These days, geeking out is hot. Asheville is home to a vibrant community of people looking to express their nerdier side, and abundant businesses to serve them: From comic books to games to movies and more, this town has it all.
Across the country, the cultural partitions surrounding geekdom are being torn down: What was once solely the province of bespectacled, pocket-protector-wearing oddballs is now beloved by broad swaths of the mainstream. And in Asheville, the nerd-iverse is growing in ways particularly suited to local predilections.
Amid this increased popularity, the owners of geeky stores are playing as a team, happily sending their customers to another small, independent shop if they can’t provide the desired item. Of course, with Target now carrying Catan (a popular strategy board game), Barnes & Noble stocking a boatload of graphic novels and Best Buy offering a huge video game section, there’s a lot more competition. But it also means the market has expanded enough that the chain stores now find it worth their while to sell such items.
Finding an identity
Pastimes opened in Asheville back in 1980 as a coin-and-collectibles store, notes co-owner Scott Russell. After experimenting with a few different names and iterations, the owners settled on comics and games in the late ’80s as the shop moved up Merrimon Avenue all the way to Woodfin. Comics were on the rise, with a run of successful, groundbreaking storylines like V for Vendetta, Spawn, the launch of X-Men (as they’re known today) and a Superman series that culminated in the death of the icon. Pastimes got on board, becoming part of a wave of geek stores serving the re-emerging national market.
Russell started out as a customer, then began working at the store and, a couple of years ago, bought an ownership share. A true lover of comics, he can’t pick a favorite genre. “I love all of it — all the superhero stuff, crime stories, even romance stuff,” he says. And comics remain the shop’s bread and butter, though it does sell some games and toys as well.
“Games are cyclical,” says Russell, and though he’s noticed that a lot of folks have started playing Dungeons & Dragons again, he sees the market as unpredictable and is content to leave most of that business to stores like The Wyvern’s Tale and Hillside Games. “We’re the comic shop in town,” he explains. “That’s our No. 1 passion, then the collectible stuff on the side, and then we have some games and toys.”
For a while, Pastimes was pretty much the only comics shop in town. But Comic Envy came on the scene over eight years ago, and Haywood Comics has now opened in West Asheville.
Darrin Williams had trouble finding a job in Asheville when the economy tanked in 2008. So, having worked as a bookstore manager, he decided to go into business for himself. He and his wife tried to get a bank loan to get Comic Envy off the ground, but in the midst of the credit crunch, they came up empty. They eventually got the boost they needed from Mountain BizWorks.
Tucked away off Tunnel Road, the storefront was a little hard to find, which made for a sluggish start. But they persevered, nurturing a friendly vibe that kept customers coming back. Comic stores, says Williams, have a reputation for being cliquish, so he tried to “make sure that I’m not the typical comic store, where you go in and … if you don’t know the owner or whoever is working, then you just get a kind of a look — like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not part of this.’”
Business improved significantly when the shop moved to a larger space on Tunnel Road a few years later. The orientation is also evolving as Williams found an expanding market for toys, collectibles and comic-related knickknacks, says Williams. “Initially, I thought of it as a comic book shop that also sold other stuff, but I think right now we’re morphing into something else. At this point, it’s probably just as much other stuff as it is comics,” he reveals.
An American art form
To Williams, comics are “one of the few truly American art forms. They were made here … and it’s an art form [that] has no boundaries. If you can imagine it, it can go on the page. Just the storytelling ability in comics is wonderful. It’s magical.”
And Asheville, he maintains, is a great place to peddle comics. “Honestly,” he observes, “Asheville’s not a huge town, and if it were a more conservative town — not necessarily politically, but just the people themselves — I don’t think you could sustain the three stores that are here now. But because there are so many people that are into art and into the nerd culture and things like this, it helps all of us.”
The Comic Envy crew has also organized the Asheville Comic Expo in recent years, providing a place where geeks can let their freak flags fly. The event was on hiatus last year, but Williams says they’re pulling together a smaller version for October, and bringing it back full scale in April 2018. Attendees come out in full celebration mode, often sporting elaborate costumes as they check out original art and collectibles and generally applaud their favorite nerd stuff.
