Shop Local: From comics and vinyl to Lego and action figures, how city’s independent stores are catering for a variety of hobbies

Bricktraders in Catherine Street, St Albans.

Bricktraders in Catherine Street, St Albans. - Credit: Archant

St Albans is fortunate enough to boast some excellent hobby shops stocking everything from action figures and rare Lego sets to comics and vinyl records.

Bricktraders in Catherine Street, St Albans.

Bricktraders in Catherine Street, St Albans. - Credit: Archant

But their trading performances has also been impacted by the pandemic, and are relying on a successful Christmas to survive.

The owner of the city’s only record store and comics shop fears losing everything in the wake of a second lockdown.

Marina Desclavis, who runs Empire Records and Chaos City Comics in Heritage Close, said this year definitely feels like make it or break it for her businesses.

“Christmas is the busiest time of the year for retailers, and another lockdown could potentially end us.

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“I’m scared that after working very hard for the last five years, I could lose everything. 2020 has been a huge challenge, and I‘m worried about my staff, as they all have families to support. It could be very difficult if not catastrophic for them to lose their jobs.”

Unfortunately, even though her businesses’ online sales have increased, it will not be enough for them to survive without face-to-face sales due to their high rent payments.

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However, she has started to notice a new trend in retail: “People are definitely supporting independent shops. With more and more big chains collapsing all around us, what’s left are small businesses, and people are rediscovering the small boutiques and independent shops. We have great support from our local community, and I feel lucky to be in St Albans.

“We’ll keep going,” she pledged. “We are trying our best to guarantee to our customers the best experience, both online and in store. We’re following the government guidelines and hopefully it will be enough.”

Marina Desclavis, who runs Empire Records and Chaos City Comics in Heritage Close.

Marina Desclavis, who runs Empire Records and Chaos City Comics in Heritage Close. - Credit: Archant

Although primarily specialising in comics and graphic novels, Chaos City also sells collectables and tabletop games. It was one of the first wave of original comic shops to open its doors back in 1992. Initially based in what is now TK-Maxx in The Maltings, as part of an indoor market set-up called The In-Shops, it later moved to a new location near the Abbey.

Empire Records offers a vast selection of vinyl alongside CDs, T-shirts and related merchandise. It opened in 2013 to capitalise on the renaissance of vinyl and provide a similar meeting place for music fans of all genres to discuss their interests.

Emma Leahy owns Bricktraders in Catherine Street, independent specialists in Lego bricks, sets and mini-figures, including many discontinued and rare sets.

She explained the challenges they are facing this year:”Reduced footfall is the main one, people are obviously nervous of the virus and are less keen to venture out to browse. Also we have had to remove key lines such as our brick’n’mix and make-a-minifigure as these both involved lots of touching. It’s really important to keep both our staff and customers safe from the virus and as such we’ve had to invest in high quality screening, signage and electric sanitisers which have not been cheap.

Chaos City Comics in St Albans.

Chaos City Comics in St Albans. - Credit: Archant

“Christmas normally means that we can build a buffer in order to pay our tax bill and help us through the coming year. This year will be especially important as we do not know what we will be facing through 2021.”

Like the other retailers who are backing our #ShopLocal campaign, she is urging customers to support the city’s independent shops because small businesses contribute to the local economy, employ local people and give texture and character to our city.

“They often provide better service and unique products so if you want to provide a gift that shows real thought you cannot beat browsing the local independents.”

But if you’re worried about venturing into town, their online presence is just as impressive: “We sell new and pre-loved Lego sets through bricklink. We have many rare and discontinued sets that most other retailers just don’t stock. See We can deliver or orders can be collected in-store to save on postage.”

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