Comic Shop Focus: Desert Island, Brooklyn, NY

Categories:  Features

Desert Island Comics

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.

Desert Island Comics

[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].”

Desert Island Comics

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.”

Desert Island 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.

–Brian Heater

17 Comments to “Comic Shop Focus: Desert Island, Brooklyn, NY”

  1. Joe Infurnari | March 10th, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Awesome! After moving out of Park Slope, Rocketship territory, it’s nice to have a good comic shop in my new ‘hood, Williamsburg! Thanks, Desert Island, and thanks, Daily Cross Hatch!

  2. bheater | March 10th, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    thanks yourself, joe. and godbless us, everyone.

    oh, and for everyone else, we’re thinking of doing more of these features, so let me know either in the comments section or via the ‘hatch e-mail address whether you’d like to see it again.

    thanks,
    brian h.

  3. oliver east | March 10th, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    i love little reports like this, so aye, more would be grand.

    x

  4. Charles Brownstein | March 10th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Just popped into Gabe’s store on a rainy night this weekend. It’s a really terrificly curated shop. Beautiful merchandising, and a really fun product mix of indy comix classics. I wish it well.

  5. Bully | March 11th, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Hooray for another fine Brooklyn comic store! I’ll be making a pilgrimage out to Desert Island real soon—looks great!

  6. Torsten Adair | March 12th, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Nice to see another bookstore open up. Wonder about their distribution… if they use book distributors like Ingram or get most of it from Diamond Direct.
    oh… And an address would be helpful!

  7. Torsten Adair | March 12th, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Google has little info about Desert Island… If you know it, could you please there phone number, the nearest subway stations, and when they are open? I’d walk from Woodlawn, but would hate to find it closed! thanks!
    another good store to feature is Krypton Comics in Omaha.

  8. Matt Little | March 12th, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    @ Torsten:

    It’s less than a block from the Lorimer L/Metropolitan G stop.

    If you get out at Metropolitan and Lorimer, walk downhill less than a block towards Union.

    If you get out at Metropolitan and Union, walk uphill less than a block towards Lorimer.

  9. Travis | April 19th, 2008 at 9:58 am

    I can’t hope this fails hard enough. Spoiler: EVERYONE orders from Diamond. Good luck paying your rent with street cred, Gabriel.

  10. Gabriel | April 27th, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Why the negativity, friend? If you want homoginized content, go buy your comics at Wal-Mart.

  11. Danny Hellman | May 21st, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Of course EVERYONE orders from Diamond, but EVERYONE also bemoans the extinction of Diamond’s competitors. Diamond’s core business has always been the mainstream market, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to handle indy/alternative books as well as they do the men in tights stuff. If Gabriel can keep his shelves stocked without dealing with Diamond, I say more power to him.

    I wish Gabriel and his Desert Island nothing but success. God knows he’s in the right neighborhood for the readership. Why wish failure on anyone when they’re just getting started? Who knows, with a little nurturing, today’s indy comics retailer might evolve into tomorrow’s indy comics distributor, (at least we can hope).

  12. James Sime | May 30th, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Nice!

    There are few things that make me happier than seeing nifty new comic stores opening up and Desert Island definitely looks and sounds like a very cool shop. Can’t wait to get to visit on my next trip out that way and will definitely send some of my East Coast friends by to check it out.

    Thanks for the article and the great photos!

    If Daily Cross Hatch is looking for more cool new shops to profile, let me suggest the recently-opened Neon Monster in SF. I suppose some folks might consider them “the competition” because they’re not all that far from *my* comic book shop, but I gotta say, they’ve done a really admirable job putting together a great comics, crazy japanese toys, and cool vinyl records shop.

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/neon-monster-san-francisco

  13. mikeHirst | December 17th, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    i love this store!

    the guy that owns it is awesome and plays cool records while you shop.

    fave sat afternoon stop!

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