How Utah’s independent comic book stores champion fandom, literacy and fantastic storytelling

Store owners are able to stay in the game through their passion for comic books.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charles Prows, co-owner of The Nerd Store comic book shop inside Valley Fair Mall, shows off a personal rare copy of a Spider Man copy printed in Mexico in 1971 in which the Gwen Stacy character was not killed off and married Peter Parker, unlike the story line printed in the U.S., as seen on Saturday, Sept. 4. 2021.

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Charles Prows was a Utah State University student in May 2013 when he decided to open a comic book store.

The almost lifelong Utah resident was on a road trip with his brother one weekend, complaining to his brother about the long path ahead: finishing his undergraduate degree and veterinary school, starting his own practice and — eventually — making enough money to retire and open a comic book store.

“That’s a really roundabout, weird way to open a comic book store,” his brother said.

His brother “ended up convincing [him]” that he should drop out of school and chase his real dream, Prows said. And he did just that — jumping in with only a few hundred dollars to his name.

Prows spent that summer at various Utah fairs, selling his comic book and gaming card collections. He’d only been a comic book fan for about three years at that point, but quickly built his inventory by buying comics off of eBay and reselling them, he said.

In October 2013, he opened The NERD Store inside Valley Fair Mall “on a shoestring budget.” Those early months were rocky: some days he could only afford a single Cup Noodles or, on days when he ran out of gas and cash at the same time, he’d end up sleeping in the back of his store on an air mattress.

It’s been worth it, Prows said, despite the hard times. Now, more than eight years later, The NERD Store is a thriving hotspot of comic books and pop culture paraphernalia. He also recently purchased Dr. Volt’s Comic Connection in Salt Lake City, which continues to operate under its original name.

The NERD Store has around 50,000 single issue comic books on its floor right now, Prows said, and when he takes into account what they have stocked in their back room, that number swells to “well over” 100,000 at any given time.

“Everyone is a nerd about something, and it’s just a matter of finding out what you’re a nerd about,” he said.

Prows belongs to a small but resilient group of independent comic book sellers in Utah.

Like many other small, local businesses, comic book stores face stiff competition from large retail outlets and online commerce giants. And, like most physical retailers, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things even more difficult.

When asked why they stay in the game, the store owners all answered easily: they’re passionate about comic books — and the breadth and versatility of storytelling the format can encompass.

’No limits’ storytelling

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Black Cat Comics owner Greg Gage, shots a couple of his favorite comic books, at Black Cat Comics in Sugarhouse, on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.

Greg Gage is the owner of Black Cat Comics, located inside the Sugar House Shopping Center.

The store has been open for a little over 17 years, he said. For the last several of those, he’s collaborated with the owner of Watchtower Coffee and Comics in Salt Lake City to curate special selections of comic books featured in the coffee shop.

“If you can try and do something that’s your passion and make a living out of it, then you’re in great shape,” Gage said.

Black Cat Comics specializes in back issues and promotes smaller publishers, he added. The size of their inventory is in the “tens of thousands.”

Gage said comic books were how he learned to read as a kid. As an adult, he feels they allow artists and storytellers greater flexibility in their worldbuilding.

For instance, he said a novelist only has so many words to describe a scene, and a movie maker has a limited budget to create certain images and effects. But comic book creators don’t face the same kind of restrictions, he said.

“There’s no limit with the imagination,” Gage said. “[You] can literally write [or] draw whatever you want.”

For Jonathan Pust, owner of Heebeegeebeez Comix & Games — which has stores in Ogden, Logan and Layton — comic books are a form of literacy, and it’s the job of comic book sellers to promote reading.

Comics can present unique stories that readers might not find anywhere else “in a way that really engages readers,” Pust said.

Heebeegeebeez’s flagship location in Ogden has been open for 27 years, and the three stores collectively stock over two million comic books between what’s on their floors and what’s in their vaults, he said.

Pust said his business specializes in carrying recognizable comics to help introduce customers to more niche stories they might like.

For example, once someone has come in for a big name like Batman or Spider-Man, “I want to show you something else,” he said. “There is a huge, independent realm of creator-owned comics… where storytelling is more freeform and not as restrictive.”

Sinai Valero, owner of Dark Soldiers Comics in Sandy, said she also enjoys the range and depth of comic books. They offer a spectrum of representation, she said, from gender and sexuality to religion and ethnicity.

Valero said she opened her store six years ago and it carries around 10,000 issues at any given time.

She added that she loves how comics branch out in ways that novels and movies don’t. For instance, other forms of storytelling tend to be pretty linear, but a character who only shows up in a few comic book panels might get an entire side series to themselves.

“Comics are whatever you want them to be,” Valero said.

COVID-19 challenges and beyond

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charles Parks of Ogden reads a comic book to his son Oliver, 3, at Heebeegeebeez Comix & Games store in Ogden Sept. 7, 2021.

Running an independent comic book store certainly isn’t without its challenges. Gage said it can be difficult to work with comic distribution companies; while Valero said that as a woman in the industry, she deals with people doubting her expertise.

Things didn’t get any easier when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Gage said he “had to scale back on everything” — hours, employees, inventory. For several months, no new comics were coming out at all, he said. His business did “a lot of shipping” and curbside pickup to stay afloat.

“I’m still concerned about the overarching effects of this,” Gage said.

Pust said that though he has customers in his stores again, safely engaging with people is still hard.

“As people felt unsafe, obviously they weren’t shopping as much,” he said. “So we had to work quite a bit harder.”

However, he and other comic book store owners don’t harbor many concerns about the digital age running them out of business.

Gage said digital comic books don’t flow as well and that comic book readers often value the feel of a printed book in their hands even more than traditional book readers. Plus, unlike the latest fiction bestseller, physical comic books also accumulate value over time as collector’s items. (Gage characterizes digital comics as “a picture of a collectible.”)

Digital comic books can even be helpful to comic book stores — Gage said he sometimes gets customers who have been reading digital comics and now want to buy hard copies of their favorites.

Pust added that 10 years ago he thought digital comics would “doom” paper comics, but enough people value printed comic books that he stays in business.

The comic book world is changing, he said, but he doesn’t have concerns so long as the industry “embrace[s] change [and] realize[s] that the way people experience or consume things is mutable.”

In-person events like the upcoming FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention (which takes place at the Salt Palace Convention Center from Sept. 16-18) allow people to connect and experience the community behind comic book fandom, Prows said.

“[FanX] brings them to a big fun social event [where] they then can sit down and hopefully find a creator or find a book that sparks an interest,” he said.

But wherever people are experiencing comic book culture, Pust said the best part of his job is helping people find joy, nostalgia and even a sense of safety in storytelling.

“In dark times, and when life in the world gets hard, we want people to enjoy things and find their niche, find the thing that just lights them up,” he said.

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