Dreamers & Make-Believers

The first thing you hear when you phone up Dreamers & Make-Believers in Baltimore, Maryland is an automated message asking where to direct your call: the comic and book store, or the coffee shop located inside of it. It’s a disarmingly atypical first impression in an industry more suited to curt greetings from disaffected cashiers, but disarming atypicality is something of Dreamers & Make-Believers’ stock in trade. In the seven short months since opening a permanent location in the city’s Patterson Park/Highlandtown district, the shop has fashioned itself as a deliberate alternative to the stereotypes and clichés of mainstream comics culture. As the shop’s website declares on its banner, this is a store that aims to represent the other, and bigger, Baltimore: the city of female, queer, BIPOC, and otherwise diverse readers who are looking for books of an equivalent stripe.

These are lessons that owner Miranda Nordel learned through trial and error. After working for years in the comic retail business in San Francisco, Nordel moved with her partner to Baltimore in 2020, just in time to start a new venture of her own in the midst of year-long pandemic shutdowns across the city. The result was an experiment in mobile pop-up shops that ended up serving as a proof of concept not only for shop itself, but for the market of disenfranchised comic readers it attracted. By the start of 2023, Nordel understood where her readers were, what they wanted to buy, and–importantly–just how eager they were to keep buying it.

So, on a balmy June afternoon, I spoke with Miranda about the early goings of the now-brick-and-mortar Dreamers & Make-Believers, and the comic-reading Baltimore that frequents it. It’s a snapshot of a changing city, a changing readership, and (who knows?) a changing industry as well.

-Zach Rabiroff

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The Comics Journal: This wasn’t your first experience running a comic shop, having started in the Bay Area. Tell me about your move to Baltimore, and how the new store came about.

Miranda Nordel: My partner was transferred to the Baltimore area in February of 2020, and we arrived in on March 1st, 2020. Which, as you might remember, was a really tough time to be doing things like moving and starting a business.

I would imagine, yeah.

So we moved our lives from California to Maryland, and very quickly things were shut down, to the point where our belongings actually were stuck back on the West Coast. So we found ourselves without work and belongings, and just a nice, big, empty house and a lot of time on our hands. I really loved my time working in comics in the Bay Area, and it was always something that was in the back of my mind. And now that we were on the East Coast in a space that was-- you know, in a city as large as Baltimore is, there’s really only one comic book store. There’s two stores that [also] sell comics. So suddenly I was in a place where I wasn’t able to access the comics that I loved so much, and this thing that always seemed truly like it was a dream suddenly seemed like it might be plausible.

But you were trying to get this shop started up in the depth of the pandemic shutdown. So what was that like?

Like a lot of folks, I really turned to reading to sort of help my mental health and ease things during the pandemic. And it was really challenging not being able to access the comics and graphics novels that I loved so much. So I just felt like if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I was going to have to build it myself. So I sort of crowdsourced some information among our new neighbors, and checked with folks like, “We’re new to the area, are we just missing resources that we haven’t found yet?” And resoundingly, we were hearing from folks that the only bookstore around is Target, and they had to order comics online. So it felt like it wasn’t just me: there was community interest in having something like this happen.

So we put it out to the community: we started crowdfunding, and said, “I’m interested in starting this bookstore, this comic shop, that’s focused on graphic novels for all ages. It seems like that’s missing in this area of Southeast Baltimore. If you feel that way, too, we’d love for you to be a part of the conversation and building this community space that celebrates these types of stories.” And we were really excited by the response - we had hundreds of folks say, “This is something we want.” It was a wonderful wave of support that really helped get this off the ground.

But logistically, was it difficult to get it off the ground during that period?

I would say the hardest part in terms of the impact from the pandemic was the logistics of things. A meeting with someone suddenly took six, nine months because things had to be mailed to various offices while people were working from home. And it took us about two years to get our actual brick-and-mortar open.

But things have been going well since you’ve actually been in operation?

Yeah, so far, so good. We’ve been open seven months now in our brick-and-mortar space, and it’s truly been a dream. It’s been amazing to have huge community outpourings of support. We had almost 300 people attend our grand opening, which was amazing. And at our Free Comic Book Day event this year, we had almost 700 people attend, which for a store doing it for the first time, felt nothing short of incredible. So it’s been wonderful have it continually reaffirmed that this is something the community is interested in, that folks want to support us, and that we can support them in accessing these types of stories.

