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Vault of Midnight unlocks comics for everyone

A profile of the new comic book store, Vault of Midnight, its owners and their customers.

Board Game Night @Pyramid Scheme!

The folks from Vault of Midnight will be bringing a wide variety of boardgames to the Pyramid Scheme on Sunday, March 9 for FREE at 5 P.M. 21+, with a variety of different games to choose from!

The inside of Vault of Midnight at 95 Monroe Center

The inside of Vault of Midnight at 95 Monroe Center /Vault Of Midnight;

To stand out against the rows upon rows of interesting stores that line Monroe Center, you'd better be willing to attract attention. Vault of Midnight definitely is.

When opening their Grand Rapids location several months ago, the Ann Arbor-based comic book store sought to bring as much of its aesthetic as possible to the new space, including the store's signature bright blue front, bold colors on the walls, and an easy-to-navigate, always stocked display.

Located at 95 Monroe Center St., the building makes the most of its space. The shelves are huge, and spread out with plenty of room to stand and read or browse around. A shirt rack and several small tables and displays with toys and statues are to both sides of the front.On the left-side wall, starting alphabetically from the front, are rows and rows of the latest comic books from Marvel, DC and other publishers. Besides dedicated shelves for all-ages comics and Japanese manga, the shelves in the store's center have trade paperbacks collecting issues of various ongoing series, as well as original graphic novels and hardcover art books. They start with the As on the far back and continue as they snake around throughout the store. In the far back, there's a table for role-playing game books (Dungeons & Dragons and its successors), as well as racks of the very latest issues, aka the ones that have come out on the most recent Wednesday. Everything is perfectly spaced. Whatever you're looking for, you're likely to find it.

Spending her first full week managing the new location, co-owner Liz Sullivan said she was very happy with how business has gone so far. “We had been talking about expansion for a long time,” she said, “because it seemed like the next logical step for our business.”

Her and her husband and co-owner Curtis—who swap out an apartment they have above the store—had talked about and looked into moving to, among other places, Chicago or Detroit. But they eventually settled on Grand Rapids because it “fits with our aesthetic,” she said. The new location—one half of a former shoe store—took about 2 months to fully move into.

Curtis said he had to add a second store account and begin ordering product from their distributors about 3 months before the new store even opened. “We like Grand Rapids,” he said. “The downtown [area] is trying to establish itself as a really hip place...they're doing a lot of cool stuff.” Sullivan further said that they looked at several other streets in the area, such as Wealthy or Division, but eventually settled at Monroe Center, as they felt it was the “epicenter of things.”

When asked if he felt the same as many other comics retailers and bloggers, who posit that, in an age when anyone can buy a comic book on their phone or tablet from apps like Comixology, the physical comic book store should be a community space, Sullivan said, “Absolutely.”

“Community is a component” of the store's business ethos, he continued, and it “always has been. A good comic shop is like a good record store; in a different retail environment, there's no 'watercooler' element, no place to really share and discuss things.” He further added that “the data so far supports & print sales have climbed in tandem [after the digital comics explosion of a few years ago]. It's really like digital is helping print.”

Both Sullivans pointed to the selling out, at both locations, of the new Marvel series Ms. Marvel as an example The subject of much controversy and acclaim before it even premiered, the series—which had its 1st issue released February 5th—follows the adventures of high-school student Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American Pakistani girl who assumes the legacy of the iconic hero that she idolizes and is the first-ever Marvel comic to ever feature a Muslim character as a headliner, as well as the first to have a Muslim writer (G. Willow Wilson) and editor (Sara Amanat).

Liz Sullivan said that in that particular case, they made sure to order several copies of the book as an “anticipatory” measure. “You kind of have to feel these things out,” she said, but she and Curtis both felt confident that the series would go over with their target demographic, which is, as Curtis pointed out, really all ages.

“Our job ,” he said, “is to give you, the customer, something that will immediately gets you into [comics]. You have to feel out customers; I wouldn't try pushing [mature sci-fi series] Saga on everyone.” Liz added, “We carry everything we like.” Indeed, at the Grand Rapids location, the all-ages material is six shelves deep; clearly, finding something for everyone and making comics accessible is on the minds of the Vault Of Midnight crew.

And it seems to be working. Of the store patrons I interviewed while I was there, all of them were stepping in for the first time and all of them were impressed. Tom and Ginger Goad, who were there with their grandson Jack (whose dad Josh, I learned, blogs about comics and other things at The Amazing Adventures of Comic Dad), were impressed with the width and breadth of what was on display. For his part, Jack said the store “was pretty cool.”

Akilah, who said she was “just walking by,” mostly reads manga and was impressed with the large selection they had—everything from standbys like Dragon Ball to hot new series like Attack on Titan. She mentioned that she used to shop at Borders for her manga, but while she misses that chain, it was clear she felt places like Vault were more than enough of a substitute.

Haley, a high-school senior from Grand Blank who usually goes to Barnes & Noble and mostly reads manga, along with Batman & Deadpool, was “pretty happy” with what she found in the store. “They have a nice selection,” she said; “I mean, look at all this!” she said, happily displaying the volumes she found.

Clearly, people are being drawn into the store, and the Sullivans were quick to admit that it was in part due to the business community on Monroe Center. “The other businesses have been nothing short of helpful,” Curtis said. So what's the plan for further engaging the community in the future?

One recent venture that the staff seemed really excited about is the Tactical Book Quest Club, done in tandem with a comic book club in Allendale. Kicking off this month with Rep. John Lewis' Civil Rights memoir graphic novel March: Book One, the store, and its Ann Arbor parent, will offer a 15% discount on the book for the entire month, and the staff—including the Sullivans' son, Dana and employee Megan—hope to announce an event for the club soon.

The Sullivans also pointed to the success of board game nights. While the Ann Arbor location—in business since 1996 and located in that city's downtown since 2006—has enough space to host its own events on a weekly basis, the location here in Grand Rapids has to rely on outside hosting from places like Madcap, Grand Market and the Pyramid Scheme, who Curtis said were all “very nice.”

“One of the managers at the Pyramid Scheme actually has a pull list [a list of subscribed titles that the store holds for a particular customer when they arrive] with us, so we developed a good relationship with him,” Curtis said. The next board game night is at the Pyramid Scheme on March 9 and is free, but is 21+ only. “We usually bring about 20 different games,” he said; “We change it up for every event.”

Another way the store has made its mark is by displaying artwork from local artists as well as selling local comics and 'zines, something Liz was particularly proud of. “We put everything through a selection process,” she said. “Usually, the artist comes to us...and the local comics have been selling quite well.” While they haven't had any in-store artist events here in Grand Rapids yet, Liz said that the business here has been “spectacular...we've had a really good reception.”

For any bookstore at all, but particularly something as oft-maligned as a comics shop, that's something to be proud of.

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Awesome.  The Vault is an awesome addition to downtown;  a friend of mine dropped some serious coin there.  Eventually I'll probably end up doing the same.