Greenville’s Borderlands Comics and Games is on the move. The business, long a Laurens Road fixture, will soon move into a South Pleasantburg location that will almost double the store’s retail space and create up to a dozen new jobs.
It’s part of a continuing success story that might have been penned by comic-book legend Stan Lee himself, except that, unlike Lee’s fantastic stories, this one is true.
A lifelong love
Borderlands owner Rob Young discovered comics when, as a boy, a friend gifted him with a small comic-book collection. Young, a Navy brat, found he could turn to comic books for adventure and comfort wherever the family moved.
“The only constant in my life was comics,” Young told Upstate Business Journal during a recent interview.
The first title to catch Young’s eye was a comic about Captain America, a character created by writers Jack Kirby and Joe Simon during World War II. The patriotic super soldier remains Young’s favorite comic book character. His wedding ring even features an engraving of the character’s signature red, white, and blue shield.
As a teenager, Young continued to read comics and began shopping at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in Winston-Salem, N.C. The shopping sprees, however, came to an abrupt end when Young found himself with no money or home after graduating high school.
The next few years were rocky for Young, but he managed to land on his feet, and eventually caught the attention of the owner of the same local comic book shop he had frequented as a kid.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, which at the time had six locations throughout the region, approached Young in 1991 and asked if he would manage a shop in Greenville.
Opportunity knocks in the Upstate
Young was 21 when he first arrived in Greenville. He would spend several years at Heroes before moving on to another job, but it wasn’t long before Young’s former boss, Stan Reed, asked him to return to the world of comics.
Reed needed a manager for the 800-square-foot shop he had purchased from Heroes in 1995, relocated across the street, and renamed Borderlands. Young, with his love of comics and years of retail-management experience, accepted the job and spent the better part of a year working with Reed to get the new shop up and running.
While the shop became a hit among locals and garnered a reputation as one of Greenville’s premier retail hubs for comics, Young took a corporate job and left the industry again; however, his passion for comics never died.
From 1996 through 2010, Young repeatedly offered to buy the business from Reed, without success. Finally, over a dinner in 2010, Reed acquiesced, and after six months of negotiations, Young took over Borderlands on Jan. 1, 2011, and set out to put his burgeoning shop on the map.
“There hasn’t been much time to rest,” Young said. “It’s been a crazy roller coaster since day one.”
Young said his early days as an entrepreneur were uneasy, but his shop has developed a loyal following over the years thanks to its diverse inventory of products and commitment to customer service. The resurgence of comics in recent years hasn’t hurt, either.
The shop, despite facing a landscape increasingly dominated by Amazon and other online shopping platforms, has become a mecca for Upstate residents seeking out the same illustrated periodicals that Young enjoyed as a kid and still enjoys today.
“A lot of people love having the original comics in their hands,” Young said. “They are a unique piece of pop culture, and collecting is a community unto itself. Folks appreciate the history and fun of it. Plus, some of the stories have never been collected.”
Young added that sales have increased in the face of digital competition. Borderlands still sells 1,400 to 1,700 physical copies per week. And lines of loyal customers regularly form outside the store on Wednesdays, the day new comics are released.
“I don’t fault anyone wanting to read on a digital platform. But I think more people would enjoy reading from a physical book,” Young said. “I think in our current business climate and culture, where you can buy just about anything online, you choose to buy local for the experience. You want to support the business, because it makes you feel good.”
Young said that his shop has retained loyal readers by offering a subscription service whereby they can list the comic series they want in order to get new issues every time they publish — which happens bimonthly or monthly — and the store orders the copies and has them ready for subscribers before they become available on shelves.
Comicon and more
Another factor that has helped Borderlands remain a local favorite is outreach, according to Young. The store has reached out to the community through events at theaters, schools, libraries, and charity events. It has also held SC Comicon since 2014.
The two-day event, which is held at the TD Convention Center, is billed as a “celebration of all things geek” and features panels with guest celebrities, including comic book writers, artists, and television and film actors.
Last year’s event attracted more than 20,000 visitors and included celebrities like Cary Elwes, who starred in “The Princess Bride” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” and Kyle Starks, the award-winning writer currently penning the comic book version of “Rick and Morty,” an animated science-fiction adventure comedy series on Cartoon Network.
