Over those decades, Carol & John’s has accumulated many mascots. By “mascots,” I mean cats. When the shop first opened, in a small space in Kamm’s Plaza next to the restaurant Gene’s Place To Dine, the role was filled by Oliver. He turned 20 human years there. When one day the shop moved into another, larger spot across the plaza, Oliver suffered a stroke. “We always say he felt like he knew who he was,” says Dudas. “He knew something was changing.” The shop cat mantle was taken on by Cloak and Dagger, one black cat and one white cat, for a while.
Then, after the shop moved into its current space a few doors down, the shop cat cape and booties were passed on to Winston Zeddemore, a tabby named for the Ghostbusters character. Dudas, who also works as a Cleveland firefighter, brought him to the shop after he wandered into the firehouse. With an attitude that’s a little more friendly than it is aloof, in the tradition of all the best shop cats, Winston greets visitors to the store with a leg-rub and is open to pets even from strangers.
Winston has appeared in several comics by local artists, and his fuzzy visage adorns the shop’s buttons, stickers and coasters. He has his own Instagram account, @comiccatwinston, appears regularly on the shop’s Facebook page, and when he disappeared for a few days in 2015 it spawned a hashtag and made the news. (He had just strolled to a nearby road salt shed.) “People love the cat,” says Dudas. “If I hold the cat, the Facebook post gets like 200 likes.”
Other than Winston, the store’s success can be attributed to its feeling of openness, and its avoidance of the kind of off-putting nerd-culture gatekeeping that tends to alienate all but hardcore, mostly male comic book lovers. Much of that comes from Cazzarin, who, in an era when she was one of the few women into comics that she knew, made sure the store would be friendly to women, children and people of all ages.
Shortly after the store opened, she noticed that many of her customers were having children, so she distributed kids goodie baskets. She once ran a contest for local artists to design a Green Arrow tattoo, which in the end she got. And from the beginning, she made sure there was enough room in the aisles for people to maneuver and arranged the shelves so that you can see straight through to the back of the store from the front. Even the shop’s discussion groups, parties and Free Comic Book Day festivities are set up to appeal to people of many different backgrounds and ages. They have even been known to commission prints by local comic artists and give them out for free. “We want people to feel safe,” says Cazzarin. “We want women to come in the door.”
Over time, the staff has gotten to know the customers too, and often make recommendations about books they might want to read. John Saris, a longtime customer who has been reading comics since the 1960s, collects mainstream comics such as Batman, but also books featuring Warner Brothers characters and harder-to-find Dell Comics magazines from the pulp era.
“They say ‘Hey Johnny, we just got a box of stuff in and we put it back here for you,’ ” says Saris. “They know what I like. They know what everybody likes.”
Dudas and the other staff also keep an eagle-eye open whenever a kid comes into the store, especially when it’s their first time. They look for the wide eyes, and then direct them toward something they might like. Sometimes, they’ll even pull out goodies from the secret stash behind the counter. “If it’s a grandpa and a kid, I’m all over that shit,” laughs Dudas. “I’ll give them whatever they want for free.”
After 30 years of getting kids into comics, Dudas, 47, has naturally done the same with the two daughters he shares with wife Apryl: 9-year-old Zoe and 5-year-old Luna. They have recently started watching CW’s Stargirl, and when Dudas and I met for a socially distanced interview in July, he was already working on a Starman Halloween costume to go along with his daughters’ Stargirls. Though retirement is a long way off, he was thinking about how to keep the shop in the family.
“I don’t want to choose my daughters’ destiny, but if one of them was interested in it, I would definitely encourage that,” says Dudas. “I think owning a comic shop is a good life. I consider it a good life.”