Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Legacy of Heroes

In the small town of Manchester, Connecticut there stands a comic book store with a legacy that cannot be described in any other way than heroic.

A Hero’s Legacy is the second incarnation of Buried Under Comics, which for almost three decades provided an oasis to Connecticut comic book fans at 188 West Middle Turnpike. The store was renamed after reopening in honor of its late owner, Brian Kozicki, who gave life to the spirit of the store with his passion for people and comic books.  As current owner, April Kenney explains:

“Brian was a really dear friend of mine and with my involvement over the past seven years that it was Buried Under… a lot of the customers became kind of family to me as well. I really was touched by the kind of tight-knit community that everybody was and it was losing my best friend and trying to keep that community together which made me decide to try to reopen. In memory of him.”

Kozicki began working at the store in the late 80’s before he bought the store outright from original owner, Chuck Bruder.  He was known for being the type of business owner that cared more about creating relationships and building bonds of friendship rather than just making sales.  Under his management, Buried Under Comics became a store where customers could always find what they were looking for - whether it was comics, busts or toys - because if they didn’t have it already, Kozicki would get it for them. Under his management, Buried Under Comics won the Hartford Advocate’s coveted “Best Comic Book Store in Connecticut” award two years in a row before his passing in August 2012.
Personally, I would not be as big a comic book fan – nor a fan of reading or writing in general – if it were not for the nurturing environment that was (and, in spirit, remains) Buried Under Comics. A late-bloomer when it came to reading, comics were my gateway drug and the thing that kept me coming back to the store over the years was the positive energy and enthusiasm of its staff and customers. Two of the most prized comics in my personal collection were suggested by Kozicki during my fateful trip to Buried Under Comics - and remain among my favorite stories ever, including: Ultimates #1 (volume 2) and Identity Crisis #1.  On that same trip he also encouraged me to buy NYX#3 - which marked the first appearance of X-23 and shot up to $50 on Ebay within a week – but I said no and learned a valuable lesson about listening to shop owners.

Built on his infectious enthusiasm, the store cultivated a strong and tight-knit community that ended up continuing his legacy.  Just two months after Kozicki’s passing, his co-workers Kenney and Scott Prentice reopened its doors under its new name: A Hero’s Legacy.

According to Prentice and Kenney, the experience has been challenging but rewarding for both of them.

PRENTICE: I started part-time at Buried Under in 1998 and went full-time in 2003 until the end and [re-opening] was one of those things where you just have to work at the goal. There were a few days where everything was up-in-the-air because we didn’t know what the previous owners family might want to do with the stuff but once we found they had no interest we knew it was just a matter of time. The whole two months where there wasn’t any comic book store here we were just behind the scenes getting everything ready.  There was no down time for us. It was really just refocusing the mission on getting the store back up-and-running.

KENNEY: It has been a rewarding experience. It’s a little different being on this side of the register versus when I used to come in and hear the stories from the opposite side. Occasionally I like to walk around the counter and breathe in the olden days and just see everybody interact without having to work behind the scenes.

In addition to the new name, since re-opening Kenney and Prentice have made some changes to the stores layout.  They now sell branded t-shirts and have an active social media presence.  

PRENTICE: Before we opened we went around to different comic book stores and we kind of saw what worked and what didn’t work in different venues and stole a few ideas for ourselves. It’s kind of a weird flip… Buried Under was way more organized behind the scenes and it looked like a mess up front and we’ve kind of flipped that dynamic…so now it’s super-organized up here and I have no idea where anything is in the back.

KENNEY: We made the store more shopper-friendly. The way the layout was, at times, people were walking over one another or they felt like they were bumping into someone. We tried to gear everything to where customers are easily able to find things and not have to worry about inconveniencing someone. It helps that we’re in the exact same location. Sometimes people come in here and say “are you going out of business” because they’re not used to things being so organized. And we laugh and say “no we’re not going out of business and we can help you find whatever you’re looking for…”

Despite the changes, current owner Kenney maintains that the core values of made Buried Under Comics successful are and will remain ingrained in the stores blueprint.  Her co-workers, like recent Uconn Graduate Cliff Saccoccio, agree that is an essential part of the recipe - or as Kenney puts it:

“We’re not as buried under as we used to be but this store will always be buried under comics. The staff here loves comics. They love each other. It doesn’t matter if you’re a DC or Marvel fan they don’t discriminate. Its really neat seeing them all try to encourage to try something new.”

Personally, I find that the changes have been subtle yet effective while the great energy and welcoming atmosphere that made Buried Under Comics what it was is alive and well. This view is one shared by long-time customers, Brendan Nicholas and Siobhan Covill, who were relieved when the store reopened after having explored the alternatives.

NICHOLAS: Overall the redesign is very nice. I’d say it’s a bit more organized but the feel is the same. When this place was shut down for a few months after Buried Under closed, we tried a few other stores in the area and none of them have the selection or the feel of this place. Their focus isn’t on comics, this is the only comic book store in the area where to the focus is comics.

COVILL: I’ve been coming here since I was about thirteen, back when it was Buried Under Comics. I like that it’s not a chain. I have a rapport with the people here. I’ve known Scott and April since I’ve been coming here. I have a friendship with them. They’re family to me. Being a female comic reader, especially, it’s always been a welcoming environment. There’s never anybody looking down on you.

With strong management at its helm and as its foundation, it appears that the legacy of Buried Under Comics is in good hands.  In further, while I am certain that somewhere up there Kozicki is proud of what his friends have accomplished in his name, I think he would agree he is no longer the only hero in this store’s legacy. 

As for the future, there is no telling what could be in store for A Hero’s Legacy down the road…other than remaining a great place to talk shop and have a great time picking up comics.

KENNEY: Ultimately, I think our goal is to expand our customer base so largely that I am forced to open a larger store but we really want to keep the same feeling where everybody feels like they’re at home and can hang out here and there is no judgments in what you like and what you’re into.

PRENTICE: I don’t think our portion of the industry is going to change any unless something drastic happens to one of the publishers or something. It’s just a matter of keeping up with what we’re doing - keep building our customer-based clientele. Its our job to sell whatever the people our offering and there has never been more variety in the publishing than there is now.  I think we’re in a new golden age of comic books…of course you never really know when you’re in the golden age so quote me on that one and talk to me in five years.

Well five years seems to pretty much mean "the future" in comics these days so I just might do that.

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