The Comic Shops of Philadelphia: A Walking Tour

Categories:  Features

I spent this past week between jobs, for the first time in nearly five years. After working for so long without a break, it’s hard to know what to do with yourself when a little time off presents itself. I considered, for a moment, embracing the in vogue notion of the staycation, but I couldn’t foresee a scenario involving me at home in Queens without work for a week that didn’t end in a Shining-esque trip through the hedge maze of sanity.

I ran down a quick list of possible destinations—somewhere cheap, somewhere quick. A place I could get to in a manner of hours, spend a day or two in, and then return home a day or so before clocking in at my new job. I needed a place to decompress alone from the fever pitch of stress that comes with quitting a job and helping run a major comics festival.

I settled on Philadelphia, booking a trip on the Megabus for $11 each way. I didn’t have a particular plan of action in mind upon arrival—just a lot of walking. Philly, thankfully, is a blissfully walkable city. This was my second time in the City of Brotherly Love—the first time I took a Chinatown bus down, but had shied away from that method of transportation in light of recent events.

I’d gotten much of the museum and historical sight seeing out of the way on that trip, so I solicited recommendations from locals, asking for record stores, used bookstores, bars, and comic shops. The comic shop tour sprung up fairly organically from there—once I visited my first store, it was clear that I had to check out the competition.

What follows is a very incomplete catalog of Philadelphia’s comic shops. It is, frankly, what I managed to see on that front in a little under two days. Apologies for any essential locations I missed, or for those that didn’t get a fair shake–I spent what I considered a reasonable amount of time for a shopper in each, save for Locust Moon, whose friendly owner and I spoke about the store for what seemed like an hour. I also took shots of the stores. Some are better documented that others—in some settings, asking to shoot someone’s store feels a bit awkward, so I just played it by ear.

Atomic City Comics

638 South Street

Atomic City is the comic shop equivalent to a bag of Skittles: It’s bright, it’s welcoming, and it’s not particularly great for you. The store is located directly on South Street—a street described to me as a “tourist trap” by one of the locals—fair enough. There are a lot of theme bars on the drag I’d advise avoiding at all costs, but the street also offers some of the city’s best stores: take Repo Records, a terrific little used record store that will forever be atop my list of destinations for subsequent trips to the City of Brotherly Love.

Atomic City is not one of those locations. That said, this is the second time I’ve been to Philadelphia—and the second time I’ve been to Atomic City (actually, last time the shop was called “Showcase Comics,” in a space two doors down—same difference, though). It’s kind of hard to avoid if you’re both the type to take an obligatory trip to South Street on a visit to Philadelphia and the sort who can’t walk past a comic shop without at least poking your head in. The store is big and bright (bright yellow), and the front wall is lined with rows of quarter vending machines full of a variety of bright plastic knickknacks.

The store is home to several arcade machines, though the one in the front was turned off when I arrived, decked out with a note indicating that state law only allows for a store without a proper license to operating three such machines at any one time. The others were in the back and were in use.

The store has rows of back issues, and even a tiny indie selection, comics really seem just a part of the store’s focus on general entertainment, which includes a small cooler near the front desk stocked with soft drinks bearing the likeness of such cartoon characters as Sonic the Hedgehog.

Brave New Worlds

45 North Second Street

One of my favorite aspects of East Coast cities is the way the old and new co-exist. New York has a bit of this, with ancient churches living alongside skyscrapers. For the most part, however, the truly old parts of the city are located toward the bottom of Manhattan (the city was developed from the tip of the island, upwards), places like Wall Street and Battery Park, which I honestly have little reason to stop by, save for the times I’m showing off my city to out of town visitors.

Philadelphia and Boston (particularly the latter) seem to have done a better job allowing the new intermingle with the historical. Walk around Philly for any length of time and you’ll stumble across something like the Liberty Bell or Benjamin Franklin’s house.

Brave New Worlds, my first official comics stop of my two-day visit is located in Old City, a particularly historic section of Philly. This is where William Penn and his fellow Quakers first settled in the city. It’s full of cobblestone streets and landmarks like Betsy Ross’s house and Elfreth’s Alley, one of the oldest continuously inhabited streets in the U.S. It’s also home to Brave New Worlds—one of Philadelphia’s best comic shops.

Like the majority of other comic shops in the area, the store specializes in mainstream books, as evidenced by the un-ironic lifesize Spider-Man and Silver Surfer statues in the store, and the neon Open sign in the front window, with Spider-Man’s oval head serving as the “O.” It’s a friendly store, but not overwhelmed by the bright colors that dominate Atomic and Fat Jack’s. The tour is muted and tasteful (at least as muted and tasteful as a store that stocks Marvel Comics lampshades can be).

