Prosperity means more than sales and numbers to Astro-Zombies owner Mike D’Elia.
Years ago, D’Elia’s business plans started with a video arcade and matured into Albuquerque’s more gregarious one-stop comic shop. Named after a 1960s sci-fi flick, the shop opened 11 years ago in conjunction with a growing trend in comic book movies that D’Elia thought would adversely affect his business.
“It was something I was kind of fearful of,” he said. “I was like, ‘Great, they’re going to do this whole thing like the last time with comic books movies, and they’re going to destroy comics and close more stores and destroy the industry.’”
Contrary to his expectations, he found comic books and graphic novels rose in popularity as the movies piqued a new generation of readers’ interest and renewed interest in those who grew up with the stories, D’Elia said.
D’Elia said reading comic books or watching movies helps people forget their worries.
“Reading is a kind of escapism,” he said. “You can get lost in your book, in the story, or a particular character — really dive in there and become a part of the story, and just forget everything for a little while.”
In spite of booming success, D’Elia said, he and his employees are always looking for ways to outshine competitors.
“Albuquerque has more comic books shops per capita than Chicago. So we do have a lot of competition, and you can’t get complacent,” he said. “I like the team that I have. Everyone has fresh ideas and everyone contributes.”
Sean “Squid” Banning, an employee, said Astro-Zombies has a knowledgeable staff as well as an ambience most people prefer, compared to other shops.
“(Other shops) tend to be kind of dark and dank and impersonal,” Banning said. “Half the time, people working there really don’t know anything about the comics. Between myself and the other kid working here, we pretty much know everything here.”
D’Elia wanted to re-create the social atmosphere in comic shops that he said has dissipated over the years, combining amiability with expansive product knowledge to nurture friendly employee-to-customer relationships.
“Most people start out as customers and become friends with everyone that works here,” he said. “We’ve done things like go to the movies to see a new comic book movie come out with like 40-50 people. It becomes more of a social atmosphere. Other than the fact that we have a large enough store that we can allow people to come in and interact, we’ve got people who come in here who have never met, and they can talk for hours.”
Kaitlyn Arndt, a UNM student, is one of the friends Astro-Zombies acquired. She said she comes in regularly to unwind and talk to other customers about their mutual interest in comics and graphic novels.
“I used to just buy books, but being a poor college student, it turned into coming in just once a week because the atmosphere’s so nice,” she said. “Squid, Mike and Mikey have become really good friends of mine, so I like to come in and visit just to de-stress.”
Owning this type of hot spot for comic aficionados, D’ Elia said, makes his life fun every day.
“I’m very lucky that I make a living doing something so fun, surrounded by so much cool stuff and so many cool people,” he said. “The fact that I do something this cool and am able to pay my bills and make a living almost doesn’t seem fair.”