[Patrick Brower]
Most comic stores have an all-ages section.  Some feel the need to expand it.  Challengers Comics in Chicago did in a very big way.

"When Challengers opened [in 2008], we had 10 or 12 feet of all-ages books, and we thought it was decent," says co-owner Patrick Brower.  "But when we saw how many families were in our neighborhood and were constantly in our store with their kids, we realized it was nowhere near sufficient."

Fortunately, Challengers had a big-time solution, right at hand: a 400-square foot space connected to the main store and used as an art gallery that… wasn’t doing very well.

"I had these grand dreams that it would be like a museum, and people would come and sit there to eat their lunch at the gallery," Brower laughs today.  "But people would walk in, take a lap, and be out in 30 seconds.  For two years, we never made money on that space.  My business partner Dal [Bush] saw what was happening and said, 'We have to make that a kids room.'  So now we have a 400 square-foot room that is just kids and all-ages material."

Brower and Bush dubbed the new space Sidekicks, and made it a mini-Challengers.  The racks are the same, the color scheme is the same.  It’s just lower to the ground.  In Challengers, the shelves go five high, but at Sidekicks, only two shelves high.  Everything is designed for maximum kid-friendly impact, including kid-sized tables and chairs.

"We have loose action figures for kids to actually play with, dollar-store coloring books and crayons to keep them engaged," Brower says.

The concept has clicked, and the space is booming.

"Sidekicks has been the single best financial decision we’ve made in the history of Challengers," Brower says.  "On weekends, we are filled with kids, and sometimes we think a 400 square-foot space isn’t enough."

And fortunately there’s a wealth of quality material to fill it with.

"It’s a great time to be doing this," Brower says.  "A lot of publishers realize there’s a great untapped market with kids.  DC’s Superhero Girls is a huge seller for us across the board—graphic novels, picture books, coloring books, so many different formats for these characters.  It’s been amazing."

And the all-ages market is, of course, well beyond superheroes.

"Amulet and even old-school books like Bone are the things that really get kids engaged," Brower says.  "If you’re a comic retailer and you’re not stocking Dog Man or the stuff from Raina Telgemeier… you're not doing it right."

Brower has praise for the category in general, but reserves his highest praise for that one star.

"Raina Telgemeier is one of the best-selling artists in the world," he says.  "She’s constantly on best-seller list, and she has a new book out last week, Share Your Smile, where she’s telling kids how to make their own comics!  She’s teaching this next generation of kids for us!  Because they read her books and they want to do what she does!"

Brower recommends stocking deep, because you never know what the next big hit will be in the all-ages world.  "Depth is important.  Just one or two copies will not do," he says.

Brower doesn’t mind taking an inventory position, as he sees a lesser downside in the all-ages category as opposed to the Wednesday Warrior crowd.

"There’s not so much dead stock in Sidekicks, because kids can find stuff whenever," he says.  "It’s not the monthly-driven cycle you get in a typical comic store.  They’re not concerned with continuity or ‘when’s the next issue out?’"

Brower also sees a crucially important long-term benefit.

"We’re investing in our future by doing this," he says.  "It’s up to us as comic retailers to cultivate the mainstream comic readers of tomorrow by starting them when they’re young."

And Brower is seeing results already.  "It’s often a quick jump from Sidekicks to the main Challengers store," he says.  "It’s almost like a graduation."

You just have to let the kids make their own decisions.

"The key advice is… you can’t tell kids what the cool book is," Brower says.  "They have to find it on their own.  I’m an adult, so I'm not cool.  If I say, 'Hey, you should really try this,' they won’t, because I told them.  But once they discover it… it’s theirs.  There’s an ownership there that older comic fans really don’t have access to.  These characters become a huge part of their lives.  They become their friends.  But you can never force it."

Click Gallery below for pictures of Sidekicks!