Featured photo: Jermaine Exum has been working at Acme Comics for the last 25 years. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
As he sits, in his zip-up grey denim vest and white Panama hat, beneath a tower of intricately crafted, colorful robots, Jermaine Exum ponders the inevitability of the trajectory of his life.
The 45-year-old’s first foray into the world of comic books took place more than three decades ago, when he picked up the very first issue of The Transformers, published in 1984. Now, at 45 years of age, he’s the owner of the Triad’s largest and oldest comic-book store : Acme Comics in Greensboro.
“Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I had not picked up a comic book,” Exum says. “Like, Where would I be? What would I be doing? Would I be anywhere? I don’t know; it’s so hard to explain because it’s such a big part of my life.”
For the last 25 years, Exum has been working behind the counters, within the stacks and between the pages of Acme Comics. He started working there as a sales clerk after being a regular customer as a teenager but soon moved up the ranks to assistant manager and manager. For the last decade or more, customers would regularly be greeted by Exum’s warm smile and far-reaching expertise. Many assumed he was the owner of the shop, which didn’t become a reality until late last year.
“It was a conversation that had been happening for 20 years,” Exum says about becoming the owner. “But you know, sometimes you just don’t know how things are going to go. But once we successfully came through nonessential shutdown thanks to the community at large, it was more like, ‘Okay, let’s start this process.’”
Since 1983 when the shop was founded in its original location on Elm Street, currently occupied by Little Brother Brewing, it’s been owned by Mark Austin. But last year, once the shop had made it through the pandemic, Exum says talks about ownership really started to solidify. And by the early winter, it was a done deal. And even though it’s been a few months since the handover, Exum says he still doesn’t think the reality has quite set in.
“I don’t know if it’s still real for me now,” Exum says. “I’m still kind of like, ‘I haven’t heard from Mark in a while….’”
Exum’s been at the store for decades. There’s virtually no aspect of the place that hasn’t been influenced by his touch. And he takes pride in that. As he talks about his relationship to the store, he points out the kid’s section stocked with Marvel offerings like Spider-Man and Thor to independent books about the challenges of growing up. He notes the diversity of the store’s offerings, no matter what month of the year it is.
“It’s important that a variety of material be visible in the store for people to discover on their own,” Exum says. “They’re gonna see a variety of content by such diverse creators. I take for granted that all stores are like that, but I know they’re not. In here, we want to have diverse material and we want to make it visible.”
A large part of that intention stems from Exum’s personal experience as a Black man in what has predominantly been a white world. Growing up in Virginia and North Carolina, Exum says he was never made to feel weird for liking comics but remembers being kicked out of a store once as a child.
“There was a toy store that they didn’t let me come inside,” Exum says. “I was younger. My mom was in another store. They literally escorted me back out onto the sidewalk.”
The memory, which Exum says he hadn’t thought of in years, just reiterates the kind of welcoming environment he says he hopes they foster at Acme.
“The store is about the people that shop here and the people that work here,” Exum says. “Because when I first started volunteering here, it wasn’t really the name of the store, it was the people who worked here and the people who shopped here. It’s still that same thing for me now. So I take it very, very seriously…. There’s a lot of stories about what this place means to someone else so it’s important to me that this place continue and be a place that people are happy to shop at, comfortable to shop at, bring friends, bring family to, that this is a place that people feel good about being at. That’s super important to me.”
And it’s not lost on Exum that as the new owner of Acme, he’s now part of a growing list of Black comic-shop owners across the country. When he made his announcement public, another Black owner, Fred Wright Jr. of EastGate Comics in High Point, called Exum up personally to congratulate him. And that kind of representation is important, Exum says.
“I’m a position to be able to showcase what is possible,” Exum says. “That you can literally start at the entry level position of a place and it’s going to cost time… but it can be done. I think it’s important that people of color be able to own businesses and own property and be able to say that they are part of something. Not like a marginalized, over to the side, but that people of color are absolutely capable and can be a part of business and all conversations.”
As he moves around the store Exum talks about his future plans for the business, including wanting to redo the outside sign and entrance area. He also says he’s excited about seeing what Acme can do in terms of showcasing local talent or fostering a love of reading for kids.
“I’m looking forward to doing more things where people can say, ‘That’s my comic shop. I’m an Acme Comics person,’” Exum says.
And although the stock in the store changes every week, there will continue to be a constant at Acme, as there has been for the last two decades, for the years to come.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “This is woven into my very identity. This place is definitely a part of me so I’m not going anywhere.”
Visit Acme Comics at 2150 Lawndale Drive in Greensboro or visit acmecomics.com to learn more.
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