The store has a fair-sized alternative comics sections—one of the largest I saw on my trip to Philadelphia, with book from big name indie publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and Top Shelf—and even some smaller presses like Adhouse.

Brave New Worlds also gets points for being two doors down from a terrific used bookstore called The Book Trader. Oh, and if you ask an employee for directions to South Street, he’ll happily send you on the route with the best historical Philadelphia scenery.

Brickbat Books

709 South 4th Street

One of Philadelphia’s best comic shops would likely never bill itself as such. The rather aggressively-named Brickbat is just a small jaunt down a side street off of Philly’s über trendy South Street drag. The shop was actually recommended by an employee of a quaint, creaky-floored bookstore a few blocks away. I won’t actually mention that one by name—I’m not sure what the shop’s policy is, so far as diverting people to the competition, though, as the owner of another used book store in Center City, Philadelphia put it, “We’ve got to stick together” (“we,” in this case, meaning everyone but Border’s and Barnes & Noble—though those chains are certainly doing perfectly fine imploding on their own, thank you very much).

The store name, in part, seems to refer to the verbal definition of the term: A criticism or unfavorable remark.  Indeed, one has the distinct impression that choosing the wrong item might, in fact, result in a critique—as soon as you’ve made your purchase and exited the store, naturally. Thing is, however, the selection is on the small size, so there aren’t really so many wrong decisions to made—so perhaps those criticisms are levied at those who wouldn’t shop at such shop in the first place, or maybe it’s the people who do walk into the shop, only to discover that there’s nothing on these premises for them.

The shop was recommended to me in part for its being “beautiful,” and indeed, the store’s owner has constructed a rather elegant solution to the non-problem of displaying books. The shelves themselves would perhaps more appropriately be called cubby holes—perfectly square spaces that can store either a dozen or so books spine out, or one displayed with the cover facing out.

I enter the store and am immediately drawn to a collection of essays about Sun Ra published by some small British press—it’s oriented in the second position. I flip through the book for a second and ask the man behind the counter the name of the band playing over the store’s PA. He says a name that I don’t recognize and can’t quite make out. “It’s proto-Kraut Rock,” he adds. It’s that kind of store. When a customer comes in later, he discusses an audio CD on the counter—apparently it’s a séance conducted at a museum in an attempt to contact a dead artist. I sort of wish I’d bought the thing—and about half the rest of the items.

Brickbat was described to me as an “art book store,” though that description isn’t quite accurate. Really, it’s hard to get a firm grasp on a common line between the selections, but the entire inventory is rather well-curated and nearly every selection demands to be pulled from the shelf and flipped through. The other origin of the name is, supposedly, the owner’s odd habit of hurling books at the heads of patrons who ring the bell asking for airport bookstore fare. This is illustrated by an image of Ignatz on the front counter, spurning the advances of a odd-speaking cat with a brick to the back of her head.

The comics collection is scattered a bit across the cubbies—a nice gesture, I think, not restricting sequential art to a categorical ghetto. Of course, such is a luxury of a small store with a limited selection—there’s certainly something to be said for being able to find what you’re looking for. Brickbat isn’t that kind of store—it’s the sort of place you browse without particular selections in mind, stumbling upon obscure treasures in the browser. $35 seems a bit pricey for an early issue of an early Blab!—and those Edward Gorey first editions are for serious collectors only. I buy a volume about Ya Ho Wha 13 and the aforementioned Sun Ra book—the owner tells me he’s recently learned that the governor of Massachusetts is the estranged son of a member of the Arkestra. It’s that kind of store.

Fat Jack’s Comicrypt

2006 Sansom St

Fat Jack’s was recommended to me for two reasons—the first is general proximity. The shop was about ten blocks away from my hotel. The second is the two cats who inhabit the space. I first walked past the store after close, and saw them both prowling around the deserted space. The cats themselves were certainly not reason enough to get me out to the shop—I’m allergic. But after making it my goal to visit as many local comic shops as possible in two days, I’d be remiss if I opted to forgo the closest to my bed.

I liked Fat Jack’s. More than I thought I would. The focus of the space is certainly mainstream books (though that certainly holds for nearly every shop I saw this week)—the store had more long boxes than the other shops I’d visited. And like Atomic, Fat Jack’s has a blinding neon yellow color scheme. When I arrived, the owner and an employee were discussing the political leanings of ex-presidents (“McKinley was killed by an anarchist and Garfield was killed by a crazy guy, right?”), the manner of conversation one ought to be having at 11 A.M. on a Friday morning in a comic shop.

