When Star Clipper closed this March, some people cried, others Tweeted their frustration. In its 26 years in business, the store had become a beloved cultural center, event space and small press distributor for lovers of comics, graphic novels and collectibles.
Steve Unverferth and Tony Favello responded in a different way. They took on the store’s name, bought its shelves and hired its staff.
“I went to Star Clipper when I was in college in the ‘80s,” said Favello. “I think over the years it just became known as the comic book and collectible destination store, and evolved into a pop culture store for the community in St. Louis. The name has that association, which makes it worth saving.”
The decision was also about business and growth, not just sentiment. Unverferth and Favello own Fantasy Books Inc., which runs three stores in the Metro East. While Star Clipper was a unique and quirky store, the Fantasy Books stores are more traditional. Taking on the name of Star Clipper will let the owners explore a more creative brand, they said.
“For us, it’s a different adventure with some excitement,” Unverferth said.
Both owners said they see St. Louis as an “underserved” area for comics and hope that, by opening a store downtown, they can expand their products across the city.
“We want it to be the place that the local community goes to immerse themselves in their hobby and their interests,” said Favello. “But we also want it to be a go-to for people who come to St. Louis from out of town.”
What is the market?
Google Maps shows four comics-devoted shops in St. Louis and similar numbers in St. Louis County. A few new options are opening. The Wizard's Wagon in Star Clipper’s former area, the Delmar Loop, recently started selling comics. And a newer store in the city’s Tower Grove South neighborhood, AM Trading Co., offers a wide range of wares.
Why, then, did it matter to people that Star Clipper closed? And more, why does it matter that it’s coming back?
When St. Louis Public Radio asked those questions, we received a variety of answers.
Brian Spath, who produces a fictional web series about collecting comics, shot several episodes at Star Clipper and has shopped there for around 10 years. He said part of the culture is the physicality of comics as a medium.
“Since it’s a visual medium, and there’s this collector’s aspect to comics, being able to pick up a comic book and hold it and read it and enjoy it. You don’t receive the same sort of experience as a digital comic provides,” said Spath.
Local illustrator and indie comic artist Rori de Rien married her husband at Star Clipper. Her familiarity with the local comic scene made Star Clipper’s closure sentimental, but not a debacle.
“To me, it was just another comics shop,” de Rien said.
Still, de Rien said that having a real, in-person place for comics is important. “They are a physical place selling tangible things, and I think there's value in that, especially to the community.”
Every person St. Louis Public Radio contacted expressed hope that Star Clipper would remain a community gathering place for comic lovers.
“Living in a community that has a good comic shop is definitely a quality of life issue for me,” said de Rien. She said that the workers in comic stores, especially, make a comic store special and have more niche knowledge about comics than she’s found at book stores.
Spath said much the same.
“Just the camaraderie that you have with the people who work there or are shopping at the same time that you are — it gives the experience just a more fulfilling quality than if you buy your comics online.”
Something old, something new
What might matter to customers besides community? Indie comics, for one. Spath said the store in the Loop “had a really great selection of all sorts of different voices and creators that you really are not able to find anywhere else in St. Louis.”
De Rien, however, said she finds the most success selling her work online or at expos — which most comic fans don’t know about. She said that, since indie books don’t have the approval stamp of a major publisher, they frequently don’t get the display that more popular products do.
De Rien also said that Star Clipper’s 50-50 split of sales was less favorable to the artist than other stores she’s worked with.
The manager of the new Star Clipper says the store intends to keep that ratio but plans to showcase indie works more prominently.
For Christina Steenz Stewart, losing Star Clipper didn’t just mean fewer comics. It meant losing a job as assistant
manager; losing a Comics University class she taught; losing a place for friends on Ladies’ Night; and losing a place for conversation at a book club.
“This was one of the shops that women and minorities felt safe to come in because they didn’t feel like they were being judged for what they’re interested in, or tested on their knowledge,” said Stewart. Her hopes echo de Rien’s and Spath’s: Star Clipper is about the community it welcomes.
Store manager Keya Matanagh said the new location, which opens April 25, will be recognizable: “We wanna stay as close to the old Star Clipper as we can, and then make improvements from there.”
The store -- at 1319 Washington Ave -- has a front designed by local artist Phil Jarvis and a room devoted to gaming. New products will include novelties (that differ from the old Star Clipper’s collectible piles), games and more visibility for Marvel and DC superheroes.
The store will still host events, and managers said they might host more book clubs and group nights for women or families. The consignment and local sale shelves might look similar, but not the same.
A big question is whether the new location will mean a different mix of people.
The staff is composed more than half of Star Clipper veterans. The downtown area, though, might draw new crowds.
The store sits within blocks of the City Museum, St. Louis Public Library, Flamingo Bowl, the Convention Center and numerous hotels. Unverferth and Favello intend to build relationships with these venues. Because this area has struggled to grow recently, these connections could benefit Washington Avenue as a whole, not just Star Clipper.
The proximity to the central library also means Stewart won’t be losing Comics University, a program she has run for two years that covers such topics as mythology, memoirs, webcomics, figure drawing and intellectual property laws as they relate to comics. Star Clipper will sponsor the sessions and offer discounts to attendees; but they will be held at the library.
Store manager Mantanagh says he wants the new Star Clipper to continue to be “a haven for all comics and pop culture fans.” He specifically points to women and people of color “because comics are often misinterpreted as a boys’ club. We want to change that.”
And the owners agree. Favello said, “We’re going to be looking towards the community to help define what this haven is for them.”
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