Downtown Comic Store Closes Its Doors

Photo: Chris Juricich, former manager of the now-closed Comic Relief bookstore in Downtown Berkeley, loads unsold comic books into a car.
Evan Walbridge/Staff
Chris Juricich, former manager of the now-closed Comic Relief bookstore in Downtown Berkeley, loads unsold comic books into a car.

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After three months without offering new books and almost three years after the death of its original owner, ground-breaking comic store and local landmark Comic Relief closed its doors Feb. 14 in a move attributed by some employees to mismanagement and insufficient funds.

Though the Downtown Berkeley store's closing leaves many loyal fans saddened, Jack Rems, owner of science fiction and fantasy bookstore Dark Carnival on Claremont Avenue, said he plans to open a new store in Comic Relief's place in partnership with former Comic Relief employees, which he said he hopes will be "the best comic book store anyone has ever seen."

"People were lined up in front of the store in the rain crying with their arms around each other over the closing, and it doesn't have to be that way," said Jay Sheckley, Rems' wife and Dark Carnival's longtime public relations coordinator.

Opened in 1987 by the late Rory Root, Comic Relief was considered legendary in the field of graphic literature by both employees and writers. Jim Friel, longtime friend and employee at both Comic Relief and Dark Carnival, said Root was "an industry leader" for his idea of selling comics as books rather than the 32-page monthly periodicals, setting him ahead of the curve in comics retail.

According to East Bay-based comic book writer Daniel Clowes, the store reached its peak in the early '90s, when he said the passion, atmosphere and good taste of the employees "made you look forward to going in every week."

"Rory was like the benevolent leader of it all - the hippie dad who let his kids do what they wanted," Clowes said in an e-mail.

But after Root's death in May 2008, ownership of the store was passed to his surviving siblings amid controversy, as multiple sources said Root had indicated before his passing that the store's former manager Todd Martinez would inherit the location.

"His family, I think they would agree, were not qualified to run it," Friel said. "They were not interested in putting money in the store ... We weren't usually able to immediately re-order things like 'Watchmen' - that cost us a lot of business."

By November, Comic Relief was cut off from its distributor and stopped receiving new material due to increasing debt. New issues of periodical comics are generally released monthly, with shipments coming in every Wednesday.

Before Comic Relief's closing, Rems and Friel began planning to open a new comics store with the remaining inventory and fixtures of Comic Relief to continue providing their service to the community, they said. If they are able to retain the location, Friel and Rems said the new store could open by the end of next week.

Friel and Rems added that they intend to employ the same staff as Comic Relief, including the two popular store cats, Ash and Ember.

Despite the rise in online book sales, e-books and skepticism concerning the plausibility of opening another book store in the Downtown area, Rems and Sheckley, said they are confident they can satisfy the loyal customers of Comic Relief with their new store.

"I don't need to be quoted as self-serving, so I'll just ask people to wait and see," he said. "I think they'll be impressed."

Sam Stander of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.


Contact Jessica Rossoni at [email protected]

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