Thomas Wu became a comic book fan as a kid growing up near Wheaton, which, naturally meant he became a regular at Barbarian Comics.
At 16, he began working for Carl Bridgers, the founder and longtime owner of the iconic comic book shop in the Wheaton Triangle.
Thomas Wu and his older brother, James Wu, now own the shop, which has been a fixture in the heart of Wheaton’s downtown for more than 40 years. In its time it has served both the hard core and novice fans of Superman, Batman, The Avengers and hundreds of other comic book series.
Thomas Wu said little has changed.
Cartons and racks of comics fill the store. Barbarian stocks back issues of almost every comic it sells, an oddity for most comic book retailers. Superhero action figures and other quirky character collectibles are placed on top of any shelf with room. Vintage No. 1 issues are wrapped in plastic and stored behind a glass case.
Thomas Wu said there is no electronic record of Barbarian’s inventory, because it would take too much time to catalog its collection of about 1 million comics. There also is no online purchasing system. The only way to buy a comic, DVD, poster or other collectible from Barbarian is to come into the store — another sign that not much at the shop has changed despite the prominence of the Internet and the other businesses have come and gone around it.
“I still love reading the comics,” said Thomas Wu, 32. “If I didn’t, I don’t know if I would have bought it.”
The Wu brothers bought the store from Bridgers in 2003. Both work other full-time day jobs to help support the cost of running the shop. Thomas Wu works as a systems administrator for a credit union, and James Wu is a software developer for a company in Northern Virginia. Tough economic times have hurt business — a typical comic sells for between $2.99 and $3.99 — but Barbarian has so far been able to carry on.
“I think because we’ve been in business so long, a lot of people have heard of us, and that definitely helps,” Thomas Wu said. “I know a lot of customers who have toned down their buying because comic books aren’t exactly an essential thing, but we’re surviving.”
Bridgers began the business as a bookstore on Bonifant Street in Silver Spring before moving to Wheaton and renaming it Barbarian Comics, for a small statue of a Barbarian warrior that used to stand in the store window.
Ray Rose worked for Bridgers and returned to work for the Wu brothers in 2005. Thomas Wu said Rose has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Barbarian’s extensive collection.
“There’s an awful lot about it that I like,” Rose said. “Talking to comic book fans is a good bonus.”
A core group of the store’s staunchest fans still regularly buy comics. Thomas Wu said there are about 15 customers who subscribe to weekly editions of certain series, creating a comic book club feeling of familiar faces. Bridgers said customers also have made a pilgrimage to the shop from as far away as New York and North Carolina.
At one point, Rose and Bridgers attempted to find out if Barbarian Comics was the first specialty comic book store in the country. Comic book stores came to prominence starting in the late 1970s during the so-called Bronze Age of comic books that saw the creation of the Conan the Barbarian series and the revival of X-Men, the group of mutant superheroes that first got Thomas Wu hooked.
Bridgers, 75, said he and a business partner opened the original Silver Spring store in 1967 and moved to Wheaton a year later.
He periodically checks in with the Wu brothers and Rose.
“The comic part took off more than the rest,” Bridgers said. “Eventually, everyone thought of us as a comic book shop.”
X-Men still is Wu’s personal favorite. He said he hasn’t lost any of the passion that got him interested in comic books and Barbarian Comics in the first place.
“The art, the story: It’s different than just reading a novel,” Wu said. “I’m still very much into it.” Wu said.