The customer perused the shop’s aisles for 20 minutes, hovering about as if he was waiting for the right moment to say something. Then, he walked tepidly up to the store’s owner.
“I heard the news,” the man said.
“Yeah. Yeah,” said Michael Drivas, owner of Big Brain Comics.
For weeks, rumors of the Minneapolis shop’s demise have gotten louder, worrying longtime regulars and cartoonists who call Big Brain one of the true anchors of the local comic book scene.
Their fear was justified. Drivas plans to close his shop in late June.
For 20 years, Drivas and Big Brain have been synonymous with Minnesota’s comic book culture. During that time, local artists have counted on the owner as a friend and adviser, while the shop has been lauded for its diverse mix of superhero stories, graphic novels, alternative titles and self-published mini-comics.
Among the Twin Cities’ dozen or so comic shops, it sticks out. With exposed brick walls, soaring ceilings and silver air ducts looming overhead, Big Brain’s interior could almost pass for a trendy clothing boutique — if it weren’t for the shelves and shelves of comics.
“When I started, I didn’t have, like, a 40-year plan,” Drivas said. “I can just stop.”
Drivas said the common reasons for closing a business didn’t factor into his decision: It isn’t high rent or a lack of customers. It’s fatigue, he said, rubbing his eyes.
“You’re either always working, or never working,” the 50-year-old said in his usual quick cadence, looking down through his glasses at a near-empty coffee cup. Drivas said he didn’t try to sell the store, choosing to forgo what could be a long process of identifying the right buyer.
Although he left college thinking he’d get a regular job with a regular desk and a regular phone, he said a “big comic habit” festered and soon overwhelmed him. So he worked at comic book shops in San Francisco and Minneapolis. Then, dissatisfied, he opened his own joint in 1996 just off Nicollet Mall. (Later, he moved it to its current Downtown East location at 1027 Washington Av. S., Mpls.)
“I was interested in having the full range of comics,” he said. “I want to have just the good comics regardless of who published them or who wrote them.”
That has meant filling the store with the latest “X-Men” and “Batman” titles, but also giving equal shelf space to the more literary works of cartoonists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes — indie stars whose stories often dwell on the minutiae of everyday life.
“Michael really pushed the boundary, really trying out books, instead of it just being a superhero store,” said Vincent Stall, a former Minneapolis cartoonist and design creative who now lives in Philadelphia. “It’s Alexandria’s library of comics.”
Minneapolis-based artist Kevin Cannon says the shop’s reputation is golden here and beyond.
“When I talk to people across the country, they know Big Brain. It’s like the center of the Minneapolis comics scene,” Cannon said. “Nothing comes close to Big Brain.”
In the shop there’s always music blasting. And while you’ll find a few action figures, the store isn’t overrun with collectibles or role-playing card games, which is often the case at other shops.
If you have a question, Drivas will most likely have the answer. Except if you ask him what he’ll do come June. “If I waited to figure it out, I would never do it,” he said about closing.
An Obi-Wan of sorts
Drivas’ decision is a blow to what local cartoonists call a golden age of Twin Cities comic art.
“There’s no place like Big Brain anymore,” said Tom Kaczynski, owner of comics publisher Uncivilized Books, adding that when Big Brain opened in its first location, the storefront quickly became a comic artist salon.
It was a place where cartoonists and avid readers would meet to talk about art, music, comics and life, all while Drivas held court.
Kaczynski, who was the first person hired at the store, said both Drivas and Big Brain have had an indelible impact on his life.
From the time Kaczynski worked the register to his current profession as a publisher of several big-name cartoonists, he’s looked to Drivas as a “behind the scenes counsel” — an adviser who dispensed comic book wisdom without asking for recognition.
While Drivas will soon bow out, his impact is just beginning to be understood by the people who called Big Brain more than a storefront.
“I’ve already talked to so many people about the store closing. Everybody’s a little bit in shock,” Kaczynski said.
Barry Lytton is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.