Friday, February 4, 2011

Retail Therapy Part VII: Challengers Comics + Conversation

Challengers as seen on the much warmer 24 Hour Comics Day this past October.
(This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about the project here!)

Location: 1845 N Western Ave #2R in Bucktown
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Western (49) and Milwaukee (56), nearest train is the Western blue line.
Hours:
Monday through Friday: 11:00 to 7:00
Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 to 5:00
Website: http://www.challengerscomics.com

Challengers Comics + Conversation presented a uniquely complicated task for Retail Therapy. My history with the owners makes me a little more than biased. I worked for co-owner Patrick Brower for several years before he opened Challengers, and I have remained close friends with him since. When my husband and I wanted to have a Star Trek theme wedding, Pat offered to officiate and host the nuptials inside of Challengers. How can I possibly talk about this comic book shop in an objective manner? Well it is near impossible to separate the store from the owners, even if you haven't known them for years. Pat and Dal are the reason this store is the way it is, and no one else could have made a store quite like it. From top to bottom, Challengers Comics + Conversation is the result of Pat & Dal's combined ambition, love, and dedication to the comic book reading experience. I may be more aware of this than first time shoppers, but it is a fact that anyone quickly learns once they become a regular customer.
Pat and Dal insisted on straightening the shelves before I photographed the store.
As soon as you walk into Challengers it's obvious that this is a different approach to the comic book retail outlet. I have heard people refer to it as a "bizarro" comic book shop because in many ways it is the opposite of what you'd expect. The high ceilings and ample natural light give it a very open feel. Artwork is a prominent feature within the store, from the wall directly behind the counter adorned with drawings, to the exclusive original art prints for sale. One cannot comment on the aesthetics of the store without mentioning the carefully chosen color scheme; all fixtures in the store are red and white, from the carpet, couches, shelves and on most days, the owner's clothes even match the decor. Another modern approach taken by Challengers is in the community aspect of the store. They host an ambitiously large amount of events (some I have blogged about in the past) including a monthly book club, signings, Magic, and the Contest of Challengers podcast; they maintain a socially engaging website complete with store webcam; and now there's even an art gallery attached to the store. Readers have many opportunities to meet creators of their favorite works at signings here, and now they can purchase the  original art from those books as well.
The Rogue's Gallery as seen on the January 14th opening for The Sixth Gun exhibition.
Did I mention they have comics, too? For all of the "Challengers is different!" rhetoric, they still meet (and by their large selection exceed) the basic needs of comic book fans. The issues are arranged by Marvel, DC, Independent, and a Local Artist section as well. Trades are arranged by publisher, with non-DC and Marvel titles alphabetized by author. You'll also find trade shelves for All Ages, Manga, Discount, and How-to. No matter what you're looking for, there are no shelves that are left unlabeled. Even the t-shirts have "New This Week" signs. The organization of Challengers is nothing short of meticulous. They also carry a few toys, cards, and novelty items (see Scott Pilgrim plushies), but these are carefully chosen and reveal soft spots for the owners such as Dr. Who and Buffy. They certainly don't carry every Marvel Select or DC Direct toy, but you'll find a good selection of statues and t-shirts (with girl sizes! I must point this out because it is still not the norm at many stores). They no longer carry back issues,  which will be noticed by avid collectors searching for key issues. I expect like many stores these days, trades have replaced the demand for back issues.
Each event earns a place on the walls Challengers. They're entering their fourth year soon and wall space is limited.
Challengers may sound overwhelming if you are a "get in, get your books, get out" kind of reader that likes to get lost amongst unkempt piles of merchandise. You won't find piles of any kind here to hide behind, and the word "conversation" isn't in their namesake to be catchy. The owners are friendly, but in very different ways. Pat is the one who will probably remember your name the second time you come in. He's more than willing to help you find your new favorite book, tell you about the upcoming events on the horizon, or offer a seat while you wait for the next bus to pass. Dal is less hands on. He himself prefers anonymity as a shopper, and tends to let customers dictate the level of interaction. During events Dal mans the register and let's Pat be the social butterfly. The community aspect of Challengers may not be fully appreciated by the solitary reader, but both owners will always help you find what you are looking for.
Pat (left) and Dal (right) pose in front of the wall of sketches
Have I been objective in my observations? To the best of my abilities I believe so. But when you personally know a proprietor, whether your experiences are good or bad, it's difficult to separate the two. Would I go to Challengers if I didn't know and like the owners? You're damn straight I would. But I can guarantee I wouldn't be a stranger for long. Chances are you won't either.

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