I had the good fortune to go to college within walking distance of a comic shop like no other. In St. Paul, Minnesota, near the intersection of St. Clair Avenue and Fairview Avenue, was a place that was more like a walk-in closet than a store, but made up for its small size by having an abundance of delights per square foot.
I’m talking about Uncle Sven’s Comic Shoppe.
I was a regular from 1994 until 2000, all through college and beyond. The store managed to stay in business through that time, one of the worst busts in the history of the comics retail, and it has kept going, always there to greet me whenever I was in town.
But now Uncle Sven’s has reached the end of the line. Dave Schmidt, known to regulars at Col. Dave, emailed me with the news that the store was closing as of Nov. 27 because the landlord wants to use the space for an expansion of the bar and restaurant next door, the Groveland Tap.
Since 2006, the store has been owned by the owners of The Source Comics & Games, a great shop in the nearby suburb of Roseville.
Uncle Sven’s opened in 1982, making it ancient in comics retail terms. To understand the store, it helps to understand its neighborhood, Macalester-Groveland, and its founder, Ken Svendsen.
Mac-Groveland is anchored by Macalester College and the University of St. Thomas, with a business district on Grand Avenue and a smaller cluster of businesses on St. Clair. When I lived there, the neighborhood had pockets of wealth, but also plenty of bungalows, duplexes and other housing that remained affordable to rent or buy. There were landmark businesses, like the Grandview Theater (which is still around) and Hungry Mind Bookstore (which isn’t) and lots of small, independent shops. Having lived in several neighborhoods in several cities that exude this same kind of leafy coziness, I feel like Mac-Groveland perfected this vibe, and others are just poor copies.
Ken Svendsen was a biostatistician at the University of Minnesota and also a comics collector. He opened the store as part of a partnership with John Annunziata, a colorful character in the local comics scene who was known as the “Comic Warrior” and had his own store in the city. (Svendsen later bought out Annunziata and became the sole owner.)
“My friends began calling me ‘Sven’ in High School,” Svendsen told me. “I had recently become an uncle.”
The store was so small that two adults standing with their arms outstratched could cover nearly the entire width. But that was all they needed.
A community grew up around the the store, from kids to adults, who would hang out and talk comics. Some of the regulars became part-time employees. They had Saturday afternoon softball games during the summer at the nearby elementary school field. The people in the inner circle of this group were named members of the Uncle Sven’s Comic Shoppe Hall O’ Fame.
For most of the time I shopped there, they guy behind the cash register was Col. Dave, with occasional appearances from Uncle Sven.
I asked Dave what changed the most during the 39 years the store was in business.
“What changed the store mostly was card games,” he said. “At first the neighborhood kids would hang out to see the latest comics. Then Magic the Gathering card game came out and they all lost interest in comics and wanted Magic cards. Also Star Trek and Star Wars cards. For all of the 1990s there was a regular crowd of kids that would stop in and play card games in the back of the shop. Then Pokémon hit around 2000. It sold very well but it destroyed in-store gaming at the shop. None of the kids wanted to be in the store when their Mom was there with an infant on her hip asking for Pokémon cards.”
My time as a customer overlapped with the card boom, and I remember Dave showing almost superhuman patience with the stream of young card buyers.
Minneapolis-St. Paul has an abundance of great comic shops, and the people at Uncle Sven’s earned goodwill from competitors like Greg Ketter of Dreamhaven Books and Bob Brynildson at The Source.
When Svendsen was ready to sell, Brynildson and his partners at The Source decided to buy. They painted the walls and put in new display cases. Col. Dave remained and was joined by some new people at the register, including Brynildson himself, who enjoyed doing weekly shifts there.
Svendsen now lives in Michigan, where he is retired after his career as a biostatistician.
“During my time I saw Uncle Sven’s become more than a store, a community developed which continued after I retired from the comic business,” Svendsen said. “I am confident that the community will continue after the physical store closes and am happy about that. I am sad to think that future generations of kids growing up in the Mac-Grove area will not have Uncle Sven’s in the neighborhood.”
But 39 years is a good, long run for a comic shop. Almost impossible really. Thank you to everyone who kept it going.