Saturday morning can last forever
Caffeine, comics, and culture in the East End
“One word. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” If the family friend in The Graduate was referring to tiny sculptures of superpowered characters, his advice would have paid dividends many times over. POP ROC, the coffee bar concept at 337 East Avenue, targets the grown-up kid who once sat down for Saturday morning cartoons with a sugary bowl of cereal. It has quickly established itself as a shrine of toys, comic books, video games, breakfast cereal, and caffeinated beverages. We spoke with two of POP ROC’s shareholders, Colin Delaney and Jason Hilton, about the new venture in the East End. Nick and Liz Andolina are also stakeholders in the business.
Within a long narrow footprint and full bar-height countertop, the structure of POP ROC’s buildout still carries echoes of the nightspot it once was. “It’s kind of like a sober hangout,” Delaney explains. “We try to make sure everyone feels involved, welcome, and safe here.” Whereas traditional comic book stores discourage openly reading the merchandise, POP ROC takes the opposite approach. For a monthly subscription fee, customers can become members of the Comics Discovery Program and read casually from the wall of books for sale.
That open mindset extends to the toys as well. Whereas precious toys for collectors to purchase are set on shelves high above small hands, POP ROC also features a toybox to make families feel welcome. “You should be able to play with toys! You’re in a toy store,” says Delaney. “We should be hanging out, enjoying these things together…not just selecting your books, paying for them, and going home by yourself. That model never made sense to me.”
To enhance the hangout atmosphere, POP ROC offers a selection of caffeine and sugar-based beverages. Hot coffee, cold brew, and coffee-based shakes offer a range of options for staying stimulated or maintaining a fast twitch response for video gaming. Mocktails, energy drinks, and hot tea-based drinks expand the vocabulary of beverages. The star of the show, though, is a highly customizable array of breakfast cereals and toppings that include cookie dough, candies, and chocolate syrup. A regular offering of vegan donuts from Misfit Doughnuts rounds out the options for grab-and-go repast.
Every great comic book character has an origin story. POP ROC’s own roots extend to the professional wrestling community. Delaney, a wrestler in the WWE, knew Jason Hilton and Nick Andolina through training activities. Delaney explains that the grind of the toy show circuit inspired the move into a brick-and-mortar establishment. “POP ROC was born from Jason’s toy collection. He was setting up [booths] at toy shows and comic conventions, and I was helping him. It was a miserable process; you have to store all this inventory, unload it, lug it to the show, set it up, sell, tear it down, take it back to the storage unit, and repeat that whole process monthly or bimonthly.” The need for a stable retail establishment was clear. Hilton and Delaney observed a gap in the marketplace for a comic book store that encourages hanging out, staying awhile, reading and playing.
POP ROC represents a conscious demographic shift for the East End. “It was scary, at first,” Delany admits. “This whole corner [at East and Alexander] is nightlife, and always has been. Getting people to come down here has been the biggest challenge, especially in the middle of a weekday.”
The selection of comic books on offer tends toward family-friendly, kid-safe titles. “We found that’s what people are gravitating toward,” Delaney says. “And that’s cool because that means a new generation is getting into comic books!” Delaney observs that the typical comics reader is aged 35-45 years old and already well-served by the existing retail channels. POP ROC is for the fans who are first-time comics readers, who haven’t picked up the habit before or those who have been away from fandom and are looking for a gentle reintroduction to the world of graphic narrative.
Future plans for the business are far-ranging and as grandiose as a Marvel movie. POP ROC already includes console video games, but arcade cabinets may make an appearance in the near future. Events at the space have included an art show based on spooky monster cereal, a pop-up toy show, and a vigorous swap meet based around Funko Pops (collectibles analogous to Hummel figurines for geek culture).
When he looks to the future, Jason Hilton appeals to Rochester’s rich history of comic book culture. “We have Bags Unlimited here in town, a mainstay of archival collection supplies. We’ve had Mark Macaluso’s Fantasy Trading Card Company, the largest non-sports mail order dealer in the business. We have the National Museum of Play at the Strong Museum. There’s so much here as far as pop culture is concerned.”
Hilton has dreams of making Rochester a Superhero City. “Just like the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival turns Rochester into a Jazz City, just like the Fringe Festival converts us into a performance city, we want to get out of the convention center and into the streets. Could you imagine seeing Spider-Man climbing the side of a building? Batman looking down on the city with the Bat Signal in the sky? Adventures for all ages? That would be a game-changer. We have the infrastructure and ability to do that here, so I’m really pushing for it.”
Until that day comes, POP ROC is open to all adventurers at 337 East Avenue from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays poprochester.com
Jeremiah Parry-Hill lives in North Winton Village in the City of Rochester. He has been an avid comic book reader for thirty-five years.