Editor’s note: In a series of articles, Cameron Huntley is exploring a particular niche in the area’s economy: comic book and gaming stores. In this installment, he chronicles the passing of the torch at one local comics shop.
"See you next week," Will Hessling tells a customer as he gathers his pile of comics, straightens them into a stack on the glass counter, and says goodbye. But once the door closes behind him, Hessling turns to Matthew Lane and asks, "Do you think he knows?"
Technically, Hero Hunter Comics in Candler has been in Hessling’s hands since Aug. 18, but Lane and Brian Humphries, the former co-owners, have been around so much, assisting with the transition, that it would have been hard to notice anything had changed.
"I haven't told him," says Lane. Hessling, meanwhile, seems a mite reluctant to break the news to the longtime loyal patron of the store. "He's probably figured it out," Lane assures him.
Hessling's reticence is understandable. His assumption of the Hero Hunter mantle ends Lane and Humphries’ nearly nine-year run. The duo bought the store from its previous owner in 2005, and their tenure has been marked by persistence and devotion.
Right away, the store faced challenges beyond the usual. Both Lane and Humphries had full-time jobs (as a teacher and a store manager, respectively), so the business’s hours were erratic.
"We'd be open six hours one day, three the next. We discovered pretty quickly that it wasn't making customers happy," says Lane. "So we switched to a regular schedule: 4 to 7 on weekdays, with extended hours on Saturday."
Tucked away in a small complex off the Smoky Park Highway, the venue is effectively hidden, from one direction, by a small hill. Both Lane and Hessling acknowledge that many people drive by two or three times before finding the place.
Yet another challenge is Hero Hunter’s tiny size, which makes shelf space an exceptionally precious commodity — and taking a chance on unknown properties that much riskier. So with a poor location, a small store and limited hours, what’s kept Hero Hunter Comics afloat and growing? For Lane, the answer is simple. "Purely customer service: People know that they'll get their books, one way or another. We've got contacts all over the state and upstate, and if a customer wants a book, we will track it down."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hero Hunter draws few walk-ins, but thanks to that personalized attention, Lane and Humphries have attracted and maintained a host of regulars. An array of plastic cubbies behind the front desk, many with names on them, confirms that. Most are filled with comics from the customer's weekly pull list. "That one’s a store owner,” Lane explains. “This guy’s in the Navy. This one’s actually in high school. Let's see: cop, teacher, works for a company that makes wheelchairs, musician (bluegrass musician, actually)."
To offset the store's diminutive dimensions, Lane and Humphries focused on stocking what their customers wanted.
"[Brian K. Vaughn's] Saga is a good example," notes Lane, walking over and picking up the latest issue from its perch. "It's an Image comic, but our customers kept asking about it, so we brought it in. The main thing is to listen. We do our best to keep our finger on the pulse of the fans and adjust our orders accordingly."
A new era
Lane and Humphries say they had no intention of handing off the business they'd built to a new owner and just letting him sink or swim. Instead, they've spent the last two months helping Hessling acclimate himself to both the world of comics and the store’s longtime customers, teaching him the ins and outs — all on their own time and gratis.
"I can't overstate how good the guys have been to me," Hessling reveals. "When I say I appreciate it …" he pats his chest and looks over at Lane, torquing his voice into a weepy inflection. "You're tugging on my heartstrings, man."
Comics weren’t a natural choice for the new owner, who didn’t even read them. "I was going to A-B Tech for entrepreneurship, and I'd looked into a couple of other stores — a coffee shop and a packing place — but nothing was really for me. Then I saw this place listed. I've always been into nerdy, geeky stuff but had never really gotten into comics. It's definitely a new venture."
So far, he has no regrets. Holding up a hardback collection of Frank Miller's legendary work on Batman, as well as Volume I of Grant Morrison's seminal comic All-Star Superman, Hessling observes, "When I can tell people that this is my homework, I'd say I've got it pretty good.”
Lane agrees. "When we met Will, we knew we'd found our guy. We loved his willingness to embrace the industry."
Still, a new owner means a new vision, and since Hessling isn’t juggling another full-time job, the store now has the chance to expand. "We've got some space that definitely can be used that the guys just couldn't, because they had no time," he reports. "I'm going to be bringing in more material, a lot more graphic novels."
The store will also adopt a more traditional schedule: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, closed Sundays and Tuesdays. But to Hessling, the most important task is deepening his knowledge of the industry’s long, convoluted, often-contradictory-but-never-dull history. It’s the only way for him to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the regulars who visit Hero Hunter. Fortunately, they are there to help out.
"I've had a bunch of people loaning me stuff that I need to read. In fact," continues Hessling, tapping the Frank Miller hardback, "This is one of them."
Bridging the gap
For Lane, the parting is bittersweet. "It's something we both had to do because of family matters and work issues, but I mean … You hate to equate a store with a child, but it is sort of like watching it go down the aisle."
Nonetheless, Lane remains confident about the person to whom he and Humphries have entrusted the business. And giving it up doesn't have to mean becoming a stranger. "He'll just be on the other side of the counter," says Hessling.
Ultimately, comics are a passion that accomplishes what all shared interests do: deepened relationships. Passions bridge gaps, forging a common bond. It's easy to dismiss comic lovers, or any other consumers of nerd culture, as flighty escapists. But while the stories themselves are great, the real key lies in how these simple objects bring human beings together. "These people, they're more than just customers," notes Lane. "They're my friends.”