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By: Tyler Crone (Long-Time Customer and Part-Time Employee)
Note: This article describes Brainstorm’s old location on Thomas Johnson Dr.
Every week I make a half an hour of free time to run into my favorite place in the world: Brainstorm Comics. It’s a small shop that doesn’t advertise much; in fact, you only have the right to shop there if you can find the store. Brainstorm is located on the end of a strip mall and unless you know it is there you will surely walk on past the small store with signs in the window and books in the background. Anyone aware of the shop knows this store is a safe haven for social outcasts as well as a weekly thirty minute escape from the humdrum of everyday life.
Before entering high school, I had only gone into the shop a few times. I was introduced to the store, ironically enough, by my sporty cousin. Back in elementary school we were both into Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards and since he lived in town, he knew many of the stores around that area. He learned of this neat shop that had loads and loads of rare cards. So we had my grandfather drive us to Brainstorm so we could admire some of the cards on display while people from every generation stood around us, looking at the wide selection of comics, trading cards, and tabletop games. We purchased our pack of cards, futilely hoping that we would get one of the ultra rare cards that were on display with price tags of twenty dollars and up; a huge amount for us, considering we only earned five dollars a week for allowance. Unfortunately, as trading cards fell out of my life, so did Brainstorm.
About my freshman year in high school, I returned to Brainstorm purely by chance. I was waiting for my dad to finish an eye exam in another store in the strip mall and decided to take a walk when I remembered Brainstorm down at the end. When I stepped into the shop that time I was less interested in the cards on display, but much more interested in the comics and books on the wall. The first sensation I noticed was an old musty smell, and it wasn’t until I revisited the store several times that I realized it was the smell of vintage comics in the back issue boxes in the rear of the store. Next I noticed the wall that lined with comic books of all shapes and sizes; one portion was dedicated to Marvel Comics, another portion dedicated to the new comics of the week, and the smallest portion that actually continued onto the next wall was filled with DC comic books. Another book shelf held various independent comics and collected comics in hardcover format.
One item in particular caught my attention: a small box labeled as containing “The Complete Amazing Spider-man Collection.” I have been interested in Spider-man since I was very young due to the influence of Saturday morning cartoons. I had even acquired a reprint of Amazing Spider-man issue number one. I read through that book so much it grew into sad shape, and eventually the staples could no longer hold the book together. Ever since, I have been fascinated by Spider-man and have read every book I could find with his name on it, but none of them were able to tell me exactly what happened immediately after issue one of Spidey’s first series. By ninth grade, I didn’t even receive an allowance anymore so my chances of going back and buying issue number two were lower than zero, not to mention the other five hundred issues.
So I took the box off the wooden shelf and inquired about it. As it turned out, the owner, Dan, was behind the counter that day and informed me that inside the box was a DVD with the first 530 or so comics in PDF format. When I looked at the price tag though, I saw that it cost fifty dollars, more money than I had at that time. Dan, seeing my disheartened look, gave me a deal and said he would drop the price to forty dollars and wouldn’t charge tax. I jumped on the deal and, while waiting for my dad, talked with Dan about characters we liked, as well as why we didn’t prefer others. We talked for so long that at the end of our conversation Dan gave me a VIP card to get 10% off on every other purchase I would make.
After I finished reading that disk, I came back and used that card well to acquire a complete collection of Spider-man comics that I proudly maintain. Standing there, talking with Dan, I realized that it wasn’t only for the comics that I would want to come back again, but for the experience. The chairs in the front of the store are placed just so you can talk to whomever is behind the counter and read comics while killing time. The TV behind the counter always runs old shows or movies that nobody has ever heard of, but everybody should have. Everything in that store feels like it was put there just to make the customer feel more at home. Through Brainstorm I have also found out about other characters and books that have given me hours of entertainment, and have met many other friends who share my interests. When I walked out of that comic book shop that day, Brainstorm gained a lifelong customer.
To this day I absolutely love walking into Brainstorm and taking in the smell of vintage comics. No matter how down I am feeling, I always manage to smile when I see the new comics wall and all of the stories I can read that week. I thoroughly enjoy talking to whomever is behind the cash register about what stories might be good to pick up, and which ones are too glorified. I don’t mind when Dan asks me to help him move around boxes of comic books or sort out a new collection he just bought. I find complete happiness looking through boxes of comics, and am proud when I finally find the one back issue I am missing from my collection. Like many other comic book enthusiasts, I feel Brainstorm Comics is my home away from home, my Fortress of Solitude, my Citadel of Bravery, and most importantly, my antidote to estrogen.
By Morgan Wright, a student journalism article
Sometimes the atmosphere in certain comic book stores can be less than welcoming. Unkempt teenage boys, dim lighting, strange backrooms, and a general disdain for outsiders might come to mind.
If you were to apply these notions toFrederick’s Brainstorm Comics and Gaming, you would be sorely mistaken.
Although the atmosphere is largely based on close friends connecting over fantasy in a small space, it is hardly a shady operation. Let’s just put it this way: the walls are a vibrant gold and owner Dan Webb likes to treat his customers to complimentary cookies.