Doug Cegelis appreciates that spirit. He’d been running an online business for years, peddling geeky essentials out of a warehouse in Arden, before opening Haywood Comics just over a year ago. “More than anything, what I felt was missing in selling online was the sense of being part of the local community,” he explains. “Having the store has allowed us to get to know so many people who we never would have met.”
Things like comics, video games and movies “provide people with an escape from everyday life — at least that’s my excuse!” says Cegelis. As a businessman, his approach is pretty much just selling things he loves, whether it’s music, comics, video games, toys or Star Wars items. And indeed, he’s managed to cram an amazing assortment of nerdy accouterments under one modestly sized roof. “It’s pretty great to get to be surrounded by all of it every day,” says Cegelis.
“It’s hard to find a space that’s open late enough for you to get in the game you want to get in,” explains Cortland Mercer, co-owner of the soon-to-open Well Played on Wall Street. And with board games gaining popularity, he and his business partner, longtime friend Kevan Frazier, are trying to offer everyone the home-and-hearth feel of a kids game night, says Mercer.
He’s always loved board games, and in college, he started playing The Settlers of Catan, a gateway for many newbies to the world beyond Parcheesi, Scrabble and Clue. So when Mercer read about restaurants that catered to board games popping up in other countries, it got his attention. Toronto, for example, now has more than a dozen such establishments, ranging from simple coffee shops to high-end teahouses and bars.
After researching the emerging business model, says Mercer, he emailed Frazier about a year ago and jokingly told him that this was his dream job. But then they asked themselves, “Why not?” and set about figuring out how to make it happen here.
There are other places in town that offer a comfortable atmosphere and a good supply of games such as The Prospect. And the popular Meetup group, Asheville’s Bored Game Geeks (boasting 1,336 members) holds its weekly gaming sessions at rotating venues, including Noble Cider, Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. and Earthfare. But Well Played will be the first Asheville eatery that’s focused on hosting board gamers.
The café partners expect to open next month, offering more than 500 gaming titles as well as a robust selection of locally sourced comfort food, desserts, beer, wine and coffee. And they believe the time and place are ripe for it. “Just speaking from my own experience, I went to college here and came back, and a lot of my friends are at the point where we love the local brewery scene, but at the end of the day we’ve done that,” says Mercer. “We want a different social outlet.” And Well Played wants to be “an alternative answer to ‘What are we going to do tonight?’” You can have great local beer, he notes, “but you can also do this awesome, social, fun, engaging thing as well.”
Mercer and Frazier won’t be selling games, though. If people like something they’re trying out at the cafe and want to have it at home, Mercer says he’ll direct them to The Wyvern’s Tale.
Deklan Green, co-owner of the Merrimon Avenue store says it’s seen steadily growing community support since it opened several years ago. And while he doesn’t consider himself an expert salesperson, Green says, “Whatever you are passionate and knowledgeable about, you will certainly find a way to sell that. I just help people find what they want.”
Built on community
For many people, sharing games and seeking out folks who can compete at a similar level just feel right. “I think the reason a game store exists at all,” says Green, “is not just to sell things: It’s to provide a community space. And that’s really, for me, what makes it enjoyable.”
That seems to be a common sentiment among local game store aficionados. Alaric McDonald loves attending Friday Night Magic (a weekly tournament featuring the popular card game Magic: The Gathering) at Gamers Haunt. The tiny shop is on the upper floor of the little strip mall next to the Enmark gas station on Merrimon.
And though McDonald says he doesn’t play much anymore, he still enjoys meeting up with his friends and watching the matches, or leafing through the binders filled with extra cards that players sometimes trade. He even designs and produces cards to be used as tokens, which the games sometimes call for. “There’s a card that produces [weak] red humans and then turns into big monsters that destroy the world, so I chose mainstream establishment Republicans and then made Trump and Pence tokens for the other ones,” says McDonald. His fellow Magic lovers seem to get a kick out of that as well.
Dale McKinney, who runs the store, deals exclusively in Magic. A passionate expert on the game, McKinney says the customer base defies age demographics, with players ranging from teens to seniors. Although players spend hundreds of dollars refining their gaming decks, he says, the previous owner sold the shop because he couldn’t support his family on the modest income it generated. McKinney, though, is able to keep his cost of living low enough that he can make ends meet while doing what he loves.
