With the summer travel season officially under way, the time seems right to focus on some of our nation’s nerdiest destinations. So for the next couple of months I’ll be writing a number of Topless Robot Road Trip lists showcasing the nerdiest places in some of America’s finest cities. From worthwhile tourist traps to obscure spots known mostly to locals, these articles will be your guide to the greatest geek getaways America has to offer.
For this debut list, I’ll be introducing you to what I consider to be Brooklyn’s dorkiest hot spots, including a shop to get all of your superhero gear, some nerd-oriented bars and other places designed to get your inner fanboy or fangirl worked into a frenzy. Obviously lists such as this are extremely subjective, so instead of bombarding me with “YOU FORGOT ___________” remarks, feel free to add your own personal picks in the comments. Sound good? Okay then, let’s get this (hopefully bedbug-free) road trip started already!
15) Brooklyn Public Library
Since opening in 1941, the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch, Central Library, has become something of an unlikely tourist attraction for bookworms and architecture fiends alike. Constructed to give the appearance of an open book, the massive building is a place where you can either spend an afternoon doing a self-guided tour, leaching off of the free wi-fi that is available, catching one of the free performances featured throughout the summer months or just taking in the facility’s collection of nerdcentric books and graphic novels. (As I did last year when I read through a fascinating book about Popeye collectibles while waiting for a friend who worked there). The best part? You don’t have to have a valid Brooklyn library card to enjoy and explore the sheer wonder of the facility. So you next time you are in the borough and feel that you are, um, overdue for some culture, check out the Central Library. It’s a great reminder the importance libraries hold as a resource and public gathering space.
14) The Brooklyn Flea
If the Hipster Culture Wars ever had the equivalent of World War Z‘s Battle of Yonkers, chances are it would be fought at the Brooklyn Flea. This high-end flea market sets up shop each week in the Fort Greene and Williamsburgh sections of the city. (There’s one in Philadelphia too, though as a resident of the City of Brotherly Love I haven’t quite figured out why). Whether you are looking for overpriced knick-knacks that you find for five bucks cheaper on Etsy or you just want to laugh at skinny trust-fund kids with ridiculous fashion sense and an encyclopedic knowledge of The National’s discography, there’s plenty of fun to go around. Snark aside, the incredible atomic age collectibles of Alphaville and the ubiquitous food vendors make this a fun day out – whether you have black-rimmed glasses or not.
13) Nerd Nite Global Festival 2013
For the most part, you can check out pretty much every place on this list whenever you want. A notable exception is the Nerd Nite Global Festival 2013. Held on August 16th to the 18th, this spin-off of the popular Nerd Nite events that are held monthly throughout the world promises speeches with enticing names like “The Art of the Star Wars Retcon,” “Godzilla: History, Biology and Behavior of Hyper-Evolved Theropod Kaiju,” and, inevitably, “Drunk Science.” Having attended and participated in Nerd Nite events myself, I can tell you from firsthand experience that this event will be an unpretentious, booze-filled celebration of the sorts of dorky things that make the otherwise soul-crushing drudgery of life worthwhile. Don’t miss it.
12) Union Hall
You ever see that BBC documentary where the woman fell in love with and subsequently married the Eiffel Tower? I never understood how a person could have such an all-encompassing passion for a location until I first went to Union Hall a few years back. On the surface, it appears to be just one of a thousand bar/performance venues that clutters up Park Slope. But it’s so much more than a place to get a drink and see a band. There are bocce courts, a shitload of different craft beers to wreck your liver with and a general low-key vibe that seems sorely lacking in the other local bars where displays of status seem to trump having a good time.
Then there are the special events. