If I hadn't become a teacher, I think I would have liked to run a comic book store. Okay, that's down the list a ways. Catching for the Detroit Tigers would have been my first choice, and being a comic book writer/artist would have been my second. But in third place, I think I would have been happy running a comic book store like Fanfare.
A trip into South Bend and Mishawaka today made me start thinking about this. I stopped by two of the three comic and gaming stores in the area, and wondered how it was they were missing out on the cornering the local market. Downtown South Bend has the Griffon, a game and book store where I get gaming supplies like dice and paints. Toward Mishawaka is Buy Me Toys, which sells comics and action figures. In Town & Country shopping center is Uber Geek Gear, where they specialize in HeroClix and T-Shirts. All of these places are owned and operated by sole ownerships with no employees. But if I drove an hour and a half to Kalamazoo, Michigan, I could go to Fanfare, where I could get all of those plus comic book original art and sports cards if I so desired. That's the kind of store I would want.
I first visited Fanfare Comics and Cards on December 5, 1983. I know this because it was my 19th birthday. I was in the first semester of my freshman year in college, long past the time when I thought I would be reading comic books. The last one I had bought was in 1979 when I was a freshman in high school, and I was putting all of that childishness behind me. But when I arrived on the campus of Western Michigan University, I discovered that not only were there students reading comic books, but there were actual groups of students playing roleplaying games and having serious discussions about comics. Not only that but I learned from one of the groups that there was a local store dedicated to selling nothing but comic books. I had never heard of anything like this, so I took a bus to the store to see this wonder for myself.
Fanfare's original location was on South Westnedge Avenue, several blocks from where it is now. It was formerly a two-story house shared laterally with a country-western music radio station. When you walked in the door, there were tables along two adjacent walls. On the tables were longboxes with Marvel back issues, and below the tables were the DC back issues. On the right wall were shelves that held the new comics. It was a tiny little hole in the wall but it was the most glorious store I could imagine. I interviewed the owners, Tom Fleming and John Kowall for a paper I was writing for an English class. I was able to learn more about the hobby in that hour than I had in my entire life. Having grown up in rural Michigan, I had bought comic books either at flea markets, our local grocery store, or a book store in nearby Cadillac. I had no idea what I didn't know.
As time passed and the direct market took flight, Fanfare grew. John left for Mishawaka, his home, and Tom moved several times to better locations down the street, each time expanding its floor space and inventory. Now called Fanfare Sports and Entertainment, they carry sports cards, collectible card games, roleplaying games and supplies, t-shirts, used CDs, DVDs, video games, comic book art supplies, and now Tom is also one of the leading sellers of original comic book art. It's amazing what one man has accomplished.
When I lived in Kalamazoo, I was able to pick up my comics every Friday. It was a weekly ritual to which I looked forward. A bus ride downtown, one transfer, and I was at their store. It was a $1.50 round trip!
When I moved away, I was still buying lots of comics, but I lived 90 miles away. I started using their mail-order service. In eight years, they only made one mistake in shipping my comics to me. Unfortunately, I don't buy enough titles to even make an order worthwhile. I still make my way up there three or four times a year, and every time I do, I regret not living closer by. I've visited comic book stores all over the country, and Fanfare is still the best one I've ever seen.