October Country Comics celebrates 40th anniversary in New Paltz

Owner Devon Sprenger (center), associate Kiel Ferris (on left) and associate Steven Esposito (on right). (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Comic books and graphic novels transport their readers with colorful images and imaginative stories. The cliché is that it’s all about the superheroes and villains, or fantasy and sci-fi, and there is that. But Devon Sprenger, owner of October County Comics in the Cherry Hill Center at 246 Main Street in New Paltz, says his comic book store actually has something for everybody. The Avengers and Spiderman have their place alongside X-Men and Superman, but so do stories about everyday people, and moody, noir-style material. There’s even a children’s section with book subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes’ daughter solving mysteries to kids one-upping each other at a food academy. One author writes exclusively about topics that young kids can relate to, such as having a sister or going to the dentist. 

October Country Comics is celebrating its 40th anniversary in business this year. Sprenger, who worked in the store for ten years prior to taking over the business this past January, is its third owner. And before he worked in the store, while he was still in high school in Hyde Park, he was a customer there. “From then on, I always wanted to have a comic book store, and was planning how I’d get that done, but I didn’t think it would be this one,” he says.

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The store was opened in 1979 by Bruce Conklin, who named the fledgling business for a favorite author’s collection of short stories: October Country by Ray Bradbury. Sprenger says he thinks the store name is very appropriate, given that “a comic book store is really an eclectic collection of different short stories.”

At a point in the ‘90s when comic book sales went into a dive – more on that later – another local comic book store owner, Mike Giacoia, joined forces with Conklin and the two ran October Country Comics in New Paltz together for years. After Conklin retired, Giacoia ran the store on his own for five years or so, retiring himself last year and turning over the keys to Sprenger.

Becoming the store’s owner after so many years working there hasn’t been that much of a change, Sprenger says, though joking that as an owner, “I don’t sleep at night!” Other than making sure he stays on top of the bills, though, he says, “Mike had already had me doing everything anyway, so it was a very easy transition. Not much has changed for me.”

Visitors to the store will encounter either Sprenger, Kiel Ferris or Steve Esposito along with part-timers Bob Huber and William Hennessey. The guys get excellent Yelp reviews, it’s worth noting, with a number of reviewers commenting on how the staff not only knows their stuff but are friendly and welcoming. “We always try to stay true to that,” Sprenger says. “That’s a big thing for me. I don’t ever want someone to come in here and feel like they don’t belong here. I want people to come in and be able to find something they’re looking for and I want them to want to come back.”

Sprenger’s knowledge of the comic book market really is extensive and makes the casual observer (me) walk out feeling like I’d visited a world I didn’t know existed and it was a pretty interesting place.

In the late 1980s through the early 1990s, for example, there was a big boom in comics, according to Sprenger, due to the intense speculator market going on back then, fueled in part by the release of The Death of Superman in 1994. “A lot of people were treating comic books like commodities in the ‘90s,” Sprenger says. “Bruce and Mike [the former owners of October Country] both told me they had people lined up for blocks outside their stores waiting to come in and pick up the Superman book. People thought this book was going to [re]sell for millions, but it sells for $30 now.”

The speculator market “blew everything up,” he adds, “but by the mid ‘90s the market slowed down and fell out. They were printing millions of copies per book and all of a sudden, it went away.”

The books from the 1930s through the 1960s are valuable because of their rarity, of course. Comic books were rolled up and put in a back pocket, notes Sprenger, or folded up or used as an ink blotter. “And the stuff from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s got put in paper drives for the war. That’s why there are so few copies of the first appearance of Superman in existence.”

At the time of the comic book collapse in the ‘90s, the country had at least 10,000 comic book stores, Sprenger says, but today there are just a few thousand, most centered in urban areas such as New York City, California, Florida and Illinois. “The business has survived but never gotten back to where it was. A lot of stores by the late ‘90s weren’t sustaining themselves, so like with Mike and Bruce, they combined their stores.”

October Country Comics has a number of vintage comics mounted on the walls in plastic sleeves. They’re pricier than a contemporary comic book, with the cost based on rarity and what the store put into acquiring them. Anyone with a collection to sell is welcome to contact the store.

