When Park Slope’s beloved Bergen Street Comics closed last September, many community members were left in dismay. But instead of mourning, comic-fanatics Cade Schreger and Davey Kourtesis saw an opportunity to feed their inner superheroes, coming to the rescue with Mama Says Comics Rock, Brooklyn’s newest comic shop.
Mama Says opened on Degraw Street this March, the store’s bright white brick walls, open layout, modern decor, and storefront cut-outs welcoming customers of all ages.
And in Schreger and Kourtesis, Cobble Hill embraces perhaps its youngest business owners. Both 23 years old, they earned their undergraduate degrees last spring from Middlebury College and Emerson College respectively. Long-time comic fans, mild collectors, and best friends, they chatted for years about opening a comic shop, though it was “always more of a pipe dream,” Schreger said. As graduation approached and career pressures loomed, the two faced what has become a typical dilemma for millennials.
“We were never interested in the idea of a standard nine-to-five office job,” said Schreger. “We were interested in creating our own thing, being able to design our own content and schedules.”
In the months following graduation, Schreger and Kourtesis (both Brooklyn Heights natives) moved home, largely directionless. The switch came in September, when Bergen Street Comics, a cherished local hangout, closed after six years of business.
“Then the idea went from something we talked about to, you know… maybe we should think of a business plan and start talking to real estate lawyers and people on the business side of comics,” Schreger said.
Building a storefront business may be a far-fetched first job for some, but for Schreger and Kourtesis, this non-traditional jump was — despite their parents’ initially raised eyebrows — surprisingly natural.
Both Mama Says’ owners attended Brooklyn Heights’ arts-oriented St. Ann’s School from kindergarten through 12th grade. “It’s a school that not only embraced creativity but encouraged it at every turn… St. Ann’s always taught us, if you have a hurdle, think of a creative way to get over it, don’t just turn and ignore the hurdle,” Schreger recalled. “And that in no small way encouraged us to go through with this project.”
This artistic schooling also proved formative in Schreger and Kourtesis’ passion for comics. “Every day we thank our lucky stars for St. Ann’s, honestly, because at a more of a, for lack of a better word, ‘stereotypical’ high school, I’m sure we wouldn’t have had as easy of a time being the nerds that we were growing up,” Schreger said, half-joking.
When building Mama Says, Schreger and Kourtesis sought advice directly from former Bergen Street owners Tom and Amy Adams, among other comic professionals. “Tom and Amy emphasized to love what you’re reading, love what you’re selling, and love the interactions you have,” says Schreger, who believes this people-centric mindset “keeps stress lower, and keeps us happier in the store on a day-to-day basis.” So the Mama Says selection is carefully curated to ensure they can recommend the best products to every customer. Their ultimate goal is to foster an environment that, like Bergen Street, “feels way more than just transactional.”
“While it’s still very early in game, we’re hoping we can make Mama Says not only a viable and successful business financially, but also a place where people know they can go to get comics, hang out and bring their kids, to have a nice conversation, or meet up with other people inside the community,” said Schreger.
“What I’ve always admired about comics is the culture and community, especially from the readers. I’ve always been amazed that almost all of people that walk into our store, or that I’ve experienced through life when it comics, are not only nice and approachable, but genuinely love the world of comics, and how it can be this cool bridge between prose, literature and artistic expression.”
Despite being generally aware that Cobble Hill is full of young families, Schreger and Kourtesis underestimated the number of children they’d see daily. “We’ve shifted to learn more about young readers material, and how comics can be a stepping stone into reading,” Schreger said.
Mama Says is particularly excited to see tons of young female readers, with comics being a historically male-dominated industry. While he’s thrilled to recommend Marvel’s “All-New, All-Different” series, featuring female Wolverine and female Thor, Schreger said, “something we’re hoping to see down the road is not only more female-based series, but also more series that just play the middle-of-the-line and are more integrative in general.”
And for those rolling their eyes at the idea of Superman or Batman? “Comics of 2016 are a far cry from what comics are generally thought of,” Schreger clarified. Mama Says actively supports independent publishers, local artists and creator-generated companies like Image Comics, whose comics cover a vast variety of deep social issues and themes.
Schreger and Kourtesis personally recommended Lazarus, a dystopian sci-fi series about free will, determination, and setting your own path; and Power Lines, focusing on racial injustice and police brutality. Their quickest sell-out? Black Panther, a limited-run Marvel series recently rebooted and written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Even if you think that comics are something you could never get into, just come in and talk with us,” said Kourtesis. “We love talking to people who don’t like comics just as much, because we’re interested in hearing their perspective,” Schreger emphasized, “every conversation I have with customers in the store is a learning experience, for both of us. That’s what I hope for.”
And as for that uncommon name? “Mama Says Comics Rock is definitely a personal shout out to LL Cool J, and his song ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ We both dig LL Cool J, and love that he’s from New York City,” said Schreger. “But it was frankly a shout out to our moms. They were always the people who encouraged us to be creative, and not shirk away from alternative cultures, but rather to make them our own.”
All photos by Max Branigan.