Ben Trujillo and his wife AJ, a long-time comics enthusiast, have shared ownership of local comics store Star Clipper for more than ten years. “In 2001, we bought the store for her birthday,” he says. A few years later in 2004, they decided to move Star Clipper back to the Loop, its original home when it was founded in 1988 as a science fiction and fantasy bookstore. The Trujillos left a few mementos, including a replica of Batman’s head, behind in the basement of the old space, which is now a copy shop. “Dollars motivated us to come back here, because we knew we could increase our customer base substantially. We basically quadrupled our business in the first three years by moving to the Loop,” Ben says. After a long search, AJ found their current space. “She fell in love with this particular location,” Ben remembers. “It was a disaster area.”
The walls of the former poster shop were painted solid black. In a photograph Ben took, exposed wire runs across the ceiling, and a poster for the critically-acclaimed 1927 German dystopian film “Metropolis” is haphazardly hung for display. The shop’s manager had been living in the back, which has no shower, sleeping on a futon with his dog. It took them a month to overhaul the store. Today, the space is lit by tall windows and decorated with chandeliers AJ found online, a hanging cascade of moon-like, translucent discs that reminded her of Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude. After moving the store to the Loop, Ben quit his job practicing law and they both began working at the store full-time. “I don’t really see myself packing up and going back to doing trusts and estates and taxation for other people anymore. I’m past that.”
Star Clipper’s website refers to the store as “St. Louis’ Premium Pop Culture Shop.” “Pretty much anything you can think of that’s related to pop culture, we sell,” Ben says. When HBO created an eight-dollar soda based on its popular show “True Blood,” Star Clipper sold thousands of bottles–some to customers who might not otherwise have visited a comic book store. “They’re going to come in and be interested, and they’re going to get exposed to other stuff.”
When they took over Star Clipper, Ben and AJ were determined to create an environment that was inviting to both veteran comic lovers and people who had never paid attention to Spider-Man until Andrew Garfield was cast to play him in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. “Our idea was to be high-end, to be nice, to be bright, open, airy, and welcoming to everyone,” Ben says. He describes the stereotypical comic book shop as run by a guy who owned a box of comics, opened up a store, and sits behind the counter grumpily smoking a cigarette. Customers walking into Star Clipper are greeted with a herd of fluffy plush animals, and a row of toy dispensers full of miniature trinkets that invite a quarter.
“I’m slowly getting into comics,” says Ben. “AJ is a huge comics aficionado.” Now, his favorite series is one of Star Clipper’s bestsellers, “Saga”–the story of a Romeo-and-Juliet-like couple on the intergalactic lam. “It’s like ‘Star Wars‘ meets–I don’t know what,” he says. “‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ maybe?” He is not, however, particularly looking forward to the latest Spider-Man movie. “The superhero genre–I’ve never really been able to adopt it like my wife loves it.”
Ben and AJ moved to St. Louis, AJ’s hometown, in 1997. They met in undergrad, and there was no question they’d move back to St. Louis eventually. “She’s a homegrown girl,” Ben says. His own father worked in the oil business, and Ben spent his childhood traveling overseas; he lived in Saudi Arabia and South America, graduating from high school in Lima, Peru. “I didn’t have any strong attachment to any one place,” he says. Before moving to St. Louis, he had recently graduated from law school at Georgetown, and he enrolled at Washington University to earn an LLM in taxation. “In undergrad, I thought that I would become a professor of political science … and then I learned what a professor of political science could make over his or her lifetime, and decided that law was probably a better financial decision for me,” he says. “I decided to go to law school kind of at the last minute.”
After they moved to St. Louis, AJ began working at Star Clipper when she had trouble finding a job in graphic design. As the store’s manager, she ultimately guided Star Clipper to win the Eisner Award for comics retailers at San Diego ComicCon. “Star Clipper actually won that award because of what my wife was doing,” Ben says. Afterwards, the store’s owner gave AJ a 25 percent interest in the business. “It just kind of seemed like a no-brainer to buy him out and take over.”
AJ and Ben met while attending Texas Christian University. “We met in a class in undergrad called The Nature of–I think it was The Nature of Philosophy,” Ben says, where he made a bad first impression. “But I kept at it.” On her own for the first time in college, AJ was able to explore her interest in comics. “Her parents did not try to cultivate her comics reading when she was a kid,” Ben says. AJ attended Visitation Academy, an elite all-girls’ school in St. Louis, where a love of comic books was an unusual hobby. “That just wasn’t really popular there, I don’t think.” After she graduated and left for Texas, she fell in love with an issue of the X-Men she found at a local 7-11. “She’s kind of a Marvel girl because of that, and she still loves her X-Men.”
Today, AJ generally takes charge of decisions about the store’s inventory. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be comics that I’m selling,” Ben says. “I like being in charge, and it would be difficult to go from being in charge to not being in charge.” He can often be found in the store’s back office, managing the payroll, paying distributors, or doing the store’s taxes. “AJ is much better at making a determination of what kind of products, especially with respect to comic books, are going to be popular in the store. And she’s also very good at design and layout of the store. I’m more of an operations person,” Ben says. Their complementary roles have allowed them to work together for more than ten years with relatively little conflict. “I think part of it is because we focus on different parts of the business.”
As he stands behind the checkout counter, facing boxes of comics held for regular subscribers, he pulls out his iPhone to demonstrate how he can monitor the store’s security cameras remotely. “I can’t go on vacation without being plugged into the store in some way,” he says. When the store was struggling during the 2008 recession, he thought about returning to steady work in the field of law, but couldn’t stand the idea of filing other people’s paperwork again. “I concluded that it would be almost impossible for me to go back to what I was doing before … I enjoy this so much more.”
Together, Ben and AJ developed a new software system, called MOBY POS, to manage customer checkout and track inventory. Comic book stores can’t return their unsold inventory to the publisher, like other bookstores. “You don’t get to get your money back,” Ben says. When he and AJ took over Star Clipper, no software existed that could handle the tight control and tracking of stock that would help increase a comic book store’s profits–so they decided to build it. “We call it MOBY because it was kind of our white whale when we started this business,” Ben says, a reference to the elusive whale in Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Today, about 300 stores across North and Latin America use MOBY POS. “It’s kind of fun to know that we actually had an impact on the industry at large,” Ben says.
Some of today’s biggest blockbusters are movies like “The Avengers” and shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” where the characters regularly discuss their romantic woes while flipping through back issues at their local comic book shop. “There are a lot of long-time comics fans out there who are like, ‘This is great! It’s so nice to see that it’s being adopted by the public.’ And then there’s that group of people who are like, ‘I totally resent it. They don’t know what they’re talking about. These movies are screwing up these characters,’” Ben says. He wants Star Clipper to be a haven for both the fans that show up to the store’s annual Free Comic Book Day in full costume, and first-time comics readers who wander in while browsing the Loop. “People should be able to walk into the store and say, ‘Hey, this is really cool. Oh, what’s this? This is comics? This is amazing! I had no idea they could be this fun.’”
For more information about Ben Trujillo or Star Clipper, visit here.