Young said that the 2019 event, which is scheduled for March 9-10, will include a special panel with the best-selling team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo, who are best known for penning a five-year series of Batman comics.
The exclusive panel presentation will be limited to about 200 people and cost $100 per ticket, according to Young. Customers will receive five autographs and have the opportunity to snap photos with Snyder and Capullo after the panel.
On the move
Business has continued to be strong enough to warrant Borderland’s move to new digs, which Young said has been a goal for two years.
The new store will be in the former Tony’s Fabrics building at 401 S. Pleasantburg Drive in Greenville. It will include 7,000 square feet of warehouse space and 9,000 square feet of retail space, according to Young.
Another advantage is that the new location features a larger parking lot, which will make it easier for customers, especially those attending events that draw a crowd, such as Free Comic Book Day, Ladies’ Night, Geek Trivia, and book signings.
The expansion could also improve the store’s warehouse efficiency.
“Our warehouse is off-site right now, so we’re wasting time going back and forth when we have to retrieve a book that’s not on the shelves,” Young explained. “I think this expansion will help us be more organized and productive. Freight shipments, for instance, will come directly to the store and unload comics directly in the warehouse.”
While the location has changed, Young said his goal is to retain the store’s ambiance, with customers able to leisurely peruse the thousands of comics, games, toys, posters, models, and T-shirts that Borderlands stocks.
Young said the new shop, which is a $2 million investment, will require a new roof and some interior improvements, but it will likely open during the fourth quarter of this year. Hiring is expected to begin later this year.
“This move is the culmination of a lifelong dream for me,” he said. “I still can’t believe it’s happening.”
Superheroes historically deliver for billion-dollar industry
A new report from Comichron.com, a website that tracks annual comic book and graphic novel sales, and ICv2, an online trade publication, shows that North American comic book stores ordered $1.015 billion worth of comics and graphic novels in 2017. Print sales comprised $925 million of that total, while digital sales accounted for the remainder.
“After a multiyear growth run, the comics shop market gave back some of its gains in 2017, with lackluster response to new periodical offerings and, consequently, graphic novel sales,” said industry analyst and Comichron.com founder John Jackson Miller. “The third quarter of 2017 saw the worst of the year-over-year declines, leading into what has turned out to be a stronger spring for stores in 2018.”
Miller emphasized that while the market experienced a $70 million decrease in sales from 2016, it still remains $370 million ahead of sales in 2011. It’s a far cry from the economic downturns the industry has faced over the years.
While the format originated in 1933, comic books first gained popularity in 1938, when National Allied Publications (now DC Comics) published “Action Comics” No. 1, featuring Superman. This was followed by a boom that lasted until the end of World War II and resulted in an explosion of comic-book characters.
After the war, the comics industry rapidly expanded with genres such as horror, romance, and crime. The industry, however, experienced a gradual decline in the 1950s as more and more households traded print media for television, according to Miller.
“Once every house had a television; the comic book was no longer the cheapest babysitter around,” he said. “It was no longer as important.”
Comics were also impacted by the introduction, in 1954, of the Comics Code Authority, a regulating body established by the industry in response to the Senate subcommittee hearings into the supposed influence of comics on juvenile delinquency.
To survive the industry’s new regulations, publishers began introducing superhero stories again, a change that began with the 1956 publication of DC Comics’ “Showcase” No. 4 featuring the modern version of the Flash.
As demand increased, DC Comics decided to publish more superhero stories, including the “Justice League of America” series, which follows Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other characters as they team up against evildoers.
Marvel Comics followed suit in 1961 with The Fantastic Four, a team of four civilian astronauts who gain powers after being exposed to cosmic rays during an unauthorized outer space test flight.
The series became a hit and prompted Marvel writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to develop some of the industry’s most popular and lasting characters and teams including the Hulk, Iron Man, The X-Men, and Spider-Man, according to Miller.
As demand for comics continued to grow in the 1970s, corporate comics publishers moved away from selling through newsstands and other mass market locations and began selling through the “direct market,” which allowed readers to purchase comics straight from the publishers.
Miller said many of today’s comic book shops have survived industry downturns by establishing subscription services, modernizing distribution systems, and offering a diverse selection of productions.