Funny Business: Comics and collectibles bring a sense of fun to the Greenville business mix
By Amanda Capps
Photos by Amy Randall Photography
"Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life." The three Upstate entrepreneurs featured here may not necessarily agree with that saying, but while each one has invested a tremendous amount of labor in their respective enterprises, their work often feels like play.
Dealing in comic books, graphic novels, action figures and classic collectible toys, they are not only fans of the merchandise they sell, they also help keep the joy of childhood alive for their customers.
On a typical Friday, Ryan Bonavia talks with customers in his Greer store while an episode of the original "Star Trek" plays in the background. Ironically, the Toy Federation owner has experience in the aerospace industry, but today, he's more likely to be searching for a Power Ranger part than outfitting a jumbo jet.
Bonavia says nothing is better than playing with toys all day, but both work and play have made his shop a destination location for committed collectors and curious shoppers. "I've seen people become collectors instantly when they spot something that hasn't crossed their minds in 30 years—something they had as a kid—or something the kid across the street had that they wanted," Bonavia says.
Selling toys online since 2003, Bonavia originally focused on military diecasts. A lack of basement space in South Florida and a dip in the economy led to a South Carolina storefront. Now, his inventory is a cornucopia of childhood treasures. High quality and fair prices allow Bonavia to compete with internet offerings, and his time on the convention circuit continues to influence his outlook.
"I was a 'carny,' 20 to 25 shows a year, figuring out which cons worked—or didn't—tearing down booths and moving on to the next city," he says.
In 2018, Bonavia returned to his roots, creating Retro-Toy Con, which drew over 1,500 people. The second annual event recently took place at Greenville's Embassy Suites, and the former "carny" made a point of catering to his vendors.
"A toy vendor wants a true toy show. The crowd may be smaller, but there are more people who want what they have," Bonavia says.
Toy Federation started in a small space, and when word spread, Bonavia expanded to a nearby location. On the advice of his father, whose anecdotes are valuable guides, he purchased the multi-unit building he hopes will become a "nerd block" complete with an arcade.
Bonavia insists there's no blueprint for business but heeds one of his dad's sayings: "Load the cart and figure out how to pull the wagon later." Thankfully, his wagon hoists a payload of toys that would make even Santa envious.
Richard's Comics and Collectables
Valentine's Day may not be a big day for comics, but since February 14, 2005, Richard Morgan has loved running his eponymous shop Richard's Comics and Collectables on Laurens Road. The spelling of "collectables" with an "a" is no typo; Morgan prefers the original British version which, like a good collectable, is not as common.
Before making a career of comics, Morgan worked in IT, but a visit to San Diego's iconic Comic-Con became a pivotal point in 1992.
"That year, I started picking up freebies from the con and selling them online. I knew the owners of New Dimension Comics in Greenville. Eventually, I made the owner a ridiculously low offer, he took it, and I've essentially been retired for 15 years," Morgan says.
Morgan fondly recalls buying comics from a five-and-dime store as a kid in Florida.
"I would collect bottles in the basket on the front of my bicycle and exchange them for money to buy more comics. The lady at the store kept them behind the counter. Customers could buy one for a dime or trade two of theirs for one of hers—I rarely traded," he says.
Now it's Morgan's turn to pull books from behind the counter as he greets customers by name and presents their favorites before the door shuts behind them. He believes personal service is key to staying relevant. Mass retailers can sell most products for less than he can buy them, and unsold comics are no longer returnable. Fortunately, comic distributors don't require minimum orders, so Morgan can assemble the right inventory for his clientele.
Morgan's store has doubled in size since he took over and remains a traditional comic shop with current publications, boxes of back issues and pop-culture commodities. Representing 60-70 percent of his business, books have the greatest profit margin, and Morgan credits that to great stories.
"Spider-Man is my favorite, an everyday guy with some real problems like paying bills," Morgan says. "At the heart of most stories is the classic hero versus villain, and ultimately, the hero overcomes."
This year, Morgan hosted the first Upstate POP Expo at the Greenville Shrine Club, and next fall, the story continues.
Borderlands Comics and Games
Last spring, Rob Young stepped outside the Greenville Convention Center to uphold a tradition of shaking hands with everyone waiting to enter one of his events. The crowd assembled for S.C. Comicon, which drew more than 20,000 people, stunned and humbled him.
That day represented years of diligent work and community investment for the owner of Borderlands Comics and Games. Young came to Greenville at age 21 to manage a shop called Heroes Aren't Hard to Find and has since become a hero to thousands who have patronized his store, attended the con and experienced his charitable endeavors.
"At one point, I was destitute. I got myself cleaned up—actually bought a gym membership so I could shower—worked three jobs and eventually got an offer to run a store in a place I'd never been," Young said.
Young had corporate jobs over the years but came back to comics when his former boss Stan Reed bought the store, moved across Laurens Road and dubbed it Borderlands. Young got things going, left again and developed a 14-year ritual of making annual buyout offers that were politely declined. When Reed finally relented, Young had difficulties getting a loan. Reed ultimately financed the purchase, and Young determined to multiply his philanthropic efforts.
"[The bankers] actually criticized part of the business plan where I talked about giving back," he says.
Among the many organizations Young champions is the Hero Initiative, which provides funding for comic creators, artists and writers, many of whom don't have health insurance.
"Without them, we don't have this," Young says, surveying his store.
Growing up in a military family, Young bought his cherished comics at the PX on base. With that in mind, he has created a shop that is a haven for customers and friends. Some even go so far as to shave their heads each year for the St. Baldrick's Foundation benefiting childhood cancer. The Borderlands family also has sweat equity in the South Pleasantburg Drive location that will become the store's new home in 2020. To retain a warm atmosphere amid 11,000 square feet of retail and gaming space, Young spares no detail. Gaming table shelves will be the perfect height for storing drinks and snacks, mats will be strategically placed to cushion knees in front of comic displays, and a signing booth will add prestige for visiting writers and artists.
Young says a "ridiculously gigantic" sign will herald the new store. He obviously thinks big, but careful planning has undergirded his ventures. He began by meticulously diversifying his inventory and saved for three years before hosting the first con to ensure it wouldn't impact his employees.
Young foresees turning Borderlands over to one of those employees who used to ride his bike to the store. For now, he will keep building the shop, the con and the relationships that have made it all possible. When asked how he does it, Young says, "Business is what it is—but I like to think there's still a little magic out there."