IN THIS CITY, HEROES AREN’T HARD TO FIND
Brandon Lunsford interviews Shelton Drum of www.HeroesOnline.com
When I moved to this city in 1996, one of the first things I did was find the local comic book store. A brief search revealed that I had hit the jackpot and ended up with one of the best comic shops in the world on my doorstep; Charlotte was home to Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find. I quickly found the store on Central and plunged into their long boxes, and I still have that first issue I bought there. It was Amazing Spider Man #298, the first time Todd McFarlane drew the web-slinger, and it was just the beginning of setting aside a chunk of my finances to sacrifice to the store. It’s become more than just a place to satisfy my fix for comics, though. I know pretty much everyone that works there, I usually see someone else I know browsing the shelves, and I can talk comics with them all; Heroes is a community, and I’m proud that I’m a part of it. Charlotte is extremely lucky to have it, and we can thank store owner and mastermind Shelton Drum. He will be the first person to shake his head at that, and he rightfully insists that he hasn’t done it alone. Fair enough, but whenever I walk out of the store with a smile on my face, it’s because a boy from Newton, N.C. discovered a lifelong passion for comics when he was a kid.
I interviewed Shelton in his office at his home, which was just like I imagined it would be. There was amazing original comic pages hanging on the walls, and boxes of older issues lying around that made my eyes bulge out of their sockets. There was a stack of original 1950’s EC horror titles on his desk, and he showed me a box he was accumulating of every issue that was on the stands the month he was born. That would be March of 1954, and almost as soon as he could read Shelton was regularly consuming Harvey Comics such as Hot Stuff and Baby Huey like many kids his age. The difference was that even then he was pretty shrewd, and he wisely started purchasing two or three copies of the early Marvel Comics titles that he soon moved on to. Back then you could only find comics at newsstands and pharmacies or the like, and he pretty quickly exhausted the local supply of Newton. He moved to Charlotte and took some creative arts classes at UNCC, but he quickly figured out that he was better at selling comics than drawing them. He tacked notices to bulletin boards on campus offering to buy and trade comics, and this way he developed a local network of like-minded friends who went out hunting for comics at local flea markets like the Metrolina. Soon he started selling as well as buying and began to run his own booth, and started building his stock. His uncle was in the paper and plastics business, so he had also started making customized comic sleeves and boards and was selling them in the Comics Buyers Guide trade publication. The next step, after some prodding from the nucleus of local fans and creators that Shelton had helped put together, was to rent out the community room of the Eastland Mall in January 1977 for the first Charlotte Mini-con.
Soon he was buying books directly from a distributor and taking them to his array of swap meets and flea markets around the state, and was selling new comics to subscribers by 1975. Back in the ‘70’s comic books were turning such a small profit that newsstands didn’t feel like they were worth carrying, and New York chemistry teacher Phil Seuling approached Marvel and DC and offered to buy nonreturnable comics in bulk at a discount. This was the beginning of the direct market of comic book sales that saved the industry, and Shelton was in on the ground-floor of a revolution; this new avenue of distribution led to the rise of the independent comics movement and the birth of the comic book specialty store. Shelton was working for his father’s retail auto parts salvage company, which had opened a satellite store on property the Drums owned on Thomas Avenue where Boris and Natasha’s is currently located. Around the corner beside the Hall’s Clock Shop on Central Avenue there was a vacancy, and in 1980 Shelton was able to rent the space for the princely sum of $75 a month. He set up a friend to manage the store while he listened in via a phone extension around the corner on Thomas, and the very first Heroes physical location was born. First it was only open on weekends, but within a year the crowds had grown and they were open six days a week. The store moved down Central to where the Alternative Arts tattoo shop is now located before it settled into its first stable location at the future Boris and Natasha’s, after Shelton’s father decided to abandon the salvage business and give his son a space to practice his true vocation.
