by Carla Occaso
His favorite comic book character is Spider-Man because, he says, “Spider-Man is a character who has lots of problems, but always finds time to help everybody else despite those problems…..” Consequently, Roy Datema, owner of Wonder Cards and Comics located on the Barre side of the Barre-Montpelier Road at 445 U.S. 302, uses the image of Spider-Man on his store sign to beckon customers.
The story of how Datema got into the card and comic-book-selling business starts with trouble in the form of an economic recession followed by the largest flood in Montpelier since the Great Flood of 1927. Back before 1991, in the 1980s, Datema served as coordinator for the Intervale Center in Burlington. This was a large community garden located on the outskirts of town. “They gave me some of their community garden space in exchange for coordinating” the remaining plots, Datema said. He also appeared on Across The Fence and put on the displays at the Champlain Valley Exposition where he won ribbons for his produce, “but it is all forgotten,” Datema said.
“I used to sell (vegetables) at 25 restaurants, and all of a sudden, one winter (starting 1991), I went to get my orders—I didn’t plant until I got my orders—and they said, all of a sudden, ‘business is terrible’,” Datema said. He noticed that while the economy in general was poor, sports cards and comic books were booming as a hobby. Later that winter, in early 1992, a flood devastated downtown Montpelier when ice jams on the Winooski caused water to divert onto Main Street. Store owners such as Capitol Stationers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory when basements received torrents of water, Datema explained.
That store (Capitol Stationers) had “lost a lot of money in uninsured product” and were looking for new sources of income, Datema said. “They invited a store within a store. So, that is how I started my store.”
In the beginning, Datema sold comic books, sports cards and Magic Cards. He also held Magic Card tournaments. Over time his business grew and he opened the store out on the Barre-Montpelier Road, and “remolded the store into an entertainment store of pop culture,” to keep up with changing interests. In the early nineties he went to many more conventions than he does today thanks to technology. “I mostly stopped (going to as many conventions) because the Internet became easier to do business …so we had to go to shows less frequently to keep sales volumes level.”
However, Datema still attends the closer Comic Cons in Burlington, Boston and Rhode Island. When Datema started selling comics and collectible cards, his hottest items were sports cards. Now, customers are more interested in comics, Datema said. Without giving away any specific hot trends, Datema said he is stocking more media-related items, meaning products related to popular movies and television shows. Magic Card sales are not as big for Datema as they could be if he were in more of an urban center because, “Magic sales are correlated to in-store playing. Because we do not have in-store playing, our Magic sales are lower than they used to be. We used to have sponsored tournaments, (but) this location has turned out to be unattractive to local Magic players because nobody can walk here,” he said. But he learned of the game when customers asked him to stock the cards and host the games while he was still in Montpelier. “I call it an intellectual sport,” he said.
Another specialty Datema has is finding those rare and hard-to-find items that people search for with no luck. “I am known as the guy to find the toy, the movie … the item you’ve been looking for for years … I have secret places to find things,” he said. “The Internet has enabled me to help fill special orders very efficiently. Small local stores like Wonder Cards and Comics can supply items people are looking for better than large box stores who only deal with the broadest product line,” he said referring to stores such as Wal-Mart. Then, Datema made a pitch for shopping at independently owned stores. “Wal-Mart stocks a very small selection in each category, like Magic Cards, they have one or two kinds, well I look at my wall and I have seven different ones. I stock widely, but not deeply. Same with comic books. Wal-Mart has three kinds of apples, but you go down to the co-op and they have 30 kinds of apples,” he said. “Shopping at small local stores exposes shoppers to an incredible diversity of interesting products compared to big box stores,” he said.