brian Walton, editor in chief of Nerdist.com, an entertainment hub founded by TV host Chris Hardwick. “The way we consume media in the 21st century can become all consuming, so there's a great feeling in being in a place where you don't have to worry about if people get it. Comic book shops keep nerd culture grounded in reality.”
So what catapults a graphic novel and comics store from ho-hum to a must-visit?
Style helps, as does a focused approach to stock. Quimby's in Chicago distinguishes itself in the spandex-free side of comics, showcasing indie artists, underground comix, and oddball zines you can't get anywhere else. And like America’s best independent comic book stores, its staff is eager to share recommendations with both die-hard fans and the uninitiated.
“The classic perception of comic book stores is that you have to be 'in the know' to enjoy them,” says Sebastian Girner, an indie comics editor (and researcher for Travel + Leisure). “I think that's totally wrong…there's a whole world of interesting fiction and art out there waiting to be discovered.”
Indeed, as comics shift to digital, innovative stores are remaking themselves as community centers. Meltdown Comics in L.A. is a prime example: comics, toys, games, apparel, and collectibles shop rolled into an art gallery and stand-up comedy theater totaling 14,000 square feet. Atomic Books in Baltimore opened a bar in back, pouring beers brewed in collaboration with artists/publishers.
If you're a newbie, don't be shy.
“Nerds are the most accepting people on the planet, and we love to talk about things we like,” says Walton. “Go into a shop, and there's a good chance you'll walk out with a good book to read and a great conversation under your belt.”
Laughing Ogre Comics, Columbus, OH
Is it any surprise that the capital of the state that birthed both Superman and Calvin and Hobbes and hosts the world's most comprehensive research institution devoted to the art form—the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State—would also have a kick-ass comics shop? If it is, let the excitable and friendly folks at Laughing Ogre school you in everything from classic superheroes to of-the-moment indies and labors of love by local artists. Clean and organized, with tons of space for eclectic, obscure back issues and related merchandise (apparel, games, collectible toys), the shops do their pedigree proud. Two offshoots opened recently in Virginia, not far from D.C. laughingogrecomics.com
Meltdown Comics, Los Angeles
In 20 years, Sunset Boulevard’s 14,000-square-foot Meltdown Comics has gone from SoCal staple to global geek player. First, the latest and greatest books, collectibles, and toys galore were merchandised for maximum glee—and you can pay by Bitcoin (double points right there). Then, it opened an art gallery, let food trucks park out front, and created the NerdMelt Showroom to tape podcasts and host live comedy from the likes of Dan Harmon. (Wednesday's Meltdown is an anything-can-happen can't-miss of L.A. luminaries.) Finally, dork god/TV host Chris Hardwick's Nerdist Industries pushes it all out to the world from offices in the back. meltcomics.com
Crescent City Comics, New Orleans
Rising like a phoenix from the waters of Hurricane Katrina, Crescent City Comics has been the city's les bon temps hub for all things illustrated for a combined 15 years: 11 on Elysian Fields, four in its new Uptown location near Tulane and Loyola universities, with some post-flood downtime in between. The shop stocks comics and graphic novels, some curated by staff but most arranged alphabetically for convenient (heretical!) browsing. And there’s still room for tons of fan ephemera like tees, action figures, toys, and games. Seek out the New Orleans: As Seen in Comics spotlight shelf for souvenirs, and help yourself to a free beer at one of the release events. crescentcitycomics.com
Arcane Comics, Seattle
Open since 2004 in funky Ballard, Arcane Comics lives large as Seattle's come-as-you-are, Cheers-like clubhouse for all kinds of geekery. A weekly subscription program in which preordered titles get put into a personal box is a draw for die-hard fans; subscribers also have no deposit or title minimums, an easy online account for requesting new issues that are automatically bagged and boarded, and a 10 percent discount off everything else in the store. Monthly “Best Reads” (40 percent off the first volume of a new series), nerdy gadgets (Batman bottle openers, Dr. Who boxers, Game of Thrones figurines), and stock that runs the gamut from surprising back issues to local indies to popular trades is a boon for the more casual browser. arcanecomicbooks.com
Heroes Aren't Hard to Find, Charlotte, NC
HeroesCon founder Shelton Drum may not be a household name, but among comics cognoscenti his north Charlotte shop is rightly beloved by cult collectors and newbies alike (the name is a riff on a Fleetwood Mac song). Open since 1980 and moved to slick digs in the Elizabeth neighborhood in 2002, the store is one of the oldest, largest retailers in the U.S. Drum stocks everything from Silver and Golden Age rarities to a complete line of new comics, manga, graphic novels, and memorabilia—all in a highly browsable, well-lit, and inclusive atmosphere. Larger-than-life suspended Doctor Octopus and Spidey figures battle it out over the registers. heroesonline.com
Quimby's Bookstore, Chicago
If the façade’s sign designed by Eisner Award–winning Chris Ware doesn't tip you off, there's a treasure trove of printed matter to peruse within this inspiring Wicker Park indie. (To the superhero purists who decry the lack of spandex, we say “chill”—and go visit sister shop Chicago Comics near Wrigley Field.) Staff here is as oddball as the stock is outré, from underground comix to graphic novels to trade paperbacks and illustrated zines, including a whole section deemed Gay Smut. Art books sit happily next to saucy literary journals and eminently giftable miscellany. For the culturally literate comics lover, it's a necessary pilgrimage—there's even a prop-laden photo booth to prove it. quimbys.com
Atomic Books, Baltimore
