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Retailer Interview: Black Ice Comics & Books

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Retailer Interview: Black Ice Comics & Books

I traveled to Isle Royale recently for a hiking trip. If you’ve never heard of Isle Royale, and you probably haven’t because it’s one of the least traveled national parks in the country, it’s a sizable island on Lake Superior and getting there takes some effort. You fly into tiny Houghton, Michigan (population: 8,386) in the Upper Peninsula and take a ferry or seaplane. Because I knew I was going to spend a day in Houghton before my seaplane took off, I searched if Houghton had a comics shop…sure enough it did: Black Ice Comics & Books

Should you decide to visit Isle Royale or anywhere in the U.P., definitely stop by Black Ice. I went on a beautiful Saturday and the shop was busy. Not just with people browsing shelves, but families getting ice cream and drinks, kids running around the back room, and people stopping by just to chat with store owner Shana Porteen. 

I can’t recommend Black Ice enough. It’s a highly inclusive nerd oasis in what should be a tough area for this type of culture and this type of business. It’s a true gem of a shop and I count it as one of the highlights of my trip. Definitely get the ice fream…it’s fantastic.

Ben: Hi, Shana. Walk me through how you got into comics and what you were doing before you opened Black Ice in 2016.

Shana: I was in higher education. I was a professor and and administrator at Finlandia University, a small liberal arts college that was just across the way. My husband and I came up [to Michigan] as transplants. And so I was rocking and rolling with that for a while and in 2015 I got diagnosed with breast cancer and got through that. Cancer puts you in a particular perspective about life and what it is you really want. So I decided I was going to step away from higher ed, which was very difficult for me. 

I‘ve always loved books. I’ve always loved comics. When I was in high school, our family started a comic shop down in Stillwater, Oklahoma. My older brother still owns Legendary Comics in Stillwater. I understood the industry and loved it. 

There wasn’t anything that was even close to a comic shop in the entire Upper Peninsula. And I was like, I know this industry and this would make me happy. I ended up getting my PhD, but pop culture was always a part of my life. I’m a huge nerd and I don’t apologize for that. 

So then I was at this moment of my life, what could I do? What would make me happy? So in 2016, I opened up the first small shop and hit the ground running. 

Ben: When you opened originally, it was a 900 square foot space below a parking deck. And so you had that until 2021?

Shana: Yeah, we survived the pandemic down there. We were tucked away and that was hard. We did the best we could with the lighting and the space we had. I’m still amazed I was able to grow. It wasn’t an ideal space retail-wise at all. 

Ben: How did you stock it initially? Was getting the shop open a challenge? 

Shana: I actually had somebody who was very sweet and gave us a gift of $10,000. And it helped that I was able to get back issues from the nineties and late eighties from my big brother. I bought about 15,000 back issues from him. For the store, I handbuilt everything with my stepdad, everything was on a shoestring. I was coming off of cancer and I didn’t want to put us in any more financial strain. 

We had about four months to build the space out. And so my stepdad and I hauled out about three tons of steel and trash. We did this all by hand and started making the fixtures, we did all the painting, we did everything. I built it from the ground up and just put it out there and thank God it worked <laughs>.

Ben: When you opened, did you keep teaching at the university? 

Shana: I just resigned. That was it. I’m opening the shop and that’s what I’m doing. I’m just jumping in. 

Ben: Any second guessing or was it always, this is the dream and I’m going to make this happen no matter what?

Shana: It’s funny, that’s a good question. The gamble for me was are people gonna care? Because you heard during that time about the death of comics or it’s all going online. Nobody wants a comic shop anymore. And so I wasn’t sure if I was getting in at a terrible time. 

And there’s not a huge population up here in the Upper Peninsula. The U.P. in its entirety is two counties with only 43,000 people. That’s it. And so having to learn the dynamic of who’s shopping, who’s buying. I mean, we’ve got a few industries around here, but there’s a lot of poverty, a lot of generational poverty. So you’re not talking to high end collectors. I have readers and I know how to cater to them. That is my forte. 

Ben: That’s interesting. So you said earlier that there’s not a lot of other comic shops in the area. How far away is the next shop? 

Shana: There were a couple places in Marquette [Marquette is 100 miles away] that I think tried. There is a gaming store there that carries graphic novels and they may do a few comics. I have customers who come from Green Bay. I have people who drive from two and three hours away. 

Ben: So you’re it. You’re the destination store for the U.P.

Shana: I try to make it that.

Ben: Tell me about the Father’s Day Flood. 

