Captain Blue Hen Comics
Oct 02, 2015 02:37PM
By Steven Hoffman
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, the day that new comic books arrive, and Captain Blue Hen Comics is filled with beaming customers who are here to immerse themselves in this haven of pop culture. Ever since Captain Blue Hen Comics opened on East Main Street in 1981, it has been a beloved destination for comic book fans, but now, more than three decades later, there’s much, much more than comics at Delaware’s favorite comic book shop.
As he stands at the front of a store filled with what he calls “fun stuff for fun people,” owner Joe Murray contemplates how to describe or quantify all the items that are on display for customers.
“I like to say that we have more than enough for anybody to find something that they like,” Murray said. “We are always trying to diversify, to cover a greater range. We also like to say that we are a one-stop pop culture shop. Our job is to sell fun stuff to fun people.”
Indeed, you can find an incredible range of products here, ranging from the latest Superman comic to one of the Fables books, a series that deals with people from fairy tales and folklore that was first published by DC Comics in 2002 and just recently ended its run. Do you like “The Walking Dead” television show? Of course you do. At Captain Blue Hen Comics, you can pick up an issue of the comic book series that preceded the cultural phenomenon. Or, you can delve into literally thousands of stories featuring the X-Men, Superman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain America, and any of the other members of the enormously popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s even a display of new Star Wars merchandise promoting the upcoming movie, “The Force Awakens.”
There can be no doubting the fact that 1981, the year that Captain Blue Hen Comics was founded by Paul Stitik, was a time long ago and a galaxy far, far away when it comes to the status of pop culture in society. When the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga debuts in December, it is expected to set box office records. Comic book movies featuring the likes of Iron Man and Batman and Spiderman have come to dominate the box office each summer. On television, the pop-culture-celebrating “Big Bang Theory” reigns supreme while “The Walking Dead” earns rave reviews from critics and fans alike.
“We’re in a pop culture renaissance right now,” Murray explained.
And his store is the perfect spot to revel in it.
There are literally thousands of comic books, and while some might be valued between $30 and $300, an overwhelming majority of them are inexpensive. That keeps with Murray’s simple goal to have Captain Blue Hen be a place where fun people can buy fun stuff. It is not simply a place for collectors. And while a majority of the store’s space is dedicated to comic books, there are a wide variety of items always on display, ranging from graphic novels to board games to trade paperbacks to trading card toys.
Murray grew up in Smyrna, Del. and graduated from the University of Delaware in 1989. He was a customer of Captain Blue Hen Comics before he started working here in 1992. He purchased Captain Blue Hen in 2001, at about the same time when the original owner, Paul Stitik, retired from his career as a schoolteacher and wanted to ease up on his commitments to the store.
Murray explains the thoughtfully planned layout of Captain Blue Hen Comics.
The front of the store is open and inviting—to everyone, not just comic book enthusiasts. The front display table features the more mainstream books and merchandise that will be familiar to everyone.
Next, in the front corner of the store, is the children’s area, with toys, books, and comic books that are age-appropriate for the youngest fans of Superman and his kind.
The goal, Murray said, is to make Captain Blue Hen a friendly and interesting place for everyone in the family.
“We have a lot more parents coming in here with their kids,” Murray said. He’s a big believer that comic books can have a positive impact on children.
“There are a lot of reasons that comics are helpful for children as they are learning how to read,” Murray said, explaining that comics are a limitless source of interesting stories for enthusiastic readers. Comics also offer reluctant readers a fun chance to increase their vocabularies because so much can be figured out by the context that words are used.
Beyond the children’s area is the raucous realm of the superheroes, where literally thousands of out-of-this-world stories await in the pages of colorful comics.
Most of Captain Blue Hen’s regulars—and there are plenty of them—come in to peruse the new comics that are available. There are 75 or more new titles a week. Marvel and DC Comics publish between 60 and 70 percent of the comics on the market, but comics of any kind can be found in this store. More discerning customers will find a wide selection of the critically acclaimed series by Image Comics artists, including “Spawn,” “The Crow,” “Witchblade,” or “The Walking Dead.”
Adjacent to the new comics section is the collection of vintage comics and back issues of popular titles.
“Comic book shops were originally built on back issues,” Murray said, explaining that for a time the popularity of back issues waned. But now, comic book enthusiasts are looking for them again, and Captain Blue Hen is expanding its supply.