Fat Jack’s is the largest of all of the shops I visited this week—from the outside, it’s pretty clear that the space was originally intended to be two separate shops. The left half is largely devoted to new releases. The front of the right half of the store is monopolized by islands of trade paperbacks and graphic novels, including a portion featuring the standard indie releases, and a few more unexpected titles like an older issue of Hicke on Alternative and Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel.

The back issues live in the rear of the right half of the store. I snapped a few shots back there and got my camera nosed by a curious cat hanging out on top of one of the long boxes. Like the trade portion of the store, a small section of the area is dedicated to indie publishers—a pretty great find, if you need to stock up on Yummy Fur or Vertigo’s run of American Splendor.

Locust Moon

4040 Locust St

A final official stop on the way to the Megabus back to New York. I lug a book and record-filled suitcase across the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a beautiful tree-filled campus, and the residents are making the most of what may well be the second sunny day of spring 2011. They’re out in force, and many are putting on bizarre little shows outside of on-campus frat house—singing songs, giving speeches, dancing. Must be some sort of orientation week. Or the end of finals, perhaps?

Things are even more chaotic a block away, with students standing on porches of off-campus houses, drinking assorted beverages from bright red keg cups, listening to top 40 hip-hop songs as loud as their indoor stereos will let them. Celebrations have spilled out beyond private property lines, as well, with a number of folks casually taking sips from plastic cups, while walking down the sidewalk—it’s a lot to behold before noon on a weekday.

An hour or so later, browsing through shelves at a used bookstore, an employee asks a cop, “I thought that sort of thing was frowned upon.” The officer answers, smilingly, “Shen they’re in the cups, we look the other way. Could be juice.” I knew I should have gone to an Ivy League school.

Locust Books is located about two blocks from campus. The store was one of two highly recommended by local cartoonist Box Brown (the other being Brave New Worlds). It shares a space with a role-playing game store, a thin makeshift wall separating the two.

When I arrive, there’s a “Back in Five Minutes” sign in the window (it had originally said “10”), so I wait in front, with my luggage, watching a group of Ivy Leaguers compete in a game of pre-lunch outdoor beer pong—NCAA rules, I assume. The shop’s co-owner shows up a few minutes later and apologetically opens the door.

Locust Moon is not particularly wide (due, no doubt to the wall it shares with the gaming store), but it is deep. In fact, the rear of the store is all movie rentals—a rough business to be in, these days, co-owner Chris Stevens admits.

The front of the store is all comics, however, and selection-wise, it’s hands-down the closest aligned with my tastes of all of the shops. There’s a wall devoted to new releases and a small section dedicated to back issues (the store has been open for just under a year and is a bit lacking on that front—the owner explains that he sends customers who ask for such things to Fat Jack’s). Stevens tells me that he and the other owner are considered moving those books to the rear of the store, to focus on the indie fare, of which Locust Moon has plenty.

Inspiration for the store, he adds, came from Isotope in San Francisco and the sadly-departed Rocketship in Brooklyn—both stores with indie focus that weren’t afraid to stock mainstream books, as well. And Locust Moon, like its predecessors, offers a pretty healthy mix. Stevens, it should be added, is pals with Meathaus co-founder, Farel Dalrymple, who drew the store’s logo and helped paint the Blankets-esque front desk. The original pages from a Stevens/Dalrymple collaboration are framed on one of the store’s wall.

Also of note: A fish tank full of Snorks toys and a giant aquatic frog. A few sheets of paper taped next to the tank keep track of which fish have been added, eaten, or succumbed to other fates. Stevens explains that they were written by two little girls who love Sandman and visit the store on a regular basis.

Locust Moon is a terrific young store—one that will hopefully do brisk business with students from the glut of colleges in the area known as University City. Unlike a lot of the other stores in the area, the shop has a consignment self-publishing section right near the front door. I do wish the section were a bit bigger, but, not surprisingly, the college kids seem more interested in Alan Moore’s Cthulhu book than hand-stapled screen-printed fare.

South Philly Comics

1621 E Passyunk Ave

The same bookstore employee who recommended Brickbat Comics also suggested I keep walking toward South Philly. I can’t really call it a recommendation—she actually recommended the area, explaining that it was a “cute” area with thrift stores, a gelato place, and oh yeah, there’s a comic shop down there, too. So I hiked, traversing the rows of cheesesteak restaurants, and indeed, finally stumbled upon South Philly Comics. The store shares a wall with Beautiful World Syndicate, a vinyl record store—always a good sign when scouting a new neighborhood.

