The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. promises all aspiring heroes passing its storefront that it can help with a “nemesis problem” with its “full capery” and “special programs for telepaths.” A small chalkboard advertises products like a grappling hook or X-Ray vision powder.
Some people don’t know what to make of it. When we visited recently, a young couple walked in and smiled at the displayed superhero gear. After eyeing an air cannon, picking up a villain net, and taking photos with the Rilling Brand Mind Reader, they asked the employee tending the store what many visitors wonder: “What is all this?”
Besides being a place to gather items for a homemade superhero costume, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. is part of best-selling author Dave Eggers‘ 826 National, a nonprofit that uses wacky stores like this one, the original Pirate Store in San Francisco, the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, and others to mask full-fledged tutoring centres.
Behind a secret door in the Superhero Supply Co. is a spacious learning center where students ages 6 to 18 participate in creative writing programs and get homework help. Even though the company’s main purpose is education, as part of the 826 network, it is not a typical nonprofit.
“We want people to get lost in the idea of a superhero store,” says store manager Chris Molnar. “We don’t want to beat them over the head with our programs. We want to keep the magic.”
By adding a level of mystery and fun to the nonprofit model, Molnar explains, the store draws in potential students and volunteers intrigued by a superhero supply company and manages to make seeing a tutor a fun experience for kids.
Molnar packages all of the products in the store’s basement, giving often-mundane objects new life through creative labelling and descriptions. All the profits go toward funding the store’s operations and educational programs.
Some of the toys are repurposed surplus goods, like suction cups that kids can imagine scaling buildings with:
Other items are dollar-store toys that suddenly become much cooler with a dose of imagination, like the Galactic Light Blaster:
The disguise kits are dossiers instructing you on how to adopt a new persona, like Skylar the American baby or Franklin Shade:
Some of the items are essentially conversation starters to keep around the house, like X-Ray vision and speed of light powders:
If you’re looking to transform yourself into a cyborg, the store’s got you covered:
Need a cape to go with your new gear? Try one on and turn on a machine that will let you test out how the wind will grab it when you’re fighting crime. 826 New York volunteer Zoe Schwab modelled for us:
If you’re doubting your zeal for justice, you can go into the villain chamber and answer a series of questions to see how you stack up. We were diagnosed as “mischievous” and had to recite a creed to purge us of our villainy:
Sales of the toys go toward keeping the store up and running, but the Superhero Supply Co. and the other seven 826 National stores are mainly funded through the support of foundations, corporations, and private donors, 826 National CEO Gerald Richards tells us.
Key donors include Time Warner Cable, Bad Robot, BlackRock, Google, Microsoft, Jansport, Random House Publishing, the NEA, Yellow Chair Foundation, Hearst Foundation, and the Points of Light Foundation. 826 operated on $US6.2 million last year.
Richards says 826 National is in a growth phase and is considering expanding into Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Wiley will publish a series of 826 workbooks early next year, funded by Time Warner Cable.
The Superhero Supply Co. is also doing well and growing, Molnar says.
Its team of 250 volunteers, five staff members, and a handful of interns helped tutor over 2,300 students in the 2013-2014 school year, Marianna Lockington, 826 New York’s director of education, tells us.
She says that the team reaches out to schools across New York City, and teachers and parents create buzz through word of mouth.
One of its programs is a field trip for younger students who get to poke around the shop before they’re taken through the secret door and told to write a book. Before they leave, they pose with a pair of thick-rimmed black glasses (on sale in the front) for their author photos. Some are collected on a bookcase in the tutoring room:
The back is decorated with framed stories by some of the younger writers who have passed through. We’ll leave you with this one:
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