Filmmaker John Waters allows Atomic Books to collect his fan mail. For certain creative types, that's all the recommendation needed to launch Hampden's indie comics haven into the stratosphere. For everyone else, the eclectic selection of non-superhero graphic novels, small-press mini-comics, and zines ought to be persuasive. Some comic store purists will scoff at rows of novels and erotica, funky art toys, DVDs, and music nights. But after a bottle of Oddland Peppercorn Saison—produced by Elysian Brewing Company in conjunction with Fantagraphics Books—from Eightbar in the back, everyone should be A-okay. (Yes, there's a bar in the store; you bet it's a riff on Daniel Clowes's Eightball.) atomicbooks.com
Midtown Comics, NYC
As the nation's largest comics and collectibles shop, sure, Midtown Comics's stock is superb—with half-a-million back issues alone. And it pulls in an impressive roster of talent for events at its two-story Times Square HQ, plus Grand Central Station and Financial District satellites. But what makes this the King of Gotham nerd culture is simple: the staff. They're jazzed, they're knowledgeable, and they're seemingly as psyched to be there as you are. Whether discovering comics after the latest summer blockbuster or reciting a detailed account of the Buffy pantheon, your dorky enthusiasms will be reciprocated; community is what's made this an institution since 1997—and garnered a reality TV show. midtowncomics.com
Austin Books & Comics, TX
Even in comic store land, everything is bigger in Texas—and we don't just mean the massive Hulk and Silver Surfer statues. “ABC Big” means 6,000 square feet packed with more than a quarter-million issues: first editions, indies, manga, graphic novels, and back stock that spans the entire Olympic medal range of Ages. Did we mention the figurines, cards, and a toy department's worth of collectibles? ABC even owns an adjacent game store and an art gallery (where Obama bought some kaiju prints recently), plus a discount annex down the block, the Sidekick Store, where $1 sections are a box-of-chocolates treasure hunt. Helpful staffers with Ph.D.s in nerdery help legions level up their geek game. There's a reason alt-weekly The Austin Chronicle has awarded it Austin's Best Comic Book Shop for 20 years and running. Plus, unlike a lot of shops, it buys collectors’ hordes—and buys a lot. austinbooks.com
Isotope, San Francisco
San Francisco's self-styled “Comic Book Lounge” is three stores in one slick package: an independent haunt for obscure next-wave titles; a clubhouse for tights-’n’-cape classics; and a reading room where patrons have been known to let loose with a few cocktails after hours. Suit-bedecked owner James Sime and his stylish, ever effusive crew emit some seriously good gamma radiation. Isotope is a store to hang in, not just browse-buy-bye. A clean, whitewashed layout with bright splashes of red and plush Pop Art couches that look like sultry, smiling mouths answer the question, “Can a comic shop be hip?” Yes—and it fits right in with its Hayes Valley neighbors—down to its rocking events and illustrator-emblazoned Comics Rock Star Toilet Seat Museum cheekily hung as wall art. isotopecomics.com
Floating World Comics, Portland, OR
For what Floating World lacks in square footage and back stock, owner Jason Leivian makes up for in style, sharp curation, and DIY passion—creating a cool community for comics fans, be they the dude or the horn-rimmed-hipster variety. Popular mainstream issues from the likes of Marvel and Dark Horse are front and center, while graphic novels, indies, manga, art books, and locally consigned zines fill the wings, arranged by author instead of studio/artist/universe. Avid fans will find sought-after tchotchkes; casual shopaholics, local art shows and a keen rec from the whip-smart staff. Leivian likens the pared-back design sensibility to that of a record store. Funnily, there's that, too: Landfill Rescue Unit, a store-within-a-store selling new and used vinyl. floatingworldcomics.com
Big Planet Comics, Washington, D.C.
Housed in a superhero-blue brick building, bedecked with a groovy space-things mural by Juan Pineda, Big Planet Comics’s flagship D.C. location has been a fixture on busy U Street since moving from Georgetown in 2011. (There's one more location in Virginia and two in Maryland, including the original Bethesda shop that opened in 1986.) New owners Jared and Nick stock more alternative, smaller-press independent titles including Euro imports and Japanese manga in addition to the big boys, as well as posters, tees, and children's comics. Come here for recs—and to talk shop. Who knows, you may find yourself quoted on the owners’ weekly podcasts. bigplanetcomics.com
Desert Island, Brooklyn, NY
This Williamsburg alt-comics hole-in-the-wall (est. 2008) offers plenty of mainstream Marvel/Image/DC titles along with esoteric illustrated treasures, both international and hyper-local. (Its consignment program gives any aspiring mini-comics artist or zine author a chance at shelf space for a month.) Whimsical, ever-changing window displays are by local artists, and Desert Island’s free quarterly comics newspaper, Smoke Signal, is an intellectualized treat, nominated for a 2013 Eisner Award for Best Anthology. Shopping here is an exercise in surprise thanks to the discerning tastes of owner Gabe Fowler, who spearheads the annual Comic Arts Brooklyn festival and cut his artistic teeth in contemporary galleries like David Zwirner. desertislandbrooklyn.com
Cartoon Art Museum Bookstore, San Francisco
A museum gift shop? Before we launch into a Marvel-vs.-DC-worthy debate over what constitutes a comic shop, let's say this: it's attached to the West Coast's only museum dedicated to comics and cartoons in all their forms, from newspaper funnies to Pixar blockbusters to a recent 25th-anniversary exhibition on Sandman. After browsing the permanent collection and special exhibits like “Pretty in Pink: The Trina Roberts Collection” of women cartoonists—and chatting with the Cartoonist-in-Residence—you can exit through the gift shop and browse a Banksy-worthy collection of history books, how-to manuals, DVDs, indies, toys, and postcards. Perfect for a city with more than 50 comic stores vying for your attention. cartoonart.org