I ask the guy behind the counter at the record shop if there’s a proper gentrified hipster name for the neighborhood, and he flinches a bit, insisting that it a yuppie area (see: the aforementioned gelato shop). The hipsters commute here to work in the shops and bars, he tells me.

I’d have asked the same question of the employee at South Philly Comics, but I don’t want to interrupt the conversation he’s having about Jim Lee. I should add that the fellow was perfectly nice and asked if I needed anything when I came in, but I realized pretty quickly that, save for a small section (a bit misleading, given the David Boring, X’ed Out, and Henry and Glenn Forever, which you can see in the window above), the hole in the wall shop isn’t really up my alley.

Wooden Shoe Books and Records

704 South St

Like Brickbat, this one is a bit of a stretch for this comic shop review. Also, like Brickbat, the origin of the store’s name involves the hurling of objects, apparently derived from the act of tossing wooden shoes into the gears of machines to avoid working long hours in early industrial capitalist France.

I’ve got a special place in my heart for anarchist bookstores, and really, all indie comics fans ought to. The people who run these stores have long realized the value of sequential art, particularly mini-comics, which grew up alongside zine culture, books based on the DIY ethos so essential to the shops themselves.

Located on the outskirts of the South Street consumerist Mecca (roughly a block or so down from the less-than-subtly-named called Condom Kingdom), Wooden Shoe is a terrific little shop, from what I can tell. As I walked in, an employee was cleaning up the flier wall in the front of the store, tearing a few from their staples. “Someone snuck in some Foo Fighters fliers,” he tells the other two staff members.

There’s a healthy-sized magazine shelf on one of the walls. The left side is dedicated to progressive and underground magazines. The right is dedicated almost entirely to zines, with a number of mini-comics mixed in—like Brickbat, Wooden Shoe’s small size affords it the ability to stock the titles alongside prose, poetry, and photo zines.

Directly to the right, is a section dedicated to zine collections. Alongside the standard zine fare (Burn Collector, Cometbus, Absolutely Zippo) are a number of small-run comics trades—Monsters by Ken Dahl, MK Reed’s Cross Country, and a handful of others. I ultimately walk away with three zines, the Ghost Pine collection, Revolution Summer, and the comics/zine combo, Miss Sequential. The lady behind the counter says, “Nice choices,” and I’m back on South Street.

–Brian Heater

11 Comments to “The Comic Shops of Philadelphia: A Walking Tour”

  1. Kat | April 18th, 2011 at 2:19 am

    You’re a life saver!

    I was planning to visit good ole Philly in August for the Philadelphia Alternative Comic Con (http://phillyaltcon.blogspot.com/) , and thinking of going on a comic shop crawl during that same week.

    And this article has definitely been helpful!
    Thanks a bunch!

    -Kat!

  2. Locust Moon Comics | April 18th, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Hey Brian, thanks for mentioning us. Good meeting you the other day.

    And hey Kat, we’re right across the street from the Alt-Con, make sure you check us out

  3. Darth Zissou | April 18th, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I found myself waiting 2 hours for a bus transfer in Philly so I decided to explore the city. I stumbled upon Fat Jack’s and was pleasantly surprised. The employees were very friendly and knowledgeable. I highly recommend finding this place.

  4. iaintnocompanyman | April 18th, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I think you missed an opportunity by not stopping at the Ontario Street Market,
    2235 East Ontario Street, Philadelphia, PA. It was the comic shop that was featured in the film Unbreakable. It’s an entire warehouse filled with comics and lots of junk you’d find at a flee market. Weird and fun place. You can usual find what you’re looking for. Nice people too.

  5. Cheese | April 18th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    You’re in luck Kat, PACC’s location, The Rotunda, is about 40 ft. from Locust Moon through the parking lot.

  6. Mikael | April 18th, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    While it seems the above crawl is more about where the writer wants to be seen, and less about the stores, here’s my take from someone who actually lives in Philly:

    Fatjack’s backissues are way overpriced. Once a new issue hits the stand, they jack up the previous issue. I find their employees are the typical comic shop workers: they poopoo new comic readers and aren’t really that helpful. Atomic City also suffers that fate to some degree – but at least they have months’ worth of one title at cover price to be had. Both of these stores are dangerously close to the Android Dungeon stereotype. With the amount of traffic/loyalty they get, I’m surprised they don’t do more outreach events.

    South Philly Comics – so having a conversation about a comic creator is a strike against in your opinion? Strange and elitist of you to point that out if you ask me. Another store that has several months’ worth of one title on the shelf to be had at cover price. Always a plus over the way Fat Jacks does it. They also have DVDs as well for rent. A smaller store, but just fine for those people who live in that area.