When asked what the Internet has done to the comic book business, Sprenger says, “it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. The Internet is helpful for people who don’t have comic book stores nearby; and there are entire states now that don’t have a comic book store. And we definitely have people email us and message us on Facebook asking if we have something, how much, how much shipping is… so we get customers that aren’t in the area.”

Sometimes it feels like the Internet is more of a hindrance, he adds, because people will look an item up using their smartphone and say it’s cheaper on Amazon or some other retailer. “For me, personally, if I’m already at a place and the difference is only $5, and I’m going to have to wait a couple of days to have it shipped, I have to think, ‘Is the $5 really worth it?’” But if someone finds a price on Amazon and it’s only 10 percent less, Sprenger says, “I’ll give them the discount. It’s not worth losing a sale over three or four dollars.”

The Internet also brings in those people wanting to buy multiple copies of a book to re-sell on eBay, which takes those copies out of the hands of regular readers. “I understand; I get the business, and whatever they do with the book after they buy it, that’s their prerogative,” says Sprenger. “But the last thing I want is a customer coming in every week and finding out the same book is always gone. And then you have the people coming in who think you’re pulling books off the rack to sell online, and asking, ‘Are you really sold out?’ It’s rough. The Internet is a great tool but it also cuts the other way.”

But things online have changed for the better as far as brick-and-mortar stores go, because Amazon has to collect tax on everything now, and Sprenger says the online giant doesn’t offer the type of discounts they used to. “Amazon used to offer a 40 percent discount on all of this, but now their discount is close to what we offer our subscribers.”

Regulars at October Country who come in once a month and purchase a minimum of five titles per month will have those books held for them as a subscriber, and get a 10 percent discount on anything else they pick up in the store. The “pull” service is valuable, too, because often a popular title will sell out, so subscribers are guaranteed to get their copies held.

The comic book movie industry has also had an impact on the comic book store, Sprenger says, “and again, it cuts both ways. It can be a very good thing, because the movie market definitely helps a lot in getting more exposure. But the negative side of it is, the movies are made for a general audience, and what you see in the movie may not be in the book. With Marvel and DC Comics, the two biggest companies that have been around the longest, they’re cramming 70-80 years of their history into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. So a lot is trimmed and condensed, and people come in expecting a book to be very similar, but it’s not at all what they saw in the movie.”

Overall, though, Sprenger notes, “We’re definitely living in a time where everything is kind of a plus, for the most part.”

Since taking the store over, Sprenger says he has tried to expand the independent publishers’ comic book section. He might sell only ten copies of a book by a smaller press compared to 60 copies of a Spiderman comic, “but I think it’s important to have those in the store, in part because of the name of the store. I want the store to be a collection of short stories like October Country. I want there to be something for everybody.”

The store has a large section of Japanese manga books – “that’s an up-and-down market; we shrunk it down at one point and now I’m building it back up” – along with graphic novels, which are often collections of single issues. “Most comics written now are written in six-issue arcs, and after six issues they get collected in a trade paperback, which is the graphic novel. But there are also original graphic novels,” Sprenger explains.

The shop owner also carries back issues for the collectors and puts together his own collections of single issues for those who don’t want to wait for the graphic novel to come out (priced at a 20 percent discount off the single issue). The children’s section is a popular place in the store, because parents know they can park their kids there and everything they see will be G-rated. “It’s their own little store inside a store,” Sprenger says.

October Country carries toys and action figures – Funko Pops and Star Wars figures are big – along with board games, t-shirts and tournament cards, such as Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). A two-hour junior D&D tournament is held in the store every Monday night (ages 8-15 or so, $5 cost). Magic the Gathering tournaments are held on Wednesday and Friday nights for all ages, at $5 for Wednesday gatherings where a player uses their own cards and $15 on Friday nights, when they go home with new cards. The tournaments bring out as many as 25 people at a time, with extra sessions sometimes held to meet the demand. Author/illustrator talks and book signings are also held from time to time; visit the store’s Facebook page for more information at www.Facebook.com/octobercountrycomics. The store is at OC_Comics_Games on Twitter and Instagram or visit www.octobercountrycomics.com.

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