Why Star Clipper's Owners Shuttered Their Beloved St. Louis Comic Book Shop

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Star Clipper sets sail for the great beyond. - JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg
  • Star Clipper sets sail for the great beyond.

In the world of mainstream superhero comics, death is nothing more than a marketing ploy. Publishers announce the demise of a major character, spin a few months of hype into increased sales and then release the all-important issue that delivers the end of the hero's journey. A couple months later the hero returns to life hale and hearty, with the added bonus of yet another number-one issue to spike sales.

For Star Clipper, there is no miraculous regeneration in the near future, no alternate dimension from whence the shop will emerge stronger than ever just in time to celebrate another Free Comic Book Day. After 27 years in business, the beloved Delmar Loop institution will close its doors sometime in February. The announcement arrived January 15 via Star Clipper's Facebook page and quickly rippled out through the St. Louis comic community. Long-time customers and fans couldn't believe the news. Their favorite store closing? Why?

"We've been thinking about it for a year," says co-owner Ben Trujillo.

Star Clipper's back office is comfortable and tidy, just like the sales floor, but with far less pop-culture bric-a-brac than you'd expect. Seated at a desk next to Trujillo is his wife and co-owner, A.J. Despite being married for almost twenty years, the Trujillos don't interrupt each other, opting instead to annotate and expand upon what the other has said.

See also: Star Clipper Comics Announces Closure

"It became clear that the store couldn't support both of us at the same time," A.J. offers. "I began to dip my toe into other waters last winter." She now works full-time at Stray Rescue while Ben helms Star Clipper's day-to-day operation, although he still has time to volunteer at Tenth Life Cat Rescue. Not coincidentally, the couple have fostered a staggering number of cats over the years.

The Trujillos have provided for Star Clipper in a similarly loving fashion. A.J. had been working as the manager of Star Clipper for four years when she and Ben purchased the store in 2001 from Scott Thorne. At the time the business was located at the corner of Big Bend Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway and specialized in both comics and games.

"I wasn't really familiar with the game side of the business, so I phased them out," says A.J. of her first few years managing the shop. "We developed new areas, like anime, which was just getting big. Graphic novels were still a new thing, and we got into them heavily."

Legendary artist Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America, X-Men, Fantastic Four) predicted back in the late '60s that someday comics would leave behind cheap single issues for a more prestigious (and durable) hardbound format. It took the industry years to catch on to Kirby's vision, and A.J. was on board before many.

"A.J. was very prescient about the role of the graphic novel," Ben marvels. "We started with 25 feet of shelf space, now we have 10,000 on the shelves. It's our bread and butter. She was way out front of anyone else."

"I wonder if you remember it differently?" A.J. prompts Ben helpfully at this point, but he's certain. "A.J. won the Eisner for Scott." The Eisner, formally known as the Eisner of Retailing Award, is the Academy Award of comic books shops. Star Clipper won it in 1999 and is, to date, the only Missouri shop to claim that distinction.

JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg

In the immediate hours following last Thursday's announcement, Star Clipper is packed with customers spanning all demographics — middle-aged professionals, young couples in hoodies, hardcore fans in Batman shirts. All share the same shell-shocked expression. Members of the Star Clipper staff, meanwhile, wear the awkward smiles of next of kin in a funeral receiving line.

"Have you seen the Hellraiser films?" asks Jonathan Norfleet, his Star Clipper ID surrounded by buttons of the Marvel Comics character Cyclops. Known to regulars and staff as Fleet, the solidly built, six-foot-tall Norfleet speaks quietly and thoughtfully about everything — sort of like his favorite superhero.

"There's a line in the second or third Hellraiser, 'Ah, the suffering. The sweet, sweet suffering.' That's how it feels right now," explains Norfleet. "All of these people are coming in; the phone's been ringing. They all tell us how important we are to them, and that feels great. But..."

That "but" is the realization that by the weekend of January 17 and 18, when the liquidation sale is to begin, everyone on staff will have answered the "why" question countless times while trying to remain unemotional.

"I've seen so many people already today who looked like they just stopped crying," Norfleet continues. For him the feeling is compounded by losing not only his job, but perhaps comic books themselves.

"This is my store! I've shopped here since I was a kid, my brother shopped at the one at North and South," (where husband and wife Carol and Sonny Denbow originally founded Star Clipper in 1988 as a science-fiction bookstore; the Trujillos are Star Clipper's third and longest-running owners). "Where am I going to go after I've been here?" Norfleet spreads his arms wide and looks around Star Clipper incredulously.

JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg

That look of incredulity is common when people first walk into Star Clipper, thanks to its perma-clean status and lengthy double column run of shelves packed with graphic novels. The menagerie of oversized plush creatures, the Doctor Who displays, the wall of action figures and collectible toys overwhelm children and adults alike. The Trujillos moved the shop to the Delmar Loop in 2004 in hopes of growing the business and avoiding the construction mess that year associated with the MetroLink expansion along Forest Park Parkway.

