The corner of Great Britain I call home has a town where I was born. It’s name is Great Grimsby. A once thriving port town, that at one point could be considered the arterie of the finest fish available at the best of chippies. In recent decades, however, the fishing industry has almost literally dried up. The town is more dominated by its automated fish factories who find it cheaper to truck in frozen fish than supporting its local fisherman. Unfortunately, it’s too well portrayed in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Brothers Grimsby”. There really are parts like that. If that wasn’t bad enough the basic commercial infrastructure is failing at every level.
A great example would be the recent bus stop debacle. At great expense, a large area of the town was re-paved and turned to waste ground so that a nicer looking traffic bottleneck could be introduced. On top of that, the nice looking new pavement design blended road and large curb so well that multiple pensioners took nasty tumbles. In fairness, they did then dig the design up and replace it. However, they still left waste ground and a useless busing system. The point is the place is definitely more grim than great. I hope you’ve persevered through that rant because I’m sure that's the sad story of a lot of small towns these days but this is the setting and it’s important to note.
Despite all this one man pointed his sonic screwdriver at a retail space in this little port and over the last 20 odd years has and does continue to provide for any collectable or comic geeks needs. The man in question is Paul Berry, and his sci-fi store Starrider is a sanctum. Paul captain’s this space with an incredible knowledge of collectables, some would say enough to write a book or two. Which he has, with a possible third in the works. Sound intrigued and fancy getting an insight into the birth of a store through pre-internet days to present? Well, Paul was kind enough to share his origin story and the stores. Which I will be quoting from often. It’s one we can all relate to and I think is a testament to the man and store he has forged. He also offered some great insight into those early shop days and what it’s like to navigate these geek waters.
So let’s start at the beginning. As a 70’s child, Pauls pop culture history begins with Star Wars - the franchise “you couldn’t avoid”. The action figures ignited Paul's sci-fi passion “in a big way”. It was a gateway into the collectable universe with the Masters Of The Universe and Action Force among other lines which garnered his interest further. This newfound interest was cemented over the following few years jumping on each new toy line. For Paul, it was “a golden age” from the late ’70s to mid-’80s for sci/fi and fantasy. With Star Wars, Christopher Reeves Superman, Star Trek, Indiana Jones and Back To The Future to name just a few, it’s easy to see how Paul's love for the era is justified. Around this time Paul was also consuming Doctor Who which he sights, alongside Star Wars, as his biggest inspirations. Despite a brief dip into Marvel comics, Paul found himself always drawn more to the Action figure interpretations. The finest of origins for the man he was to become.
Bit of history now kids. Anyone born from the tail end of the ’90s onwards, this is why stores like Starrider are important. There's a dedication element that I don’t know if everyone considers enough. Especially in a culture of convenience but it is worth remembering. Paul sums it up best with his own words.
“Being a collector of these things pre-internet days involved a certain amount of legwork, there was only a handful of Doctor Who products available on the high street at the time, so most things had to be ordered by mail order, which involved the arduous process of putting a cheque in post, hoping the item was in stock and waiting several weeks for it to arrive. On family trips out of town, you would occasionally come across sci-fi/comics speciality stores who would stock all this stuff. The first time I even became aware there was such a thing as a comic shop was a visit to Lincoln in 1986 when I chanced across a now long gone shop called Worlds of Wonder. I quickly discovered more such as the Sheffield Space Centre, Thunderbooks in Blackpool and of course Forbidden Planet in London.”
It was a bleak landscape where even the most popular items could be difficult to find let alone anything specialist. The key is legwork. Real detective hardcore dedication to a personal passion. It may be difficult to understand for some but being a geek then meant you were part of a counter-culture, you were definitely different and without the internet, it felt like there was a lot less of us. Everything was niche and I mean everything. Great communities grew in this climate, obviously, or we wouldn’t be where we are today, but it was a difficult time for geeks. Finding these stores, for Paul, started him off with a persistent thought. Why couldn’t Grimsby have its own dedicated store? It grew into an ambition, to open Grimsby's first proper specialist store.
