Remembering St. Mark’s Comics: Transitioning In the Comic Shop

It’s early 2018. A middle-aged woman wanders into St Mark’s Comics looking to buy a book for her teenage son who likes Marvel movies. I pick out a couple trades featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man and tell her why I like them and she buys one and thanks me. She asks if I’ve ever worked in a comic shop in Long Island, or maybe New Jersey. I assure her I haven’t and she doesn’t believe me; she swears she saw someone just like me at another shop who gave similar recommendations. I politely assure her I haven’t, but it bothers the hell out of me. My boss Mitch doesn’t understand why. I look like a lot of guys at a lot of comic shops, he tells me. He wasn’t wrong and it stuck with me.

A few months later I tell Mitch I’m trans. He isn’t surprised. He’s calm and collected while I’m shaking in nervous anxiety. My transition might’ve been a new thing, but St. Mark’s Comics had seen every shade of masculine, feminine, straight, and queer in the 35 years preceding. Staff members were queer as often as they were punk or goth, and very rarely none of the three. My conversation with Mitch assured me I didn’t need to be scared of all old white men. The very next day I called my Dad and told him I wasn’t a straight cis guy.

Working at St. Mark’s was the first time I got to be part of a girl group. Apart from Mitch, the staff consisted mostly of women. And it came with all the ups and downs of any girl group, strong solidarity mixed in with exclusivity. The rotating cast of interchangeable new kids was larger than a Legion of Super-Heroes lineup. But more than a few of us stuck around. The ones who were just the right kind of strange, desperate nerds with the right amount of hardworking grit. Even though we no longer work together, we’re still a part of each other’s lives forever.

Working there involved physical labor like carrying longboxes and setting up con booths, but there was always the thrill and possibility of every new day. The thrill of every secondhand buy, sorting through someone’s treasure and garbage alike; would it be Marvel Comics from 1962 or Funko Pops? The thrill of every new customer; would they be a friendly regular, an aspiring comic-book artist, a neighborhood conspiracy theorist, or even Dame Darcy or Dan Didio? They all shared the same space on St. Mark’s Place.

It’s a nice spring Wednesday night. One of my favorite regular customers, a good friend, comes in. I get his new books. He asks if there’s a new Snotgirl this week and I tell him to be patient. (He doesn’t even read the single issues!) We talk about Doctor Who. Promotional materials are coming out as the new season gets closer and closer, Jodie Whittaker’s first season. We’re both excited and cautiously optimistic. I get strangely emotional and tell him I wish I could be Jodie Whittaker, I wish I could regenerate. He asks if I want to be Jodie Whittaker or the 13th Doctor or a female Doctor Who, or if I just want to be a woman. I don’t know how to respond.

The next time he picks up his books it’s a Monday night. It’s a slower day with more opportunity to talk. We revisit our last conversation. I tell him I’m trans and I’m transitioning, and I’m also really excited for the new Doctor Who. He listens and assures me life is too short to be unhappy, or to not be myself. He congratulates me on knowing who I am and having a path forward.

It’s January 29th, 2019. The same customer DMs me on Instagram as soon as he hears the shop is closing. He’ll miss a key part of his New York City experience and social life. He’ll come in soon to discuss the news and talk about what’s next and enjoy the place while he still can. I can’t promise I won’t cry but I swear it’s my hormones. He assures me it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to blame my hormones.

He stopped in almost every day for the next month, and even brought us cookies from Moishe’s Bakery on our last day open. We still talk regularly. Snotgirl still takes too long to come out. And there’s still too much time till the next season of Doctor Who.

It’s September 26th. It’s a Wednesday night, but it’s late and the regulars have mostly come in and picked up their new books. A couple young people come in wearing pronoun pins and pride emblems. I walk up to them and ask “Is there anything I can help y’all with?” They smile and say “No, thank you” but stop and look at me, obviously thinking. They thank me for my inclusive language and ask if they can ask me a personal question.

They seem nice and insist I don’t have to answer if I don’t want to, and I tell them to go ahead. They ask if I’m trans. I tell them I am and share my name and pronouns. They’re both trans and they’ve just come from a trans social. They have extra pronoun pins and give me one. I wear it to work almost every day till the shop closes.  

We talk further and I recommend some new comics I’m really enjoying, probably the new Exiles or X-Men: Grand Design. They pick up a few things. I ring them up and they assure me they’ll be back. Before they leave, one of them pulls me aside and seems serious. She asks if I’m treated well and respected and I tell her I am. She tells me I don’t have to lie and she’s happy to beat anyone up if she has to. It’s getting better, but the world can still be rough for trans people. I laugh and assure her she doesn’t need to beat anyone up. She laughs too, but we both know she’s not even half-joking. From then on, every time she came in she made a point of asking me if I felt safe and respected, and would re-extend her offer to fight off any bigots.

I was at home at St. Mark’s Comics. I got to be myself at St. Mark’s Comics. Even if I stumbled in half awake, I knew my coworkers would gender me correctly and respect me. I don’t know if I would have been afforded the same courtesy if I wasn’t as good at my job, or if I wasn’t white. And that has almost nothing to do with the shop, that’s reality. It’s a lot easier to be visibly and openly trans when people respect you and you’re confident. And I was respected and confident at the shop.

It’s February 2019, we’re in the middle of our close-out sale. A customer walks up to Mitch and asks what Kirby New Gods back issues we have in stock. Mitch points them to me and says “Go ask that nice lady over there, she can help with back issues. Plus she knows Kirby better than I do.” That kind of interaction was fairly common during the shop’s final months. I’d changed from being the comic book guy to being the comic book girl, but my job hadn’t changed. I was in charge of back issues and I sorted shipments of new comics, among other things.

I could still talk up any issue of Kirby Fantastic Four or Claremont X-Men, or tell you about every first appearance in the house. I’d happily sell you a copy of Hellboy Omnibus Volume 1 or the new issue of Fantastic Four, and the same regulars were still happy to see me.

St. Mark’s Comics was a halfway house for the wayward children of the East Village and the strange waste products of popular culture. Working at St. Mark’s Comics changed my life. I learned so much about both comics and myself working there. I became myself working at St. Mark’s Comics. It provided a space for people to learn and grow express themselves. Without St. Mark’s Comics, I don’t know if I would have so many of the comics and toys that litter my apartment, or my knowledge and passion for back issues. Beyond that, St. Mark’s was the space I came out and the space I transitioned in. St. Mark’s was where I shared my queerness and my femininity with the world, alongside my nerdiness. I don’t know if I would have my identity or even my name without St. Mark’s Comics.

Sasha Fraze

Sasha Fraze

Sasha Fraze is a professional comic book gremlin. You can find her on Twitter at @schlocking where she's probably sharing random thoughts about comics new and old or retweeting trans news and memes.

2 thoughts on “Remembering St. Mark’s Comics: Transitioning In the Comic Shop

  1. A touching story. Sorry that this formative landmark in your psychogeography shut down; that always sucks. Glad that you can remember such places so fondly.

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