Proudly perched among the fine dining and fancy boutiques of Ann Arbor’s Main Street is Vault of Midnight, a store whose vibrant blue exterior transfixes the gaze of any casual passerby. “Comic Books & Stuff” reads its wittily vague subtitle, and a peek inside clarifies why “stuff” is perhaps the only term that can sufficiently summarize the store’s impressive assortment of merchandise. Aside from new comic books, Vault of Midnight is packed wall to wall with graphic novels, figurines, board games, T-shirts, statues, manga and an enormous six-foot Uglydoll named Icebat.
Indeed, Vault of Midnight is a veritable paradise for Ann Arbor’s aficionados of comic books and other cool “stuff.” The store offers almost 100 new comic issues each week and its entire comic collection runs into the tens of thousands. But behind the stacks of old back issues of “The Goon” is an incredible success story of an independent, locally owned business.
Vault of Midnight first opened in 1996 in a one-room house on South Ashley.
“We were so small when we opened, it was ludicrous. I opened with my entire collection and a couple thousand bucks,” said Curtis Sullivan, co-owner of Vault of Midnight, who was just 21 when the store opened.
Most ludicrous of all was the prospect of opening a comic book store in the late ’90s in a town where there were already three other comic shops. And it was a time of monumental decline in the comic book industry.
“Everyone was like, ‘Holy shit! You’re opening a comic shop in 1996?’ ” recalled Sullivan. “That’s when it went from ‘Everyone buy five-million copies (of a title)’ to ‘Everyone buy no copies.’ ”
In the early ’90s, publishers flooded the market with company-wide crossovers, holographic covers and other schemes to milk avid comic book readers of their last pennies. But the saturation of the market led to a bubble burst and the business plummeted — industry titan Marvel Comics even declared bankruptcy in 1996.
Despite the obvious difficulties of entering a dying market, Sullivan, along with his wife Elizabeth DellaRocco and friend Steve Fodale, decided to open the store. There was no grand, elaborate business plan behind the decision. Their motivations for opening a comic book store were quite simple.
“We just really love comics,” Sullivan said.
The origin of the store’s name perfectly encapsulates its dark-horse roots.
“We took (Vault of Midnight) from old horror comics, the EC Comics. Vault of Horror and Crypt of Fear, House of Mystery … they were the original independents,” said Sullivan. “We’re an independently based shop as far as the publishers go and the EC (Entertaining Comics) were kind of the renegade comic company of that era, they were the underdogs.”
“Initially we focused on independent comic books, stuff that wasn’t Marvel or DC,” explained Sullivan. “(In other stores) we saw more of Marvel and DC, so we thought we could find our niche that way.”
The store’s independent collection was a source of appeal for many customers.
“The other shops didn’t do smaller books or self-published books,” said Christian Silbereis, an original patron and current employee of Vault of Midnight. “No one else had the crazy toys … they had Superman and Batman but not Spawn, these demonic toys from hell. They looked way cooler to a 12-year-old than Superman with a cape.”
Vault of Midnight’s goal of filling a niche market of independent comic books certainly worked — it managed to prevail through one of the lowest points in the industry’s history. The store made enough money at each of its locations, moving up a little bit each time. After two years on Ashley, it moved to a new location on Huron. After another two years, it moved to Liberty Street, near Afternoon Delight, spending five years there. Now, stationed on Main Street — Ann Arbor’s equivalent of Madison Avenue — Vault of Midnight has made it to the top.
If anything else, it was extremely fortuitous for Vault of Midnight to open when it did. It was able to ride along the wave of the industry’s return to prosperity. Comic books have blown up since the global successes of comic book movies — “Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man,” to name a few.
These film sensations have definitely led to more awareness and readership of comic books in general, but to attribute the success of Vault of Midnight merely to this phenomenon would belittle the hard work done by the store’s owners and employees.
“I think we’ve been able to thrive because of genuine appreciation and enthusiasm for what we’re doing,” said Silbereis.
“At the heart of it we just really loved comic books,” added Sullivan. “I would talk people’s ears off, I would get them to buy comic books ’cause I was totally all about them. And that’s real.”
For newbies who may worry about being overwhelmed by Vault of Midnight’s mammoth collection, fear not. The store’s employees are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about what they sell — they’ve been reading comics since they were kids. And the only thing they love more than the comics and games themselves is the chance to introduce others to them.
“(What we sell) coincides with what we like, that’s pretty much how we do everything,” said Sullivan. “It’s got to be the marriage of both of those things … we have to like it, not (be) selling for the sake of selling. We could have every kind of gaming thing imaginable but we’d spread ourselves too thin and we wouldn’t know a lot about (the products), and knowing a lot about (what we sell) helps us do well.
“It’s so easy if you don’t have to bullshit,” he continued. “I just think you’d be miserable trying to sell stuff that you weren’t really into, it seems like a worst nightmare.”
Although Vault of Midnight has a large selection of mainstream Marvel and DC comics today, the owners haven’t forgotten their origins. The store has a significant selection of independent comics — nearly half of the store’s main floor is dedicated to titles from smaller publishers including Dark Horse (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Image (“Invincible”) and Dynamite (“Red Sonja”). In many ways, this symbolizes a universally held dream — the ability to achieve success without selling your soul.