Dreamers & Make-Believers, a hybrid comic book store and café, has opened a permanent location in Highlandtown after years of pop-ups. Photo by Ed Schrader.

Inside Highlandtown’s newly opened Dreamers & Make-Believers comic book store, patrons will find a mix of familiar superheroes and newer characters, including an abundance of queer-oriented material.

Amidst curious customers, hip tote bags, onesies, t-shirts decked out with heroes and villains, collectable figurines, and a large inflatable unicorn, sits owner Miranda Nordel in denim overalls and a purple polka-dotted cardigan. Her spouse, Sam Bolenbaugh, is momentarily surrounded in steam as they work a great big espresso machine.

The store, located at 400 S. Highland Ave., held their grand ribbon cutting ceremony three weeks ago.

“We’ve existed as a pop-up around southeast Baltimore for about two years now, but we’ve moved into our permanent space and we’re pretty excited to be open,” Nordel says.

Around the cozy, hybrid comic book store and café, two friends huddle at a window side table catching up over coffee; a parent and child snuggle up in the kids corner, both mutually enthralled in the same book; and a few twenty-somethings dressed in black, giddily peruse caffeinated offerings.

Between coffee orders, Bolenbaugh explains how the two made the journey from pop-up to permanent location.

“We were at a lot of different locations,” he says. “We started at Mob Town Brewing and sort of expanded from there doing pop-ups until we found sort of a ‘permanent pop up location’ at 3402 Art Gallery where we resided for six months and 28 days longer than we were supposed to.”

The two laugh and Bolenbaugh continues. “We were originally supposed to be there for two days for comic book day.”

Miranda Nordel stands behind her desk in the newly opened Dreamers Dreamers & Make-Believers comic book store and café, which she runs with her spouse Sam Bolenbaugh. Photo by Ed Schrader.

“When we first started our pop-ups, it was just us using one of the six-foot folding tables at Mob Town. We were literally in the loading dock of their brewery,” Nordel says. “We went from a six-foot folding table to getting more and more inventory. Nothing as cool as a big truck or book mobile, but we would load up our Subaru with basically produce crates full of books.”

Things expanded quickly from there.

“When we had the free comic book pop-up last May in the art gallery, we literally filled the whole gallery space and built bookcases,” Nordel says. “We moved in furniture and did the whole thing. The art gallery folks were wonderful and said ‘You put so much work into setting this up and it was so successful. While your permanent space is under construction, why don’t you just stay in this space?’ As it often does, construction took longer than planned and they were gracious enough to let us keep extending how long we were there.”

“Two days turned into seven months and now we’re here finally,” Bolenbaugh says.

Nordel and Bolenbaugh went to high school outside Philadelphia, and they have been together for 16 years.

They both attended University of Tampa, where Nordel focused on public health and Bolenbaugh studied communication and theater. After that, they each worked jobs outside of Boston, but eventually made their way west to San Francisco.

Nordel shares that while working at her public health job in San Francisco, she was assaulted by a patient.

“I was having a hard time continuing that job and processing what was going on,” she says.

At that time in her life, Nordel realized she needed to step away from public health so she could begin the process of healing and working through the emotional trauma. At first, she sought refuge by binge-watching the Marvel Netflix show “Jessica Jones,” which she found to be cathartic and surprisingly relatable.

“Through watching the show you see that Jessica also experiences a lot of trauma,” she says. “She is processing a lot of that in front of the viewer on screen. I was identifying with a lot of the same experiences.”

She laughs.

“Lack of superhuman strength aside, I really saw myself in Jessica Jones and so I started Googling. I didn’t know she was a comic book character. I had never read a comic book before and so I started to learn more about her online. Then I went into the comic shop and was like give me everything you have on this character!”

From there, Nordel was catapulted into the world of comic books and superhero media, which helped her process what happened to her.

“I started to learn about She Hulk and other characters who were also processing trauma and really just created my own imaginary support group from these characters that had experienced similar things. It helped me process what was happening in such a strong way that I felt so drawn to that world. I was going to the comic book store almost every day to just keep reading more and discovering more.”

Other comic book stories and characters that have captured Nordel’s imagination include “Paper Girls,” “Squirrel Girl,” and “Moon Girl.”

She explains how her favorite comic book store in San Francisco went from being a place of escape to being the “best job ever.” It was the kind of job she didn’t know she ever wanted to do.

“I was there so often that when a management position opened the owner of the shop was like ‘Hey this position is opening. I know you technically have another job but I’d love for you to do this.’ I ended up managing two shops in San Francisco.”

Sam Bolenbaugh works an espresso machine in the newly opened Dreamers Dreamers & Make-Believers comic book store and café, which he runs with his spouse Miranda Nordel. Photo by Ed Schrader.

Bolenbaugh was offered a transfer position on the east coast for their event production job that unfortunately started right around the same time COVID-19 was slamming the country. This was after they had already decided to turn their wagon east. Things began grinding to a halt.

“Outside of the bookstore, I produce events, concerts, music festivals, conventions and all sorts of stuff like that,” Bolenbaugh says. “Then the pandemic hit and there were no events, no concerts, no nothing.”

In the absence of events to produce, they decided to open a bookstore, Bolenbaugh says.

They considered moving back to Philadelphia to be closer to family but as Nordel puts it:
“The comic book scene in Philly was already so lush with wonderful stores, and our family was like ‘We’d love to have you here, but do you really wanna compete with all these lovely places?’”

Instead, the two decided to make Baltimore their new home. But shortly after they arrived, the city went into a state of lockdown. They were left scratching their heads in a big empty apartment while the vast majority of their furniture and belongings remained in transit for weeks.

“We drove across the country and landed in Brewers Hill March 1, 2020 in the house we were renting,” Nordel says. “We spent the first several weeks just us and our pets and a suitcase of clothes in this big empty place. Sam’s job had shut down right away and I had left my job to move out here so we were like ‘Well we’re here and it’s sort of a blank slate.’”

That’s when tragedy bloomed into a new beginning.

Tables and shelves display some of the books — including comic books, graphic novels, and more — that are sold at Dreamers & Make-Believers in Highlandtown. Photo by Ed Schrader.

“We were locked inside, and comic books were a huge outlet for us,” she says. “So we were looking for them but couldn’t find them. So we thought ‘If we can’t find what we are looking for then we’ll have to build it ourselves.’”

And build they did.

Throughout the store’s aisles, there is a predominant focus on new characters who represent a much larger swath of the human experience than one is likely to find at the traditional mall comic book store which is usually festooned with posters of Thor and Spider-Man. Though there is also a presence of those familiar heroes, including a replica of Thor’s giant hammer.

Dreamers & Make-Believers currently has three book clubs: the Thrillers and Chillers horror graphic novel club; the Heroes and Villains superhero graphic novel club; and Queer All Year, a graphic novel club that focuses on books by queer creators and with queer characters. Club membership includes the latest book, exclusive merchandise and deals, and a handmade membership card.

A mural almost directly across the street from the store depicts a series of biblical events with the caption: “When Jesus of Nazareth taught he often used parables and simple stories with heavenly meaning for believers.”

In this corner of Baltimore: a space for all types of believers – dreamers and make-believers included.

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