Tucked into an inconspicuous alley in Andersonville, AlleyCat Comics at 5304 N. Clark Street has aisles crammed with graphic novels, board games, comic books and all kinds of eclectic relics — including the Avengers Defenders tarot. The shop opened 11 years ago after co-owner Selene Idell and her husband had a child, when there was no longer space for her husband’s comic book collection in their one-bedroom apartment.
“I told Nick, my husband, that we had two options: get rid of the comic books or open up a store,” Idell said. “We opened up a store.”
The small space and secluded location might be deceiving of the amount of varied collectibles the store contains. Floor to ceiling shelves of comic books, AlleyCat is now buzzing with customers asking about the latest Marvel figurines and manga. But that wasn’t the case in April 2020, when a pajama-clad Idell was the shop’s only visitor.
“I bought a space heater and kept all the lights and heat off in the store when I was there,” Idell said, which would keep electricity bills to a minimum. “I would go in my pajamas because nobody would see me and would watch YouTube videos in the dark by myself. It was an introvert’s dream.”
During the height of the pandemic, Idell posted pictures on Instagram and Facebook of the books available at the shop every day. Clients would contact her, and Idell would wrap their items in a bag and run them out to customers waiting in their cars.
There was also another contactless option: a pickup box at the storefront where purchasers could get their graphic novels and comics. After working at the shop from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Idell delivered books to people who felt unsafe leaving their homes.
To Idell’s disappointment, AlleyCat did not receive a forgivable loan, but it did receive the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
“We’ll be paying the loan back for years,” Idell said. “But if we wouldn’t have gotten that loan, we wouldn’t be in business right now.”
Idell was even more disappointed the comic book shop didn’t get a forgivable loan when she found out the Potbelly Sandwich Shop in front of their business — part of a national chain — did.
In January 2022, AlleyCat’s sales had tripled compared to those in April 2020, Idell said. Now, sales are going back to “pre-pandemic” normal, and customers are frequenting the store more often.
“We’re even considering opening a second location, as many people want at-home entertainment, and comics are a great option,” Idell said.
Idell said she feels lucky to have her two employees, Jim Moore and David Clarke, by her side.
“Jim and David are huge comic book and pop culture fans, so they work for store credit,” Idell said. “We give them pay checks for the weekend, but they’re willing to split it half-and-half until we’re able to pay off the loan.”
Clarke, who has worked at the store since 2017, said working at AlleyCat has been his favorite job.
“I’m surrounded by people who share the same interests, and I even get to help them find the things they like,” Clarke said. “It’s nice to make people’s days.”
Moore has been friends with the Idells for almost 15 years and has worked at AlleyCat for three years. During the pandemic, Moore also helped with the creation of the shop’s website and wrote reviews for its blog.
“AlleyCat has been a ‘found family’ for me,” Moore said.
Idell said she wants her customers to feel part of a space that’s welcoming and non-judgmental.
“Visiting AlleyCat is more about the experience itself rather than about getting the items,” she said.