By Daniel Silliman
He suddenly saw it on the side of the road as he peddled by.
It was torn, coverless and more than a little ragged from reading. It was a comic book.
The kid stopped his bike and picked it up, flipped it open, and started to read.
The story seized him, and he read the whole thing. The images of "Iron Man" grabbed him, and the bold colors and fantastic story wouldn't let him go.
By accident -- by fate -- Chuck Sheffey became a comic book reader.
Now, standing in the middle of a 25-year-old comic book store in College Park, Sheffey seems like he might want to underplay what, if his life were a comic book, would be considered his "origin story."
"I guess I was just looking for something to read," he said. "After that first one, I started buying comics. Then, I started working for them."
Sheffey came to work for Titan Games & Comics, 5436 Riverdale Road, Suite J, in 1988, five years after the store opened in the strip mall there. He's managed the place for the last 20 years, seeing and surviving the changes to the area, the industry, young people, entertainment and the comic books themselves.
"In the 90s, video games took a big chunk of our market," Sheffey said. "But we still have our diehards."
The new issues of comic book series come into the store on Wednesday, so on Thursday morning, after Sheffey opens the door at 10 a.m., he sees a series of regulars.
"And everyone talks about what is new this week, which is Batman," said Sheffey, who hasn't seen the new movie yet, but was excited by a special on TV about the dark character's psychology.
"Hey," said one customer, standing in front of a long rack of plastic-sheathed issues. "You have anything new?"
"Not anything that you'd want," answered Sheffey. And then, he said, "Hey do see Cameron? Tell him he owes me money."
"How much does he owe you?"
"Millions -- I couldn't even tell you how much he owes me. $999,999.99. Just say, 'Chuck says you owe him.'"
"He drives me crazy," the customer said. "You know what Cameron does with his comics? He just throws them all in a plastic bag, like a Wal-Mart bag. I have everything in boxes, with labels, so I know when I'm done with the latest, I put it with the others."
Sheffey said the diehards, the regular readers, can be divided into two groups -- "completists" and readers. The "completists" want to have every issue, and approach comic books as collectors. Readers are more interested in the story, than the actual artifact, and will horrify the collector by rolling their books up and shoving them into a pocket.
Sheffey's favorite customers, though, are the kids. Sometimes, he said, these kids come in with parents who want them to learn to read, or these kids have read all their dad's old comics and come hunting for comics of their own.
"That gets them started," Sheffey said. "I find out what they like, what they like on TV, if they read books, what they read, and then, I try to recommend them stuff ... If a person likes a book, they're going to get more people to read it and, in reality, the more people that read, the longer the book stays out."
Which may, in the end, be the secret of comic books and Titan Games & Comics: It's almost more of a community than it is a store.
Everyone is sharing "something to read," and getting swept up in the story, the artwork and the bold drama that stopped Sheffey, so many years ago, when he was peddling his bike down the street.