Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Star Clipper's Owners Shuttered Their Beloved St. Louis Comic Book Shop

Posted By on Wed, Jan 21, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Star Clipper sets sail for the great beyond. - JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg
  • Star Clipper sets sail for the great beyond.

In the world of mainstream superhero comics, death is nothing more than a marketing ploy. Publishers announce the demise of a major character, spin a few months of hype into increased sales and then release the all-important issue that delivers the end of the hero's journey. A couple months later the hero returns to life hale and hearty, with the added bonus of yet another number-one issue to spike sales.

For Star Clipper, there is no miraculous regeneration in the near future, no alternate dimension from whence the shop will emerge stronger than ever just in time to celebrate another Free Comic Book Day. After 27 years in business, the beloved Delmar Loop institution will close its doors sometime in February. The announcement arrived January 15 via Star Clipper's Facebook page and quickly rippled out through the St. Louis comic community. Long-time customers and fans couldn't believe the news. Their favorite store closing? Why?

"We've been thinking about it for a year," says co-owner Ben Trujillo.

Star Clipper's back office is comfortable and tidy, just like the sales floor, but with far less pop-culture bric-a-brac than you'd expect. Seated at a desk next to Trujillo is his wife and co-owner, A.J. Despite being married for almost twenty years, the Trujillos don't interrupt each other, opting instead to annotate and expand upon what the other has said.

See also: Star Clipper Comics Announces Closure

"It became clear that the store couldn't support both of us at the same time," A.J. offers. "I began to dip my toe into other waters last winter." She now works full-time at Stray Rescue while Ben helms Star Clipper's day-to-day operation, although he still has time to volunteer at Tenth Life Cat Rescue. Not coincidentally, the couple have fostered a staggering number of cats over the years.

The Trujillos have provided for Star Clipper in a similarly loving fashion. A.J. had been working as the manager of Star Clipper for four years when she and Ben purchased the store in 2001 from Scott Thorne. At the time the business was located at the corner of Big Bend Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway and specialized in both comics and games.

"I wasn't really familiar with the game side of the business, so I phased them out," says A.J. of her first few years managing the shop. "We developed new areas, like anime, which was just getting big. Graphic novels were still a new thing, and we got into them heavily."

Legendary artist Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America, X-Men, Fantastic Four) predicted back in the late '60s that someday comics would leave behind cheap single issues for a more prestigious (and durable) hardbound format. It took the industry years to catch on to Kirby's vision, and A.J. was on board before many.

"A.J. was very prescient about the role of the graphic novel," Ben marvels. "We started with 25 feet of shelf space, now we have 10,000 on the shelves. It's our bread and butter. She was way out front of anyone else."

"I wonder if you remember it differently?" A.J. prompts Ben helpfully at this point, but he's certain. "A.J. won the Eisner for Scott." The Eisner, formally known as the Eisner of Retailing Award, is the Academy Award of comic books shops. Star Clipper won it in 1999 and is, to date, the only Missouri shop to claim that distinction.

JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg

In the immediate hours following last Thursday's announcement, Star Clipper is packed with customers spanning all demographics — middle-aged professionals, young couples in hoodies, hardcore fans in Batman shirts. All share the same shell-shocked expression. Members of the Star Clipper staff, meanwhile, wear the awkward smiles of next of kin in a funeral receiving line.

"Have you seen the Hellraiser films?" asks Jonathan Norfleet, his Star Clipper ID surrounded by buttons of the Marvel Comics character Cyclops. Known to regulars and staff as Fleet, the solidly built, six-foot-tall Norfleet speaks quietly and thoughtfully about everything — sort of like his favorite superhero.

"There's a line in the second or third Hellraiser, 'Ah, the suffering. The sweet, sweet suffering.' That's how it feels right now," explains Norfleet. "All of these people are coming in; the phone's been ringing. They all tell us how important we are to them, and that feels great. But..."

That "but" is the realization that by the weekend of January 17 and 18, when the liquidation sale is to begin, everyone on staff will have answered the "why" question countless times while trying to remain unemotional.

"I've seen so many people already today who looked like they just stopped crying," Norfleet continues. For him the feeling is compounded by losing not only his job, but perhaps comic books themselves.

"This is my store! I've shopped here since I was a kid, my brother shopped at the one at North and South," (where husband and wife Carol and Sonny Denbow originally founded Star Clipper in 1988 as a science-fiction bookstore; the Trujillos are Star Clipper's third and longest-running owners). "Where am I going to go after I've been here?" Norfleet spreads his arms wide and looks around Star Clipper incredulously.

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