The aisles are empty at Phoenix Comics -- hopefully not for much longer.
The aisles are empty at Phoenix Comics — hopefully not for much longer. Nick Nazar/Courtesy of Phoenix Comics

With pandemic lockdown hitting us all pretty hard, local businesses are fighting for their lives. It’s been a particularly tough time for the wonderful shop Phoenix Comics & Games. More than a store, it’s one of those magical local gathering-places where the staff get to know customers' names and tastes, where friends just hang out doing friend-stuff, and local zine-makers can drop off their latest work.

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In what may be some of the most unfortunate timing ever, Phoenix recently expanded their footprint so there’s more room for customers in the store (ack). They had a full slate of game nights and gatherings on their calendar when talk of quarantine began. And on top of all that, they just endured a break-in, with someone smashing a door and grabbing some merch.

So are they going to be able to make it through this weird, awful time? With a little luck and some very canny planning, it’s looking like they might just pull it off.

I reached Nick Nazar, the owner and manager, just as he was tidying up the place and welcoming employees back to work — albeit under different circumstances than anyone’s used to.

“We had to shut down at the end of March to the public,” Nick said. Since then, store operations have mostly consisted of him going in alone to prepare shipments. They’ve digitized most of their inventory of games and graphic novels and accessories, getting most of the orders out through the mail. A few customers have taken advantage of curbside pickup.

“They knock on the door, I put on gloves and hand it to them, or I walk it out to the car,” Nick said.

He’s doing everything he can to limit person-to-person contact, which has made it hard to bring employees back in — their office area is cramped, and even with the added space of their recent expansion, he’s not sure how to enforce distancing guidelines once businesses start re-opening. “The hardest part has been getting people to use the website, and gently rebuffing people who are like, ‘Can I just pick up one thing?’”

Still, he said, the support from their regulars has kept them going. “Our Magic the Gathering players have rallied around us to preorder the next set, which comes out on Friday,” Nick said. He started the week by processing about 700 pounds’ worth of Magic cards for shipping and pickup. Nick also noted that their regular comic book customers have been very supportive as well, even though the entire comics industry is on pause right now.

Diamond Comic Distributors, which is essentially the only company that distributes comics, temporarily ceased shipments in April.

But even though there’s no going back to the way things were, Nick sees a light at the end of the current tunnel. Comic book shipments are due to resume in the next few weeks, and the state is expected to allow shops like Phoenix to re-open in a limited fashion. Phoenix has put together a plan that involves a combination of online orders, curbside pickup, and a “shop-for-you” service where customers stand by the door and employees retrieve items from the shelves.

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But there are still a lot of unknowns for small business owners. “We want to protect our employees," Nick said. "I know what that looks like in a grocery store, but what does that look like for Phoenix? How do we keep the customer flow safe?”

What’s more, even though he’s expecting comic book shipments to resume soon, he has no idea what titles will be included. “It’s a mystery to everyone, including me,” he said.

So if ever there was a time to support your local nerd store, it’s now — especially since Phoenix carries plenty of tabletop games that are perfect for keeping busy during lockdown. Nick recommended strategy games Splendor and Azul for playing with two to four people; and Jaipur, Gloom, and Star Realms are good for two players. And while strategy games have winners and losers, when you support your local small businesses, everybody wins.