Tell me about that, because you’re a store that places specific focus on “stories by & for BIPOC, women & the LGBTQIAA+ community.” So I’m wondering, what does that mean to you? What sorts of stories are you and the community looking to have in the store, and what are you finding yourself able to stock for them?

I didn’t have the pleasure of falling in love with comics until I was in my 20s. I have an older brother who enjoyed comics, and he took me to the local comic book store in our small town once or twice, and I would just sit in the corner and wait for him. No one ever tried to connect me with stories that they thought I’d be interested in. It was perfectly acceptable that I was just the plus-one and didn’t need to participate in any of the conversations or activities. Even in the store where I used to work, people didn’t know I worked there, or they would just make comments.

So I knew when I created a space that I wanted it to be one where everyone was not just welcome, but affirmed, and accepted, and celebrated, and that they could see stories with people who looked like them, felt like them, represented them. I think those sort of mirrors are so important not just for young people, but for all of us. So even though it’s helpful and wonderful that large publishers like Marvel and DC are creating more diverse stories - so it’s not as though we don’t have, you know, Spider-Verse up on the shelf. There are amazing voices and stories to be heard in those spaces as well. But I also knew I wanted to work with smaller publishers, have a large space for local zines, and small imprints. I wanted this to be a space for the community.

Store owner Miranda Nordel.

So tell me about some of the titles that people are particularly responding to right now.

A lot of the stories that folks have been loving lately are from the Surely imprint at Abrams: things like Mimosa by Archie Bongiovanni. Things like Grand Slam Romance by Ollie Hicks and their partner Emma Oosterhous. You know, as those voices have become more prevalent in comics, it’s been amazing, but a lot of those stories still focus on younger people. You have amazing stories like [Alice Oseman's] Heartstopper, which is a wonderful teen story. Or they still include a lot of focus on trauma, or homophobia, or transphobia, and sometimes you just want to read stories about joyful things, or about adults. Or, you know, other messy queers that look and feel like you.

So as much as I love adorable British teens and Heartstopper, it’s sometimes nice to open Mimosa and see another person in their 30s who’s embracing their coming-out experience and that lived truth. A lot of our customers and community members are in a similar space, and they're also really loving having access to stories of joy, and messiness, and passion, and celebration of people in their 20s and 30s.

It does sound like most of the books for these communities are coming out of either the mainline book publishers or the small press. And I wonder, in your own opinion, do you feel like the traditional direct market publishers are doing enough to put out stories for diverse communities?

I think there’s always more [that could be done], right? There’s still so much space to have people reflected - I would love a Black, trans superhero. What would that look like? Those are seminal voices in the community; why aren’t they seminal voices in the superhero community? Superheroes are reflective of the world outside our window, right? Whose windows aren’t we looking through?

And I think there’s still lots of room. I’m excited that a lot of our young customers, folks between 12 and 18, are asking for books about asexual characters. And it’s been great to see [Marvel Comics character] Gwenpool recently come out as ace-identified, but it would be great to have more options, more experiences, more stories for folks to be able to identify with. How can I continue to grow with this character and have their experiences either represent or challenge mine? How can we grow together? And that often comes up short.

You mentioned young people, and I wonder if you could describe to me who the typical customer in your shop is: how many of them are young people, and how many are older comic readers?

I think in contrast to any shop where I’ve ever worked or frequented, the sort of lifelong comic reader–the person who, if you Googled “comic book reader” would probably come up in an image–is in the minority in our shop. We have a small handful of subscribers for whom that would probably be an apt description, but that’s not the majority of folks. We have a lot of what I would describe as young people: folks between 15 and 30 who are coming in regularly, who either have dabbled in graphic novels and comics in the past and maybe had a chance to read Maus in school, and never had an opportunity to branch beyond that. Or, increasingly, it’s folks who maybe have watched the Heartstopper show on Netflix and are interested in the wider world of graphic novels.

Do you chalk that up to the sorts of books you’re putting in the store, or the community that happens to already be there where you are?

