Endangered Spaces

Superheroes Couldn’t Save a Comic Book Clubhouse in Lower Manhattan

Loved by Wall Streeters and scruffy comic book junkies alike, Chameleon Comics was a clubhouse in the Financial District.

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Chameleon Comics & Cards

3 Maiden Lane, Manhattan

Endangered Spaces is celebrating beloved neighborhood institutions that are fighting to stay open in an era of relentless change. Tell us a space we should feature, and send us your memories, at endangeredspaces@nytimes.com.

Jason Winn burst into Chameleon Comics & Cards looking like Superman stumbling upon kryptonite.

“What is going on?” Mr. Winn said to the regulars in the shop who had already read the handwritten sign outside.

Their glum faces told the story: Chameleon was shutting its doors after nearly 30 years in Manhattan’s Financial District.

“This shop was like home to me,” said Mr. Winn, a paralegal, who works nearby and had grown used to his steady fix of Chameleon’s eclectic selection of comic books, graphic novels, baseball cards and action figures. “These kind of comic shops are shutting down left and right.”

Beyond the shop’s merchandise, the scene was what really attracted a steady cadre of regulars, from scruffy comic junkies in search of bargains to well-dressed Wall Streeters looking to drop serious money on the store’s impressive selection of collectible baseball cards.

They all shared a common despondency during the shop’s last week before it closed on March 31. And they came together one last time to lament the demise of their favorite gathering spot, a place where you could land bargains while discussing the latest releases with like-minded collectors.

“At this shop, they always had a personal relationship with the customers. They always worked with me and gave me a deal. You can’t get that kind of service at a corporate store.”

Jason Winn, 38

The store’s owner, Steve Wu, 50, said business had been declining for years and that he could no longer afford to stay open now that his lease was ending and his landlord was raising the rent significantly.

Mr. Wu would not disclose the exact amount, but said the increase would put his rent well over $10,000 per month for the 500-square-foot shop on Maiden Lane just east of Broadway.

Business, he said, never quite rebounded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack occurred several blocks away. Also, he added, younger people do not seem to collect comics like older generations did.

The shop is one of many small service-style businesses that caters to the work force that fills the area on weekdays. Inside, it was hardly a charming space — sparsely decorated with worn beige tiles underfoot and large fluorescent lights overhead, along with a large inflatable Spiderman doll hanging from the ceiling.

But the drab décor only seemed to make the colorful comic books and graphic novels pop out even more from their display cases, which had small signs issuing edicts such as “No Reading” and “This Is Not a Library.”

In the store’s last days, shoppers sought to take advantage of the store’s everything-must-go sale.

A stack of Superboy comics from the late 1960s were being sold for $10 apiece. In the baseball card cases, a Carl Yastrzemski rookie card from 1960 cost $125, but one of him from 1972 went for $3.

“These kind of stores are what make New York great,” said one customer, Wayne Manos, 66, a Marvel and DC Comics lover and a Topps baseball card aficionado who began frequenting the store while working at the now defunct American Stock Exchange.

“We became part of the community — a lot of people came here just to hang out and get away from work,” said Mr. Wu, as he hugged some of his customers. “But with a store like this, the profit margin is very low. It’s not like a Chanel store where you can make a few sales a day.”

He tried looking for other retail space in downtown Manhattan, he said, “but the rents are just too crazy.”

Illustrations by Julia Wertz

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