In the mid-nineties, while studying at university, Paul began organising sci-fi fairs in Grimsby and Hull. This helped start his path to store owner as he used a stall at these events to begin buying and selling. Here Starrider was born. In name at least, a name with unknown origins. As Paul puts it, “I'm not sure where the name came from but I think it was heavily influenced by Star Wars without infringing on any copyright.” which is fair enough.
So that’s the story of Paul and the birth of his store. I think that should be enough to seek this man and his store out. Such a knowledgeable purveyor is hard to find let alone one that stays as big a fan of the genre and just an all-round decent human being. For any more proof of just how extensive Paul's knowledge is I urge you to check out his two published books on the very subject of collectables. “Star Wars Memorabilia; An Unofficial Guide To Star Wars Collectibles” and “Doctor Who Memorabilia; An Unofficial Guide To Doctor Who Collectibles”. That’s not all from this piece however as Paul also shared some insight into the initial pitfalls of opening a new store and the climate the store currently navigates through.
So let’s continue. I asked Paul if he could describe what it was like to first open the store and any pitfalls he had to navigate so I’ll let his words do the talking here.
“There were quite a few challenges when opening the shop, one was knowing exactly what to stock and that was heavily influenced by my own interests before I quickly realised that people had more varied tastes, believe it or not initially I didn’t stock comics but then people started asking me about them so I thought I'd better get some in, now they're my biggest seller. Another pitfall was underestimating the amount of stock needed to fill a shop, I think I opened with maybe £2,000 worth of stock and it barely filled a corner. Then there was building a customer base, in the days when the internet hadn’t really taken off properly you had to pretty much hope people would find you and it took quite a while for a customer base to build.
For around 18 months I barely broke even. If I hadn’t been living at home at the time I wouldn’t have survived. After struggling for those initial few years, there was a honeymoon period where things seemed to run like clockwork, however, over the last few years, there have been massive sweeping changes to the marketplace and the industry. There is no doubt that the internet has changed everything, I think sci-fi and comics are more popular than they've ever been so comic stores should be booming, but they’re not and the internet is a big part of that. It's just so easy for people to do a couple of clicks and the items are there without them having to move out the chair.”
It’s an interesting insight into not only the challenges of opening a store, but also how the business landscape is evolving. I wondered if the new digital age of comics was having a negative impact on his business as well but Paul saw it slightly differently.
“I don’t think digital comics have had a massive effect on my business, I can’t think of one customer who has cancelled an order to go digital but there is no doubt that among the younger section of the fanbase (the under '20s) there is an increasing move away from anything physical and that includes comics, books and toys and that could have a big impact on the industry in years to come.”
Here Paul hit upon the thought that got me started on wanting to write this piece in the first place. Not only is Paul a great bloke who deserves more recognition and hopefully some new customers but has he noticed the same thing I’ve been pondering. Is the love of a “tactile” physical collection still around, or will it die with a generation? I’m fairly confident the collectables community will weather the storm, as I imagine the tactile aspect is so integral. However, I’m not so sure comics have such solid foundations. I worry that the current internet climate is breeding a climate of disability. Similar to the current music industry and it’s “throwaway” attitude to content. I hope that there will always be a need for a physical space, for collectors and all those of the geek persuasion to indulge in that tactile experience. A place to share with like-minded individuals all while being guided by someone equally passionate about their corner of our universe. I hope that’s not naive to think. I’m also sure that most bigger cities have better communities due to choices in stores thanks to those bigger store franchises, but the smaller towns and geek communities I feel, are being left with few options but to move their lives to continue their passions. I do think we should all be trying harder to support our local communities, something I’m guilty of failing to do myself but hopefully, this is a step in the right direction.
So please, if you or a friend is a collectable enthusiast, check out Pauls Starrider Facebook page or even his books available on Amazon. Or at the very least get out there and do some legwork to discover what’s going on in your local scene. We're always happy to hear about local comic shops.