Shana: Gosh, my poor little shop. In 2018, we had what they call the Father’s Day Flood. We got 18 inches of rain in one night and it flooded the whole downtown. My shop was one that got hit. So I was underneath the hardware store and the water started to come down through the ceiling. I actually live about 10 miles to the north, and so I am having to traverse county roads to make it here. The ceiling is starting to give. I put out a call on Instagram for help. I had customers running down the street with boxes and towels and I mean the whole community descended on us and helped us save those books. If you can believe this, we were able to save the vast majority and got everything into a dry area. 

I said to everyone, take everything out and keep it safe, and we’ll figure it out later. And so a lot of the shop went with customers and every bit of it came back. Then they came back the next day and helped me rip out the carpet. I mean, it was incredible. If it wasn’t for the community, I wouldn’t be here. Thank God everything was in plastic bags.

It’s so funny, my Rocket Raccoon display over there, he’s missing the tip of his tail. Somebody took Rocket home to save him and their cat chewed on it. And it’s just endearing, you know? It’s part of the memory. 

Ben: How did you find the current space you’re in? It has a kitchen in the back that you turned into an ice creamery. 

Shana: We were bursting at the seams in the old shop and it was difficult to get people to go down there. I knew the shop could be more than what it was. So I started in earnest looking for other retail space, and good space just was not available or was priced so high it was impossible to get into. There was this perfect space in the middle of downtown and it’s a perfect spot. 

The owner has ties to Houghton but doesn’t live here and that kind of scared me a little. Am I going to deal with some absentee landlord and is this gonna be a disaster? I don’t know. He’s in Houston and am I going to have to deal with Yosemite Sam? You know, my shop is my shop and I am unabashedly inclusive. 

So I called and I was talking to him like he had never set foot in Houghton <laughs>. And he was like, no, I’ve been in your shop. I love your shop. I want you in my building. And I thought, oh, this is awesome. And so he actually made a trip up here so that we could meet. And he was incredibly supportive and excited about my ideas to expand. 

Ben: How did you settle on selling ice cream? 

Shana: After we moved, we’ve got this 300 square foot kitchen and I’ve got to figure out how to make it pay for itself. And so I decided on ice cream, because in Houghton there wasn’t really anyone else doing it. Let’s do scoopable ice cream and simple drip coffee because there’s fufu coffee shops already in Houghton. I had to figure out how people will get their ice cream and eat it and mitigate any disasters. The parents are great at policing their kids. The carpet may have taken a hit, but no books have been lost, knock on wood. 

So I get to pedal happiness and there is nothing better than putting ice cream in the mix.

Ben: Was there a big learning curve with turning Black Ice into a cafe on top of being a bookstore? 

Shana: My background is higher ed, so you can imagine I read like crazy. It’s so funny to think, I have a PhD., I started my own business and I was terrified about whether or not I could scoop ice cream! I had to figure out, what kind of freezers do I get? How much do I buy before it goes bad? Up here I could only get one type of ice cream because there’s only one distributor. Fortunately, it’s great ice cream. It’s got high butter fat, it’s fantastic. 

For the coffee, at first I found these cute little Canadian hipsters over in Saux Saint Marie. And I was like, I’m gonna use your coffee. It was great tasting coffee but it tasted like everybody else’s coffee. I grew up in Oklahoma, so I love Cafe Du Mond out of New Orleans, it tastes so different than what anybody is serving up here. So I was literally just handing free cups of coffee out and asking what people thought of it. And they’re like, my god, this is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I knew I had ’em.

I make something I call a Black Ice Float. They can pick whatever ice cream they want. Then I pour the coffee over the top, a little whipped cream, and that’s the Black Ice Float. I wanted people to have an experience. The ice cream, everybody who does scoop ice cream all the way up the peninsula serves the same ice cream I do. People come in and tell me mine tastes the best. It’s part of the whole experience, I guess.

Ben: How did you navigate the pandemic time period? I’m assuming the shop had to shut down. 

Shana: Michigan definitely did. We did no-contact deliveries. We told people to set out boxes or totes so we kept up with our pulls. I would deliver comics. If people needed a delivery 15 miles away, I was happy to eat the gas. Sometimes I would put their books in a tote outside my house and they would come by and put the money inside and pick up their books.  

It worked and we survived. And when we opened again, there was still a lot of sickness up here. A lot of rejection for vaccination. And so when it would hit us, it hit us very hard. We bagged every book and there was a time we asked people to wear gloves. We had 900 square feet and we could only let two or three people in at a time. It was crazy. 

I’m amazed we survived, because there were a lot of businesses that didn’t. It was horrifying to read who couldn’t stay afloat through all that. I consider myself exceedingly lucky. 

Ben: Were you worried you might have to close? 