Shelton has always been almost as much of a fan of music as he has been of comics (I’m not sure if his collection of vinyl or comics is larger and more important to him) and it was music that led him to name his new store. It was born out of the 1974 song “Heroes Are Hard to Find,” on the album of the same name by Fleetwood Mac. “Not a great song,” Shelton says, “but a great title. Besides, I had gone through every name in the book and they were all terrible.” He opened a second store in Winston-Salem in 1983 and a third the next year in South Carolina, and over the years he’s managed anywhere from two to six shops across the Carolinas and even down to Jacksonville, FL. The main location was on Thomas Street from 1983-1988 until it moved back up to Central, but it kept outgrowing its space. The store moved to Central and the Plaza where the Book Buyers is now and remained there from the mid-90’s until 2002, and it was there that I discovered them and started handing them my money. After 9/11 there was so much uncertainty that Shelton briefly considered becoming purely an internet store, but he eventually settled into his current location at the corner of 7th and Pecan. This is the sixth location of Heroes, and is his signature store. He completely renovated the space, and it’s now renowned as one of the most attractive comic shops in the country. It just flows really well, and the huge statues of Spidey and Doctor Octopus doing battle across the store’s ceiling make quite an impact. You’ll be hard pressed to see a list like Green Label’s “20 coolest comic book shops in America” or Travel and Leisure’s list of the best shops in the country without Heroes on it these days, and rightfully so.
Of course it’s not just for the store that Shelton and the Heroes name is recognized across the industry. Out of those early Mini-cons at the Eastland Mall that drew a couple hundred people at most he has built one of the strongest annual comic conventions on the national circuit: HeroesCon, the oldest independently-owned convention in the country. By 1982, the fans at Shelton’s small cons were demanding more space and better guests, and as usual he accommodated them. Over the years he had cultivated relationships with an impressive group of creators that he was able to connect with the network of local fans he had built; that first year HeroesCon snagged George Perez, Marv Wolfman, and Mike Zeck among others, and they haven’t looked back since. Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee first appeared at the con in 1984, and from there the buzz really started and they became nationally noticed. Over the years the guest list has included Gil Kane, John Romita, Jim Steranko, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Mike Mignola, and about every other writer, artist, and publisher you could think of.
Stan Lee returned in 2012 for the 30th anniversary of HeroesCon, and he saw a much larger crowd. From less than a thousand people that first year in ’82, Shelton estimates there were more than 35,000 guests last year, and it keeps getting bigger every year. It has even reached its tendrils outside of the convention floor into the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, where Shelton has teamed with galleries to launch comic themed art shows situated around a weekend that has turned into one of Charlotte’s signature annual events. For me and my friends, it’s pretty much the equivalent of Christmas in June. The best thing about HeroesCon is that in a comic convention season that has become increasingly dominated by film and television guests as Marvel and DC stretch out their influence, it still focuses purely on comics and their creators with panels, seminars, and workshops that connect writers and artists with the fans. Shelton has even become strong enough to take on convention overlord Wizard Entertainment, which has descended on con season with their outsized prices and their Wal-Mart style desire to corner the market. In 2005 Wizard announced they would be holding a convention in Atlanta the next year on the same dates on which HeroesCon was scheduled to take place, which caused such an outcry amongst the comic book community that creators flocked to Heroes and Wizard backed down.
I asked Shelton if he was going to do this until he dropped dead, and he said he thoroughly enjoys it. The store and the convention are a part of the fabric of this city now, and he says that even if he’s not the one who runs the store and the con he hopes it continues. Whether it’s with his immediate family or with his other family, his employees, he will make sure it’s in good hands. The Wizard-driven consolidation going on in the convention world is continuing, and the industry needs HeroesCon and a guy like Shelton Drum. They need him almost as much as we here in Charlotte do. If you’ve just moved to town and you are hunting for a comic book paradise or even if you’ve lived here your whole life and you somehow didn’t know about this amazing place, may I recommend that you stop into 1957 E 7th St? You can’t miss it, and you won’t regret it.
• Sat., May 2nd @ Heroes Aren't Hard to Find : www.FreeComicBookDay.com
• June 19th & 20th @ the Charlotte Convention Center www.HeroesOnline.com Convention
(Photography : Grant Baldwin)
Visit Author Page | email@example.com