Highlandtown’s new bookstore wants to amplify underrepresented voices in comics

Published on: November 15, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 15, 2022 8:22 AM EST

Miranda Nordell owner, Head Dreamer at Dreamers & Make-Believers and Sam Bolenbaugh, Head Make-Believer at Dreamers & Make-Believers poses for a portrait inside of their store, Dreamers and Make-Believers, Friday, November 11, 2022.

Miranda Nordell stumbled into an imaginary, comic book-based support group out of serendipity.

It began when Nordell saw ”Jessica Jones,” a Netflix show based on the Marvel Comics ex-superhero turned investigator who has post-traumatic stress disorder. Nordell saw aspects of her own experience in Jones that she couldn’t then express or articulate.

The show drew her to the comic book series and ultimately to other stories, Nordell said, often featuring heroines who were “beautifully flawed,” who had gone through trauma and were able to brush themselves off. They helped Nordell pick herself up again.

Years after she first picked up the series, Nordell and her partner, Sam Bolenbaugh, now have their own comic book shop in Highlandtown that’s set to open permanently later this month. The community bookstore — Dreamers & Make-Believers — will amplify Black, Indigenous and other authors of color, as well as queer voices, hoping to connect comic book characters with people who need them.

“Like I needed Jessica Jones at the beginning of our journey,” Nordell said.

The pair closed their pop-up last week and are in the process of moving books to the new place, where there will be a seating area by the front windows in the immediate entrance with lots of sunlight for reading. Also on the first floor, Dreamers & Make-Believers will have a coffee bar area where people can get espresso, drip coffee, pastries and bagels, and a kids area with books for children up to the age of 12. Books for teenagers and adults, as well as board games and tarot cards, will be on the second floor.

”We’re excited to have a space where all ages can be and find amazing books and connect with neighbors and have a cup of coffee,” Nordell said.

After learning about Jessica Jones, Nordell wanted to immerse herself in the comics world in San Francisco, where she lived at the time. She found an already established comic book fan community in the city, with a “fabulous overlap” of people who were openly queer and that were fighting for underrepresented voices to be louder and more present in comics. Nordell eventually quit her job in public health for a position in the comic bookstore, where she became general manager.

Her partner visited her at the store as she managed the staff and ran the day-to-day business, often helping Nordell out, too. Bolenbaugh fell in love with the stories he came across, particularly “Saga,” a “powerful” series on love, war, loss and fantasy, with elements that reminded him of William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” and the multibillion-dollar franchise ”Star Wars.”

The dream of owning a comic bookstore had already been there, Nordell said. But in a city with at least eight such bookstores, Nordell and Bolenbaugh didn’t think they could compete in that space. So it was a dream that they tucked away, until they moved to the East Coast in 2020 after Bolenbaugh, who works with events, got a job offer in Baltimore.

It was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and a statewide order shut down nonessential businesses. Nordell and Bolenbaugh isolated in their home in Brewers Hill for about 10 days in their new city. They turned to reading, often relying on public libraries to acquire digital copies of comic books and graphic novels.

But they missed the physical copies, Bolenbaugh said. Comic books are a form of sequential art, he said, in which the order of the panels and the layout of the graphic serves a particular purpose in the storytelling. It’s designed with intent, and that experience can get lost depending on the format.

“The movement [of the pages] is such a part of the experience,” Bolenbaugh said. “It’s almost impossible, in a lot of cases, to translate that to a digital form.”

There were no bookstores in the Brewers Hill area, he said, and they didn’t have a car or feel comfortable taking public transportation at the time. The couple felt stranded, without not only the stories they were passionate about but also the comic book community. The pandemic fostered loneliness in a new city where Nordell was hoping to find new connections.

In February of 2021, almost a year into the pandemic, someone posted in their neighborhood group that there was a retail space available. That’s when it hit them.

It was a Valentine’s Day present,” Bolenbaugh said, remembering the exact date. They made the decision: “We’re opening a bookstore.”

“We felt like if we couldn’t find what we needed, we would build it ourselves,” Nordell said.

That space didn’t end up working out. But on the same day they officially parted ways with that building owner, the couple found a space at 400 South Highland Ave., in the area’s Main Street District. It was significantly larger, and they signed the lease that September.

Bolenbaugh and Nordell had already been holding pop-ups at Mobtown Brewing Company in Brewers Hill; they started out having them once or twice a month. Nordell also already had the experience of working with book distributors.

The pop-up grew in popularity, and it became a weekly event where customers could grab a beer, browse and talk about comics. The couple threw a launch party when Bolenbaugh’s favorite graphic novel series, ”Saga,” came back after a hiatus. Bolenbaugh brewed a beer with Mobtown, and the logo featured a rocket from the graphic novel.

Mobtown soon was too small for Free Comic Book Day, when Bolenbaugh and Nordell were planning to give free comics as part of a 20-year-old nationwide tradition among independent book stores. So, they held the event at 3402 Art, a local gallery. It’s where Dreamers & Make-Believers has been since May, while they wait for the South Highland Avenue spot to be ready.

Highlandtown has not had a bookstore for at least 10 years, according to the Southeast Community Development Corporation, although there is demand for one. Over the last two years, the corporation has conducted a community and art survey as part of a planning process for the Highlandtown arts district. There were about 200 responses across both surveys, in which people said they wanted places like bookstores, coffee shops and more performance spaces.

“During the pandemic we turned to online shopping because it seemed like the safer option,” said Molly McCullagh, who directs the neighborhood revitalization program at Southeast Community Development Corporation. “I think people are craving local, in-person interactions.”

The store will also fulfill a need for literary arts in a district that is known for gallery shows, paintings and murals, music and Latin American cultural performances, she said. The pop-up is currently a stop on the Highlandtown First Friday Art Walk, and has partnered with local artists, authors and businesses.

In the first year of the pandemic, bookstore sales fell almost 30%, but independent and smaller booksellers thrived. Membership in the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization for independent bookstores, grew from 1,689 in July 2020 to 2,203 this year, according to The New York Times. Some of the growth may have been from stores that already existed prior to the pandemic, but put off renewing their membership. But more than 100 stores opened in the past year, with increased diversity among owners.

While there has been greater diversity and representation in Marvel and DC Comics, two giants in the industry, most of the legacy superheroes are white, cisgender and in straight relationships. There’s value in their stories, Nordell and Bolenbaugh said, but other voices should be in the spotlight, such as characters who are part of the LGBTQ community.

In their store, the two display queer comics and graphic novels at the front, as well as comics penned by Black authors and writers who are people of color. They don’t ask their shoppers how many X-Men characters they know, or which actor played the best Spiderman. Nordell and Bolenbaugh, who are queer, identify their store as queer-owned on social media to emphasize that it is a safe space.

“We have no interest in fighting with folks,” he said. “Before you even enter the door, this is who we are, and our identities are not up for debate.”