Walking down Wicker on a cloudy winter day is a bleak experience. Just outside the city centre, it’s jarring how abruptly Sheffield transforms from bustling shopping location to the epitome of high street woe. The fast food outlets are too numerous to count, with empty retail units scattered intermittently between. One decaying shop front is painted a nauseating shade of yellow and was apparently a fishing tackle superstore in a distant past life, although by the look of it has been abandoned for many years. Nestled between two kebab shops is an anomalous outlet, a silver beacon on an otherwise drab stretch of road: Sheffield Space Centre.
The shop is a haven for pop culture enthusiasts, stocking comic-books, fantasy novels and a wide range of merchandise. Doctor Who is among one of the most prominent brand names, which is appropriate because walking through the door feels a great deal like going back in time. After initially opening in 1978 on London Road in Heeley, the Space Centre moved to Wicker in 1986 and it seems like very little has changed since then. Certainly, the carpet has served some hard time.
The man stood behind the counter has scruffy grey hair and a similarly unkempt beard. He’s wearing a black polo shirt with an Umbrella Corporation logo printed on the right-hand side and a replica company I.D card clipped onto the left. The fictional organisation are the sinister culprits of a mass zombie outbreak in the Resident Evil series of videogames; frankly, at well under six foot and pushing sixty years old, he doesn’t look quite intimidating enough to get a job there. His name is Colin Yates and he’s been working at Sheffield Space Centre since 26th January 1990.
“I remember the day well. I wasn’t intending to stay here, it was just part of a government scheme. You would do your training and get your NVQ for a year, and then you were thrown out to try to get a job with the qualification. But, because I’d done very well, I was asked if I wanted to stay on and I’ve been here ever since,” he says as he unpacks a fresh set of deliveries.
Ask any comic-book fan about the nineties and you are likely to induce an eyeroll. The decade is infamous for seeing both the rise and (fortunately) the fall of so-called “extreme” characters, mostly adolescent power fantasies starring violent men with ridiculous muscles and sexy women with predictably exaggerated anatomy. Many of these came courtesy of Image Comics, a company set up in 1992 by a group of superstar writers and illustrators which allowed creators complete control over their work. Never has there been a greater argument in favour of editorial interference.
It was around this time that antique comic-books like 1938’s Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, began selling for upwards of one million dollars prompting a speculator boom that would end disastrously. Somewhat naively, many collectors assumed that the deluge of new first issues being churned out from Image and other publishers would mature to a comparable value.
Between the years of 1993 and 1996, more and more customers realised this would not be the case and the resulting crash saw two-thirds of specialty comic-book stores shut down. Having seen this saga unfold from the frontlines, Yates assures me the Space Centre stayed afloat with relative ease.
“A lot of shops bit off more than they could chew but we were already established so we just rode out the crest of the wave. The nineties were actually very good to us and they were to a lot of places that were already established. But, you had all these new businesses coming along and thinking they could do better. Well, they couldn’t. A lot of them fell.”
In the aftermath, the industry slowly began to rebuild. The early noughties saw the release of a number of seminal comic-book movies such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) which helped to repair some of the damage, while setting the genre on a path that would culminate with the conception of the world-famous Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That Sheffield Space Centre has maintained such a consistent customer base for the last forty years is quite remarkable, but the reason is abundantly clear. There’s a true sense of community in the store, a comradery between retailer and customer that is practically unheard of at any major chain. Few things bring people together like a mutual niche interest, even during a short visit to the store you’re likely to hear enthusiastic discussions of the latest nerd news. Yates theorises this is the secret to their success.
“People buy their stuff and then they stay to talk comics. We talk geeky. I think we’re a bit more friendly than most stores because usually you’ll go in and see younger people behind the counter. They come in here and see three old guys. We don’t have to look up Google to chase down a fact because it’s all up here. Between the three of us, there’s about a century’s worth of knowledge there.” He is quick to demonstrate it, too. It’s at this point that he rattles off a comprehensive list of trivia facts about the 1971 kids television show Lidsville. It was made by the same two men who created cult favourite Land of the Lost, didn’t you know? “I’ve just told you all that without consulting a computer. There you have it. Point made,” he says smugly.
Far from being just a club for middle-aged men to reminisce, the customer base of Sheffield Space Centre has never seen such wide a range of people as it does today. “It seems now that more women read manga than men and they’re catching up on the comics side as well. Across the age range is also incredible. You could be talking children right through to pensioners,” Yates explains.
Certainly, there has been a conscious effort on the part of writers and publishers to appeal to a more diverse audience in recent years, with a focus on more female characters leading the charge. Perhaps the most successful example of this has been the creation of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who recently inherited the iconic mantle of Ms. Marvel. She is the first Muslim character to headline a solo Marvel book and in the five years since her debut she has become a staple of the company’s main line-up – even earning praise from then-President Barack Obama in March 2016. “Comics are fun for everybody,” Yates says with conviction.
These days, comic-book sales seem to have stabilised (albeit, at much smaller numbers than they reached at the peak of the boom). That said, since the turn of the millennium and the meteoric rise of the internet, many have declared the days of the comic-book store to be numbered as digital alternatives increase their market share.
Yates isn’t convinced: “It’s not made any difference to be quite honest with you, although a lot of people think it has. Some people like reading it off the screens, but then again if they want to have bad eyesight by the time they get to my age, they’re more than welcome to have that. But, Marvel and DC are now starting to take note of all this and they’ve started putting digital codes into physical copies. So for one product, you’re getting two.”
“I think the markets should technically stimulate each other because if you’re going to put everything onto a screen then shops will close, people won’t have anywhere to go, won’t have anybody to talk to. This is why shops must prevail at the end of the day, rather than just being boutiques for people who come in, look at stuff and then order it on Amazon which is the greatest insult you can do for any retailer – especially with the amount of work we put into it.”
The Space Centre itself has a very modest online presence; an eBay account and a website which is currently “under renovation”. The majority of their business comes from purchases made in-store and from their frequent stalls at comic-book conventions around the country. As these events become more common and more prosperous, many sellers now operate without a brick-and-mortar shop. “They only do conventions and they’ll just travel anywhere the money is. I think it’s a bit of a risk but then again they don‘t have overheads like us to worry about. They just keep it at home and that’s it. But, it’s not something we would do. You need a shop basically, you need an anchor.”
It’s fortunate they feel that way because if the Space Centre were to close, Sheffield would lose a genuine institution. People from far and wide have walked through their door, including a man from Australia who ended up leaving with a hefty selection of board games that weren’t available down under. “It would have been the price of a plane ticket to send them over by post,” Yates claims.
With such a loyal and enthusiastic customer base, it’s difficult to imagine business at Sheffield Space Centre slowing down – in spite of the naysayers and their doomsday warnings. After all, comic-books have been perceived as a dying industry for decades. From the rapid decline of the super-hero genre in the 1950s, to the strict imposition of the Comics Code Authority throughout the sixties and seventies, and the aforementioned crash of the late nineties.
The industry seems to face more extinction-level crises than the fantastical heroes of its pages, but much like those characters it continues to triumph and push forward with reckless abandon. Much of the credit for that can be attributed to people like Colin Yates. He’s been selling comic-books for the last twenty-eight years and reading them for a great deal longer.
When asked what it is that keeps people coming back to comic-books year after year, he simply says: “People like to keep their imaginations fed.” It’s hard to argue with that.