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.
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
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.
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.