By Melissa Hambrick
Judd Bazzel takes his comics seriously.
It’s a hobby that started when he was a kid in Mobile, Alabama, reading even before kindergarten.
His parents were happy to feed his literary appetite with the perfect appetizer: comic books. At only a quarter an issue, they didn’t mind picking up a couple for him at the grocery store. By the time he was 10, he was using his allowance to start collecting, looking for the next issue of the same title so he could piece the story together.
“ROM was my gateway comic,” Bazzel says with a laugh, gesturing to a stand next to the counter of the comic book and collectibles shop he runs in Cool Springs, where a reboot of the title he first collected is for sale. “It was based on a toy, and characters from other comics would guest star, so I’d have to go find those, too.”
His hobby found a home when he opened StarBase 1552 Comics in the Grassland area in early 2015, starting with an 800-square-foot space and later expanding into the former karate studio next door. But earlier this summer, with store traffic waning as the Grassland Foodland anchor next door closed, the full-time physician moved his passion project to 401 Cool Springs Boulevard.
“The shop in Grassland helped me know that this was something that was viable,” he says. “It was a little off the beaten path, but it helped me know that I could fill that niche. If I could make it there, I could certainly make it on Cool Springs Boulevard.”
His prime audience — men aged 35 to 65 who share the same nostalgia as Bazzel — has followed.
“If you go back in time, our childhood was they comic book heyday. You’d go into the 7-Eleven with your parents and just picked up what cover looked good to you, and your parents bought it for you,” he recalls. “But as we got older, the racks went away and it was harder to find comics. Now those same guys are able to come into the shop and see things they used to have as a kid, and want to pick them up again.”
With the wave of superhero movies that has taken over the box office, there’s a another group of fans finding comics through the blockbuster movies, perhaps for the first time.
“The resurgence of comics is definitely due to Marvel movies,” Bazzel says. “When the first Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr., came out, that’s when it became much cooler to be a nerd.”
The comics and movie industries are in lockstep, and contribute to what is hot and drives fans into the stores, he says. “If there’s a new movie, or even a rumor about someone appearing in a new movie, just that first appearance of a character will make a comic’s value go up. Right now, people are analyzing the Captain Marvel trailer and trying to figure out what’s going to be the new hot comic.”
But it’s the old favorites that remain the best-sellers. Amazing Spider Man and Batman top the list, with The Flash a close third. The inventory in the shop ranges from a stock supply of older back issues from the 2000s and before, recent back issues, current hot comics, Star Wars comics, autographed comics, and variant comics — when publishers release a regular cover and then a second cover that is a variant.
It’s still a fraction of the sheer quantity of comics and collectibles that Bazzel possesses.
“My wife calls it hoarding, but hoarders don’t sell things,” he laughs. “We just built a house, and there was a crack that developed the ceiling. The guy went up into the attic to look at it, comes down and says, ‘Well, you know what’s right above that crack, right?’ It was 75 longboxes of comic books. I had to disperse the weight.”
When he opened the original store, it was because he had so much inventory that it wasn’t much more expensive to open a shop than to pay rent on enough storage units to put it in. Bazzel first made a little money from his hobby through an online store, selling through eBay and Amazon, with his wife, Tracy, helping when he had more than a few orders to package and prepare for shipping.
“One night about ten years ago, when Tracy and I were packing up comics to ship out, I said, ‘You know, if I did a little more, I could make a lot more.’ She said, ‘There’s no money in funny books.’ That’s what my aunt used to call them, funny books. So we did our first convention and in two days made ten grand, pure profit. She saw the light and let me continue. And after that it just grew out of control.”
Certainly there’s not a lot of local competition for StarBase 1552 Comics — the closest shops are in Nashville and Murfreesboro — but Bazzel has invested into the community of his Franklin store to set it apart.
Fans looking for a particular back issue of a comic or toy can leave their name and be contacted when it is located. He offers subscriptions for any comics — simply give the store your name, contact information, and a list of comics you want, and every month they will pull your issues and carefully bag and board them for pick up, with 20% off all subscriptions. There is no minimum for the subscription service, from one title to the store’s record-holder, who gets 43 titles every month.
“We do the same thing for toys,” says the store owner, who greets customers by name more often than not. “We get stuff that never makes it out for sale to the public at big-box stores, because there are collectors that are voracious and waiting, or people in the stockroom who will buy it. When people come in here, they’re like, ‘We’ve never seen that toy before’.”
Starbase 1552 also hosts events that are hugely popular with customers, from former Disney artists Tom Bancroft and John Pomeroy who spent a recent day sketching for fans, to the October 6 appearance by actor Greg Evigan, known for his starring role in late-‘70s/early-‘80s television shows “B.J. and the Bear” and “My Two Dads,” as well as “TekWar,” a show based on a book series by William Shatner.
Next up is a huge toy sale on October 13, as Brazzel’s fellow collectors bring in what he calls “a hodgepodge of vintage toys — Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, and G.I. Joes.”
Though he still does conventions, and acknowledges that some of the events are just as valuable for what he can buy as for what he’ll sell, he appreciates having a retail store.
“In a retail store, we get to talk to people more, and see them on a regular basis. And now that we’re in Cool Springs, the space is more open and airy. We can stand around and chit-chat,” Bazzel says. “I work here on Saturdays to keep me sane. This is just a stress outlet that’s fun and lets me geek out.”