Shana: Oh yeah. I was terrified. You just didn’t know. Then there were so many titles that the publishers put on pause. We relied very heavily on graphic novels. What are we gonna do? We started leaning heavily on having manga in the shop. We had other books that people could be interested in. And it worked. We survived, but it wasn’t like I was flourishing. 

Ben: Do you think you could have opened the shop at any other time period? Like say in the 90’s or early 2000’s?  Or do you think 2016 was the perfect year? 

Shana: I think that was the right year. It’s funny, you have to understand that in this industry, being a female shop owner is a rarity. I still have female customers that come from down state and they’re like, I can’t go to my local shop because they treat me like I’m an invader. 

Ben: Really?

Shana: That’s disheartening, huh? It’s like, do better, guys. I still get mansplained. <laughs>. If my husband and my dad happen to be standing there and someone comes in and they wanna talk to the owner, they’ll look to them first. It’s better than it used to be, but it’s still there. That has been something to kind of overcome.

Ben: Do you see other challenges for the shop? Is there anything in the comic industry that worries you?

Shana: I continuously read about book bans and I read that some libraries are removing comics. That’s a concern. Especially for the region I’m in. 

I had a long time customer who came in, he’s a huge Fantastic Four fan, and he was so angry. He’s unabashedly very conservative. And again, you can’t come in here and not see that Shan’s not inclusive. My PhD is centered around this. He was so angry, he came in and he goes, I’m not gonna buy FF anymore because this is nothing more than liberal indoctrination. 

So what was he concerned about? Because Sue Storm didn’t take Reid’s last name. He said, these kids don’t realize all this liberal indoctrination is coming through the comics, and I am no longer going to buy this comic. And I thought, this man has been my customer for years and never realized that I never took my husband’s last name [laughs]. 

Ben: Wow. 

Shana: It was one of those things I thought he would either come back or he wouldn’t.

Ben: Did he come back to pick up FF anymore?

Shana: No, that was it. He said, I’m done. Disney has ruined Marvel, you hear that a lot. I am concerned as to how far this pushback will go. If there are Pride covers, we carry them and they sell beautifully. When I see that a book has been banned, if I don’t have it on my shelf, I buy it. Because people need to have access. The kids need to have access. I will protect that. But that issue is always in the back of my mind. 

Something I’m always thinking about, like I said earlier, this area is economically depressed. We have haves and definitely have-nots. You can’t just cater to those that have it. You have to figure out how to include other folks. We try to do free comics. I have a lot of people who come together and we can donate stuff to people and have free comics when a kid comes in. I have boxes of books that I can just grab and say, here, go read this and have fun. I have customers who are older and indigent. I will grab a stack, put it in a bag so they’ve got something to read. 

Ben: I’ve never heard of a shop doing that. It’s great that you have such an involvement with the community.

Shana: I have this one gentleman who’s little boy was struggling with reading skills. I said, you know what, a kid is not intimidated by a comic. Let’s get Peyton some comics. Peyton now is reading at such a high level. And this is something he shared with his dad when we flooded and Peyton and his dad came in. 

I said, Peyton, it’s kind of scary in the shop because there’s nothing in there. And it looks pretty rough inside. His dad went inside and collapsed and sobbed. I said, Clint, it’s gonna be fine. We’re gonna come back. I didn’t realize the dad was more upset about the shop flooding than Peyton was. I get to help somebody, you know, help their kid with their reading skills. And it’s just what this shop does. 

That is the enriching part. I know it sounds cliche when I say I pedal happiness. I know how to do it and I love every minute of it. 

Ben: That’s a beautiful connection. The owners of Blackbird Comics talked about how important that human connection was. And the shop was like a community hub. And they had become friends with many of the customers .

Shana: That is the enriching part, right? I’m a part of this community. So I had to tell you, the little liberal arts college that I left, my husband was a tenured professor there in criminal justice. The college just closed. He just lost his job. 

Ben: Oh, no! 

Shana: Everybody knows who I’m married to. My spouse just had to take a job five and a half hours away. I had people coming in tears and they’re like, please tell me you’re not moving away. And I said, I’m not moving away. And so I’m trying to now figure out what a long distance relationship is going to be like.  

Ben: How long have you been married? 

Shana: Well, today is my anniversary. We’ve been married 23 years. We’ve been together for 25. 

Ben: Wow! Happy anniversary.

Shana: My heart is in pieces, but this community is important. I can’t just pick this up and move it. This is still growing and this place still needs me. I love this area, so this is a whole new adventure for us. And I will say, if I didn’t have the shop and the people and my customers…there is no word for that customer that becomes like a family member, you know? But that’s exactly what they are. 

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Ben O’Grady is an SEO Manager for Disney Streaming by day, freelance writer by night. He recently started his journey as a comics creator. Follow him on Twitter @benogrady

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