Local comic book store thrives despite pandemic

Peter Cox, City Life Editor

It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday night and a man working the closing shift starts locking up. Upstairs in a backroom, behind boxes of comics, shelves of manga and a TV playing an old-school Batman movie, two card tables are set up. Plexiglass shields run the length of both. About 18 people sit in folding chairs on both sides of these tables as a middle-aged man reads out the list of participants and matches in that night’s draft. 

Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer posters cover the walls. Shelves full of roleplaying and board games line the room. Kids and adults talk and laugh as they begin to open the packs they’ve been allotted for the night. 

This is taking place at First Aid Comics, Hyde Park’s neighborhood comic book shop. Events like this were put on hold at the start of the pandemic, and are only returning now. Despite this, the variety of other products that the store offers saw it through the last two years. 

Aside from a few difficult initial months, First Aid did well during the pandemic, as people turned to comics for nostalgia and comfort in a difficult time, and to be part of First Aid’s committed community.

James Nurss owns the Hyde Park location, which was originally on 53rd Street. After two and a half years the store moved to its current location on 55th Street.

Mr. Nurss said his relationship with comics started when he was growing up. He had trouble reading, so his mother took him to comic shops to teach him the joy of reading. This experience sparked a lifelong passion.

He worked in comic shops for most of his time in school, and after finishing college decided he was ready to open his own store. Though he hadn’t grown up in Hyde Park, he visited often as a child and always wished the neighborhood had a comics store. 

“I always thought it would be a neat neighborhood to live in,” Mr. Nurss said. “So, when I was ready to open I was like, well, Hyde Park still doesn’t have a comic shop. It needs one.” 

While he had planned to open a store for comics only, Mr. Nurss quickly added a gaming component to First Aid.  Some of the earliest customers asked if they could use the space to play Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!, both popular trading card games. Mr. Nurss let them use the store to run games, stocked cards for both and continued to expand the stock of board and card games at the 55th Street location.

Mr. Nurss notes that many other people have played an important role in that process. One of those people was Raoul Mowatt, who has been running the Magic: The Gathering draft at First Aid for 11 years. 

Mr. Mowatt said that he had already been playing Magic when he saw that First Aid was running events. Once he started participating he saw that the store could use help organizing the draft, so he decided to help out.

The Magic draft, and all other events at First Aid were canceled when the pandemic started. Like most businesses in Chicago the store was closed for most of 2020. During this time the store continued with curbside and online sales. 

Though the first few months of the pandemic were hard for First Aid, once the store was allowed to reopen the store didn’t continue to struggle as much as other businesses.

“We’ve definitely grown this last year and a half. You know, it’s been good because people got stimulus money,” Mr. Nurss said. “They weren’t going out to dinner and they weren’t going to movies as stuff like that. Comics are something you can do solo. So, a lot of people were buying comics and graphic novels, because they can do it at home. It was a good thing for us. We got a good bounce out of it.” 

Community is at the core of First Aid’s success over the pandemic. People who were dedicated to the store chose to continue to buy things there throughout a difficult time.

“It’s been good and the neighborhood’s been great, the neighborhood’s been very kind to us. People definitely bought stuff that they knew they could probably get cheaper online,” Mr. Nurss said. 

So far, the Magic draft is the only gaming event that has been restarted, though the store does plan to restart all pre-COVID events.

Santiago Alvarez, the man who locked up the store on Friday night, said the store is an important place for people to create a community.

“People, you know, go to grocery stores and other types of businesses out of need,” Mr. Alvarez said. “A comic book store is somewhere you walk into because you really enjoy that thing, or you’re looking for that type of enjoyment, or you’re looking to bring that enjoyment to someone else.”

The draft’s community is the main reason Mr. Mowatt has continued to run the event for so long, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

“At the end of a long week there’s nothing like just kicking back with friends, and getting some cards, and having some laughs,” Mr. Mowatt said. “That makes this all very enjoyable.”