He also wants to foster a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for players. There’s no entry fee for the weekly tournaments, and half the winners get prizes. “That encourages people who are brand-new, who maybe haven’t won any games yet, that if they win at least one or two more games in the night, they can at least get a prize,” McKinney explains.
“We’re probably the most full-service of the game stores in town,” says Nate Sykes, co-owner of Hillside Games on Tunnel Road. “Everybody else kind of specializes and just does certain things, but we have a little bit of everything.” The shop, which has been around for a dozen years, includes 1,000 square feet of designated space for tournaments and regular gaming events.
Each week, Hillside hosts several events, including role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as well as card games like Pokemon. There’s also a Friday Night Magic tournament. A longtime D&D player, Sykes has been playing Magic since it came to the East Coast in 1993. His wife, co-owner Amanda Sykes, also does some of that, but she’s really more into the board games, he notes.
That’s fine with Sykes, who wants his store to be a place where gamers of all stripes can thrive. “The best thing I can say about the gaming community in general,” he says, “is it tends to be very welcoming and open. … For many years, the geeks and the nerds didn’t really have a fantastic place to be comfortable. And we try to encourage them to be as comfortable as possible.”
McKinney shares that sentiment. Having a store in Asheville is great, he says, because although the city’s in a pretty conservative part of the country, the people here tend to be accepting, future-oriented and open to things that folks in other areas might find strange. “That really lends itself to gaming,” he points out, “because, in a lot of ways, there’s still some newness to that culture.” Even the growing popularity of video gaming, McKinney maintains, can serve as a bridge back to the physical games.
Strong bonds and retro memories
When Rich Simpson opened what’s now GameXcape on Patton Avenue 14 years ago, he took the name of his brother’s video game retail franchise operation, Play N Trade. After the brother sold his business, Simpson had to change his own store’s name, but that didn’t bother him since he was moving and adding a gaming lounge anyway.
Simpson enjoys video games, but he can’t devote the kind of time to them that’s needed to become a master. “I’m competitive: That’s my problem,” he explains. “You put me at anything, I don’t like to lose.” And with the new games, he continues, “You see how much time commitment it takes to get good. I finally accepted the fact that I’ll never be able to hold my own with today’s gamers, who can spend three to six hours or more a day on those things. They’ll eat you alive online.” So, these days, Simpson says he plays mainly for entertainment and distraction.
Manufacturers, notes Simpson, have made directly downloading new games so easy that retail businesses like GameXcape aren’t selling them as much anymore. He also feels there’s less innovation in video game development these days, and since people tend to play only one kind of video game, he’s seen many of his customers lose interest in new products. A lot of those folks, however, then turn their attention to retro games. Simpson’s store includes a lounge that features the latest in video gaming systems, but he’s preparing to tear out the back wall to put in a retro gaming lounge stocked with older Nintendo products and maybe some other vintage games.
And despite changes in the way people play games, Simpson still believes that lounge style play will continue to be a draw. “When you played games back in the day, you were generally playing with your friends. And that’s changing nowadays — you’re playing online with your friends, but they’re not side by side anymore,” he points out. “To me, that’s the best part of gaming, and those are the memories that formed strong bonds in your brain. So you recall all those fun times playing that game. And that’s why you’re seeing Super Nintendo and N64 games go for crazy prices because people want to buy that happiness again.” This phenomenon, says Simpson, accounts for half his business.
The Asheville Pinball Museum in Battle Square, across from the Grove Arcade, boasts over 75 pinball and classic video games. After paying a flat admission fee, patrons can play to their hearts’ content.
The Asheville Retrocade, which just opened in West Asheville, employs the same pricing strategy. The new bar features cabinet arcade games and pinball machines dating back to the childhoods of Gen Xers and Gen Yers.
Owner Michael Penland has been in the bar business for a long time and also owns arcades. The Haywood Road location, he says, brings those two interests together. Starting with a single Mortal Kombat 2 cabinet that he grudgingly bought seven years ago, Penland has built quite a collection after discovering that people love to play them. He also has a large trove of beer memorabilia dating to the 1930s.
