CLINTON — Town residents Justin Teague and his partner, Carolyn Dickson, love to vacation in Japan. They’ve gone three times since 2015, traveling through Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Kobe on the country’s bullet train.
But there’s another purpose to their travels besides pure enjoyment — stocking up on Japanese collectibles to take back to their store, Akiba Underground. The small novelty shop in downtown Clinton contains a plethora of Japanese comic books, snacks, fashion and collectibles that draws people from around New England.
The counter offers Pocky sticks in at least seven flavors, arranged against a backdrop of two women warriors from the game Flesh and Blood. In one corner of the store hangs a small collection of Japanese fashions — mainly dresses and skirts. Japanese collectibles, Gundam model kits, manga novels and packs of cards line the walls.
A room on the side, separated from the store by a doorway veiled with blue curtain, becomes a gaming enclave in the evenings for people who want to play role-playing games like Magic: The Gathering and Flesh and Blood.
Despite many game cafes having closed down during the pandemic, Akiba has managed to thrive, thanks to its unique offerings, a re-evaluation of their business model and a large stock that came in handy when supply chain issues hit the country.
Ordinary game cafes are few and far between, Teague said — you have to go 30 minutes in any direction to find one. Teague said he’s not aware of any other store in the area that specializes in Japanese merchandise. He said people have come from Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island to visit their store.
Teague said he believes that one of the attractions of his store is that it gives people the opportunity to talk in-person with others who are interested and knowledgeable about Japanese manga and anime culture.
“It’s the experience of going somewhere to buy something for your hobby and to have the people selling it be really passionate about it and know about it,” he said. “You could be a very savvy business person and you could be very intelligent, but you can’t learn or pretend like you are passionate about Gundam models or something.”
Teague said he became interested in manga in middle school. He said he was drawn to it by the depth of the characters and the storylines.
“There’s continuity. It’s all done by one artist and his team. There’s a kind of integrity to the narrative that didn’t really exist necessarily with American comics,” he said.
In high school, he and a friend commuted to Yale after school to take a class in Japanese. At UConn, he was captain of the anime club and ran the tabletop gaming club.
“I had like, the hat trick of nerd clubs that I was running,” he said.
Their mutual interests were also what brought him and Dickson together — he said he met Dickson through some friends. At the time, he said, she was the moderator for an online community for Japanese street fashions.
The two started out selling collectibles at anime conventions in the early 2010s, and opened Akiba Underground in June of 2016. Teague works full-time as a software consultant and works at Akiba on Saturdays, while Dickson runs the store on weekdays.
“We both wanted to make the kind of store that we wished existed, you know, when we were growing up,” said Teague.
Three years later, Teague and Dickson expanded the store, realizing they needed more space to host game nights. In 2018 and 2019, Teague said, the store was hosting events with more than 20 people in attendance multiple times per week. Then came 2020.
A “super cool nerd store”
Teague said he and Dickson took the pandemic shutdown as an opportunity to renovate the store, particularly the side room where they hosted the games. They replaced the ceiling, installed LED lights, painted and put up decorations, including arcade machines that people can play for fun.
“I think it came out really nice. It was a lot of work, but [it’s] a much nicer space for people to play in,” said Teague. “A lot of stores are kind of like stepping into your friend’s attic … and we wanted to have a bright, clean, nice store.”
When it became clear the pandemic was going to last for a while, they began selling items through curbside pickup and uploaded their inventory online. It was a time to reassess their business practices, to figure out what was and wasn’t working. But the social isolation was also tough.
“All the people who came to play games, like just our week to week lifestyle of just seeing people, doing events, having fun — that was obviously a huge blow. That was personally very challenging,” said Teague.
During the pandemic, Teague said, he decided that, rather than stop purchasing merchandise, he would “double down.” He said he wanted people to come back post pandemic and be “blown away” by their inventory.
“My reasoning being, what could the worst thing be when the pandemic ended? And it would be that our store was picked over on stock and looked that way,” he said.
The result was that the current supply chain shortages have actually helped their business. Where people previously could have bought the items online for cheaper and had them shipped, now the items cost just as much, if not more, online, and delivery dates are impossible to predict.
“Product scarcity is so extreme that prices have somewhat normalized to like what you would expect. I think it’s easier to compete as a brick and mortar now than it was two years ago,” he said.
Along with the general scarcity, Teague said, the pandemic seemed to have changed people’s attitudes toward how they choose to spend money.
“It’s like, ‘Well, before I was saving all my money and not spending money on things that would maybe make me happy now, but this really scary thing happened in the world. And now I’m not waiting anymore. I want to get the things now that make me happy if I can afford it and not wait,’” he said.
At this point, Teague said the store has more than earned back the amount it lost in the 18 months of pandemic.
Teague and Dickson are also back to hosting regular weekly events — open play nights on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for Magic: The Gathering and Flesh and Blood — although not quite at pre-pandemic scale.
“I just think it’s going to take time for people to get used to going places and feel like that’s an okay thing again,” he said. “And also, I think that after being away from that for so long that, to some degree, some people might not have the same stamina for social interactions that they did before.”
He said the store will be having some post-Thanksgiving sales, and will be putting together gift bags of dice and accessory items for people who are interested in role-playing games.
“I think it’s very much a ‘be the super cool nerd store you want to see in the world’ situation,” he said.
Akiba Underground is located at 5 Post Office Square in Clinton.