    Brave New Worlds is clean, stylish and the have a great selection of comics. Always a joy to go in there – they stock several months’ of one title at cover price, have a few local creator works, great trade selections, comic-related items (toys, etc), $1 bins, etc. They also do events, try and bring in creators, had a book club. One of my favs.

    Locust Moon – the one store I haven’t visited in Philly. Rumors that they basically stole some of their inventory from their previous partners are enough to keep me away.

  7. Seth | April 18th, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Good feature and nice photos! I’ve lived and comic shopped in Philly for the past fourteen years, and am pretty impressed that you came to many of the same conclusions in single visits to these stores that I have over a decade of patronage.

    I still frequent all of these stores on occasion, though Fat Jacks is my most frequent stop. The employee conversations you overheard are always that colorful and they are most likely to have whatever I am looking for in stock.

    If you are able to venture out of the city, Showcase Comics in the suburbs (Bryn Mawr) is also excellent. They keep over a years worth of back issues on the wall and an exhaustive collection of graphic novels, including the occasional out of print but still cover-priced gem. The only other thing to note is that Showcase dual-caters to tabletop gamers and seems to perpetually host Warhammer tournaments. This could be a plus to some, but as a comics purist, it makes my visit a tad less-desirable.

  8. Jim Chadwick | April 18th, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for doing this. As someone who lived in Philly throughout the 80s and very early 90s who hasn’t been back for over 15 years, I am astounded and delighted by the number and variety for comic shops presently available in the city. Considering that the 80s and early 90s were considered boom times for traditional comic book stories compared to today, I’m honestly surprised that the city can apparently support so many comic shops in such a relatively small area. Back when I lived there, Fat Jack’s was pretty much the only act in town. (They used to have another store in nearby Oaklyn, New Jersey, where I lived for a while and–I think–one in Northeast Philly.) I still have fond memories of that place and my weekly visits there and always thought the owner was a really nice guy. (Assuming it hasn’t changed hands, but who knows?) And I’m glad to see they still survive. (And if I recall correctly, having cats in the store is an old tradition, going back to my day over 20 years ago.) Also interesting to see what a cool little strip 2nd Street (where Brave New World is located) has turned into. I used to work about a block from there at a building with Google street view now reveals to be a laser surgery place, apparently. One of these years, I actually have to get back there for a visit.

  9. El Frawg!!! | April 18th, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    DISCLAIMER: Long time Atomic City subscriber

    Did you spend much time in Atomic City? I get the feeling from your article that you barely poked your head in. The part I couldn’t understand was your comment on this not being the type of store to come back to. That really wasn’t qualified well in the article, so I’m not sure what turned you off about it.

    Good point on the multiple lines of entertainment, but it reads like you thought of that as a bad thing? They’ve got a pretty extensive manga collection, a whole apparel section (Maybe not everyone’s thing, but I’ve bought Bizarro, Professor Zoom, and several lantern shirts from them). They also have an adult section in the back, a couple collectibles cases, a decent-sized video collection (Something is always playing on their big-screen TV), and several Japanese import items, one of their specialties as several of their employees are of Japanese heritage. They’ve also got plenty of expertise on just about any area in comics, but you’ll definitely get more excitement for the non-cape stuff from the staff. Up front they’ve got several chairs and tables to sit and eat, read, chat, or whatever.

    As for comics, they’ve still got one of the largest walls for comics and trades in the city. The back issue longbox stock is average, but as I’m sure you’ve seen over the years, that stuff doesn’t move as much as it used to and most owners just don’t stock that much anymore. Not sure how tiny the indie collection is… It’s a couple small walls full and there are usually a couple on display on the feature table up front. Compared to other stores, I’d say average maybe, but not sure about tiny.

    They actually have several sponsored events that I’ve been to including movie giveaways, quiz nights, sketch comedy shows, celebrity and artist signings, and art events.

    As for the Android Dungeon comment in the comments section, yeah, you might hear a little of that sorta thing, but you’re probably overhearing a Talmudic debate between the staff and some long-time customers who are just shooting the shit. I’ve seen time and again someone come in saying they’re new to comics and they just want some advice on what to read. The staff really seems to dig helping them out, and you’ll often see other customers chiming in with their own advice.

    Overall, a good comic shop with great community and diverse selection. It’s not a big suburban or giant Manhattan shop for sure, but as far as Philly comic shops go, it’s a good shop.

  10. Angelina | June 14th, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    I can’t wait for this upcoming Philly Comi-Con. I just finished Deborah Vankin’s graphic novel titled “Poseurs” and can’t wait to see her at the convention. Really good read. It’s about three teenagers involved in the underworld of LA nightlife. Check it out.

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