WALLA WALLA — For comic book lovers it is the saddest of endings.
The September death of North Star Comics owner Brice Jones was a swift and crushing blow for many who came to know him as a friend and mentor. But the effects are reaching also into the business he founded 19 years ago.
When the year comes to a close, so too will Jones’s landmark shop on Second Avenue where groups had long gathered for Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the latest DC, Marvel and other comics.
Though his wife, Sarah Jones, had always assisted her wheelchair-bound husband with the displays, cleaning and shop operations, Brice had the eclectic mind behind virtually everything else. It was he who tracked the trends in games and comics. He stayed on top of distributors and filled customer subscriptions.
He was the face of the business, behind the register and mingling with the regulars through the aisles of box after box of comics. He knew what they liked, sometimes even before they did as he introduced customers to new titles based on their previous purchases. Keeping it going without him seems an impossible feat.
“I thought about it, truly. Brice just had all of it,” said Sarah, who also serves as advancement services manager at Whitman College. “He was the heart and soul of this place.”
His Sept. 10 death was a shock. Feeling ill last May he went to the doctor for what was originally believed to be a bladder infection. His condition was more dire.
An initial biopsy was done, and a second had been scheduled. By the time Jones was to have it, cancer had progressed wickedly. He received just two chemotherapy treatments before he died, a day after his 53rd birthday.
The store and inventory was, as to be expected, not an immediate priority. Regular buyers known for their Wednesday fix of new releases would have noticed it quickly, Sarah said. She has spent the last several weeks notifying customers of the closure and pulling together the boxes of books all polybagged for protection.
The story of North Star Comics’ longevity is not unlike something you might find on the shelves of the shop at 11 N. Second Ave.
Jones was 33 when he opened the store at 923 S. Second Ave. at the Southgate Shopping Center. It wasn’t that he was such a fan of the “funny books” — although he did have fond memories of his younger brother reading them.
Having worked as a computer programmer in California, the Waitsburg native had returned to the Valley where he grew up and was most interested in a path where he could be his own boss. He picked a business with relatively low startup costs and overhead, according to a 1994 Union-Bulletin story.
Getting customers through the door was, however, not as easy. In his first few months of business, one of his biggest sales came from a boy who bought five comics.
The business came to add a depth to the community for local residents and visitors alike. It was bolstered at times as Hollywood filmmakers brought comic heroes to the big screen. North Star’s visibility in the community also grew when the shop moved downtown, initially at 226 E. Main St. before its current spot on Second Avenue.
Those who knew him know he was never one to shy away from a challenge. At 15 he was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident off the Snake River. He had been an athlete in cross-country and football up until then. He missed time just one year in school.
When he returned he switched his focus from sports to other clubs and extracurricular activities, such as yearbook staff, Sarah said.
“Brice had a nothing’s-going-to-keep-me-down attitude,” she said.
With the same tenacity, he grew North Star Comics into a destination for fans and gamers. Loyal groups would hit up the store for hours at a time playing games.
It wasn’t unusual for Brice and Sarah to receive an occasional bouquet of flowers as thanks from mothers of the boys who spent so much time there.
“True that not everybody loved Brice, and that I know,” his wife said. “He was tolerant of many things, but some people who just did not live up to their potential annoyed him.”
He would have been pleased to know how many more his presence had touched. His service was attended by a number of North Star loyals who came from Pullman, Bremerton and Seattle to attend his service.
The loss was hard. Many remain in disbelief the store is going to close in a week.
“I hate to see it go, too,” Sarah said. “It’s our little landmark.”