Some of it certainly has to do with the geography of things, and then I think it also is the presence that we put out in the community and the mission. And the books that we choose are representative of that. Sometimes we do have the more typical, quintessential comic book reader come in, and they might buy one or two things and then say, “You know, my daughter would really love this place,” or “My nephew,” or whomever. And they'll come back and they'll bring that younger person, and we get a whole new generation hooked on things.

But I think it also helps that as we were starting out, as we were waiting for our brick-and-mortar space to be ready for two years, we existed around Baltimore as a pop-up mobile comic shop. The places where we popped up are where we made a lot of our first impressions and initial connections. And a lot of those folks have joined us now as long-term customers at our brick-and-mortar. And we did a lot of pop-ups at breweries, and at school events, and at community fairs and at Pride events. And we got to meet a lot of young people, and get feedback on what we were carrying and what folks were looking for. So it was really organic in how we shaped our inventory, and the store felt representative of the community - because, in a lot of ways, they helped us build it.

Now that you’re no longer a pop-up shop, your store has a very broad selection of items: not just comics, but also prose books, gifts, and even a coffee shop. I assume that wasn’t the case for the shop you were working for in the Bay Area. What made you decide to diversity to that extent?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s a great question. When we originally found this location for the shop, the space was very large, and we felt, perhaps naively at the time, that we couldn't possibly fill it with books. Of course we have, and we did, but at the time it felt like such an arduous task: you know, comics are so small, and 3,000 square feet is so large, right? So carving out space for coffee felt like a smart decision in terms of making the space not feel empty, and also thoughtful in terms of diversifying revenue streams. And also just reflective of wanting to be a community space.

And then some of the other pieces really are reflective of working with the community. Like, I can't say, for example, that I ever thought I would carry onesies. But as we were doing these pop-ups, one of the most requested things we would get from folks was baby shower gifts. You know, there were a lot of really lovely pandemic babies, and we had frequent customers who were picking up their, you know, Spawn comic every week, but they also needed stories for other parts of their family, and gifts for other folks. So as we were thinking about getting a new generation connected to comics, we thought, why not start as early as possible with getting family members connected to the love of reading that hopefully links into comics when they're ready. So we expanded into carrying everything down to picture books and board books, and even onesies. So it felt reflective of what folks were asking for, and now it gets to be a whole family experience when people come to visit. It's not just a parent and an older kid, which is what I often saw at other comic shops.

It's got to be pretty complicated to manage all of those different product categories, right?

Yeah, it certainly is.

Any temptation to scale down, or do you feel like the business is working the way you have it?

You know, it has been working well. It's really been wonderful to have so many families come through. Baltimore used to have a children's bookstore, which unfortunately closed. So things like middle grade graphic novels aren't easily accessible in other places. And we're also surrounded by a lot of schools. So it has felt very appropriate to keep all of those pieces. And for a city that maybe isn't as familiar with comic shops—they're more familiar with bookstores—it also feels like a very low barrier to entry for folks to walk in, and see and feel what might be more familiar in a bookstore setting, but sort of turn it on its head a bit as comics and graphic novels.

Do you sell any monthly, periodical comics, or are you selling exclusively collections and books?

Our focus is definitely graphic novels for all ages, but we do have a selection of weekly periodical comics. We do get our shipments every week from Lunar, Penguin and Diamond. We have a wall of new release comics, as well as a selection of a few hundred back issues. We have a few dozen weekly subscribers who come in and get their Saga and their Spider-Man, etc., etc. But, yeah, our focus is certainly on graphic novels.

As far as the direct market is concerned, as you were opening up, there was a fracturing of the distribution system into multiple distributors instead of just Diamond for the first time in decades. How has it been for you to adapt to that?

Because of the timing for us, and because there were so many changes happening as I was opening the shop, I really had to be very agile to lots of curve balls. So the timing worked out well, in that these really just felt like more curve balls that were added. It didn't feel, I think, as taxing as it is for other folks who have been in the industry a long time.

One retail area I want to specifically ask you about is manga, because that is not only a huge market segment in general, but also one that has historically appealed to a very diverse readership with LGBTQ content, and content specifically geared toward female readers. So I’m wondering if that’s something you stock, or if you’ve heard a demand from customers?

