People like her don’t buy comic books.
But Galaxy Comics co-owner Robin Buckwalter has vanquished mightier foes before.
He knows what this battle calls for.
She said she was “just” looking for something for her boyfriend, a big Batman fan. Buckwalter knew what he was up against when the woman put imaginary quotation marks around “Batman” with her hands when she said the word, as if it was forced out of her mouth.
Seeing her insecurity, Buckwalter then walked her down one of the store’s three aisles and asked her a question that would link the two forever.
“So, what do you read,” he asked, waving his long brown hair away from his glasses to make eye contact.
He wasn’t making an assumption that she read super hero tales. He knew as soon as she walked in she didn’t. Instead, in a way only a super hero could, he offered her an invitation into his world.
Soon after, the woman had her Batman comic for her boyfriend, but also an issue of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for herself.
She had been converted.
For a business that has become more niche than mainstream, more nerdy than chic over the past 20 years, every sale counts.
Gone forever are the newsstands that sold comic books and made them readily available to the masses. Printed less and in diminishing demand, stores like Buckwalter’s serve a smaller customer base than ever before.
That doesn’t mean demand is completely diminished however.
“Anyone can find something they like here,” Buckwalter, who admitted the store isn’t turning a profit, said. “They don’t like to admit it sometimes, but I try to find out by being courteous and inquisitive.”
Buckwalter didn’t always have super hero perception. He wanted to be a teacher – well, that’s at least what he told people.
As a child, he dreamed of things such as robot dogs chasing men with admantium claws coming out of their hands and men with the power of magnetism, but his future didn’t look nearly as elaborate.
An English and Psychology major at Brooklyn College, Buckwalter’s future wasn’t nearly as creative- his fertile mind stifled in favor of the education of America’s youth.
Things changed in 2006, when the stocky, bearded and browned-eyed aspiring educator began to work at Galaxy Comics on Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope to earn some extra money to pay for his education.
“I was just an employee,” said the wide-shouldered, yet easy-going Buckwalter, 28. “I was a kid that liked comic books. They needed someone to work a few hours a week. That’s how it all started.”
Things continued to change when he worked more hours after graduation. By 2009, an opportunity sidetracked his pedagogical goals- to own a store of his own.
How did the store clerk go from employee to store owner in a few years? Buckwalter saved more than half of every paycheck he’s ever received – starting from a high school job where he sold shoes at a sporting goods store in the city.
“I never collected toys and things as a kid, even though I was always aware of things coming out,” Buckwalter said. “I always made an effort to save and not waste my money on things I wouldn’t have or cherish for the rest of my life.”
With a nest egg of over $10,000, he jumped onboard faster than The Flash when his then-boss and now business partner, Muhamed Nashir wanted to open up a new store on Seventh Avenue and President Street. Being paid to run the store and sharing in the overall profits, Buckwalter has gone from sidekick to hero.
“He’s extremely focused,” said Nashir. “I knew he would do a great job and he hasn’t let us down. I think if anyone else was running the store, it would have gone out of business by now.”
Regardless of the current economy, Buckwalter is optimistic about the future.
“I know this isn’t a dead end job. I know where all my money is going,” Buckwalter, who, said on a great day, the store can take in up to $1,000 dollars, said. “We’re essentially living from paycheck to paycheck, but we’re building towards something.”
If this sounds like the origin of a super hero, it may be. Buckwalter spends over 60-hours a week at Galaxy Comics and micromanages everything from the inventory to the customer base. He also scans the shelves every day and keeps himself abreast on trends in the industry, thanks to his computer next to the cash register.
Emulating the tales he’s read as a child, Buckwalter may be part machine, constantly running numbers in his head and educating himself as to what could be the next big seller. Like Rorschach, one of the main characters in Alan Moore’s “The Watchmen” [one of Buckwalter’s favorites, along with Starman and the work of Robert Kirkman], he keeps a journal in the store that tracks every purchase. He also takes a mental note every time he believes a new trend is about to unfold.
“You have to pay extremely close attention to what’s selling and what’s not,” Buckwalter said. “You have to always be making adjustments.”
Currently Buckwalter said anything Star Wars and Pokemon-related is a steady seller, as well as trade paper backs. Hollywood’s love of comic book characters over the past decade has also helped business. The toys, t-shirts and trading cards inspired by super hero-inspired films that Buckwalter’s store sells have also helped the second floor store in Park Slope stay afloat.
However, there’s more to it than that. Fads and trends are a force of nature in the comic book store business. A good owner has to pay close attention.
“Whenever I see a kid in the store begging their mother for something I always take note,” he said. “There’s a lot of research that goes into running a small business, but a lot of it is just listening to your customers.”
You might say that Buckwalter’s powers of perception and ability to listen is what put him in a situation to own a store in the first place.
Brian Montalvo, one of Buckwalter’s closest friends, met him at work at one of the store’s two other locations on 68 street and Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge and eventually made him his daughter’s godfather.
“He’s able to get people interested in things by just talking and he knows so much about comics. He makes them fun to people who might not be interested, but he’s a really good talker and fun to be around, it goes past comics,” said Montalvo. “I remember this one time, he was talking about how delicious this 12-pound burger with blue cheese was. The way he was describing it, I just had to try it. I eventually did and it was terrible – but it was a testament to how convincing he can be.”
“People really like him there,” said Nashir. “Once the economy gets better, he’s going to be great. We always have to be careful what we order because we don’t have the luxury of wasting money on items people don’t want. Robin is great at knowing what people want. We’re not worried about him.”
While Buckwalter isn’t worried, every penny put into the store is a worthwhile one. With nearly two years of experience and basically all of his free time invested, the store’s survival is ensured for the time being.
For Buckwalter, that’s enough right now.
“This is a place where kids grow up and remember after their childhood,” he said. “I love being a part of that. I know this is still the beginning of something and I’m prepared and patient. We’re making ends meet now. That’s a lot more than many other places in the community.”