Sparacino’s Bakery: Italian French Sicilian Bread and Comic Booklets. In their own way, the sly words amended to the end of the sun-faded sign adorning the top of the storefront at 540 Metropolitan Ave. are a perfect match for the store’s grand opening, ushered in with little more fanfare than the turn of a key and a flip of a light switch, last Tuesday morning. They’re also, perhaps, a subtle compliment to yet another signpost of the ever-broadening gentrification of this Brooklyn neighborhood, which has grown a few boutique shops too big for its main drag, Bedford Ave., spreading rapidly to once quite surrounding streets.
A couple of years back, Barcade sprung up a few blocks away—which, much as its name suggests, longed to fill the void in the lives of those looking to cozy up to a handful of vintage gaming machines on the other end of a pint of Brooklyn Lager.
While it’s not too difficult to image a time, in the near future, when Starbucks and American Apparels begin springing up around the corner, once inside, it’s hard to curse the new Desert Island comic shop as yet another harbinger of Williamsburg’s skyrocketing rent prices, with the front door flanked on opposing sides by a spinner rack chalk full of minis and magazine shelves lined with single back issues of books like Hate and Frank. It’s near impossible to find anything bad to say about an
establishment so dedicated to the works of artists like Peter Bagge and Jim Woodring.
On a less localized level, the store also serves as a signpost for another important and relatively recent phenomenon: the alternative comics shop, the second in this burrough after the equally sublime Rocketship, which opened its pod bay doors two summers ago, a few neighborhoods away, in the ritzy neighborhood of Cobble Hill.
[Photo by Sarah Glidden]
By the time my co-interviewer and Fart Party creator, Julia Wertz, and I arrived at the store on Saturday, the inside of the store was buzzing with curious browsers, bearing no reflection on the store’s decidedly low-key opening, a few days prior. Desert Island’s owner–and current sole employee–Gabriel Fowler, was seated behind the register, beneath a wall of cubbyholes, bearing action figure likenesses of Chris Ware’s Quimby Mouse, Gary Panter’s Jimbo, and ceramic sad-eyed basset hound whose identical brothers graced various shelves throughout the store next to official Mad Magazine board games.
We introduced ourselves to the shop’s lanky unshaven owner, and made our way to a couch in the corner, which Fowler lovingly referred to as “the hangout zone.” We fire up the tape recorder and ask him to explain the genesis of Desert Island, “[I was working as an] art handler and thinking about publishing an anthology with a friend,” he began. “We were contacting artists and thinking about what our favorite stuff is, some of which is in the fine art world and some of which is in the comic world. The idea started to build a little bit of steam, but we began to wonder where the hell we would bring such a thing. We tried to imagine a destination for it. That was the beginning of [the store].”
From inspiration to conception, the birth of the shop took around a year, a large portion of which saw Fowler compiling a list of his favorite books, which now make up the majority of the store’s shelf space. In the process of acquiring said titles, he made a concerted effort to avoid large publishers.
“I’m only dealing with two distributors. When I started, I was only trying to deal with publishers. But a publisher may be out of something, but a distributor will have five boxes that no one wants,” Fowler explained. “I’m trying to avoid dealing with the big superstore distributors, and if I can, I will. It’s a pain in the ass to deal with them.”
It was that decision which played a big role in the current absence of superhero book from the shop’s racks. “I haven’t gone out of my way, but I’m trying not to deal with these bigger distributors, and the smaller ones don’t have that stuff. It’s like a cartel—they have a lock on that content,” he told us. “I’m not averse to that type of content, I’m averse to that type of distribution. And the attitude that comes from everybody along the chain of command, from the publishers to the distributors to the creators who have their own business managers. And it just so happens that lots of those problems come with people who create superhero comics.”
[Photo by Sarah Glidden]
In a moment’s worth of sly protest, he even considered adopting the name Anti-Hero, settling instead on the decidedly less retaliatory Desert Island, reflecting that old party game revolving around the five or ten worldly possessions one would bring with them in the event of a Robinson Crusoe-esque shipwreck.
Whether his business plan will prove fruitful has yet to be seen, of course, but if the first weekend’s crowd is any indication, Fowler seemingly has little to worry about. The lasting success of Rocketship also serves as a promising sign of Desert Island’s fate.
Whatever the future may hold, Desert Island is an essential weekly visit for anyone with access to the ‘L’ train, but even more importantly, it marks a promising signpost for an industry that continues to come into its own, around-the-corner Starbucks or no.