“To me, the idea of a new bookstore opening is thrilling,” I said to Lee Francis IV, the CEO of Native Realities Press, as we stood among the aqua blue and earth brown walls of the publisher's soon-to-open storefront Downtown. “It's thrilling for me too!” he enthusiastically responded, looking around us at the store, which was still taking shape 12 days out from its official opening.
The space—in the Raynolds neighborhood, right in the middle of the 10th block of Park—was once a hair salon. Francis pointed out where sinks had been removed, the wall faucets dutifully painted over. After the formal opening on June 3, however, the spot will officially be transformed into Albuquerque's first Indigenous bookstore, and the first ever Indigenous comic shop. The store, Red Planet, will provide a physical outlet for all of Native Realities' releases, plus books from other publishers printing works by Native authors, as well as other writers of color. “We're favoring stuff that is written by Native folks, or is vetted, in a certain way. We're not trying to stock up on histories, because that's what you see in a lot of bookstores,” Francis explained of Red Planet's particular niche. “They've already got that covered! That's what you see everywhere.” Instead, at Red Planet, comic books abound with a healthy dose of other literary formats on offer, too. What this bookstore is providing is what's “hard to find at the comic book shops. It's just not there, it's not where they're specializing,” Francis detailed. And on top of that wealth of reading material, there'll be video and tabletop games to be played, collectibles and other toys for sale. As if that weren't enough, Red Planet provides a point of contact for other mediums and the Indigenous artists working in them.
“We want to be the one-stop-shop for Native pop,” Francis continued. As such, there will be a rotating collection of art on the newly painted walls. At the opening, visitors will be able to see works from the likes of Warren Montoya, Jason Garcia, Jacob Meders and Ryan Singer. “What we want to do is provide artists with another opportunity to share their stuff in a way that is … flexible and fluid … that way the artists can continue to make money, and that's a great thing. They can continue to support themselves and to make art.” That network of support and encouragement is absolutely vital to what Native Realities and the whole team working to bring Red Planet into the world is aimed at achieving.
“What we're trying to create is a community-based space,” Francis explained, after pointing out that Native Realities requires a physical office location, so why not make that space all the more inclusive by inviting in the community that the small press serves? “It's not just the selling of objects, it's [the invitation] to come on down and play games all afternoon. To just come and nerd out, for Native folks to know there's a place like that. I say Native folks—and that is our focus—but really, anybody.” In a world where you can access literally any title you've been wanting to pick up online, it is essential that bookstores facilitate those kinds of connections—to be a rallying point for people who have a strong cross section of interests that pull them there. Red Planet will pull in people with many identities—comic nerds to Magic the Gathering nerds to bookworms and “Indiginerds” of all stripes, as Francis endearingly refers to himself and others.
As visitors wind their way through the small space, not only can they expect to pick up some choice titles, like the first official edition of Tribal Force, but comics like Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, the first collected volume of which was released last fall. And Red Planet's stock will only grow with time. In fact, throughout the summer, more comics will be released and available in-store like Hero Twins, as well as an anthology on Indigenous love, which Francis himself contributed to. First and foremost, this opening is a celebration, but it should also serve to illustrate to the city, as Francis pointed out, “that when you open a business—whether it is an Indigenous business or owned by people of color—that folks shop up for that.”
And showing up for that isn't just important, it's a joy—it's about doing things and accessing things that inspire, educate and entertain. It's amazing that all of these qualities converge at a small building on an unassuming city block. “It's really about the locale,” Francis stressed, as we stood in the still mostly-empty space, talking about the myriad possibilities for it. “It's not just about finding a book. It's about going to the shop. To engage with books in a space, to engage with the community itself.” For Francis, a self-proclaimed comic book geek, the idea of opening a shop still induces elation, “There's a good amount of giggly-ness that goes with that,” he said. But more than anything, it is about that vital element of community, and how the space, in its function as a meeting place allows for even greater vitality in the local literary culture. “We think print is dead, bookstores are dead, or whatever. Well, I love walking into a bookstore. But what we see is that independent shops need to be more niche and provide a community space. The whole point is that this is indicative of the future.” If Red Planet is a glimpse of the future, it is certainly a promising one.
Visit Red Planet's opening at the brand-new store front (1002 Park SW) on Saturday, June 3, between 1 and 5pm to play games, eat food, enjoy cosplay, listen to the Jir Anderson Trio and have your Super Indian comics signed by Arigon Starr, who will be on-hand for the event.