Penland loves everything about the games, right down to the smell of the wooden cabinets and the feel of the joystick. His new place is a step into the past, with classic music and some 5,000 vintage games, most of them on computer emulators.
“I like it when people can come in and play the game they used to play in high school or show their kids how they used to hang out,” he explains. “The gaming industry now is just sit on the couch with a headset on, and I want to get away from that.”
Orbit DVD takes the whole world of nerdy, geeky stuff, shakes it up like a martini and spits out a tasty mix of weird. With the recent closing of Rosebud, Orbit is now the lone remaining video store in Asheville, and it owes at least some of its market viability to the geeks.
Owner Marc McCloud is a true movie buff who managed the Blockbuster video store on Tunnel Road in 2003 (kids, ask your parents what this was). But when he asked if he could bring in certain titles that he wanted to rent out to customers, McCloud was told he’d be fired if he did that. The offending films were the documentaries I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, about the band Wilco, and Lost in La Mancha, about Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a Don Quixote movie with Johnny Depp.
Yet the demand for those movies was astronomical, says McCloud, and in Asheville, “People like the offbeat type stuff.” So he quit the uncomprehending corporate structure and opened a store where he could rent out whatever he wanted. What sets Orbit apart is its collection of hard-to-find items. The owner’s favorite is the “WTF section,” which boasts some of the strangest, most grotesque films one could ever hope to see (or not).
“First and foremost, we’re a neighborhood store,” he says. “So we always look at requests, no matter how silly.” That anything-goes approach has served the store well, as video-rental stores across the nation have all but gone extinct. Although the DVDs still take up a lot of floor space, they no longer provide a majority of the revenue.
“About five or six years ago, I realized that the time was up for the rental business,” he reveals, “so I took steps to stay open. We brought in other things. A good example is we’ve always rented video games, but then we found other people were wanting to buy them. So eventually that turned into … a huge part of our business.”
Like GameXcape, Orbit does well with retro games, but it also carries comics, toys, books and board games, offering a small but well-selected sampling of both new and used merchandise.
Nerd is the word
But if nerdy stuff has helped a local movie store survive, mainstream media have returned the favor for comic book boutiques. Russell attributes a lot of the growth in Pastimes’ customer base “to the diversity, actually, from movies and TV. Gaming, too, like video games. You know, it’s not just a guy thing anymore: It’s everybody, and I think that’s awesome because I can recommend something to anybody.” In years past, he says, if a female came in seeking guidance, he’d hesitantly mention Wonder Woman or Archie. But these days, there are many great titles with cross-gender appeal, from Ms. Marvel to The Walking Dead.
And that feedback loop of a market continually reinventing itself shows no signs of slowing down.
“There’s a lot more people buying graphic novels now,” says Lauren Napoli, a buyer for Malaprop’s Bookstore. And part of the reason, she believes, is the increased availability of titles with broader appeal. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the world of comics didn’t have much to offer people of color — or, for that matter, anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, teenage male. But these days, says Napoli, a more diverse crowd is reading graphic novels and comics because a more diverse crowd is writing them. She credits African-American writers like Octavia Butler and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, with expanding the audience for the nerdier side of literature.
Patrons of the store’s graphic novel section, notes Napoli, say things like, “Look at all the comics for young women that you have here. Look at all the comics that have a diverse, catholic, LGBTQ and people of color [cast of characters].”
Because of the increased media attention accorded graphic novels like Watchmen or Persepolis, she points out, more of them are getting banned from schools and libraries. Ironically, however, that can actually give them a boost. After several failed attempts to ban Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, for example, it was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. The book, meanwhile, has won multiple awards and is now considered a classic work of gay literature. Author Alison Bechdel told The Comics Journal that she considers the attempted banning a sort of honor and sees it as “part of the whole evolution of the graphic novel form.”
Haywood Comics owner Cegelis sees all this as adding up to a geek golden age. “What’s been great is that nerd culture has sort of morphed into just culture. There are so many different ways to nerd out these days,” and lots of people shop in his store who probably wouldn’t have in the past. “I feel like nerds are the new hipsters, in that they knew what was cool before it was cool. It’s a great time to be a nerd.”