CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill Comics owner Andrew Neal is ready to find out where the next adventure will take him.
His last day running the West Franklin Street shop is Sunday, although he may stay a few more months to help the new owner, Ryan Kulikowski, get settled.
Neal, a 39-year-old Chapel Hill native, was hired at the then-Second Foundation Bookstore on Rosemary Street in 1994. In 2003, he bought out the previous owner and changed the name when he moved to Franklin Street.
Neal said he wasn’t thinking about selling when Kulikowski approached him. It took him more than a year to decide, and he’s invited a few friends – comic creators Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor and Tom Scioli and publisher Chris Pitzer – to help him celebrate Saturday.
“I’m not burned out on the medium. I’m not burned out on the people,” he said. “I could do this another 10 years and be fine, but ... the more I thought about it the more I realized that I’d be very happy if it worked out.”
Kulikowski, an Illinois native, spent the last few years teaching language arts and social studies in Russia. Before that, he was in Kuwait and China, where he talked with friends about one day opening a comic shop.
An inheritance from his father and grandfather made everything possible, Kulikowski said.
“A lot of things had to happen,” he said. “It was the right time.”
Chapel Hill Comics is the Triangle’s oldest specialty comic book store; Kulikowski will be its fourth owner. When Larry Shapiro first opened the Foundation Bookstore in 1978, it was tucked behind NationsBank Plaza. In 1985, Dan Breen bought the business, changing the name to Second Foundation Bookstore.
In those days, the store sold more science fiction and fantasy books than comics, Neal said. He started working there just before graduating from UNC-Greensboro with a bachelor’s degree in painting and printmaking.
By 2003, when Breen sold him the store, the book business was a bust, Neal said. He started making changes, and within two years, the store had a new name, a new focus and a new Franklin Street storefront closer to campus. In 2008, Chapel Hill Comics moved a few doors down to its current location.
He’s been lucky, Neal said. Few small business owners get to cash in after years of doing something they love, he said, and even through the recession, business has been good.
“This location here is really spectacular, especially since in the last 10 years, people have stopped looking at the west end of Franklin Street as the crummy end,” Neal said. “I would rather have the shop here than on East Franklin because the business mix is so strong and diverse.”
Comics fans also have changed, he said. Attention spans are shorter, casual humor is more popular, and more people follow their favorite writers and artists on Tumblr and other social media sites.
The store’s lively color scheme and playful window displays have attracted a lot of families and first-time shoppers, he said. Half of his customers now are female, reflecting changes in an industry long dominated by men, he said.
This year’s top-selling comic, “Lumberjanes,” is created by women for women, he said. The series from Boom! Box follows the adventures of a group of girls attending a haunted scout camp. Another female writer making waves at venerable Marvel Comics this year is G. Willow Wilson, whose 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim superhero, Kamala Kahn, learns to harness her new shapeshifting powers in the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel.
You can still find Spider-Man, Batman and a legion of super-villains lurking in the aisles, but Chapel Hill Comics has built a reputation for independent artists, unusual materials and self-published works that can’t be found anywhere else, Neal said.
“I think every comic shop, potentially every small retail shop, reflects the personality of the owner,” Neal said. “This is absolutely the store it is because I’ve been in it.”