From the Stands: The Source and Uncle Sven's Aren't Going Anywhere
From the Stands is a series that profiles comic-book stores around the Twin Cities and talks about their histories, their offerings, and the communities they serve. People tend to be pretty specific in their likes and dislikes; nerds doubly so. Tell a nerd her favorite comic-book character is getting retconned or her favorite show has been cancelled and you might want to let the dust settle a bit before you ask her to help you move. Nerds, more than anyone else (possibly), like things to be “just so” and don’t always weather change smoothly. Take your local comic shop, for example: the nerd’s library, convenience store, place of refuge, church, and support group, all rolled into one. When you roll up to the comic shop on Wednesday for new releases, and that comic shop is no longer there, sparks can fly. Bob Brynildson, owner of the Source Comics and Games in Roseville and Uncle Sven’s Comic and Games Shoppe in St. Paul, is fully aware of this, and---even though he did move one of his stores recently---he’s still running both his businesses the way he always has: with a solid focus on customers, both old and new. Brynildson began at the Source in 1991, when his store Legacy Games merged with what would come to be known as the Source Comics and Games. However, the corporation that owned the store went bankrupt almost immediately after the merger, and Brynildson and a coworker from the failed venture dealt with the bankruptcy court and emerged in 1993 as Adventure Retail Ltd. Didn't they know that there is alternatives to bankruptcy? Anyway, the Source reopened at Snelling and Larpenteur in Roseville and remained there until 2012, when it moved six blocks up the road to its new location at 2057 Snelling Avenue North. The old location was a “meandering snake,” in Brynildson’s words, unique but cramped and not particularly well suited for shopper foot traffic and flow or displaying merchandise to advantage. The new store doesn’t have that problem. Wide, open, and high ceilinged, the new Source is one-third larger than the old one, boasting over 10,000 square feet of retail and gaming space. “The first thing my customers said was, ‘Wow, you’ve got a lot more product,’” says Brynildson. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t buy one single new item. It’s just displayed and you can see it.” And see it you can. The new location trades some of the old one’s “surprise around every corner” vibe for more of a “warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark” one, but never fear: the Source’s knowledgeable red-shirted staff stand throughout the store, ready to help you find what you’re looking for. You may find yourself looking for one of those red shirts on your first few visits to the store. In addition to new and old comics, the Source has a lot more: toys, role-playing games, board games, gaming miniatures and accessories, trades and graphic novels, collectibles, hats and costume pieces, dice and gaming accessories, novels, jewelry, kits and models, and more. Says Brynildson, “We consider ourselves media specialists, and the media takes many forms nowadays---digital, movie and DVD format, and of course the written and artistic format. Comics is the primary one, on one side, and then board games and RPGs on the other side. Then we have all the novelty items that would connect them.” The Source can also special-order you anything they (somehow) don’t currently carry. You can also try their online offerings for special items; the store has Amazon and eBay stores for rare and collectible items. Brynildson says, “We usually put that kind of product into our [online] stores and you can connect to them right through our website link, www.sourcecomicsandgames.com. We have an email that comes out every week; you can go on there and find out everything you want to know about the Source.” Online presence, including social media, is an important part of the modern comic store’s toolkit, and the Source has taken that to heart . . . though the road hasn’t always been smooth in that direction. “There is a [certain] way to communicate, and I’ve been very blessed in that I’ve been able to hire some very good people for it, which is the most important thing for community,” Brynildson says. After a few setbacks (customers tried to help with Facebook, the employee who managed social media for the store passed away), the Source now has a robust online presence. “Our Twitter is very active; [employee] Lisa runs that and that has been a really marvelous thing. [Our managers] would have never have been able to conquer that without some young blood.” Even though he’s got young people holding the reins of the store’s online accounts, it's not as though Brynildson is mystified by the idea of promoting the store in a different sphere. On the contrary, he knows that new tools do what the old ones did; they just do it better. “The biggest thing for social media and old guys isn’t that we don’t get it,” he says. “It’s that I’m already working 40 hours a week . . . I’ve seen [social media managers] Lisa and Lee in action. I have a guy, Chad Olson, who’s been working with me forever, and all he does is communications right now. He [makes] sure my POS is working, and we’ve done all kinds of stuff that has really hammered us into the new age.” Subscribing to the store newsletter or following its Facebook page will bring you weekly updates on what’s happening at the Source and can help connect you to gaming groups and other customers who are into what you’re into. The newsletter will also keep you abreast of what’s happening at his other store: Uncle Sven’s. Sven’s, located at 1838 St. Clair Avenue in the Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul, was founded decades ago by Ken Svenson. The Source originally connected with Sven’s over collectible card games, which were exploding in popularity at the time---customers would come to Sven’s for Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon cards, but the store “was simply too small to gain a good supply . . . so we provided that supply for him,” says Brynildson. As time marched on, the store became less of a focus for Svenson and more of a hobby, and he reduced its hours until 10 years ago, when he finally moved away to Michigan. The Source bought the store, but, understanding that customers appreciate stability and brand almost as much as Batman comics, changed exactly nothing (except having expanded, more regular hours). “We never changed the name