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Superhuman Gifts: Carmelo Chimera ’10 donates comic book stores

July 01, 2019

I don’t have to be a superhero, Carmelo Chimera ’10 finally admitted to himself.

Carmelo Chimera comicFor a guy whose childhood enchantment with comic books has only intensified, that was a particularly hard admission to make. After years of reading, writing, promoting, and selling those stories, he’s gleaned plenty of empowering life lessons from the heroic exploits in their colorful pages.

Then again, while Peter Parker has the seemingly eternal luxury to drop what he’s doing, get his Spidey on, and confront the villain du jour, Mr. Chimera has to carefully parse his time and energy.

While practicing law full time in the private equity group at Chicago-area firm McGuireWoods, Mr. Chimera ran two comic book stores — one too many, in his estimation. On both counts, he was spread unsustainably thin.

Business-wise, the obvious solution was to offload the attention-starved location in south-suburban Oak Lawn, Illinois. Like the original store 50 miles to the north in LaGrange, however, it had become more than a retail outlet.

Closing the store would essentially evict the collectors who had made it their community hub. By selling it, he could ensure the building kept housing a comic shop rather than, say, a dollar store or insurance agency, but Mr. Chimera knew the person to preserve what he’d built “may not be the one with the fattest wallet.”

Instead, a radical alternative churned in his mind: Why not give it away for free?

Entrepreneurial freedom

Ever since he first opened a copy of “The Amazing Spider-Man” No. 375 as a kid, comics have kept Mr. Chimera riveted. He pushes back against critics of the genre.

“It’s more than just distraction,” he says. “Stories are how we define what kind of people we want to be. When you stretch the bounds of reality, you can explore themes like power and responsibility.”

Mr. Chimera graduated from Carthage in three years, when his brother Vincenzo ’12 was a sophomore. The youngest of the three siblings, Nicholas ’23, will enter the College this fall on a Presidential Scholarship.

A friend from high school approached Mr. Chimera about upgrading their shared hobby to a business venture. In 2011, Chimera’s Comics opened its doors.

The front cover of “Magnificent.” The front cover of “Magnificent.” After clearing the mental landmines that stifle so many entrepreneurial dreams, he felt deeply liberated — a feeling he wishes everyone could experience. That affirmed something he’d taken to heart in his Western Heritage courses.

“My liberal arts education taught me you aren’t really free unless you have choices,” explains Mr. Chimera. “That journey, learning what your options are as a person, that’s how you flourish.”

Naturally, then, his first original graphic novel — on the surface, a tale of a superhero held captive — served as a metaphor for college as a place to find intellectual liberation.

“Magnificent” was published in 2018, pairing a coming-of-age plotline Mr. Chimera crafted in his Carthage days with illustrations by business partner Steven Brown. A horror anthology, “Cellar Door,” followed this spring.

The budding author and artist offset the publication costs with successful crowdfunding campaigns. Using online platforms, Mr. Chimera has raised more than $100,000 for a variety of business and charitable projects. He leveraged that proficiency to write a how-to book, “Your Kickstarter Is About To Fail.”

Lightening his business workload could free up time to create more fresh comic content. After all, why should Marvel and DC hog all the fun?

Double giveaway

In January, Mr. Chimera publicly announced an essay contest, with the keys to the Oak Lawn shop as the prize. He’d transfer ownership to the winner, with thousands of dollars worth of fixtures and inventory already in place.

“People make too many decisions in their lives based on fear,” he says. “I wanted to lift those constraints. You can manufacture opportunity.”

Anyone could enter “The Great Comic Shop Giveaway,” as Mr. Chimera dubbed the contest, by submitting $25 (to cover legal costs) and a short online essay answering this central question: “What makes a great comic book store?”

He promised to read each essay thoroughly. Although his decision would ultimately boil down to gut instinct, Mr. Chimera looked for a few key indicators: passion, creativity, and work ethic.

As word rippled out to hobbyists, the response was mostly supportive. A few naysayers dismissed the contest as a PR stunt.

The grand opening of Chimera's Comics.The grand opening of Chimera's Comics.“There are always people out there who would rather tear you down than dream big themselves. It’s scary to dream,” Mr. Chimera says. “I couldn’t wait to prove those people wrong with my actions.”

Whether intentionally or not, the giveaway did grab media attention. A trifecta of Chicago press — TV, radio, and digital/print outlets — lined up to interview Mr. Chimera, and applications steadily continued to flow in.

By the time he declared the submission window closed, the entry pool had grown to 720. Mr. Chimera began the daunting task by winnowing any applicants who pinned their qualifications to their level of comic book or superhero uber-fandom.

Strategically scheduling the official announcement for the first Saturday in May — Free Comic Book Day, “the national holiday around which our business revolves” — Mr. Chimera awarded the Oak Lawn store to Christopher Cavanaugh of nearby Palos Heights.

Sure, he’s a collector, but the winner nailed the essay by openly acknowledging the intimidation he had to overcome just to apply.

“That showed me he had the boldness to do this,” Mr. Chimera says. “Running a small business is challenging. This is not sunshine and rainbows all the time.”

In the same Facebook Live broadcast, the Carthage alumnus tossed out an even bigger bombshell. Besides gifting the existing shop to Mr. Cavanaugh, he plans to help launch a new, community-owned store in the impoverished Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago.

The idea stemmed from an essay that Mr. Chimera initially glossed over.

“The closer I got to picking a winner, the more it stuck with me,” he says, “and I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Carmelo Chimera ’10 in his comic book store, Chimera's Comics.Carmelo Chimera ’10 in his comic book store, Chimera's Comics.He reached out to the applicant, Patti Kosobud, who’s pursuing a graduate degree in community development. As they talked, a common vision began to gel: A local nonprofit would manage the operation and underprivileged students would staff the shop, with the potential to weave in programs that teach entrepreneurial and creative skills.

If the extra commitment keeps Mr. Chimera’s work-life balance out of whack a little longer, that’s a small price to pay. To him, the forecast for humanity looks a bit sunnier.

“I’m overwhelmed by the optimism and hope and courage of all the people who applied. I wish everyone could see it through my eyes now,” he says. “When I look around, I see nothing but possibilities.”

The final panels of this story clearly illustrate the underlying moral: It doesn’t take a cape or a bite from a radioactive spider to pierce the darkness that sometimes threatens to shroud our world.