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Belfast shop owner shares how his store is going from strength to strength after Covid

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LABOUR OF LOVE: Alan Taylor with some of his thousands of comics

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alan Taylor with some of his thousands of comics

Stephen Hamilton

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alan Taylor with some of his thousands of comics

They say Thor tends to keep his celebrations Loki – but Belfast comic store owner Alan Taylor really should be toasting his success with an out-of-this-world party. While several businesses felt the pinch during lockdown, some enterprises are enjoying an uptake in interest. Owner of Coffee & Heroes in Winetavern Street in Smithfield, Alan says his customer base has grown since March 2020. “I think part of that was, maybe people had watched enough TV over lockdown or played enough computer games and maybe wanted a slightly different hobby,” he says. “We started getting a lot more readers. I think the community in Belfast is a lot bigger than maybe people think.”

The importance of community is critical for the business.

“I think what’s cool about our place or what we certainly strive to try and make it feel like is, that if you walk in here, we have sit-in facilities as well if you want to sit and have a coffee and a chat,” says Alan.

“We’ll get people who have never met before, and they’ll just strike up a conversation because they have a common interest because if they come into a place like this, they’re clearly into this stuff.

“We’ve had a few shy customers over the years who say, ‘I’m only getting into comics and my friends don’t think it’s cool,’ but what I always try to say to people is that everyone in the world is a geek about something; if it’s not comic books, it’s football. If it’s not football, it’s cars. Everybody has things in life they enjoy, you should never ever apologise for them.”

During lockdown, Alan and partner Victoria maintained the community feeling by starting a YouTube channel, keeping customers updated on what was coming out and checking in on them.

They grew their podcast — which they’ve had for three years — and reached out to writers and artists globally.

“We’ve probably interviewed about 10 to 15 of the top guys in the industry in the last year and we’ve had more interviews lined up along the way because thankfully our reputation grew a little bit as we did it and creators knew we looked after them,” says Alan.

As restrictions lessened, they also hand delivered comics to customers’ homes.

“In a weird way, they were good times. It was obviously a horrible situation, but they were good times in a way because you were genuinely so happy to see people and spend time with them and catch up with them and know that they were okay.”

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Coffee & Heroes store in Smithfield market

Coffee & Heroes store in Smithfield market

Stephen Hamilton

Coffee & Heroes store in Smithfield market

The rise in interest in Coffee & Heroes’ merchandise led to Alan doubling the size of shop space within the first two years, affording more opportunity to welcome customers into the comic world, something he calls an inclusive industry.

“Recently it was Pride and there were comic book anthologies specifically marketed as Pride and celebrating LGBTQ+ characters and so forth,” says Alan.

“It’s a very inclusive, representative industry and maybe part of that is because it’s obviously not as well-known and successful as the movie industry and TV industry, maybe they can sort of take more risks and fly under the radar a little bit.

“Our youngest customer is probably five and six years old, our oldest customer is probably in their 60s. There’s a broad age range there and all backgrounds and so forth and everyone is welcome.”

Alan estimates they’ve close to 100,000 issues and while there are action figures and other merchandise available, it’s first and foremost a comic store.

“We had an opportunity a couple of years ago to buy a massive comic log, which was around 80,000 back issues, and we took a risk, there was no guarantee it was going to work. It could have been the end of the business actually.

“We saw the comic lot and thought, this is the next 10 years of the business right here; you don’t see comic lots like that come up in Northern Ireland much.

“We definitely needed our two floors. About half of our collection is upstairs and half of it is downstairs, for general perusal. We also built a website over lockdown to give us another outlet when the store was closed.”

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Each of Coffee & Heroes' regulars have their own designated mug

Each of Coffee & Heroes' regulars have their own designated mug

Stephen Hamilton

Each of Coffee & Heroes' regulars have their own designated mug

In a time-poor age where many shoppers want their buying completed in minutes, Alan hopes that Coffee & Heroes brings back almost a nostalgic act: browsing.

“When I was a kid and you went shopping, you weren’t really sure what you were looking for, you liked to have a good hoke through the stores and maybe discover something along the way,” he says.

“I feel a lot of shopping now, obviously a lot of its online, but a lot of people, they know what they’re looking for, they get it they find it, they order it, it’s done.

“Sometimes we’ll have customers come in and spend half an hour, 45 minutes in store, looking through the bays, looking for those little hidden gems or maybe to discover a new character.

“We wanted to bring that back a little bit again, rather than just walking in, do you have this, no, and walking out which makes it very impersonal whereas, if they’re looking through things, you can strike up conversations.” For comic book newbies, life within the beautifully curated pages doesn’t always focus on fighting.

“Obviously a lot of people look at the comic industry as superheroes punching each other in the face. While 60% of our stock is superheroes, 40% is independent comics, they’ll be things like noir stories or there’ll be horror stories or there’ll be thrillers,” explains Alan.

“The comics industry has been going 80-plus years at this point. There’s a massive back catalogue there, and again because it’s such an inclusive industry there genuinely is something for everybody.”

Alan calls the shop a safe space in several ways.

“Because we’re situated in Smithfield, we’re not naïve, Smithfield is not the biggest of walkway areas, it’s not a part of town where a lot of investment has been put in.

“Certainly, in the aftermath of lockdown, people are maybe a little wary of coming out and dealing with crowds and things like that. Busy for us in the store is 10 people, it’s not 30 window shoppers or anything like that because we don’t really get the crowds round on this side of town.

“The other side of the coin, you can come in here, you’ll be sitting at one table on your own, someone else will be sitting at another table on their own but they’ll strike up a conversation about Superman or Batman because they’re into the same stuff and they’ve probably made a new friend that way. They don’t have to be afraid to celebrate their fandom.”

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Alan Taylor of Coffee & Heroes at his store

Alan Taylor of Coffee & Heroes at his store

Stephen Hamilton

Alan Taylor of Coffee & Heroes at his store

Fandom was undoubtedly celebrated during this year’s Free Comic Book Day, an annual event where companies produce comics to be given away complimentary.

The shop had a queue outside its door for four-and-a-half hours in what was its busiest day ever in terms of sales. Great to see in Belfast, especially as Coffee & Heroes could have been opened in a different city altogether.

“I was living in Cambridge and my background is sort of high-end hospitality, I worked in a two Michelin star restaurant over there,” explains Alan.

“We were on our way to sign the agreement for the lease of the unit that we’d found, we got a phone call on the way from the estate agent to say that another company had usurped our offer.”

Calling it “the best thing to have happened”, the couple returned to Belfast and an institution was established.

Alan too is quick to praise Vicky who worked outside of the shop — though she’s still there one or two days per week — particularly while they were setting up.

“Without her working outside of the business there’s no way we would have got to where we are now, so it was very much a team effort in different ways, you know, but certainly over lockdown she was on furlough, and she did all the driving when we went to people’s houses, she helped with the organising

“She was integral to keeping us going.”

  • See www.coffeeandheroes.com for more information on its store, YouTube channel and podcast

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