Niche Market | Inside the Anime Castle

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Anime Castle
35-32 Union Street
Flushing, NY 11354

The basement-based Anime Castle is Flushing, Queen's version of a suburban den where teens hunch over comic books, tap wildly at game controllers or play trading cards. The shelves of the retail store and warehouse — tucked away underneath a Korean bar on a crowded commercial strip across from Flushing High School — are packed with imports from Japan: volumes of magna (Japanese comics), anime DVDs and box sets, figurines and other collectibles.

Owner Bill Lai — whose side business selling VHS of Japanese anime online grew into the business that now boasts 20,000 units — said Anime Castle caters to those who love Otaku culture (Otaku means "nerd" in Japanese).

"It's like heaven for Otakus — people who like this kind of stuff," said Fernando Rojas, 19, who visits the Castle three or four times a week.

Joe Angotti, 23, who works in the store said people love anime for the unique narratives. Take "One Piece," a series about pirates that began in 1997 and is up to 491 anime episodes.

"It's not about typical pirates, they're not walking around with ... one leg and an eye-patch and a parrot on their shoulder," Angotti said. "The main character, his special power is he can stretch, almost like Mr. Fantastic from Marvel. It's more of an anime spin on the pirate situation."

What inspired you to open a manga and anime store?

Originally, we didn't really want to have walk-in customers. We were web-based, and we'd do mail order and what happened one day was somebody walked on our door — a warehouse that was unmarked — and said, 'Are you the guys who shipped me this?' And at first I thought it was a disgruntled customer, a broken item or something. But it wasn't. He was just looking for us for two weeks, he said, just looking for our location so he could browse our warehouse.

And at that point it was like an epiphany. We said, 'Why don't we open some of the warehouse up for people to come in and buy?' And it was pretty successful. 

What do you think is the appeal of anime?

I think it's because anime has more diverse story lines. If you think about anime and comic books, those are the same customer base — people who like these type of adventure stories. The thing with anime is there's more genres within anime. If you look at the big publishers, Marvel and DC, their stories are very stagnated in the spandex superhero archetype. So everything's in spandex and everything's about a superhero and a villain. In anime, you do have those, but you also have other genres such as shojo — basically stories that are aimed toward young girls, basically young romances. So the story doesn't really have a science-fiction factor or superhero factor, it's a straight romance story. And in the past the U.S. comic book market did have that, the diversity, it had westerns, military, stuff like that, but now we are stagnated for the past two or three decades on just superheroes.

So fans of comic books sort of gravitate toward other, diverse story lines, and the easiest thing to gravitate to is manga because they have shojo ready for you. They have sennen, which is older men type of comics. There's even a niche within manga known as yaoi, which is about boy-boy romances.

It's something you wouldn't get really in American comic books, really per se, that being the focal point. You might have one or two lesbian or homosexual characters but you wouldn't have the entire story line devoted to them, just exploring their emotions and the trials and tribulations and the slapstick comedy that comes with it. That's what appeals to them; it's the diversity of story lines. 

Who are most of your customers?

Random anime fans throughout the city who hear about us, word of mouth, and start showing up here. Because we're located right next to the high school we do have a lot of high school kids who show up after school. They come enjoy the snacks, play a lot of games. We have a lot of Yu-Gi-Oh! kids, cause the store is situated in Flushing and Yu-Gi-Oh! the trading card game is really popular here. So we have weekly tournaments here on Sundays that attract a lot of those kids.

So that's kind of unique to the store, which I didn't really predict would be successful. Originally coming from the online world you believe in community building online but you don't really get the feel for these kinds of communities that can only exist in a brick-and-mortar location such as Yu-Gi-Oh!

Do you think the Japanese earthquake and tsunami will affect manga and anime? 

There actually have been a lot of delays in Japan in releasing video games that are post-apocalyptic in theme. Like they had one that was actually dealing with an earthquake survivor. They delayed that. It was supposed to be released a week or so after the earthquake, but they stopped because they figured no one wants to play a game like that — especially what they're living through now. It's been a tragedy, but I wouldn't be surprised if in the near future, within the year, if a couple of the popular series, if not directly touch upon it then dealing with similar story lines dealing with this type of tragedy.

( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Anime Castle owner Bill Lai
Anime Castle owner Bill Lai ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Anime Castle is located on a crowded commercial strip in Flushing, Queens.
Anime Castle is located on a crowded commercial strip in Flushing, Queens. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
A Yu-Gi-Oh! card dispensing video game.
A Yu-Gi-Oh! card dispensing video game. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )