Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Kyle Puttkammer is the owner of Galactic Quest, a comic book store located in Lawrenceville and Buford for 20 years.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Kyle Puttkammer has never been afraid to put himself out there.
He typically welcomes customers into his business with cries of, "Welcome to Galactic Quest, the greatest comic book store on the face of the Earth," and likely has been doing so since the store's beginning. He drives a Toyota Corolla painted red with the black "Spider-Man" logo and webs wrapped around.
The lanky, strong-faithed family man became the enthusiastic face of Atlanta "Star Wars" fanatics when the remastered movies were released in the mid-'90s, his face no stranger to local TV broadcasts and voice a common occurrence on radio airwaves.
Galactic Quest, still chugging along as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, got free publicity while its founder goofed off for cameras and microphones.
"I look back at those videos, and for the most part I was proud of my work then. But sometimes I look back and I'm like, 'Doh,'" Puttkammer said recently, hand slapping forehead.
His self-proclaimed role as a "spokesperson and cheerleader for the industry" has paid off, enabling him to support a family of four on the profits from a comic book store.
As Puttkammer pointed out in between graphic novel plot discussions with a customer, his business has been fortunate enough to take advantage of several different waves in the industry: the early '90s onrush of comic book collectors begat the re-release of the "Star Wars" movies, which begat the "Pokemon" craze, which begat a string of superhero movies in more recent years.
But then again, the father of two estimates that some 40 comic book stores have emerged in the Atlanta market during that same 20-year period, only to fall by the wayside.
Galactic Quest, time has shown, is different.
"It's just always been kind of a friendly environment," said Jesse Callaghan, a customer for 10 years.
"There are other similar shops that just aren't the same," added 33-year-old Matthew Tullis, who has shopped and hung out at Galactic Quest since he was 18. "You get into a place like this and it feels like 1980s 'Cheers,' where everybody yells, 'Norm!' You just get that homey feeling."
Puttkammer was still working in "the real world," as he puts in, when a coworker at QuikTrip pointed to the gas station's tiny comic book rack.
"He said, 'We should sell those,'" Puttkammer recalls with a grin.
With $300 in cash and another $300 worth of comic books, he did. For a year he plied his wares on weekends at a flea market, that coworker doing his own thing with baseball cards.
"Any time I would sell anything, I would take it and reinvest and reinvest and reinvest" before being able to open a store and go full-time, he said.
That first store was in the Old River Depot before moving to a tiny spot on Gwinnett Drive for a decade, then to Sugarloaf Parkway. A second store opened in Buford in 1997.
Galactic Quest's current Lawrenceville location is on West Pike Street, roughly halfway between downtown and Ga. Highway 316.
Changes of scenery aside, the customers have stayed constant and plentiful.
Longtime customer John Vandergrift, a middle-aged man who has been with Galactic Quest since the beginning, describes the store in one word: "Solace."
"The journey itself, there are a million stories and a million things that have happened between then and now," Puttkammer said. "But one of the big things is what it means to the customers."
"This is a business, yes, but it's also therapy in many ways. I've had so many customers that just want to escape their troubles."
The fact of the matter is that Puttkammer sees that, allows them to and fashions his entire business around the concept.
Much more than a store, Galactic Quest has evolved into a hangout and safe haven for kids and adults alike. It's typical to see a group of GQ-loyalists playing a game of "Magic: The Gathering" or another fantasy-based card game on the Lawrenceville store's many tables. Candy and drinks keep players fueled.
Comic book discussions are common, and weekly art classes in the shadow of an enormous superhero-themed mural delve deeper into the finer aspects of the craft. A movie theater at the Buford location screens the latest action and fantasy flicks.
Puttkammer frequently travels around the county and metro-Atlanta area visiting libraries and schools, teaching art classes and introducing kids and parents to the positive aspects of comic books.
Galactic Quest's focus on community seems to be what has granted it a continued, thriving shelf life while other stores have gone sour. Creating it, Puttkammer said, is a "responsibility that we take seriously."
"The older I get the more embarrassed I am about the fact that I can't remember everybody's names between the two stores, and I can't remember all the things that happened," he said. "But that doesn't mean that it's not special. I realize that we are making a difference in the community."
Because many of the youngsters that come to and hang out in his store are "troubled youth," Puttkammer developed a "gamer's code of conduct" several years ago.
The amusing but meant-to-be-followed set of rules covers much of what you might expect, including, to paraphrase, that gamers and customers will show good sportsmanship and not "break stuff" or curse. There's also the store's personal spin on bathroom etiquette ("If you can't aim, you can't game"), and another gem unlikely to be seen at any other establishment: "Female gamers are rare ... If I hit on them, they may become more rare."
In many ways the code embodies the way Puttkammer runs his entire business -- be respectful and make everyone feel welcome, and good things will come.
"I can't tell you how many comic book stores I go into on the road for business," Vandergrift said, "and not a single, 'Hi, how are ya?' Nothing."