A sad day for true believers

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This article was originally published in the May 8 issue of the Wareham Courier.

EAST WAREHAM -  The stairwell leading down to Gateway Comics looks a little bit like a comic book hall of fame, plastered as it is with posters for dozens of comics and heroes. A glowing neon “S” decorates the store’s window facing Cranberry Highway.

In spite of the beacon, the store below is empty. It’s Wednesday, and the latest comics are out on the racks. Despite that, shop-owner Eric Jordan is waiting restlessly behind the counter while the clock ticks off the hours.

“Back a year-and-a-half ago, if you were here on Wednesday when the new comics came in, you’d find 10 or 15 people browsing the shelf,” Jordan said.

Days like these are what’s troubling Jordan lately, because they’re happening with greater and greater frequency. Gateway Comics used to be open seven days a week, but Jordan recently cut back the hours to Wednesday through Sunday.

Even then, some days the store is so slow that he just turns out the lights and goes home because the light and heat it takes to make the basement shop inviting are just a burden when there’s no one to invite in.

Slowly the store is being stripped bare of its comics and collectibles. Bags full of biodegradable packing peanuts lay on one counter. A scale and packing tape are on hand to box up whatever isn’t sold off in the coming weeks. The rack of cards, which used to represent a diverse array of games from Pokemon to Magic: The Gathering, is almost empty.

“We’re a specialty type of market, and no one is spending money on the specialty type of stuff. It’s buy the bread, gas and milk or take their kids in and buy comics,” Jordan said. “Unfortunately, if no one spends the money, you can’t pay the rent on zero.”

With prices of those staples rising from growing pressure of foreign markets and spiking oil prices, budgets for niche and specialty products are only going to shrink for the foreseeable future.

At first Jordan tried to stem the tide by diversifying what Gateway had to offer customers. With the help of a friend he set up a video game area, where he could sell used games and host tournaments over a set of linked televisions and game consoles. Jordan also installed a movie screen and projector with a Nintendo Wii to host party games like Super Smash Brothers in the hope the console, which is almost impossible to find in stores without incredible luck or intensive recon, would bring in a little more traffic.

The numbers never materialized for the tournaments, and Gateway Comics ran up against competition when it came to selling used games. The opening of Wareham Crossing brought electronic games retailer GameStop, which does a lot of business in used games, has brand recognition and a larger selection.

Competition from large retailers has also been eating into the store’s core business of comics. Thanks to Hollywood blockbusters and critically praised graphic novels, the comic industry as a whole has seen tremendous growth in the past decade. The recently released film Iron Man, produced by Marvel Comics, grossed $200 million worldwide on its opening weekend to almost universal critical acclaim. Graphic novels – once simply extended comics like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – are increasingly accepted as a way to bring sophisticated and rich storytelling to the page, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman.

This mainstreaming has encouraged retailers like Borders to expand their offerings of comics, graphic novels and a popular Japanese style of comics called Manga.

“They’re really great stories,” Jordan said. “Some of these things, they’re hooking up writers specifically to write for them. Stephen King is involved. Orson Scott Card, a great science fiction writer, is involved.”

The raised profile has also contributed to a rise in price, along with increases in printing and labor costs, all of which make the cost of the hobby a little harder to swallow for some.

Closing has been hard for Jordan, who has been collecting comics for 25 years. Gateway Comics was his home away from home as a kid, where he’d go every Wednesday to spend his hard-earned allowance on the latest issues.

Eight years ago, when the previous owner wanted to retire, he jumped on the chance to take over a business that had meant so much to him.

“I liked the books so much that when the opportunity presented itself to purchase the store, it was something that sounded fun and interesting. I’ve loved it ever since,” he said.

At that time, the store was in Buzzards Bay and business was great. With the theater still open, there was a lot of foot traffic, and even after it closed the store continued to do well. So well that three years ago Jordan decided the store needed to grow to accommodate the rising tide of card tournaments and games, so he moved over to East Wareham where he could fit 30 or 40 people rather than 20.

Over eight years he has seen many of his customers grow up and blossom amidst friends and activities found at the shop. While his customers have gotten older, their numbers haven’t grown. Many have moved on to jobs, girlfriends and college.

“One of the hardest things I had to do is tell the little kids, especially the Pokemon league we do on Saturdays, that we’re closing down,” Jordan said.

While the store is closing, Jordan isn’t getting out of comics and collectibles all together. He hopes to continue to provide subscriptions to his loyal customers, do some selling on eBay, and find a place to continue to Pokemon and other card leagues for the younger children. In the meantime, Jordan still faces the emotional business of packing up some of his dreams or letting them go at bargain basement prices.