Morgan Albritton, owner of Morgan’s Comics in West Asheville, greets all guests — regulars and first-time visitors — with the same five words:
“Welcome to the Nerd Sanctuary!”
Unwise though it is for a reporter to conduct an interview during business hours, especially on a teacher workday that vastly increases afternoon youth patronage, it’s delightful to witness. Albritton brings to mind a kinder, friendlier version of the DC Comics villain Harley Quinn — down to the pink pigtails.
That warm, inviting spirit and a customer-first ethos are big reasons that Albritton’s business has been successful. But it’s not unique to the West Asheville shop. Throughout the city, comic book store owners say business is thriving on account of a collective effort to create community within the industry.
“I have so much range in the age and background and styles of my customers that I can risk trying pretty much any book,” says Allison Jenkins, owner of Comic Envy in North Asheville. “Other stores in other places have much more restrictions. I don’t know — they’re not in Asheville. We can do funky, weird stuff, which is great for comics. I think that’s why we can support so many stores.”
Such openness, however, hasn’t always been the case. Pastimes co-owners Chris Atkins and Scott Russell — whom Albritton and Jenkins both acknowledge as the lovable elder statesmen of the local comics scene — remember a time not so long ago when figures more akin to Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” ruled the scene.
“The generation before us wanted everything to stay the way it was, dude. Like, ‘I want Spider-man to be Spider-man,” says Atkins, a kindly bearded fellow who wouldn’t mind having Danny Trejo play him in a biopic. “Our generation just wants to read what’s next. ‘Oh, you’re going to do that? That’s cool. Oh, that didn’t work? Try something else.’”
That receptiveness has proved essential to the Woodfin-based shop’s success. Atkins has been an employee since the 1990s under original owner John Baumgarten, and the pioneering Russell was the store’s first subscriber, having new releases pulled for him on a regular basis. After growing tired of working at Advance Auto Parts, Russell came on board as a co-owner in 2013, and his complementary rapport with Atkins has become central to the store’s prosperity.
“We’re a yin and yang, chocolate and peanut butter type thing. Chris is the motivated side that’s organizing and getting it done, and I’m the people side,” says Russell, whose assessment receives a nod of approval from Atkins. “And the cool thing about both of us is we’ve got separate tastes. I like all that weird, indie stuff that’s more based in reality. And he’s more of a superhero and horror dude.”
“Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham,” Atkins says with a sly smile.
“And I’m a Hellboy guy,” Russell quickly retorts, not missing a beat.
But their almost 10-year partnership isn’t one that they strive to enjoy on an island. The dynamic duo stresses that the addition of Comic Envy and Morgan’s Comics has been a boon to the local scene and that a healthy Asheville comic store industry benefits all who partake in the trade.
“Allison and Morgan are the first stores that have ever been open in this town that are actual comic book fans,” Atkins says. “They’re not in it for some other reason. They’re actually in it because they love the industry. And to me, as an old dude who loves comic books, it’s like, ‘Finally, dude. Finally, we can have a community where we all get along.’”
But like all successful businesses/heroes, comic book shops must adapt, and these three institutions have excelled at navigating industry obstacles.
“I remember when internet comics were brand new and we were worried that the Marvel Unlimited [subscription service that launched in 2007] was going to ruin the industry,” Jenkins says. “We have not seen that. There are so many different kinds of readers — so many of them are like me where they have to hold [the issue] in their hands. And there’s a lot of people who read them online and then buy the ones they like. There’s a lot of stuff missing — the scans are kind of low quality. It’s not hurting the industry the way we thought.”
The caliber of the final product, however, has recently been a problem. Jenkins points out that the price of paper has increased during the supply-chain issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the standard for printing has decreased, resulting in lowered visual clarity.
Story adaptations into big-screen action/adventure films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe and beyond have also increased foot traffic at local shops.
“There’s a little bit of oversaturation. Now, there are so many shows and movies that the waves are small — but they still make waves for us,” Jenkins says. “When something special is in an episode, we’ve got to go dig through all the comics and make sure we have that one that went from $5 to $20 overnight because of Episode Three of [the Disney+ series] ‘WandaVision’ — that kind of thing happens a lot, so there’s a lot of minutiae to pay attention to.”
In addition to serving an evolving customer base, all three stores overcame the challenges presented at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Eisner-winning fashion.
Albritton enjoyed steady sales from patrons telling her that they wanted to use portions of their federal stimulus checks to support local businesses that they felt were more at risk during the pandemic. The Pastime team used the sliding glass window behind its cash register to serve patrons in a responsible manner. And Jenkins saw an increase in sales from community members who sought to up their literacy during quarantine, further proving the store’s ethos of being “by readers, for readers.”
The concerted — dare we say Secret Wars or Unified-like — defeat of Diamond Comic Distributors, is likewise increasing access for the ever-growing industry. Diamond held a middle-man monopoly for roughly 25 years and in 1997 was investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for possible antitrust violations but avoided charges. But in 2020, DC Comics ended its partnership with the provider and struck a new distribution deal with Penguin Random House. Marvel Comics soon followed, and all three shops agree that the change has been a beneficial one.
In addition to local mainstay Asheville Comics in Arden, newer stores in Biltmore Village (Fan-Tastic Cards & Comics) and Marshall (Main Street Comics and Games) have further expanded and enriched the scene. And like proper heroes, the ones who’ve been anchoring the area industry aren’t satisfied with the impact they’ve made on the industry and community overall.
Of particular note is Albritton’s goal to provide a welcoming space for local artists and the downtrodden, whether in her shop’s basement or a nearby building. And despite a recent break-in at her store, her spirit remains undeterred.
“The people I’ve seen suffer the most are the socially, economically disadvantaged folks and those of color and the trans community,” she says. “What people have been asking me a lot for is a space since that can be almost like a local nerd art gallery. And so, I’m looking into what it would take to possibly make a [home for them and] stand-up comedians and musicians. I think that there’s a space for that in Asheville. That isn’t really being taken care of yet.”
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