With a decorated Christmas tree displayed proudly behind a large glass window, the storefront at 372 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood looks just like any other sidewalk retailer during the holidays. But this particular storefront — wedged between a florist and a falafel restaurant — holds a secret identity behind its hardware store-like facade.
Just inside the swinging glass door and past the gigantic gumball machine is an otherworldly emporium where cans of Invisibility and Levitation are sold alongside capes and particle blasters by the gallon for all your foe-battling needs.
For those brave enough to enter, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company will send you back out the door with a new alter ego, a shopping bag or two filled with superpowers, and a deep appreciation for the immersive storytelling experience.
“Swinging Into Action is Our Specialty!”
Stocked to the brim with nearly anything and everything a superhero could need to keep villains at bay, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company is a portal into an alternate reality where The Speed of Light can be purchased in conveniently-sized spray cans and capes can be tested for their desired flyability before purchase.
For vigilantes who consistently find themselves in hairy situations, the store’s ample supply of pocket-sized Shrinking Gas can be purchased in bulk. For those who need to bulk up, canned Muscle can be purchased in small, medium, and large sizes. But be forewarned: All Transatlantic Equipment is Guaranteed Under Earth Laws Only—No Exceptions!
X-Ray vision? Check it in at the door, please.
Oh, and the only acceptable form of “invisible” payment here is credit card.
Such is the level of storytelling immersion at this quaint Brooklyn storefront that not a single opportunity to seize the personalized superhero narrative has gone to waste—from the front door to the checkout experience, which itself requires newly-minted vigilantes to recite the Superhero vow before purchased items are bagged:
I promise that I will use the items I’ve purchased here today safely and in the name of justice.I promise to remain ever vigilant, ever true.
But just like the dozens of vigilante crime fighters that pass through its doors every day, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company has a secret alter ego of its own.
Behind the Secret Bookcase
Accessible only through a secret bookcase hidden in the back of the store, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company is also home to 826NYC, a not-for-profit creative writing program founded in 2004 for children aged 6 to 18.
The program, which fosters creative writing through a number of afterschool and weekend programs, is the second chapter of the highly-successful 826 Valencia program founded by best-selling author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and educator Nínive Calegari as a way to support overburdened teachers and connect young writers with professionally-trained volunteers.
Since its inception, young authors in the program have published everything from comic books to novels and teleplays to podcasts. A significant component of the program’s success is the result of the founders’ mission to make the program as accessible as possible—all the way down to its physical location.
“It was really important to (Eggers and Calegari) from the get-go that the students at 826 Valencia had access to the program from the street; to be able to just come into the storefront and have access to writing resources that weren’t hidden on the second floor of a building or in the back of a school,” explains Joshua Mandelbaum, Executive Director of 826NYC.
“After finding the ideal street-accessible location at 826 Valencia street in San Francisco’s Mission District, they soon found out that they had to have a retail operation in order to meet zoning requirements.”
To get past the restriction, Eggers and Calegari ingeniously developed the concept for the Pirate Supply Store — a sort of immersive seafarer mercantile for San Francisco pirates that would provide a cash-earning front for their non-profit, while writing workshops and afterschool programs would be hosted in the back.
“That store brought a lot of attention to the organization and of course, the students loved it,” says Mandelbaum. “Ultimately, the store’s sales helped fund the organization while the immersive pirate-themed storefront helped spark creativity and storylines for young writers passing through to the back.”
With the sudden success of their San Francisco chapter, the organization followed the same story-rich retail formula to expand into a second chapter for young writers in New York City.
“Just two years later, we opened up the second chapter here in Brooklyn as a supply store for the city’s superheroes,” says Mandelbaum. “Because with New York’s rich history filled with crime fighting vigilantes, how could we not supply our superheroes?”
But to create a believable storefront for even the most discerning crime fighting vigilantes, the organization had to ask themselves: what would a “superhero supply company” actually look like? What would it carry?
The Superhero’s Hardware Store
“When we first opened up here in Park Slope, directly next to us was a refrigerator and appliance store,” recalls Mandelbaum. “That store actually served as the model for our storefront. In many ways, it was very much a reflection of a typical 1970s New York City hardware store and that utilitarian aesthetic was really the unified vision for the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company identity.”
To bring that utilitarian 1970s hardware store vision to life, the program turned to graphic designer Sam Potts.
“The goal for the design, like the store itself, is, of course, to serve the crime fighting community by providing goods and services to superheroes and sidekicks,” explains Potts. “Since we strive to be a goods and services provider, it has turned out that we share certain typographic tendencies with local businesses: emissions testers, hardware stores, air conditioner refurbishers, knife grinders, that kind of thing. Because of the storefront we have been mistaken for an actual hardware store, which is probably the best indication that the typography is conveying the right things about what we offer.”
The execution is so believable that it’s become a regular occurrence for people to walk in off the street expecting to find electrical sockets or hand tools—only to find out that they’re better off finding a gallon of Dark Matter ($8 a can) or a replacement invisibility cloak (starting at $16).
“When people mistake us for a traditional hardware store and finally get that we’re actually a superhero supply store, they have this immediate reaction—like they understand that as a standalone environment, the store really ties into the story of the work that we do, and that they’re now a part of that superhero story,” adds Mandelbaum. “It’s great.”
Not Just a Box
If the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company is so successful at pulling people off the street and into their superhero story, then what can the rest of us mere mortals learn about immersive storytelling that they’ve done so right?
“I think the Superhero storefront has been so successful because it fully embodies the story to which it belongs; it’s not just a box, it is fully a hardware store for superheroes,” says Mandelbaum. “And a lot of people get it. They come in here and they see this space that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s a space that completely puts you in the story — whether you want to try out our Cape Tester before taking flight or step into our DeVillainizer— you can have this completely unique storytelling experience that’s your own within this space.”
And as for which superheroes he’s seen come through the front door, Mandelbaum is quick to note that as per the rules of the store, he’s sworn to secrecy.
“I can’t mention individual superheroes because once we start to reveal identities, things start to get dangerous,” he adds. “But as for my absolute favorite student alter ego, that would be Bellagio Bill the Hipster Artisanal Lampshade Manufacturing Llama – because that one went really deep.”
And as for the many volunteers who work tirelessly behind the secret bookcase to get these talented young writers up to speed with publishing their first novel, writing a screenplay, or getting excited about poetry, there’s plenty of proof that not all superheroes wear capes.
Exterior store photo: Time Out New York