and we never told anybody we bought it,” says Brynildson. “We’re open all the time now.” Sven’s inventory is a much scaled-back version of the Source, offering new comics, back issues, and trades, but rather than being a one-stop nerd superstore, Brynildson says the focus of Sven’s is something different. “Sven’s is all about getting to know customers one on one. You know them by what superhero they like.” The store’s prime location in Groveland (next to the Groveland Tap, no less) leads to a lot of walk-in business as well. Brynildson notes that Sven’s customers “have either been here a lot or they’ve never been in a comic store in their lives, and this is your opportunity to introduce them.” It’s unlikely you’ll make it out of Sven’s without a discussion of your current reads or the latest superhero flick or whether or not Batman could really take down the Man of Steel . . . and that’s just what its customers like. Indeed, I have more than a few friends who love the store and have been shopping there longer than some Twin Cities Geek readers have been alive. Even after I ran out of questions for Bob, we talked on for another 15 minutes about the neighborhood, Valiant and Image comics, and his recent trip to San Diego Comic-Con. Sven’s doesn’t have the floor space of the Source, but it has all the heart and charm (if not more). Returning for a minute to the Source, though, any profile of the store would be incomplete without mentioning its vast gaming space and steadfast commitment to fostering gaming fun. The store’s new location devotes even more space to gaming tables than ever before and has a robust schedule of theme nights. (“Sundays is Pathfinder, Mondays is for miniatures, Tuesdays is Magic, Wednesdays D&D, Thursday is Magic and HeroClix, Friday is board games, and Saturdays we have special events and Pokémon league.”) The store recently held a Settlers of Catan tournament with the grand prize of a free pass to Gen Con. But, the Source took it a little farther by paying the winner’s way to the convention in Atlanta, turning what was a $20 value into a cool upgrade for the customer. Though board gaming and RPGs have faced competition in the 21st century from online games, Brynildson remains confident that pens, paper, and dice aren’t going anywhere because people will always want to play together or go head-to-head in person. “You can’t get that through the Internet,” he says. The store has an expansive forum for gamers to discuss interests, organize games, and deepen their social connections while mowing down orcs. “If we don’t know your name,” says Brynildson, “we want to know it.” When I ask Brynildson to describe the customers in both of his stores, he reports enthusiastically that “We’re pretty diverse right now. At the introduction of the Source, we were probably 90 percent male between the ages of 16 and 40, and that was pretty normal. Right now, though, because the world is changing, [we’re] about 40 percent female now. We have a wide, diverse [customer base] of everyone in the store . . . religions, political thought, races . . . it’s marvelous. It’s the best ever! It’s like tripling up on your clientele overnight.” I ask what has driven this change in the faces of comic-store patrons and he says, practically, “The top thing would be the movies . . . we have sci-fi movies and superhero movies that are not just ‘good’ movies; they’re the blockbusters of all time. People know their names now, and they’re looking for [them]. Then it goes down to the TV series, all kinds of geek genres on TV. It’s cool to be the kid with the briefcase wearing suspenders---that wasn’t cool in my day, but it’s cool now, and people understand.” He continues, ruminatively, “There’s a basic better understanding now, I think, of humanity. Even though we talk about [social forces] going against us, overall, gender is becoming less of an issue. I sure hope race is becoming less of an issue, and the more that this happens, the more entertainment opens up and people come in and give it a shot. We spend a tremendous amount of energy making sure everyone is welcome in [the Source]. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters, girlfriends . . . that’s been our biggest [focus] for years . . . because a guy will walk into anything. Now gals will, too, because they know what they want and they will ask you and you’d better be prepared.” The rise of digital comics, a specter haunting every brick-and-mortar comic book store, doesn’t phase Brynildson, who believes that no matter what new properties or technologies arise, no matter what superhero is big at the box office, the local comic shop will always be the spearhead of market penetration, and customers will always want to hold a comic in their hands. “Comics,” he states, “is about art.” The comics that customers want from the Source and Sven’s are the same as many other shops: Spider-Man, Batman, Saga . . . though Brynildson gives special mention to books beyond the Big Two, singling out offerings from Boom! Studios, Image Comics, and the newly reborn Vertigo in general and the new hero Faith from Valiant Comics in particular. “These are beautiful stories,” he says about the non-DC and non-Marvel books. “New things are happening here . . . I believe with DC and Marvel and the way they publish their stuff, there’s a vacuum being created and it gets filled immediately . . . they’re not all superhero stories, but they are very interesting and they have good content.” (To learn a bit about what's happening with those publishers, check out Matilda Ruth's recap of the recent In-Store Convention streaming event, for which the Source was one of the viewing venues, here on Twin Cities Geek.) Brynildson also praises local and independent creators, pointing out that new technologies are lowering the barriers to making your own comic and that the store often carries work from self-published creators. His stores “will always accept a few books from somebody.” The Source may have decided a change of location was in order, and the real Uncle Sven may now live in Michigan, but calm down, nerds . . . Minnesota’s largest and smallest comic book stores aren’t going anywhere. The Source Comics and Games is located at 2057 Snelling Avenue North in Roseville; Uncle Sven's Comic and Games Shoppe is at 1838 St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul. You can find them on the web at sourcecomicsandgames.com, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, eBay, and Amazon.
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