Small-town comics and games store on brink of survival
by Callahan Jones
In a small village, wedged between a dive bar and an up-scale antique shop, a man dressed in bright red pants struggles with his keys, trying to unlock a door. His worn-out beanie doesn’t do much to protect his head from the pouring rain. Finally, he succeeds at unlocking the door and enters his beloved Super-Fly Comics & Games.
“This place is a mess,” Tony Barry says to himself with a sigh. He flips on the lights.
Super-Fly Comics and Games is housed in a small and dimly lit building. The carpet is old, worn and doesn’t get swept very often — it’s hard to get to that when the store only has one full-time employee and two part-timers. Music fills the space, sourced from a Spotify playlist that is thousands of songs and hundreds of hours long. It’s a varied collection of underground hip-hop, ambient noise, indie rock, polka covers of popular songs and Metallica. The space is packed with product. Every wall is lined with shelves that contain rows upon rows of dusty, hard-to-find comics, detailed statues from skilled Japanese modeling companies and popular Funko Pop figurines.
The newest comics are on display near the entrance, while older and less valuable comics are stored in nearly a hundred long, cardboard boxes, each containing 350 issues, that cover tables set up against most of the walls. They line the space beneath the tables as well. In the back of the store are some tables and chairs, where weekly roleplaying sessions and low-attendance game tournaments are held. Many of the gaming regulars moved to a store with more dedicated resources a little over four years ago.
Novelty card games and even more loose comics cover the floor and tables behind the counter and fill the display cases around the register. Also on the floor is a leopard print witch’s hat, which Tony says is for his Halloween costume. It matches the leopard print jacket and shoes he’s currently wearing and that he wears almost daily.
Tony sets about conquering one of his tasks for the day, sorting through a box of comics and looking for price changes.
“You never know when collectors suddenly decide a book that never sold is worth something,” he says.
Tony and Super-Fly Comics & Games, which most regulars call Super-Fly, are kindred spirits in ways. Super-Fly is a struggling comic book and gaming store located in Yellow Springs, a small Ohio village. Tony is a communist small business owner, which explains his beanie.
The beanie, which features the hammer and sickle logo from Superman: Red Son — a renowned comic book series that explores the idea of Superman having been raised in the USSR instead of in the United States — is his subtle statement on where he stands.
“Well, in American politics I’m a bit more of a socialist,” he says. “It’s a much more achievable goal. Communism would definitely be my ideal system. So I’d call myself a communist.” But, he doesn’t like to talk about politics very much. There are other things to worry about.
While he may not enjoy talking about politics, it’s preferable to some of the more pressing topics in his life. Tony is stressed and on edge today.
Sales are down, and they’re hard to get back up. Since Super-Fly is such a niche store — they sell almost exclusively comics, high-end figurines and board and card games — located in a small town, it can be hard to gain consistent customers. In Yellow Springs, a town that is built almost entirely on the local tourism generated by its reputation of being friendly and quirky, a rainy weekend can throw Tony’s plans into a tailspin. People don’t like to walk around in the rain. However, he likes it here, in this small Ohio town.
The store is in considerable amounts of debt, but that’s been the case since day one. Tony has actually hired an accountant for the first time, to try to figure out and start fixing the mess he’s in. It’s the main thing on Tony’s mind. He has his second meeting with that accountant today.
“I fell in love with comics a while ago and that’s why I opened up this shop,” Tony says. “Nobody ever told me it would be this stressful.”
Soon after Tony arrives, his manager, Jared Whittaker, rolls in. Jared is a tall African-American man in his mid-40s who usually dresses in black jeans and professional wrestling T-shirts. He’s passionate about comics, just as Tony is. He started working part-time at Super-Fly several years ago, while he was employed full-time at HaHa’s Pizza, a job he lost after skipping one too many shifts to help out at the shop. Tony took him on as the store’s first — and to this day, only — full-time employee, giving him the title of store manager, partly out of pity and partly because he needed the help. The two have been nigh inseparable ever since.
Tony and Jared are called “The Dynamic Duo” by some, and it’s true. The two often spend eight or more hours with each other five to six days a week — seven days if they’re selling product at a weekend convention. Many people who frequent the shop think of them as one entity, “the guys from Super-Fly” or something similar. One semi-frequent customer admitted that he thought they were a gay couple for some time.
“Sometimes people think we’re the same person,” Tony says. “They couldn’t be more wrong. We’re actually quite different.” Jared laughs at this remark and agrees.
“One of our part-timers calls me Tony all the time,” he says. “I think it started out on accident and now it’s just a running joke.”
The men do share quite a bit in common. They both like odd and experimental music. They’re passionate about liberal political causes. They enjoy puns, especially ones that are a far reach and induce the largest groans. And, obviously, they both love comics with all their hearts.
As Jared enters the shop and takes his place behind the counter, the two men begin talking about a recent comic release that has ballooned in popularity. While the conversation starts there, it quickly goes down many rabbit trails, including social media drama and Yellow Springs troubles and what they want for lunch.
As much as these men like to joke around, they’re both obviously worried about today. While they are discussing things as they normally do, there are strained looks on their faces. Super-Fly is struggling harder than ever before. According to Larry Stanton, one of the store’s part-time employees, this says a lot.
“These guys have been through it all and somehow come out on the other side unscathed,” Stanton said.
However, the current situation is so bad that they often have to scramble for money every Tuesday to get new product in the door. Jared says he knows one reason why they’re in such money trouble.
“When the Marvel and DC movies first started coming out, there was a big boom for comics,” he says. “Now, people are getting tired of the movies. People are getting tired of Marvel’s antics and all the reboots. Plus, some of those dudes are racist.”
Jared is referring to several incidents over the last two years that involved racist art or messages being published in Marvel books. Marvel has since apologized for these incidents, labeling them as accidents and a failure on the part of editing and quality assurance.
Tony grabs a pair of nunchucks made out of two rolled up comics and duct tape. He starts swinging them around in a flurry of moves. His mind is still on the accountant.
“I’m used to doing a lot of things around here myself, and that’s usually included the accounting,” he says. “I haven’t done well enough on that front. It’s hard for me to admit that I couldn’t do it. But, everything is messed up, so it’s gotta get fixed.”
Jared adds that he isn’t looking forward to the meeting, but what needs to be done needs to be done.
As the afternoon stretches on, the meeting with the CPA comes and goes, as do a few customers.
“It doesn’t look very good,” says Tony. “The taxes are worse than I originally thought they were.” He looks down at his to-do list from the accountant. It’s long. He looks at the list of sales for the day. It’s short.
He’s over $500 behind where he wants to be for the week.
But, at the end of the day, Tony is optimistic for the future. He’s made it 11 years in this business and this is just another rough patch. He’s 36. He’s living his dream, running a comic book shop and surrounded by his friends.
“I just keep saying to myself, ‘Just gotta get past this hill,’ because the punches will stop eventually, right?” he says. “You have to be constantly optimistic, or else you’ll never make it in this business.”
Callahan Jones is a senior journalism major and the digital and design editor for Cedars. In his free time, he enjoys making coffee, being overly critical about music and playing games with friends.