“I’m like in denial,” said Janet Vargas, the woman behind the counter wearing the Batman T-shirt. “I haven’t packed anything yet.” It was Wednesday afternoon and indeed, there were no comic books tucked away in boxes yet, and rows of action figures still hung on the wall behind the cash register. The only sign that the store was soon to close: a “For Rent” sign on the front window.
But after 25 years of operation, Comic Den, the Kew Gardens comic bookstore that Vargas owned with her husband, Luis, closed its doors on Saturday, January 30. It’s been a long adventure for a couple that decided to turn their passion into a business.
Luis, who has been reading and collecting comics since he was 10 years old, joked that he was inspired to open the store because he had too many comic books at home.
“I had like 300 boxes,” he laughed.
“And 300 comic books in each one!” his wife adds.
So the Vargases took a chance and opened their store on Lefferts Boulevard in 1990. Janet remembers that, initially, business was great, the high point being during the store’s first few years. “The economy was great, people had the extra money to spend on any hobby,” she said. “Also there was no Internet. If you wanted to read a comic you had to buy it.”
The store moved to a smaller location around the corner in 2012, according to Janet, “to continue with this type of business.” They no longer needed the extra space. The Vargases have been looking for an even smaller space to continue selling ever since it was decided in December that the store would close, but so far, no luck. Janet Vargas said that the reason for the closing was not because the rent was increasing or due to competition from neighboring comic bookstores, but the simple fact that she needs more readers. “If it were not for the ones I already have, I would have closed a long time ago,” she said. “I have 150 members, and that’s been enough to keep me afloat for the past few years, but I need new readers.”
Comic Den is not the only store that sells books or comic books to suffer this fate. As of January 1, Barnes & Noble closed all of its Queens locations. Additionally, many comic bookstores have been closing; Comic Book Heaven closed back in 2013 and Bergen Street Comics in Park Slope closed only five months ago. Many comics have been increasingly trying an online format.
For Janet Vargas, however, there is no comparison between pixels and paper when it comes to comics. “The feel is so different,” she said. “The idea of just holding it and flipping it and if you want to admire a panel because the artist did such a wonderful job…you can go back and forth. You can’t compare it” to online comics.
The majority of Vargas’ customers were the “old-timers,” who would even come to the store from as far from New Jersey. Some of them have been coming to Comic Den for more than two decades. Janet knows them on a first name basis and would hold comics for her “members” until they had the time to come in. She said many of her customers have become good friends and she and her husband have attended their weddings, christenings, and graduations.
The relationship the Vargases have built with the clientele shows. Customer after customer told Janet during that Wednesday afternoon, “If you ever open again, you have my number; call me.”
“I’ve been coming here for 15 years,” Tom Gazdag said, as he shopped with his son, Seamus Brady. “In fact, when I was first looking around for an apartment, this was one of the first things that attracted me…When my wife and I heard that they were closing, we had long faces.”
“They’ve been here ever since I can remember,” said Andy Nazgan, manager at the nearby Kew Gardens Cinemas. He however noted that Comic Den’s current location received less foot traffic than their first one on Lefferts Boulevard.
By Saturday, the store looked much different. Most of the shelves were bare, the comic books were packed into boxes and the action figures that remained unsold were marked down. “Everything will be eventually be moved online, but we just need a breather from this roller coaster,” Janet said as she finishing packing a box filled to the brim with comics.
The Vargases promise that should they find “some hole in the wall,” they will reopen. “I want to continue with those customers that have supported us for so many years,” Janet said. “It won’t be the same when you’re emailing someone, ‘How are you?’ as to opposed to them being in front of you.”