After 34 years of building up a following, Captain Blue Hen is a destination for people from throughout Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and even New Jersey.
Customers tend to be loyal because, well, there’s a lot to love about the place.
“We have customers who have been coming here since the day that we opened,” Murray explained.
Pete Lindholm is one of the longtime customers. He said that he has had the opportunity to visit comic book stores all over the country, and Captain Blue Hen Comics stands out because it is such a family-friendly place for all customers. He likes that there is a children’s section because that helps reach the next generation of comic book readers.
More than 400 people have signed up as Captain Blue Hen Comics members, and they have the opportunity to give the staff a list of titles that are pulled for the customer each time a new issue arrives.
“We are the concierges for comics,” Murray explained. “We believe that our customers are here for the experience as much as the product. Unlike a lot of other retail jobs, everybody comes here because they want to be here. So we’re here to engage the customers as much as possible.”
The rapport between the customers and the small but devoted staff at Captain Blue Hen Comics is an essential part of the overall experience. Murray and the staff has more than 80 years of combined experience, and they are all experts in all things pop culture by this point.
“My staff is amazing,” Murray explained.
The staff includes store manager Kita Roberts, Dave Williams, Jason Colatriano, and Stitik, the original owner who is still an important part of the team. Stitik is a friend to many of the longtime customers, and also plays an integral role by scouring eBay and other online sites and going to auctions to purchase comics for the store.
Like Murray, Williams was a customer at Captain Blue Hen Comics before he was an employee. He can recall his first visit to the store as a youngster in the early 1980s.
“I was amazed,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that there was a place this focused on comics. It was like going to Willa Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.”
When he got older, Williams’ dream of working at his favorite place on Earth came true, and he is still there today. He is a comic book expert and a featured player in the store, and writes a lot of the blog posts on the store’s website.
“It’s always fun working here. It’s been my second home since before I worked here,” Williams explained, adding that he reads about 15 different titles a week.“I try to read as much as I can so that I can talk about everything with the customers. Part of the reason why I like the job is that you know that the people who are here want to be here. They aren’t buying something that they have to buy. They are buying something here for their enjoyment. This is a place where you can come and talk with us or the customers. It’s a gathering place for people.”
Murray said that the customers and staff are always engaging in conversations, and sometimes even lively debates, about anything and everything, including what will be the better battle in an upcoming movie, Captain America vs. Iron Man or Batman vs. Superman.
Murray knows many of the customers by name, which is actually true of the entire staff, and said that he’s been compared to Sam the bartender from “Cheers,” the bar where it’s so friendly that everyone knows your name.
After more than two decades in the business, Murray also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of comic books, starting from when American boys and girls followed the innocent adventures of Superman to the golden age of comics right up to the present day. Murray is well known for his expertise, and does a variety of programs, ranging from talks to young children to scholarly presentations for college students to helping a school library assemble a graphic novel collection.
Murray said that Captain Blue Hen Comics also participates in a number of community activities each year, including a food drive, a toy drive for children, and participation in the annual Main Street Mile.
Free Comic Book Day, the popular national promotion that takes place on the first Saturday in May, is always a popular event that puts the store in the spotlight. The store recently held a flea market where customers could sell their stuff. And Murray is working out plans with other local businesses and restaurants for a “Back to the Future” Day.
“We really do a lot of fun events,” Murray explained.
For more than three decades, Captain Blue Hen Comics has successfully navigated all the ups and downs of the industry. At one time, there were maybe 10,000 comic book stores in the U.S., compared to between 2,000 and 3,000 stores today. But Captain Blue Hen Comics remains one of the most enduring stores on Main Street in Newark, thanks in large part to its beloved status with customers.
Murray talked about how one longtime customer recently moved to Dover, Del. At first, the customer wanted to have his favorite comics mailed to him each month because the drive back to Newark simply wasn’t convenient. Before long, the customer decided that he missed the experience of visiting Captain Blue Hen Comics too much, and resumed picking the comics up himself.
At the end of the day, it’s that relationship with customers that makes this store an indelible part of the community.
“The way that I look at it is, at the end of each day, we did a lot of work,” Murray explained. “We didn’t cure cancer. But maybe we did give a lot of people fun today.”