By August, A+ Comics and Games will have a new location at 166 Southland Drive. Owners Russ and Christie Battaglia hope to expand not only the store’s space, but its offerings for people in the community, especially children and parents. (Photo by Stephen Burnett)
By Stephen Burnett
Most people who enjoy superhero films jumped at “The Avengers” last May as another chance for onscreen play. But for Russ Battaglia, owner of A+ Comics, Toys and Games on Southland Drive, seeing the film didn’t sound like fun — at least not at first. He finally did watch and enjoy the superhero blockbuster, even though seeing heroes clad in colorful costumes at first reminded him of just another day at work.
Lately, he’s trying to pull off his own heroic feat: moving his entire store. He said he knew it would not be easy, and on a hot Monday afternoon in June, he was more sure of it.
The move won’t be far — just across the road, from 123 to 166 Southland Drive, across from the Good Foods Market and Cafe. But there won’t be much time to get everything finished in August, when the move is set for completion. The new store needs re-carpeting, plumbing and counter-building.
Still, the rewards will be great, Battaglia said. A+ Comics will more than double its space, going from 2,500 to 5,500 square feet, of which store space will be 4,000 square feet. That will yield more meeting space And all this came about only two months ago.
“This has actually all been kind of a quick blessing for us,” Battaglia explained. “This wasn’t a want. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s try to find a place to move.’”
Needs and circumstances seemed to say otherwise. The store had neighbor difficulties at its current address, and its cramped space led to pandemonium when new and popular comics were released.
After a seemingly chance call for the other space, Battaglia took that as a divine hint to begin the move. Now A+ customers are excited about it, and he and wife Christie — a child development specialist — are already planning ways to contribute to the area. The store can host more events for people and have a safe environment especially for children, he said.
“God allows opportunities for a community,” he added. “He’s allowing us to do good works.”
Filling a void
The Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and a host of other heroes are certainly a focus of A+ Comics. But for Battaglia, comic-book lore and readers’ fandom isn’t the main reason behind his starting the business in November of 2000. Instead Battaglia, as a father of a comic-book reading son and as a retailer, noticed a void of comic-book shops that had broad appeal.
In addition, the people behind the counter at some stores during that time didn’t seem to care much about him or his son on a personal level, Battaglia said. (Local stores are much better now, he added, and he has plenty of friendships among other local comic-store owners.) Also at the time, the uber-nerd character Comic Book Guy from the TV series “The Simpsons” wasn’t really much of a stereotype, he said. “I would say that if I had to give it a percentage, I would say 60 to 75 percent [of it] could be true.”
Contributing to stereotypes based on truth is the fact that, despite the popularity of comic-book-based motion pictures and TV shows, dedicated readers of comic books are still a small part of the nation’s population, Battaglia said. Thus, some readers will walk into a comic store and care little about service, cleanliness and selection — they instead make a beeline for the latest issue of a series they like. So stores have catered mainly to them, he added.
Though he didn’t have experience with comics or card games, Battaglia had spent years in video and other sales fields. He left managing a Fayette Mall store and soon opened the new business.
Battaglia thanks A+ Comics’ many customers for its success – and not only for their patronage. In those early years, when he fought off water leaks and uncertainty over products, people not only tried out the new store, they introduced its owners to the most popular series and games.
He also learned important comic-book series milestones — the kinds of things some believe he should have known all along. “When I first opened up … a customer was looking for Amazing Spider-Man number 352.” Battaglia called another comic-book store in the Lexington area and asked its owner if he had that exact issue. “The person on the phone said to me, ‘Do you know who’s in Amazing Spider-Man number 352?” No, Battaglia said. The other owner’s response: “‘How are you in this business if you don’t know who’s in Amazing Spider-Man number 352?’
“I learned the key issues,” Battaglia said. “First appearance of [Marvel Comics’] Wolverine and all of that. But that’s never the major priority.” Anyone can learn the details, thanks to the Internet (which reveals, for example, that the 352nd Spider-Man issue includes a villain called Tri-Sentinel). “My philosophy has always been, I don’t care if people buy things as long as they walk out of here going: ‘I liked the store, I liked the service, and I want to come back.’”
Though his son, 8 at the time of the store’s founding, is now 20 and doesn’t care for comics as much, Battaglia still hopes the store will make the area a better place. He grew up near Southland Drive, he said, and now perceives few options there for children except for the bowling alley.
Good service is now present at many other comics shops in Lexington, which have camaraderie because of their owners’ personalities, he said. Still, Battaglia believes A+ Comics is unique.
Both Russ and Christie Battaglia want A+ to be welcoming to children, including those with autism and who have other special needs. The store should be a safe environment to them, he said, especially because child-friendly environments are harder to find now than they were when he was young. “For a family to be able to walk into a clean environment, and not having to worry about porn or adult material — I just feel that it has been a blessing to me,” Battaglia said.
“I love the environment. … [We] have great customers, you have customers who are more like family than like customers. … ” he said.
And even though Battaglia admits “we’re not getting rich,” he maintains that they “feel tremendously blessed.”
The shop isn’t limited to superhero stories, though Battaglia believes it’s a great time for new readers to consider the DC Comics repertoire, which recently rebooted its entire storylines. Adult science-fiction fans will find plenty to love, with comics based on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars. Children will find material based on Tinker Bell, Sonic the Hedgehog and more.
It’s vital for parents to know the difference in comics’ audiences, Battaglia said. Disney fairies might be suitable for all ages. But The Walking Dead and The Punisher may not be, he said.
“When a person walks in with their kid and they’re looking for comic books, we feel it’s very important to educate that parent what the differences are,” he explained. “We just feel that it’s the right thing. As a parent, I wouldn’t want my child to walk into a bookstore and pick up magazines that are inappropriate.”
Some parents appreciate his informed cautions, he said. But others may not. “In business, you can never make everybody happy. But we sure try. That is one of the biggest differences in the world.”
That approach will stay the same at the new store. But changes for customers may also include expanded open hours, beyond the store’s current 11 a.m.-to-7 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, Sundays 1-5 p.m. and Mondays 1-7 p.m. Outdoor sidewalk events and cookouts may be next, and perhaps in the future, even satellite stores, Battaglia said.
The store may also change its name, as it has already done once. It used to be called A+ Comics and Collectibles.
“This whole thing that’s happening, this transition, the success that we’ve had — it’s not been from anything that I have done, or my wife or the employees,” Battaglia continued. “We just feel that we’ve been totally blessed, and God has blessed us tremendously. Because when the economy went bad, we were worried. Hopefully the economy’s on an upswing, but if it’s not, we think we can still be successful.”