“Businesses we love have gone,” says Yribar (pronounced “why-bar”). “That’s what has to happen as the city grows. The only way for us to secure our place here is to buy this building.”
Which is what the Vault has done: in November, the comics and board game store bought the nineteenth-century brick building it occupies at 219 S. Main from Steve and Shelly Kelly.
The youngest of the Vault’s three partners, Yribar started helping out at its original location on S. Ashley soon after it opened in 1996. At the time, he was just eleven years old. “We paid him under the table in comic books,” jokes Curtis Sullivan.
Yribar was making more than the founders. Sullivan and his boyhood friend Steve Fodale didn’t take a paycheck from the business for eight years.
Sullivan and Fodale had dreamed of opening a comics store ever since they were classmates at Bach Elementary School. But “when we first started we had zero dollars,” says Sullivan, now forty-five. “Nobody would consider loaning a dime to kids like us!”
“Between me and him we got together $2,000,” says Fodale, sitting with Yribar and Sullivan in the Vault’s basement while Sullivan’s wife Liz DellaRocco runs the front counter upstairs. “His comic book collection and some toys that he had was our opening inventory.”
“We both worked full-time restaurant jobs,” says Sullivan. “In the early days, no joke, we worked eighty to one hundred hours a week.”
“Curtis and his family–with two kids–moved into my one-bedroom house so that we could afford to pay [the store’s] $500 a month rent,” Fodale adds.
“We made so many bad decisions,” Sullivan says. “We tried selling video games. There’s no money to be made in new video games. We did VHS rental for a while. We specialized in kung fu movies and anime.”
“Right where the money is,” laughs Yribar. “And I spent a lot of our money on an online web store that was a big waste of time.”
The Vault not only survived, it kept growing. “We’ve never had a down year,” Fodale says. But it also had to keep moving. “This is our fourth location,” Fodale explains. “The first was on Ashley, then on Huron and Fourth, then on Liberty below Afternoon Delight.”
“That building sold while we were there,” adds Sullivan, “and the new landlords wanted to more than double our rent!”
The year was 2006. “At that point we actually had some money in the bank,” Sullivan recalls. “We had some credit. We had a reputation. And we still had trouble locating a spot. People didn’t want to rent to a comic shop. Then we met Steve and Shelly.”
The Kellys were closing their remainder bookshop, After Words, and looking for a tenant for its space. “There is no earthly reason why they should have rented to the Vault of Midnight,” says Yribar. “They could have had their pick.”
But the Kellys “wanted something vibrant, something Ann Arbor on Main Street,” says Fodale. “That cost them. They could have gotten more money from a restaurant or a bar.”
The couple rented the first floor and basement to the Vault partners anyway–and this November, they sold them the building.
The Kellys started After Words in 1979 and bought the building in 1993 from bandleader-turned-music-store-owner Al Nalli. “We were treated really well by Al Nalli when we bought the building, and we’re happy to pass it along to Nick, Steve, and Curtis,” Steve Kelly explains. “They were good business people, and it was the kind of place I want there, a business that would draw a wide variety of people downtown.” And at seventy, he adds, “I was tired of dealing with the responsibility. It ruined my buzz!”
The Vault has 2,500 square feet of brightly illuminated comics on the main floor, from Superman and Spiderman to Britannia, a detective story set in Roman Britain, and The Goddamned, which imagines the life of Cain (of Cain and Abel) in the years before the Flood. Another 1,500 square feet downstairs is partly given to retail space for old comics and new games, with the rest used as a meeting space for gaming. The top two floors are rented to tenants that include a tattoo artist and a web design studio. The Vault would like them to stay, but they’ve got to raise the rent because, with the building’s sale, the property taxes have more than doubled.
Buying the building will enable the partners to “plan how the Vault of Midnight is going to grow,” says Yribar.
“We’ve got a ton of ideas that will allow us to never have a day off and continue to take everything we’ve made and pour it into some new venture,” laughs Sullivan.
They’ve already launched two new ventures: “We opened [stores] in 2013 in Grand Rapids and in 2016 in Detroit,” says Fodale. “When we opened Grand Rapids that was our first financing.” Though even then, Sullivan notes, “we had to put our houses up as collateral.”
“Between all three shops [we have] twenty-five employees with health insurance and retirement benefits,” says Fodale. “And paid vacations,” adds Sullivan, “and profit sharing.”
“If we didn’t have any of those things, we might be able to make real money,” says Yribar, “but that’s not the kind of business we want to run.”
“The dream is that we become stable enough and good enough about what we’re doing that we fundamentally change the way comic shops are perceived. The perception of comics is still that this is adolescent pap.”
That goal may be unattainable. But running a successful comic book shop and owning their own building once seemed unattainable, too.
Now that they own their building, says Yribar, “we want to be here forever. We love this city.”