This article was originally published on March 30, 2017 at ComicBook.Com.
The foundation of ComicBook.Com is comics. While we love to cover all aspects of pop and geek culture, our roots lie in the comics community and the plethora of characters and stories that have sprung from it. If you speak with anyone in the comics community about what has made the medium successful in North America, you’ll quickly discover one answer that stands far above the rest: local comics stores. They are the bedrock of comics in the United States and Canada, supporting fans, communities, and conventions with open doors and a dedicated staff.
This year on ComicBook.Com we are highlighting this important aspect of comics and culture by taking a look at one local comic store each week. These are stores that embody what it means to support culture and community. We hope you can visit some of them throughout 2017.
There may be no worse time in modern history to open a comics store than in 1996. The market was collapsing from a massive speculator bubble and scores of specialty shops were shutting their doors forever on a monthly basis. Marvel had broken from Diamond to distribute their own comics making for an even more fickle and pricey system. Things were bad for stores that had been around for years as they struggled to keep doors open and retain what customers they still had. That moment felt like a doomsday clock was counting down for the American comics industry, so of course this is when Vault of Midnight first opened their doors.
Co-owner Nick Yribar says, “This was the absolute worst time to open a comic shop.” But more than 20 years later Vault of Midnight is still open and now has 3 locations throughout Michigan in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Detroit. Opening at a time of calamity helped teach the store some important lessons about success and what it takes to make a comic store work. Yribar acknowledges that this timing might have been a blessing in disguise. “All of those factors helped inform what kind of shop we were and would be.”
One of the most important things that Vault of Midnight had to do when it first open was steer away from the strategies that had caused so many other shops to shutter. They focused more on independent comics than those from the “Big Two”. Big shipments and variant covers offered big rewards, but also a lot of risks. Emphasizing smaller comics that the staff could hand sell allowed them to make sure every customer was being sold a story the store believed in. It also meant they weren’t left with enormous boxes of holographic covers worth less than cover price.
The initial handselling was done by a staff consisting of only two people: Curtis Sullivan and Steve Fodale, the original co-founders. If the store was open, then at least one of them was inside. It was their love of comics that drove the entire enterprise forward. Together, along with new additions like Yribar, they would grow Vault of Midnight into the most impressive comics shop in Michigan.
Click ahead to learn how the lessons of adversity have been developed into a philosophy of success that promotes both comics and community.
Yribar describes the goal of Vault of Midnight: “to present comic books to as many human beings as possible as awesome, accessible, important works of art and entertainment.” It’s something that has been with the shop since it opened its first location in 1996, but that has grown along with the store as it opened new locations and hired new staff. With each new addition, the store’s leaders have been forced to consider what this mission means both to themselves and their communities.
The staff recognize the important role an arts-focused store can play in any community. It is a location that attracts a diverse array of customers seeking somewhere they can be themselves. Yribar says, “we want everyone who walks in our door to feel like they belong there.” That is a goal they’ve accomplished by providing a wide array of opportunities for diehard fans and new customers alike. Vault of Midnight regularly sponsors events, including “game nights, creator signings, fundraisers for charity, speed dating events, movie presentations, special sales, and appreciation events for subscribers.” When combined it offers a well-populated, well-curated social calendar for any self-identified geeks, nerds, or fans in the Michigan area.
An awareness of that community has led to the selection of each new Vault of Midnight location; they are always centrally located in a downtown area. These stores become a hub of culture and community by putting themselves at the hubs of the cities they occupy. That’s not the only concern though, they’re also curated to welcome anyone who might enter. Pictures of any of the three locations show stores that are well organized, clean, and staffed with smiling faces. They offer newcomers just as much of a warm reception as those already steeped in geek culture to discover comics.
Yribar says that this has paid off as they’ve seen their customer base grow significantly over the past decade. With the Image Comics boom and the advancement of other exciting new titles like Lumberjanes, Vault of Midnight has discovered many new readers. “We have stuff we can, with excitement, recommend to literally anyone from any walk of life” says Yribar. He also notes that this wasn’t always the case in comics. There was a time when the vast majority of offerings were for a very narrow audience. What Vault of Midnight’s staff learned from that time was how to offer a safe space for everyone, so that as comics expanded, they could as well.
Vault of Midnight has experienced two major phases of the comics industry: the shrinking of the late 1990s and the growth of the current era. The lessons of the former period have informed the latter. By learning to survive based on the quality of their storefront and passion for their stock, the staff at Vault of Midnight understood the importance of believing in your work. Now that comics have begun to grow again, they’re capable of taking those lessons and bringing in a whole new generation of readers. The mission hasn’t changed, but the opportunities have exploded. Yribar says the plan is simple: “To keep acting as ambassadors for the medium we love.”
Click ahead to see full details and photos of Vault of Midnight.
Name: Vault of Midnight
Address: 219 South Main Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Phone: (734) 998-1413
Website: Vault of Midnight
Facebook: Vault of Midnight