Heroes Among Us
Shelton Drum, owner of Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, is the ringleader of Charlotte’s thriving comic book scene, which comes together this month for the thirtieth annual HeroesCon
Shelton Drum opened his store Heroes Aren't Hard to find in 1980.
It is a dreary night, rainy and damp, and the streets of Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood are mostly empty. Between the moon and the street lamps there is plenty of light, but it is eerily quiet. The only sound is the occasional car splashing through the puddles—just the kind of night a comic book writer might dream up to introduce his villain to the audience.
Not to worry, citizens, Spider-Man is just a few feet away. He is perched atop a glass cabinet, his hand outstretched, unleashing a web of fishnet wrapped in metal that reaches up to the ceiling. Spidey’s arch nemesis, Dr. Octopus, hangs nearby, his tentacles menacing the air. The two seem poised for an epic battle.
The seven-foot fiberglass and polystyrene foam installations are the main attractions at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, the comic book store on Seventh Street with a national following. The store, which sells around 6,500 books a week, is the epicenter of Charlotte’s thriving comics scene. Shelton Drum started it in 1980, and you can still find him there most days. He’s also the founder of the annual Charlotte HeroesCon. This June, between 15,000 and 20,000 people are expected to attend the convention, now in its thirtieth year. It is the oldest continuously running, privately organized comics show in the country, and attracts the industry’s top artists and writers. This year, there will be 250 vendor booths spread over 100,000 square feet. Drum is known for walking among the exhibits at the Charlotte Convention Center, greeting as many people as he can. Most have been to his store over the years, where they come to browse, talk shop, and of course, to check out the hero and the villain that were specially crafted to watch over Drum’s empire.
The idea for the iconic display came in 2001 from Drum’s then ten-year-old son during a visit to Home Depot. Father and son were trying to figure out how to run power from the ceiling to the center of the new store. “We were looking at different materials to use as a conduit. My son saw a piece of dryer duct and said ‘This looks like Dr. Octopus’s arms.’ A light went off and I said, ‘Yeah, it does!’ So we designed this thing to be a conduit running out of Dr. Oct’s arms.” (Dr. Octopus literally has power running through his veins.)
Drum is embarrassed to admit how much he paid for the two custom-made men, and he’s never told anyone. “I’m still paying it off,” he jokes. But it’s worth it. “When people come to the shop, that’s what they’re talking about,” says Dustin Harbin. He is a thirty-seven-year-old Charlotte-based full-time illustrator who worked at Heroes for more than a decade. A high school dropout, he says being at the store was his school. “It’s a family-oriented, kind of safe comic book shop, rather than a dusty, musty place,” he says. “Comic book shops can get a bad rep for being, um, well, almost sleazy, like an adult book shop.”
It’s a less commercialized, more lived in, slightly grittier version of the gift stores Disney drops you in at the end of a ride. There are fun things to look at and even cooler things to buy. From the posters on the walls to the books on the shelves, everything feels like it has substance and history.
“It reminds you of when you were a kid,” says Reggie Holliday, a computer tech who stops in Heroes two or three times a week.
“Hey Reggie!” Drum says as Holliday walks in, still in his work clothes. He’s made the trek on this rainy night because Wednesday is when new comics hit the shelves. Another regular, Matt Hunt, has come for the same reason. He has about a dozen books on hold, including editions of Batman, The Justice League, and Nightwing, all well-known titles in the Heroes world.
Hunt, too, gets a special hello when he dashes in out of the rain. “We work out at the Y together,” Drum says. Now thirty-four and living in Charlotte, Hunt has been coming to Heroes since he was a kid, when he would beg his mom to drive him from Lincolnton. “I feel like it’s an institution at this point. They treat their customers great, there’s a great selection,” Hunt says. Holliday adds, “This was just your dream spot growing up. It’s got a million comics and toys.” He smiles. “Coming here just takes you out of the real world.”
Drum, a father of five and grandfather of six, says that’s been the goal since he was twelve and realized he could spin his love of the webbed hero into cash. It was 1967. He latched onto Spider-Man because he could relate to the character’s nerdy alter ego, Peter Parker. Drum grins and says, “I got glasses in the seventh grade! Spider-Man was my number-one comic, my holy grail. I loved the art and when I started reading them, I got invested in the characters and the stories.
“I still remember that first issue I owned,” he says. “It was the introduction of this scientist villain, the Vulture, and it turned me into a collector.” It cost him 12 cents. He got a catalog and realized there were back issues. He wanted them all. He found the first Spider-Man for $7. “A couple of months later, it was $10, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something going on here.’ Even my little preteen mind was thinking, ‘There’s some money to be made here!’” Once he figured out the books came out in series, his future quickly took shape. “I thought it would be really neat to have them all. That’s how a collector thinks.” That $7 book is now worth up to $100,000, though Drum says his copy wouldn’t net that because it’s not in mint condition.
At Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus do battle over the racks of comics. The characters double as the city’s most entertaining wiring conduits.
Now fifty-eight, with shaggy gray hair and an easy smile, he still wears glasses but gives off more of a laid-back hippie vibe than the nerd look he embraced as a teen. He is on his third marriage and walks to work every day. Drum lives just a block from the store and says he is there, for one reason or another, seven days a week. He has plenty of staff, yet he is often the one behind the building, rolling out the recyclables. One of his daughters is the store manager, and his youngest son travels with him to conventions twice a month. (Always the collector, he says they never leave without buying something.)
“My dad was a hoarder,” he says. Growing up in Newton, Drum says he remembers his parents always going to estate sales. “My dad generally liked stuff. They would go to these sales and buy truckloads of tools. He wasn’t going to use them, he just thought they were cool.” His dad owned a junkyard, knew everything about what he bought and sold, and taught Drum to do the same.
“I guess I envisioned this as a kid,” he says gesturing to the store. I really wanted to draw comics but I didn’t have any imagination and it frustrated me to no end. I kept drawing until college.”
That’s when he turned to selling. While at UNC Charlotte he hit the Metrolina flea market every month buying up books, and in 1977 he started the Charlotte MiniCon, a one-day gathering of comics dealers at the Eastland Mall. “The mall was new, bright, and shiny,” he says. “We had the show every two months in the community room on the Belk end of the mall. There were twenty dealers and a few hundred people.” The first incarnation of his store came three years later, when an unemployed friend convinced him that going into business was a good idea.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you open a store? I need a job.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to work here.’ He said, ‘I promise.’ Six months later he was gone, but my store was up and running pretty well.”
Finding a name for the store took some work. “It took a while to get to it because I was selling comic books for a long time before I opened the store,” Drum says. “It was an evolution. I started going through names and nothing ever worked. I was a fan of Fleetwood Mac and they had an album, Heroes Are Hard to Find. And I said, but they’re not! They’re in the comic books, and they were easy to find because I had them. So that was the connotation: heroes aren’t hard to find, they’re right here.”