This is one of those few remaining old-fashioned comic book stores where the customer is treated like royalty, your grandmother is always welcome, and you know the guy behind the counter on a first-name basis.
“We tear down the customer/clerk wall instantly,” Webb proudly proclaims from behind a glass counter that must contain over 1,000 colored gaming dice.
Webb started Brainstorm because he was “tired of lifting stuff for rich people.” In 1982 he worked as a night-shift laborer at a Gamma irradiation plant where he read about his favorite heroes all night.
Before opening his own business, Webb was an avid comic book collector only looking to fill in the gaps in his own collection, but quickly turned his hobby into something more substantial. He first set up shop in The Baseball Shack, a small sports collectibles business on the corner of 5th and East St. He rented a small portion of the shack to sell comics, although the entire building had no running water (or heat) and a considerable amount of poison ivy.
Webb later found a more suitable home for his budding business at 23 East Patrick St.in a 300 square foot basement property downtown. The store resided there for 12 years before moving to its next, and more spacious, location on Thomas Johnson Drive. Although fans still miss the Thomas Johnson Dr. store’s charm and pastel purple décor, Webb has moved back to East St. His newest location is a haunted 19th century mortuary, complete with a fireplace, Greco columns, and an embalming room…all the while, Brainstorm has been an almost completely one-man operation.
If you are willing to get him going, Webb will take you on a trip through Brainstorm’s colorful history. For Webb, the best and worst parts of the job are his passionate customers. He recounts one odd customer who liked to visit him downtown.
“We used to call him Grim Jack,” recalls Webb.
“Grim Jack” was a tall man who took to carrying two large axe handles laden with plastic bags with him everywhere around town.
“One day ‘Grim Jack’ kneeled and began worshiping an X-Men comic in the middle of my floor in Brainstorm,” says Webb. “Not thinking, I shouted, ‘Hey, Dude, no praying in here!’ I thought he was going to kill me but ‘Grim Jack’ was so startled that he apologized profusely and was never seen again.”
“If I’m missing one comic book, I’ll go nuts and make 14 phone calls,” exclaims Webb’s friend Scott Baer. Though he has not gone so far as to start regularly worshiping comic books, he is a common sight at Brainstorm as a long time customer and business consultant. Baer has stuck with Webb’s establishment for 10 years because of his commitment to finding the rare products his customers desire. Webb has made special orders for Baer on hard to find gaming miniatures and other products that keep him happy, but he also enjoys the old-school atmosphere of the shop.
“It’s the banter, it’s the interaction with the people,” says Baer of why he enjoys visiting Brainstorm regularly.
Baer definitely has an enthusiasm for comics and if you stop by while he is around a lengthy conversation about the industry is inevitable. He was at the shop on this day to help Webb begrudgingly set up his newfangled Facebook page.
At the prospect of an audience, Baer set off on every comic-related topic imaginable, from a recent Civil War style story arc he enjoyed in the Marvel universe to television’s Smallville.
For Baer, there is no question the market is fan-driven. The best books will rise to the top and consequently start leaking into the mainstream. The blockbuster superhero movies that have takenAmericaby storm all have their roots in independent stores such as Brainstorm.
“It’s absolutely escapism,” says Baer on the success of the comic book market. But if you ask Dan Webb he’ll tell you he reads comics because he loves to see the bad guys get their asses kicked. Much like his favorite movie “Lord of the Rings” most super hero comics prove that a small group of good people can band together to fight a greater evil. And win.
Although Baer makes regular outings to Brainstorm with his three children, he made it clear that there is a very mature political and social undercurrent in many story arcs that keep older readers satisfied.
“Is the writing good?” is the question Baer thinks determines the success of most titles. For instance, Baer’s beloved, “Civil War” series was a commentary on the consequences of governments overstepping the privacy of their citizens. Comics undoubtedly reflect the cultural issues of the times.
Of course, Webb’s customer base is not just rabid comic fans. He maintains that the best business decision he ever made was inviting gaming into his shop because of the inherent crossover audience he found there. In addition to comics, Webb sells obscure and underground games like Warhammer 40K, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic the Gathering. Gaming patrons might rub Webb’s lucky bust of The Thing’s head before eagerly cracking 15 card booster packs and sharing their finds across the counter.
Brainstorm’s demographic might be surprising to those who do not regularly frequent the comic shop. Sure, a “Grim Jack” shows up every once and a while, but almost all of Webb’s customers are over 20, and there are a considerable number of female patrons. Webb explains how the advent of video games changed his audience. Luckily, the same middle school customers he had in the early ‘90s still cannot get enough of their monthly escapist dramas 20 years later.
While some local stores sell expensive statues of comic heroes and other plastic, trendy collectibles, Webb is still giving his comics and graphic novels the spotlight 27 years after first setting up shop. An entire side room is filled with large boxes of back issues. Customer subscription boxes overtake the small space Webb has to work behind the counter and a central table displays new issues.
In a country full of much larger stores selling similar products, the small guy still has sway. Sure, Brainstorm is not the same as every other store you visit on a regular basis, and while Webb recognizes that straying from that “sameness” may be an uncomfortable idea for some, he does not plan on changing any time soon.