APE -1: Two new Bay Area Stores

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I am once again in the Bay Area (readers who know where I live: please do not rob my house, thanks), this time half-and-half for comics and vacation. The ostensible reason for the trip is to finally attend the Alternative Press Expo, which I have been told for years that I need to do, though I’ve also spent a few days relaxing and spending time with family.

My initial plan said that APE would be enough comics-related activity for the week and that it might be nice when on vacation to spend some time away from the thing that I do for a living, but as is so often the case with the addict, I can’t really stay away. In addition to perusing the comics at the usual bookstore haunts—Moe’s, Pegasus, etc.—I unintentionally stumbled into Fantastic Comics, a new store in the old location of Comic Relief in downtown Berkeley. I didn’t realize a new store had taken over the space after Comic Relief closed, so curiosity pulled me in.

Fantastic Comics’ atmosphere is at once similar to and distinct from Comic Relief’s, with the same attention to cleanliness and brightness that made the previous store inviting, but with a clearly different stocking philosophy. Whereas Comic Relief’s focus was on functioning more like a bookstore than a Wednesday store, to the point that its comprehensive selection could be overwhelming, Fantastic Comics is organized more sparsely. The floor is spacious, making moving around easy and comfortable, and a few well-placed islands draw attention to a points of interest, such as new release books and selected small-press titles.

The space does still feel a bit like a work in progress, with a large portion of the floor closed off by tables and not visibly being used , but the part of the floor that is in use is done well. The various sections of the store are divided by format, so there’s a wall of bookshelf comics, a wall of recent stapled comics, and a wall of manga, with the islands filling in more specific niches. It’s a very simple principle, but one that makes browsing simple. The shelves had a good mix of large and small titles, with plenty of the new DC titles sitting alongside indie books.

Fantastic’s website promises “a friendly, knowledgable staff,” and while I didn’t test the “knowledgable” part, not looking for anything in particular, I can confirm the “friendly” part, as I had been walking around no more than a minute before I was asked cheerfully if I needed any help finding anything. And I wish the sign at the front counter letting customers know that staff can order books for them were a more common sight in other stores.

The most pleasant surprise of the entire visit was the in-store signing that was going on, taking advantage of the influx of artists for APE. At tables near the new-release stapled comics, with what I presume to be their convention banners behind them, were the great Richard Starkings of ComiCraft and Shane and Chris Houghton, creators of one of my favorite new comics, Reed Gunther. I’m not sure how planned-out the signing was (the store’s website doesn’t seem to mention it), but it had a jolly, informal feel, with Starkings and Chris Houghton sketching and all three happily chatting with fans and each other.

Overall, that genial informality feels like Fantastic Comics’ strength. The store seems focused more on a casual readership than the hardcore impulse that powered Comic Relief and felt like it’s probably a great Wednesday store, leading me to pick up this week’s Rachel Rising #2, one of my Wednesday comics that I otherwise would have waited until I returned home to pick up.

I seem to end up in the Bay Area every two years or so, so I look forward to seeing how the store’s grown next time around. The website also has a podcast, so I’m curious to try that out. The website generally could use a little work to keep it up to date and make it easier to navigate, but those are minor complaints when the store itself is so nice.

Doing a little research, I discovered another store that had recently opened in the area, Escapist Comics on Claremont Ave. in Oakland, not far from where I’m staying. Escapist’s website is very slick, with lots of information about the inventory and lots of events. It also reveals that the store in a way makes up the other half of the departed Comic Relief. Where Fantastic Comics has the old store’s location, Escapist Comics is made up in part of its inventory. Unable to resist a theme, I hopped the BART to see what had become of that half of Comic Relief.

One of the first things visible when coming up to the store is a spinner rack of dollar comics out on the sidewalk, which is both welcoming in the way that outdoor merchandise can be and a great mechanism to make passersby curious. Once inside there’s an instant familiarity, since so much of what Comic Relief was was its impressive stock and the near-obsessive subsectioning with which it was presented, both of which have made the move intact. It’s that detail that lends Escapist the same “comic bookstore” vibe that was Comic Relief’s calling card, though the vastly different physical space makes the actual feel more mom-and-pop.

Escapist’s storefront is actually very small, and the floor plan juts back into the building in a narrow corridor with a few nooks shooting off from it. If poorly lit the space would be claustrophobic, but the staff, who also largely come from Comic Relief (as do the store cats) know to keep everything bright, so the effect is instead of coziness. I was left to my own devices to browse, but my chat with the two guys at the register on my way out made it clear that, had I had any questions, they’d have been happily answered.

The placement of the stapled comics, including this week’s new ones, in the very back of the store underlines the focus on bookshelf comics, orienting the store more toward lengthy browsing sessions than Wednesday pop-ins. It’s the kind of place with a Kyle Baker section and a section of just comics reference books larger than many bookstores’ entire comics sections, the kind of store I’d go to if I needed a place that would almost certainly have some hard-to-find title I’d been looking for for some time. That makes it, like Comic Relief, more than accommodating to casual browsers but of true value to the hardcore. As it is, I left with a copy of Michael DeForge’s Lose #3.

Both stores carry out the general vision of Comic Relief by being the kind of place that non–comics readers can feel comfortable in and through a bright, friendly atmosphere that enjoys having customers in and doesn’t treat visitors as potential shoplifters (in neither store was I required to leave my bag at the desk). At the same time, it’s fascinating how the division of that mission statement into the physical locale of the old store and its people and merchandise results in two complimentary approaches. I think I’d be quite likely to visit both stores again on future trips to the area.


Classic Brendan: I took pictures in both stores, but didn’t bring the cable that connects my camera to my computer, so I’ll have to update with photos when I get home. UPDATED 10/4: Photos!

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