Andrew Neal was at a Run the Jewels show at the Ritz when he heard that Chapel Hill Comics was closing. "I pulled out my phone to look at the time and saw that I had received a ton of texts and Facebook messages—people who had shopped at the store, fellow comic retailers," Neal says.
Neal, who owned the Franklin Street shop with the blue awning and red walls from 2003 to 2014, had heard the news from the store's current owner, Ryan Kulikowski, a few days before. Neal says he felt bad for the shop's employees and longtime customers. "The store has been around since about 1978," he says. "There were people who shopped there, down to the last day I ran the store, who had been shopping there since before I owned it."
Indeed, while it may have changed names, locations, and inventories over the years, Chapel Hill Comics was a Triangle institution. Its closure, set for the end of March, marks the loss of another local business on Franklin Street as chains such as Target move in.
Financial matters were the main cause of the decision to close, says Kulikowski, who cites declining sales and a changing business environment. "I saw other businesses on Franklin Street were having the same problems we were," he says. "Parking has always been a problem, and construction on Rosemary Street has really slowed things down. They're about to close off part of Franklin for construction on University Square, so that's not going to improve anything."
Chapel Hill Comics started life almost four decades ago as the Foundation Bookshop, tucked beside a Rosemary Street parking deck. When it changed owners, it became Second Foundation and spun off a comic shop in Raleigh, Foundation's Edge, which the Second Foundation owner sold in 1994.
"It wasn't particularly easy to find," notes Rick McGee, the owner of Foundation's Edge, who worked at the original shop from 1981 to 1987. "Also, it flooded more than once." But the location still attracted talent on both sides of the counter; authors such as Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, and the late Karl Edward Wagner came through its doors, while employees included future comics writer John Ney Rieber and Kevin J. Maroney, the current editor of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
The shop became Chapel Hill Comics after Neal bought it and sold off its sci-fi book inventory. (I still have a slipcased George R.R. Martin first edition I got at 75 percent off.) Within a few years, the store moved to Franklin Street, later expanding into a larger, and final, space beside what used to be Ham's restaurant.
The attractive setting and the emphasis on offbeat small-press materials both comics-related and not—everything from zines to McSweeney's anthologies and reprints of old Little Golden books—drew a number of prominent cartoonists for signings, including Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O'Malley and Prophet's Brandon Graham; it was a finalist for the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award in 2008. But times change. When Neal decided to retire from retail in 2014, he sold the business to Kulikowski, who'd been working as a teacher overseas and wanted to get into comics. "Everything I read about Franklin Street sounded great—this historic area full of cool independent businesses," he says.
Kulikoswki ascribes some of the store's struggles to his lack of experience ("I maybe spent too much money trying to put my own stamp on the store," he says), combined with the rising costs of operating on Franklin. A number of new comic shops had opened in Raleigh and Cary, too.
"You have a much more crowded market in the Triangle now," McGee says. "For the longest time, there were only about five shops, but now there are at least nine or ten. For decades the South was the red-headed stepchild of comics distribution, but there has been huge growth."
Finally, an overwhelming number of new titles and "event" books, where superhero titles were either relaunched or crossed over with stories in numerous other titles, put a strain on fans' wallets and drove some away.
"It used to be I could order a ton of a new Marvel #1 and people would go for it, no matter who the character was or the team behind it," Kulikowski says. "But when you have event after event—they're not like the movies, these contained stories. They're these sprawling cosmic battles that go on and on. How do you introduce a new customer to that?" He adds that, with most issues retailing at four dollars and Diamond Comics Distributors's nonreturn policy, the cost of unsold books quickly adds up.
Neal can sympathize, as the challenge of turning a profit was one of the reasons he stepped away from the business. "The amount of things coming out is astounding," he says. "There are so many books coming out with something good in them, but everyone has a limited budget, be they readers or retailers. It's a hard market, and I had to change the way we stocked things every few years."
Neal says sales fluctuated during his own time at Chapel Hill Comics. "My best-selling book each year sold a little less than the year before," he says. "We were selling more overall every year, but the more there is to carry, the less room there is for each book to sell."
There are still plenty of comics shops in the Triangle, many of them part of Ultimate Comics' local empire, but hardly any with a history as long as Chapel Hill Comics. Kulikowski says he's refocusing on a side job he's maintained for income—and on making sure that the store goes out "on a high note, to celebrate the history rather than the loss."
He notes, with some irony, that he'll actually have time to read some comics again: "I'll probably start going through the big pile of trades I've brought home over the last few months and start trying to make a dent in that," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Up, Up and Away."