That’s a fabulous question, and I really appreciate the way you framed it. Yes, your hypothesis is certainly an accurate one. We carry a significant amount of manga, and we see very high and frequent demand among our customers. I would say of all of the areas of our shop, manga appeals, like you said, to the most diverse readership. If you ask me what our typical manga reader looks like, I think that would be the most challenging one to answer. We have everything from young kiddos, seven or eight years old, who are basically learning to read with manga, and who are loving every minute of the Super Mario stories and Pokémon, up through customers in their 50s and 60s [for whom] that really was their first opportunity to find stories. The “boys' love” stories in manga have been their go-to for decades now, and continue to be. We also have a very racially diverse clientele, and I would say that that is represented in our manga readers as well.

So what has you most excited about comics right now?

A lot of the nonfiction that’s being published through graphic memoirs continues to blow my mind and connect with new readers in this medium. Especially in a space where a lot of folks are not longtime comic readers, and aren’t necessarily familiar with the medium outside a story like Maus, nonfiction is such an outstanding way to connect with these folks. These stories, and the types of voices being included in memoirs now, are making me really excited.

We have Sarah Myer, for example: their graphic memoir Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story, about growing up as an adoptee in America. That’s a story that I feel like only a few years ago would maybe wouldn’t have even been published, let alone get the praise that it is, and the number of eyes on it. So those types of stories getting shout-outs from Macmillan and from First Second are really meaningful, and I’m excited to see how that continues to grow, and have more voices and more stories pulled to the table that have been itching to do so for so long.

And what has you most frustrated?

I wish I could think of a more diplomatic way to say this, but the most frustrating thing to me I think is what feels like the cash grabs. The things like, you know, Marvel killing off Ms. Marvel just in order to reboot her again, or soliciting titles that are called “Classified,” that have no cover, no details, no information. And we as retailers are expected to help our customers connect with those stories, and order event after event after event. And customers don't feel excited about the stories, they don't feel attached to the characters, because this thing only matters for 10 minutes and then it will be non-canonical and they'll move on to another one. Those sort of things that almost feel like they bastardize the medium, because they're not [meant] to get people excited about reading and excited about the stories, they're [meant] to get people to either collect them or to get more dollars than they would have otherwise if [readers] weren't forced to buy 15 issues across their universe to find out this one story.

Why do you think publishers are doing it?

[Laughs] Certainly I think money has something to do with it. Otherwise I’m sure they wouldn’t do a lot of the things they do. But from the retailer side, it’s disappointing to see customers drop off things. We have so many customers who have said, “Oh, I just won't buy Marvel anymore.” “I won't buy DC anymore.” You know, because they suddenly had to buy eight Spider-Man comics in one week or six Batman in one week. I'm sure it feels like they'll get a lovely sales bump, and perhaps they do, but they also surely are meeting it with a loss.

But it sounds from what you’re saying that those readers are finding other places to go, and other publishers to turn to.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the sad part. We hate having customers come in and say, “I was reading everything that had Ms. Marvel in it, but now I feel like I can’t.” And then we as retailers have the opportunity to say, “I’m really sorry. I wish they wouldn’t do that. Let’s help you find something else to be excited about.” Maybe you love Ms. Marvel stories because you love badass female leads: let’s check out Kelly Thompson’s Black Cloak over at Image. Maybe we want to get you connected to Know Your Station over at BOOM! There are opportunities for us to get folks hooked on these new stories. Know Your Station, for example, is second to Saga as our bestselling series since we opened in seven months. That was a five-part miniseries from BOOM! I think a lot of other shops would be surprised by that, but we were excited about it, and we got our customers excited about it.

Anything coming up for your shop that you want people to know about?

Our three book clubs that we currently have running are a Heroes and Villains superhero club, a Chillers and Thrillers horror and mystery club, and an all-year club celebrating stories. Those three clubs meet monthly where we all read a book together and discuss it. But we also invite creators to the club every month, either over Zoom or in person. So in June, for example, we read the new Poison Ivy from DC for Heroes and Villains, and G. Willow Wilson joined us over Zoom, and that was outstanding. We’ve been having amazing success and fun with those clubs, and folks can join from anywhere if they’re interested. So we’re really proud that those keep growing.