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FROM THE

ASHES After losing $100,000 worth of merchandise in a mysterious 2007 fire, Universe of Superheroes owner Todd Grace had only one option: to rebuild. BY GINA EDWARDS

PHOTOS BY LAURA MCDERMOTT

T

he Universe of Superheroes had fallen. A blazing fire ravaged the little gaming shop on West Washington Street, incinerating every comic book, Magic card and figurine on the shelves. By the evening of June 24, 2007, the store was a charred cave. Owner Todd Grace, a local attorney, salvaged what he could—which proved tragically little. With $100,000 in merchandise lost, no insurance and no explanation for the fire’s ignition, the store’s future seemed bleak. Todd weighed out the options, unsure if rebuilding would even be financially feasible. But then, persuasion came from a 6-year-old advocate. “My son really wanted to have it there as a place where he could play games,” Todd says. “And that was enough. I said, ‘OK, I’ll do what it takes to rebuild.’” Soon, a sign outside the door read, “I assure you, we will be back!” As if the bat signal had lit up the sky, the Athens community swooped down to the rescue. Community members, customers and friends donated their time and money to the reconstruction project. Luke Potter Photography, a business next-door, offered rent-free space. As the landlord repaired the

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It’s fun to hear everyone coming in. Each little game or each part of the universe of the comics will have its own little culture.” Todd Grace, Store Owner

shop for over a year, Todd funneled what money he could into rebuilding his wares. He used donations from customers and personal contributions to replenish the merchandise. Across the comic message boards and Myspaces — it was 2007, remember — the lamented cries echoed. Loyal customers and avid fans of the shop wrote posts like “Save the Comics!!!” and “Curse you cruel fates!” Despite the obvious inconvenience, they remained true to the Universe. “Rather than going online and getting their stuff, [customers] were patient with us as we rebuilt,” he says.

Now, over four years after the tragic event, the shop thrives—with its faithful community that has reconstructed itself right alongside it. Todd has been running the store since 2007 after Tom, the other coowner, left to become a tattoo artist. His law office, Grace and McGee, Attorneys-at-Law, sits right next to The Wizard’s Guild, the store’s current name. For Todd, it is a labor of love. The shop has not turned a profit in the years he has managed it, with all earnings going right back into the products. Through Todd’s evident devotion,

Boston, Massachusetts, holds the record for the most Jack O’Lanterns lit at once (30,128).

the shop has fostered a community for gamers and comic lovers alike. “It’s fun to hear everyone coming in. Each little game or each part of the universe of the comics will have its own little culture,” he says. One of these groups especially shines on Friday nights, when the shop stays open late to let them work their Magic…literally. Elementary to middle-aged players stuff the room to wage war against one another in a trading card game akin to Pokémon. However, “Magic: The Gathering” requires higher levels of strategy and complexity. Players spend the evening battling, eating, joking and learning from each other’s style and approaches. Since its reconstruction, the shop now offers more space to house events like Friday Night Magic and other tournaments. Before the fire it could only hold 16 people, whereas now it fits upwards of 50. At these Friday Night Magic events, the spirit of competition pulses through the air. Old friends smirk at one another as they shuffle their decks, and strangers exchange pleasantries across their play mats.

Todd has achieved his goal of making the environment laid back. But some imbalances still exist, as the men vastly outnumber the women. Although a majority of men participate in tournaments now, he emphasizes that all sorts of people come in, from OU students to locals to doctors, teachers and lawyers, including women as well. “These games can appeal to a wide range of people,” Todd stresses. “They appeal to strategists and people who want to spend time…outside the game, thinking about it and trying to figure out how to get the most out of what they’re doing.” He even invites those who have never laid a hand on a Magic card to the Wizard’s Guild. “We like to spend time with other people that have the same interests or are potentially going to have the same interests…A lot of people will find something here that they will enjoy.” A regular tournament player and customer of the Wizard’s Guild, Ben Hivick, could not agree more. “More so in Athens

than anywhere I’ve been, no one fits the stereotypes,” he says. Ben originally found the shop during his freshman year when looking for a Magic prerelease. He’s played, shopped and competed in tournaments ever since. To Ben, it’s Friday Night Magic events feel much more personal and welcoming than the larger statewide tournaments. He laughs while recalling memories he’s made at the Wizard’s Guild. “One time I got beat by a nine-year-old in a tournament,” he chuckles. Ben and his buddies from the shop bond over such funny happenings. Mutual player camaraderie and respect make the Wizard’s Guild more than just a gaming shop, it’s a place to find and make friends. This sense of kinship is paramount to the shop’s success, as the Wizard’s Guild relies almost entirely on wordof-mouth marketing. Currently, one of the employees is developing a website for it to centralize and publicize its information. But until then, its customers—or perhaps more aptly—its friends, will ensure its place in both Athens and gaming/comic culture. Through their fervent loyalty, praise, and infectious zeal for their hobbies, the customers and employees of the Wizard’s Guild will continue to reveal the inherent excellence of one understated little shop tucked just off Court Street. And as it always has, the Wizard’s Guild will keep depending on this heroic community—the one that helped it rise from the ashes.


From the Ashes