Growing up, Lee Heidel dreamed of access to a wide variety of comic books – not just the general, supermarket stories he could more easily find in his small town.
“I would pick up whatever I could find, but most of it was mainstream, like Batman or Superman,” he said. “And those were great, but being in a small town where there wasn’t much demand, I couldn’t pick up a story and follow it through from month to month.”
That all changed when he attended the University of Georgia’s Athens campus for college as an art education major – and soon had the opportunity to explore the college town’s multiple brick-and-mortar comic book stores. It was then that the seed was planted for him to eventually open up a comic book store of his own.
“I became a customer, and then a fan of the culture that goes behind the comics,” he said. “The physical space that’s an area for people to come in and talk about the things they’re passionate about. I was able to frequent several different types of stores and see different takes on what a comic book store can be, from something really clean and sleek to maybe some of the more stereotypical looks.”
As life tends to happen, Heidel took his degree and put it to use as a web developer and designer. But he continued to be a fan of the comic book artform, and the idea of starting his own store was never far from his mind.
“As I traveled around with my wife and daughter, we continued to visit comic book stores all over,” he said. “And we found that Savannah could benefit from the type of store that we ultimately opened.”
That store is now Neighborhood Comics, which opened its brick-and-mortar doors in 2019 after months of Heidel and his team making convention and conference appearances, doing pop-up shops and assembling inventory.
“Opening day was on Star Wars Day ... May the Fourth,” Heidel said, laughing. And in 2019, that was also Free Comic Book Day, which is a promotional effort by comic book stores across the United States to bring in customers outside of their normal reach.
“Once we opened our doors ... it was really obvious to us early on that we were going to have a focus on the real storytelling side of comics, from the perspectives of both artists and writers,” he continued. “Savannah has a wonderful community of not only currently working comic book professionals, but also future ones as well, especially with SCAD being right here. So, being able to tap into these communities meant we really found this specific niche for ourselves that I initially didn’t anticipate.”
Heidel says that the great thing about retail, and especially the comic industry, is each store can have its own different take on things and reach entirely different segments of people. Neighborhood Comics continues to develop as a real home for independent artists and writers, both professional and more amateur. Alongside the books themselves, shoppers can also find art supplies – the tools needed to create their own stories.
He still enjoys those DC comic superheroes he first loved as a kid, but now Heidel also enjoys supporting independently published, creator-owned stories. He gave a shout-out to “Dryad” which is illustrated by Savannah artist Justin Osterling.
“It’s a fantastic book that combines traditional high fantasy with science fiction. It’s a really fun read and the art is gorgeous. So whenever I can support someone like that who is literally our neighbor doing professional, high-grade art and storytelling, I want to do so.”
There’s something about holding a physical item in your hands. Heidel attributes that experience to the seeming resurgence of many places that originally may have seemed like relics of the past – from comic book stores to record shops.
“We’ve got everything from being able to stream your favorite song to not even purchasing music at this point; you’re kind of renting it (from something like Spotify),” he said. “Same for books, same for comics. You can have access to almost everything, which is great, but the other side of that is you don’t have the physical media.”
He at first thought it was due to older generations feeling nostalgic, but he now thinks there will always be a place for these types of stores and experiences.
“I look at screens all day long,” Heidel said. “It’s nice to be able to go home, pull the album out of the sleeve, physically turn the pages, to actually hold the item. And the other part of it is the community. It’s going into a physical space and asking someone for a recommendation. And you’re having that conversation not just with the shop clerk, but maybe another customer in the space hears your conversation and chimes in with their own recommendations.
“I think that’s a really big important part of why we’ve been successful,” he added. “There’s a comic book for everybody. You may not have found it yet, but there is a title that will speak to you! We work really hard to help people find it. And sometimes it’s just one book that’ll change their perception.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a challenge to all of retail, with Neighborhood Comics not being an exception. However, it’s also presented some opportunities. “The reality is we have to continue to be flexible,” Heidel said. “We’ve had to pivot to do a lot more online ... but that’s also good because it’s increased our scope. We are now regularly shipping books all over the southeast and really, the country. We have a regular in Colorado!”
He also sees a shift in consumer habits.
“There are people who, because of the pandemic, have thought to themselves that they want places like comic book stores to exist after all of this,” Heidel explained. “So they know and see the importance of continuing to support their local community stores.”
And he is hopeful that the trend will continue, even as COVID-19 becomes a blip in the rearview window of history.
“I thought being voted as Best New Store ... it’s a real testament that perhaps we are what we’re trying to be, which is a place for everyone and where everyone can feel welcome,” Heidel said. “And I think it’s a real testament to how wonderful our staff has been. They are people who love comics and who love sharing that with people, and they work really hard to create a welcoming atmosphere.”