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The Daily Tar Heel

Franklin store gets graphic

Chapel Hill comics remains a staple

With the obvious signs of the recession on Franklin Street, it’s easy for some legacies to go unrecognized in the face of bars and Tar Heel-centric retailers. But in our immediate radius, there is one tradition that spans back to 1978 with a thriving community and no sign of letting up.

For many, Chapel Hill Comics is an unexpected gem among a slew of stores, a niche market welcoming anyone and everyone from seasoned readers to beginners. It’s hard to miss its West Franklin Street location, whose storefront is filled with colorful comic books and strange stuffed animals.

One chat with current owner Andrew Neal, who started working at Chapel Hill Comics in 1994 and bought the store in 2003, and the reasons why the store has remained a constant in Chapel Hill are obvious.

As he mills around, there is a consistent stream of visitors, several of which he knows by name. But he’s just as attentive and excited for the customers he’s never seen before. He said it took awhile to adjust to being the owner of the store.

“I felt like a kid who was pretending,” he said.

But over the years, Neal has updated the store with a special business finesse, from knowing how to encourage people to try new things to understanding what sells and what doesn’t.

Even if customers are more hesitant to branch out and try something new, Neal still prides himself on providing great customer service with a knowledgeable staff who knows how to make a good recommendation.

Neal admits that the advent of the Internet has changed the shopping experience.

“The people who seem to appreciate this place tend to be people who not only enjoy the selection but the recommendations,” he said.

With ample space, the store is able to host a wide variety of events, welcoming both national and local artists to share their work and talk to fans. Neal credits the ongoing events with the store’s continuing success over the past three years.

In the wake of past in-store programs featuring sci-fi legend Orson Scott Card and “Scott Pilgrim” cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley, Chapel Hill Comics is gaining nationwide exposure while finding ways to bring the comic experience to customers on a more personal level.

In August the store hosted its first local artist comic party, featuring eight area creators who self-publish their work. The group included 8-year-old artist Yana Levy, whose comic “Cheep” can be purchased at Chapel Hill Comics.

Max Huffman, a local artist featured at the event in August, believes that the store offers a unique experience.

“Andy (Neal) has put together a store that goes beyond what the traditional comic book store does,” Huffman said. “He really tries and succeeds, I think, to appeal to a much wider audience.”

There’s no doubt that Chapel Hill Comics has generated a community of its own. Local artist Eric Knisley now tutors a fellow cartoonist after meeting him at one of the store’s events.

Knisley doesn’t fear that the new rise of online media will ever diminish the importance of the store to the local comic book scene.

Knisley believes that the most important difference between online media and a store is the aspect of community.

“When you go to the store, you are actually in the presence of other people who are buying comics, looking at comics, talking about comics and thinking about comics,” he said. “That’s where I think the store has a real edge over the online experience, and I think Andy understands that, because he keeps arranging for these signings and other kinds of events that bring people out.”

With a vibrant history, a loyal fan base and the potential for new customers, the store is a local hub in a thriving community. It’s a place that doesn’t seem quite like the rest, and in the end, that’s what sets Chapel Hill Comics apart.

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