In the end, memories are what make us who we are. Although they slip away so easily, these small fragments of past inform our future decisions and influence us every moment we’re alive. For most of us comic book readers, a formative moment in our personal histories is the first time we step into a comic shop. The pulpy smell of fresh floppies stacked in Diamond stamped boxes. The glistening translucent cases filled with TCG singles at exorbitant prices. The stern and booming voices of people arguing Batman chronology in the back by the trades.
The places individual comics fans make these universal memories shape their lives. For Director and Comics Historian Anthony Desiato and many other comics luminaries from upstate New York such as Rocket Girl writer Brandon Montclare, these formative experiences took place at Alternate Realities, which is going out of business after nearly a quarter of a century.
Desiato has made it his mission to chronicle the store’s final days through his podcast, My Comic Shop History. The last episode of this audio series comes out today, and in honor of his intriguing work and Alternate Realities’ storied history, we sat down with him to talk about the legacy of the store.
Alex Lu: So for those unfamiliar with Alternate Realities, can you give us a brief overview of your store’s history and what makes it special?
Anthony Desiato: Alternate Realities is (soon-to-be “was,” sadly) a comic book store in Scarsdale, NY, that is closing up shop for good after 23 years.
The store is the subject of my independent film, My Comic Shop DocumentARy, and my current podcast, My Comic Shop History.
The podcast is a 12-episode exploration of the store & its closing from the perspective of past and present owners, customers, and employees. We’ve been peeling back the curtain on the retail side of the comic book industry as we discuss the store’s inner-workings and comic shop culture generally.
What makes the store special—and the reason I’ve found it such a source of inspiration—is the community.
We count among our ranks a customer who worked at T.G.I. Friday’s but claimed to have killed 25 people in the line of duty as a secret agent; our resident curmudgeon, a former flea market vendor who condemns modern society with language that would make a sailor blush; and the store’s owner, Steve Oto, who traded his legal career for a life behind the counter and a very love-hate relationship with his clientele.
Lu: What’s your role in the store and how long have you been involved?
Desiato: Heroes World (a long-defunct store in White Plains) was my first comic shop, and when it abruptly closed on me during elementary school, Alternate Realities became my new go-to place. For the first few years of my patronage there, I was just the shy kid who would pick up my books every week while my mother waited in the car.
In high school, Steve offered me a summer job, and that was my entry into a whole new world. Throughout high school and college, both my level of responsibility at the store as well as my friendships with the guys who shopped & worked there would grow.
It wasn’t until the end of my employment there (during law school) that I began to take on my current role of—for lack of a better term—“store chronicler.” That new path gave birth to my film about the store, its spinoff (By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story), and now the podcast.
Lu: What do you think drove the decision to close the store?
Desiato: If you believe Steve’s closing announcement, he’s closing in large part “because of those customers who have left me in the lurch” by not buying the items they ordered. However, if you truly analyze the situation, as we’ve been doing over the course of My Comic Shop History, it becomes clear that the stated reason for closing is perhaps a bit disingenuous.
If customers are reneging on their orders, there are steps a store can take to at least try to remedy the situation first. Closing the store is the nuclear option! It’s not really a proportionate response to address what’s ultimately a small group of delinquent customers.
What we all realize is that Steve’s complaints are really just symptomatic of a growing frustration and fatigue with running the business.
In Episode 7 (“Comic Shop Business School”), I spoke with the owner of The Spider’s Web, a relatively new comic shop in Yonkers. That owner is two years in and still has his passion for the business and the hobby.
After 23 years of the grind of running a small business, Steve simply doesn’t have that anymore. As he has said many, many times over the years—in person, on Facebook, in My Comic Shop DocumentARy, and in My Comic Shop History—he’s tired. And I don’t think anyone would dispute that he’s earned his rest.
Lu: How has the community responded to the store’s closing?
Desiato: That’s really what the podcast is all about and why I wanted to do it in the first place.
Aside from the friendship we share, what I hope listeners take away from this show is how much we all care about “The Store.”
Everyone who has participated in the podcast has worked, owned, or volunteered at Alternate Realities at some point. We’ve all invested time and effort and wanted the store to be as strong as possible.
To see the store end in this way has been very bittersweet. Not to speak for the entire community, but for myself and many of the people I spoke to on the podcast, I feel there’s a sense of sadness that it came to this, acceptance that it’s the right move for Steve, and, most importantly, appreciation for everything the store has meant to us. It’s been our clubhouse, truly.
Lu: Given that Alternate Realities has such a long and storied history, those who have been there have had the unique perspective of having seen the comics reading audience grow exponentially and the industry dramatically change. How would you compare comics at the store’s opening to comics now, at the store’s close?
Desiato: Well, seeing as how I was 5 when the store opened, I’m not sure I can really give a full answer to that question! Interestingly, though, the store opened the same year that “The Death of Superman” (my first comic) came out. That was arguably the beginning of “event” storytelling as we know it today, and the store is closing amidst Convergence and Secret Wars, two huge events from the Big Two. So, in a way, maybe not that much has changed!
To answer your question more specifically: Based on the time that I’ve been affiliated with Alternate Realities, I would argue that we have not seen huge shifts the way you might expect. For example, the rise of comic book movies didn’t necessarily drive hordes of new customers to the store. At the same time, the advent of digital comics did not erode our customer base too much, either.
Lu: What do you think is the next big thing for the industry?
On the retail side, one of the things we talk about on the podcast (we do a “Comic Shop Business School” series-within-a-series across a number of episodes) is how comic shops need to be a “destination” in order to survive these days. Areas to hang out, events, signings–things like that.
Lu: What new projects are the Alternate Realities crew heading off to pursue?
To find out what the store’s owner, Steve Oto, is up to next, I encourage folks to listen to the finale of the podcast, out today! Up next for me is a new documentary and, hopefully, more podcasting in the future! As for our group, we plan to continue the friendships we forged at Alternate Realities. The store may be gone, but the community lives on.
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Alex is the Managing Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at Papercutz. He is your go-to fella for creator interviews, conversations about comic book structure, and general DC Comics nerding. Currently geeking out over movies, too.