"We wanted to make a spectacular comic book store," A.J. says. "When we bought it, we didn't have that inspiration. We both had outside jobs." (A.J. worked at the business design firm XPLANE, Ben as a tax lawyer.)

It didn't take long, however, for the Trujillos and Star Clipper to make a name for themselves in their field, says Chris "CP" Powell, vice president of retailer service at Diamond Comic Distributors, the industry's sole comic book distributor.

"Many of their fellow retailers are sad to see the closing, and I certainly count myself in that group," says Powell. "They have always been known as professional, innovative retailers with a clean, beautifully designed store in a very upscale, metropolitan area. While that is becoming more common today, it was not always the case."

See also: Social Media Reacts to Star Clipper's Announcement

Star Clipper didn't just sell comics — it became a gathering place for a community that started with the staff and encompassed a unique slice of St. Louis. Its Free Comic Book Day celebrations were legendarily big bashes with bands playing and guest artists, resulting in a line to get in that lasted all day. Its summer-long free Comics University program brought in a serious group of people to learn about and share their love of comic books and related fields of fandom. Star Clipper hosted Walking Dead watch parties with free food and a vocal crowd during early seasons of the show, and it stocked and sold countless independent comics and mini comics created by customers and staff members. That welcoming attitude and genuine enthusiasm was contagious. It was impossible to step into Star Clipper and not feel as if you had entered into the best possible version of St. Louis.

For Ben, the relationship between the store and its surroundings was symbiotic. "The Loop was the inspiration for this great store. The energy, the people, the neighborhood — it was all here."

"It was just 'Wow,' as soon as you walked in," A.J. concurs. "And then hubris was close behind." She rolls her eyes as soon as the words leave her mouth and then presses on. "I thought the good times would last forever. I know I wasn't prepared for the changes we encountered."

Those changes arrived suddenly and lingered far too long.

"We moved in and had huge growth until the third quarter of 2007," says Ben. "The market collapsed in 2008. One-third of our customers aren't comic fans, they're walk-ins, the tourists who come to the Loop. Those numbers decreased in 2008. In 2012 everything started coming back. 2014 was our biggest year ever, but our margins are lower because of what we're carrying and where we're getting it."

When it comes to comic books, the playing field is level. Prices for retailers are standard, so every shop no matter how big or small pays the same for its books. Star Clipper invested heavily in non-comic merchandise (the aforementioned Doctor Who items and plush creatures, for example). Those products brought in non-comic customers, but they also hurt the shop in the long run when those items didn't sell.

A.J. is adamant that they blame no one for Star Clipper's financial state. "To be clear, all of our vendors are great, and our landlord, Dan Wald, has been fantastic. I can't say enough about them and how they worked with us."

In recent years the state has placed liens on Star Clipper for back taxes, but those payments were eventually made to the state's satisfaction.

"Getting out of our debt from 2008 and back to normal has been difficult," Ben bluntly states. "It's left us more susceptible to outside influences that hurt business. Bad weather, for example, keeps the walk-ins out."

This winter has been mild compared to last year's deep chill, but the end of the year found the Trujillos seriously contemplating Star Clipper's future.

"You get to the end of the year and you reflect on the past and start to look at what the new year will be like," A.J. offers.

There is a long silence that Ben eventually fills.

"We looked back and saw we didn't hit our goals."

JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg

For Star Clipper's devoted clientele, there will soon only be the past to look back on. The store's customers are being encouraged to shop at Fantasy Books Inc., a chain of shops in Illinois run by Steve Unverferth and Tony Favello, who plan to honor Star Clipper gift certificates and offer discounts to customers who switch their accounts.

For the Trujillos and the staff, there's now the countdown to the day they turn off the lights for the final time (sometime in late February is the current estimate). In this in-between period before that happens, they reflect on what they've accomplished.

When asked about their proudest moments connected to the store, A.J. is briefly overwhelmed by seventeen years of memories.

"The Eisner? But we won that in '99. Oh, the Munny show," she says as her face lights up. Munny is a soft vinyl figure produced by Kid Robot that is designed to be customized by the buyer; it's part collectible, part art project. "We had a Munny show (in 2007) and the response was huge. The opening reception was half-club, half-art space. It was just a great vibe."

"I'd say when we opened in the Loop," Ben replies. "That was huge."

"We'll really, really regret not being part of this local community and the local fan community. It's hard," A.J. says. Tears well in her eyes. "And our employees...their vision and energy have helped us so much. They're responsible for this. They're all so professional and enthusiastic, and they sacrificed so much along the way. They all deserve happy lives."

Contact the author at paul.friswold@riverfronttimes.com.

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