Like many things in this world – wars, businesses, families, feuds, civilizations, relentless amounts of Rey/Finn/Poe fanfic – it started because of romance.
“Well, it would possibly be considered stalking now,“ says David Wheeler, sitting with me on the patio of the Genuine Joe Coffeehouse on Anderson Lane, just down the street from the Dragon’s Lair megastore that’s resulted from what Wheeler began on September 3, 1986.
“I met someone at UT when I was attending the school,” he says, “and she got a job at Austin’s Capital Comic Company. And I thought she was cute, so I got a job there too. And that’s what got me into the comics and gaming industry.”
Totally relatable, especially in this city where so many people live because they followed somebody from somewhere else. But young Wheeler’s part of the Austin scene soon went a little bit Monty Python.
“A year later, Capital Comics died,” he says. “Or, I suppose, it closed. And one of the former managers opened Phoenix Comics, and I helped out there. Then it closed.”
Rather than set anything on fire or let his spirits sink into the mud, though, Wheeler (a native Texan who’d moved here from Dallas) decided to … build himself an empire?
“I felt almost obligated to open up a store myself,” he says. “I remember going to my friend – the young woman who I’d followed to Capital Comics, who I was probably affianced to by this time – and saying to her, ‘How much do you think it’s going to take to open a comic book store?’ and turning around and walking away, so she could just fall over, gobsmacked.” He smiles slyly, this now fiftysomething man with the salt-n-pepper goatee and blue eyes that are quick to twinkle. “I had a sense of humor,” he says.
He also had a purpose, and that purpose was to open his own comics and gaming emporium in the thick of neighborhoods swollen by UT students and those who taught them. “I opened up in a small building, a really weird building, at 35th & Guadalupe. It was a singlewide that was attached to a house, 1000 square feet, that was attached to another portable building. I lived in the back and rented out part of the building to a very nice man who was a watch repairman. And I loved the idea of living where I worked.”
And did he also love what he worked?
You can guess the answer, True Believer.
“Back in those days,” says Wheeler, “people playing D&D and reading about superheroes, well …” He shrugs, shakes his head there on the Genuine Joe patio. “We didn’t have The Big Bang Theory, and people who liked comics and games were marginalized and looked down on for having an interest in those things. And that’s why I opened the store. Besides that it was something I very much cared about, I wanted to provide a place for people like me to be able to hang out and spend time.”
That 1000-square-foot location served people hanging out and spending time for about seven years. At which point, Wheeler, tired of a dilapidated structure and a troublesome landlord, moved the business into a 1600-square-foot place on 34th. And then, needing more space for more products like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon, to a 3000-square-foot location near 49th & Burnet. And, about seven years after that, to a 5700-square-foot location near Koenig & Burnet.
And now, these days, with superheroes all over the big Hollywood screens, with every J. Q. Citizen out trying to nab a Psyduck or a Jigglypuff on their iPhone, the Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy store that’s a stone’s throw from the corner of Burnet & Anderson clocks in at 10,770 square feet of glorious comics-and-gaming retail and fannish social hub.
And Wheeler doesn’t even run it anymore.
“Last year – June 1, 2015 – I sold the store to my longtime general manager, Angie Blackmon, and her brother Jason. And they’ve been running it since then: They are the owners, and I’m the franchisor.”
And how does that work, this franchising?
“Essentially,” says Wheeler, “I’m support staff. Right now we’re in the process of converting our San Antonio store in the same manner, and I’ve signed franchisees in Northwest Houston and another store in San Antonio.”
So he sells them the name, the corporate graphic identity, and some method of working?
“Exactly,” says Wheeler, smiling. He really is a friendly guy, this local comics mogul. “And we provide staff and training,” he says. “We’ve also made deals with some of the distributors that, normally, early start-ups don’t get. For instance, some of the distributors have said that they’ll treat all the Dragon’s Lair stores as a superstore – which is based on volume. So a brand-new store on its own might get less-than-adequate discounts, but, because they’re with us, they get those better discounts that come with 30-plus years of existence.”
[Note: We did say “build himself an empire” earlier, did we not?]
And so here’s to the 30th anniversary of Dragon’s Lair – the reason for this article, after all, or else we’d also be raising a big huzzah for all the righteous geekeries in town, for Austin Books & Comics and Tribe and Tenth Planet and so on – and what’s being done by way of celebration at the Lair? A small birthday party, maybe? Some cupcakes, a little cosplay, a game or two sold at 10% off the regular price?
“Angie and Jason have plans to have a Renaissance Festival inside the store this weekend,” says Wheeler, grinning. “And they’ll have other events around that, too. And – yes, of course – there will be sales.”
We direct you to the Dragon’s Lair website for details of these doings, citizen, and we end this article by asking the business’s founder if he’s got any parting words, any advice for those wanting to be part of the industry?
“I got into this because I love the things we sell and I really enjoy our customers,” Wheeler says. “I can’t think of a better job to have. I tell people, the ones who contact me to ask about franchising, that they need to have a vocation for this – almost like a religious vocation – to be part of the comics and games industry. Because you can probably make more money doing things like selling Auntie Annie’s pretzels. But you won’t have near as much fun – and you won’t enjoy the people nearly as much.”
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