GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Ask Kirby Tardy what makes a good comic book and expect to get an earful.
Important is whether “the creative team is putting love and care into it. In other words, it’s not just a job to them,” Tardy told The Grand Rapids Press ( http://bit.ly/1pZWVvC ).
But that’s not all.
“The story needs a beginning, middle and end,” he said. “I don’t want to read something that’s a forever-going soap opera.”
“I need to know there’s an end somewhere.”
Tardy’s own story arc is nearing a conclusion at Collector’s Corner, where he and wife Debbie are planning in the next year or so to pass on the torch of the comic book store, which recently turned 35.
Tardy’s shop, a longtime survivor of the Seymour Square Business District, is shoehorned in between a bail bond office and an under-the-radar neighborhood deli known for its gyros and cheesesteak sandwiches.
A destination stop for comic lovers in West Michigan, Tardy likes to brag a little that most other comic book shop owners in the Grand Rapids area originally started out as Collector’s Corner customers.
A drawing of the affable proprietor, depicted in superhero getup as “Captain Corner” hangs in the store. Tardy, grandson of former local grocery magnate L.V. Eberhard, is passionate about supporting local comic artists and writers, and has been known give away comics en masse just to give them some exposure.
He’s something of an expert when it comes to vintage or oddball comics, “but I don’t keep up with the superhero stuff anymore,” he said.
In contrast to the shelves of superhero figurines, T-shirts, Beanie Babies and other memorabilia common among surviving comic and niche collectable stores, Collector’s Corner is fairly spartan in its accoutrements. Aside from a few non-comic items in the display case, the vast majority of Tardy’s inventory is single copy comics and graphic novels.
“We’ve never chased fads to make money,” he said. “That’s maybe a failing. We could have a lot more cash in our pockets, but I feel pretty good about what we’ve done. We’ve inspired a number of people to get into the industry.”
The comics-only ethos is a departure from the days when Tardy’s was located downtown across from the Pantlind Hotel. The store, then called “Opalias Amorphium,” sold jewelry, coins, magazines, comics and had a guy who assembled computers in the basement.
That store began downtown in 1979, but the Tardys lost the location when the building’s ownership changed in advance of the redevelopment of the Pantlind into the Amway Grand Hotel complex.
Tardy moved and the store expanded into several storefronts now occupied by the Black Eagle Trading Post, a planned Peoples Cider Co. taproom and Bartertown Diner. They moved to the store’s current location in 1983, when Tardy bought the property on a land contract.
“I was not going have a building sold out from underneath me again,” he said.
“If you buy what you like to read and get some money out afterward, you’re way ahead of the game.” Those were the days when he and Debbie were on the road most weekends at comic conventions. Those multi-city trips were usually a whirlwind of packing, driving, loading and unloading — a tiring endeavor, but necessary then.
“There was no Internet,” said Debbie Tardy. “That’s how you got stuff to the public.”
In the mid-1990s, fueled by a surge of mainstream interest in comics after the original 1989 “Batman” film hit big, Tardy expanded the business into additional stores in Walker, Wyoming and Kentwood, but all have since closed.
It’s mostly destination business these days.
Every Wednesday, the store fills up with regulars there for the new titles — hump day accounts for 40 percent of weekly sales, he said. Some customers have been shopping the store for decades and now they’re bringing kids and grandkids.
Some have become comic artists and writers themselves, returning later with original works that Tardy’s would buy for a dime and sell for 12 cents.
Tardy still buys comics, assuming you’ve got something valuable. Most people don’t. Like baseball cards, comic books produced in recent decades have famously dimmed as investments. Unless they are mint-condition comics from the ‘50s, ‘40s or earlier, most are worth next to nothing.
There are still speculators in the industry looking to vacuum up certain titles in the hopes of them turning into the next “Walking Dead” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” but Tardy said investing in comics is an iffy proposition.
The books he sells are entertainment, pure and simple.
“If you buy what you like to read and get some money out afterward, you’re way ahead of the game,” he said. “Nobody expects go to a movie theater and get money out of that experience.”
Many people aren’t aware of how many comic books are actually out there, he said. The industry produces roughly 1,800 titles a month, and “most are mass market dreck,” said Kirby. “Only about 4 to 6 percent is actual art.”
The good stuff, though, “it’s a beauty to behold,” he said. “It’s entertaining and thought-provoking.” That’s the stuff Tardy tries to stock his shop with.
“Everyone knows about Spiderman and Superman,” he said. “Our goal is to show there’s a lot more flavor out there.”
As the sun sets on 35 years, Kirby and Debbie are looking forward to retirement. The kids are married and moved out. The house is paid for. They’ve never really gotten a vacation (convention trips don’t count).
There’s also a mountain of collectibles at home that need to be sold off.
The Tardys are grooming a young couple as possible store owners and have been working to increase the store’s online sales and presence.
“It’s been an interesting and unique battle keeping this joint going,” he said. “We’ve touched a lot of lives and influenced a lot of people. We’d like to see it survive in some way, shape or form.”
Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids