Man in red shirt and Santa cap leaning against comic store entrance
Owner Joe Ferrara aims to always focus on the “interaction over the transaction” when connecting with customers: “Everyone walks out that door happier than they walk in.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

Connection through comics: Atlantis Fantasyworld celebrates 45 years in Santa Cruz, cultivating community

The stalwart comic book shop has seen a lot over the years, from the rise of comics’ popularity with “Star Wars” to the 1989 earthquake to the rejuvenation of downtown business. On its 45th anniversary, owner and founder Joe Ferrara takes a moment to reflect on all that has made the store so vital, and to look at what is on the horizon.

Joe Ferrara moved to Santa Cruz on Aug. 15, 1976, with musical aspirations and a few extra moving boxes to hold his 6,000 comic books.

Now, nearly half a century later, Ferrara is still playing music — but his primary joy comes from sharing his love of comics with the community through Atlantis Fantasyworld.

On Nov. 26, the shop celebrated its 45th anniversary. And over that nearly half-century have come different store locations throughout downtown, changes in comics’ popularity, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Saturday and Sunday, Ferrara will take that history and focus on the positives with a storewide anniversary sale.

Man in red shirt and Santa hat holding a comic book in front of a wall of comics
Owner Joe Ferrara acknowledged that his job is to “motivate the team to give their best effort every day,” which helped the store thrive during the pandemic.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Inventory manager Nate Brand said that the popularity of the store has led to more of its continued attachment to the area: “There are generations’ worth of locals, native Santa Cruzans, who come here now with their kids, grandkids … I’ve never been to a shop like this, with this type of community.”

It’s been a long road, Ferrara says, to get to this point — but it couldn’t have happened without the first “Star Wars” movie, released in May 1977.

“All of the sudden I had to open on time … that was the start of what is currently driving popular culture. You see the superheroes, all of this, and it all started with ‘Star Wars’ — it became mainstream,” he said. “The medium is being used for so much more.”

The original downtown location of Atlantis Fantasyworld.
(Courtesy Joe Ferrara)

Over those first 16 years, Ferrara and the shop grew in popularity while also dealing with site changes, including a move into a downtown tent for three years after the 1989 earthquake. In 1992, Atlantis was able to move to its current location on Locust Street, and hasn’t looked back.

“We got people to find us, with a line down the street, to buy the new Superman,” Ferrara said, with “The Death of Superman” released in December 1992, which went on to sell over 6 million copies and becoming the bestselling comic book issue in 1992. “That was quite fortuitous.”

In the current location over the past 29 years, Ferrara has built up quite the following, both in terms of a regular customer base and devoted employees. Comic diehards come on Wednesdays for New Comic Book Day, and community members mark their calendars for Atlantis’s three annual seasonal sales, plus Free Comic Book Day and Star Wars Day.

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Trisha Wolfe, who started as a weekend employee while studying at UC Santa Cruz, said Atlantis was the first job she ever got paid for. Now, 15 years later, she can’t imagine being part of any other team.

“I had a policy of not working anywhere that didn’t seem like I would enjoy the time … it just seemed like a really fun place to be,” she said. “I got to know the community, and Joe has been such an amazing person to learn from — he’s been through so much.”

Joe Ferrara at his original shop in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Courtesy Joe Ferrara)

As Ferrara noted with his management and business style: “It’s not about the transaction, but the interaction.”

For Wolfe, seeing the store’s customers — or visitors, as Ferrara calls them — grow up over the years has instilled an understanding of small business management, and has made it all the more exciting to continue to learn and grow with the shop.

“Because you see the same people all the time, it really does make you connected,” she said. “Part of what we do here is really get to know the people — I just love talking to people and answering questions and showing them something they didn’t know they were going to love. We’re getting to know the people through the comics … I’ve just sort of built a family here.”

Four masked employees standing inside a comic store
Owner Joe Ferrara with Nate Brand (in back), Trisha Wolfe (left) and Ares Saldana.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Brand met Ferrara on the first day he moved to Santa Cruz in 2004, and knew from his first step in the store that it was a special place. Five years later, he joined Ferrara officially and has been with the store for 12 years.

“He called me ‘the mortgage payer,’ since I was coming in here every Wednesday [for New Comic Day] … it would make sense he would want me to work here,” he laughed. “A lot of people who walk through the doors here, you’re going to see them over and over again.”

As the world of comics continues to evolve — including more LGBTQ+ representation and more children-centered comics — so too do opportunities to connect with shoppers. That increase in representation, Wolfe noted, has brought more people through the doors: “There really is something for everybody.”

Joe Ferrara at the tent setup after the 1989 earthquake.
(Courtesy Joe Ferrara)

Ferrara acknowledges that his current customer base is more in line with Wolfe’s and Brand’s contemporaries rather than his own. Yet that doesn’t stop him from looking forward to what is to come in collaboration with the staff.

“We could not function without these two — our whole approach is, ‘Everyone walks out that door happier than they walk in,’” Ferrara said.

During a recent conversation, Ferrara stopped multiple times to chat with shoppers, ranging from 5 to mid-50s. Regardless of what people came in for, Ferrara, Wolfe and Brand were ready to chat, whether they were repeat visitors or just off the street.

What I like to do, is get people to talk about what their passion is — sometimes it’s comics, sometimes it’s movies, sometimes it has nothing to do with that. The biggest thing is understanding that it’s my job to motivate my team to give their best effort every day.

“What I like to do, is get people to talk about what their passion is — sometimes it’s comics, sometimes it’s movies, sometimes it has nothing to do with that,” Ferrara said. “The biggest thing is understanding that it’s my job to motivate my team to give their best effort every day.”

That motivation didn’t waver during the pandemic, either — Ferrara was able to keep his staff on board, and the team reorganized to do pickup orders for customers, needing only nine or 10 sales a day to get through the uncertainty.

“The community has supported us through the pandemic, and we are grateful — we are trying to give back as much as we can,” he said.

Now, looking toward the 45th-anniversary celebration and the next steps, Ferrara is grateful as ever for his team, and the continued updates in the comics world that bring in the next generations of comic lovers. He’s particularly pleased that clients who fell in love with the store’s offerings in their youth are now able to bring in their children or grandchildren to enrich the community.

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Ultimately for Ferrara, it’s all about the feeling of connection with the customers, and keeping that up for as long as the 72-year-old feels healthy enough to do so.

It’s been very exciting to be part of something that makes people feel better and makes children motivated to read.

“It’s been very exciting to be part of something that makes people feel better and makes children motivated to read,” he said. “There are some possibilities of ensuring the business would continue, even if I’m not the one driving the engine … the plan is to hopefully sustain this. We want to keep the status quo as long as we can.”

Ferrara holds true to that customer connection as a means for bringing Atlantis into the next light-year: “It’s all about the people who walk in the door and the people behind the counter.”