Gerry Mattson, 53, took a leap of faith 30 years ago when he opened Comic Encounters in Terrace. Only 23-years-old at the time and a newcomer to the northwest, Mattson realized accounting wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“In my own mind, [I said] hey I’m just a kid, I have time to decide what I want to do so give the store a shot, if it works great, if not, go back to accounting or something else,” he said.
Born in Trail, B.C., Mattson came to Terrace to work as an assistant manager for a hotel, helping out a company for which he had previously worked. Within a month, he was running the hotel and working long hours, while trying to juggle accounting classes.
“I was a kid, I ended up doing a job managing 40 people and it’s not what I wanted to do.”
Then 21, Mattson decided to step back from the hotel and apply for accounting jobs. He found he was getting offers, but was turning them down.
He had worked in a comic and games store in high school, and had been collecting comics since he was a child. There was nowhere to buy comics in Terrace so he decided to test it out. Now he’s in his third location and 30th year in operation, with an inventory of around 250,000 comics.
“I started the business a little under-financed and fought to stay alive, and the first two or three years in business it was run pretty thin and run a little lean,” he said. “I did a lot of accounting jobs on the side the first couple years I had my store to help pay the bills.”
Mattson has seen a lot of change during his three decades as a retailer of comics and games. Having been in business for so long, the store has been able to grow and evolve with the products it sells.
“Magic the Gathering, the most popular card game, didn’t exist when I opened the store, we’re older than it is,” he said. “You go from a few people barely knowing what it is to most people on the planet knowing what it is.”
“When I first started you’d talk to somebody about gaming, something like [Settlers of Catan] or Dungeons and Dragons and maybe one in ten people knew what you were talking about, now it’s maybe one in twenty don’t, it’s become very, very mainstream.”
When he first opened the store, Mattson didn’t stock much of Dungeons and Dragons, because early on the game had been misunderstood and was the subject of negative stereotypes. He wasn’t sure what kind of reception it would get in Terrace, but it sold out within the first week.
“Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of an evolution because now, our fastest growing demographic is moms to play with kids, where before it was the indie bad, now it’s ‘oh this is educational, kids are learning for this, it’s creative and keeps people away from video games.’”
Comics and graphic novels are also more mainstream today than they were 30 years ago. He credits Marvel movies with familiarizing the public with the characters, and a shift away from speculators who buy comics to make money to people who buy comics for enjoyment.
Parents are increasingly treating comics and graphic novels as a way of getting kids to learn. Mattson said he’s talked to many people over the years who’ve said that comics are how they learned to read.
“For us it’s really evolved over the years from speculators to readers, and its nothing for someone to come in and buy $300 of graphic novels, they don’t care if they are worth anything.”
“From a personal standpoint, I’ve evolved the same way. I buy what I want to read because if it’s worth something, hey wonderful, I mean I do protect my comics, bag and board them and everything but I get it for myself.”
Mattson has also experienced some major changes to his store and the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pokemon and hockey trading cards have boomed in popularity with adults as people take up old hobbies.
Warhammer, a tabletop miniature game has exploded during the pandemic as well, even though in-person game nights and events at the store have been cancelled.
“COVID’s been weird because I swear the [Warhammer] community doubled during COVID even though people can’t play together, and the reason is, the models you paint them, so everybody has been getting into it, buying the models, painting, getting ready for when we can do stuff again.”
The pandemic has also helped Mattson lighten his workload. He jokes that he is now semi-retired — only working around 40 hours per week. Working less means he has more time to do other things.
“It’s funny because people who don’t know me assume that I eat, live, breath this stuff but when I’m on my own time I’m more likely to be reading a history book or something like that,” he said.
Mattson likes exploring, hiking, snowshoeing and photographing the area. He was a member of the Canadian Rangers for eight years, recently ending his time with the unit to free a space for someone able to attend more often.
But for Mattson, work feels like play too. “I’ve met tons of wonderful people because of it I’ve made a ton of friends, several of which the friends are more like family. I always joke that I get to play for a living.”
“I keep saying one day I’ll decide what I want to do when I grow up, it’s worked out rather well,” he said.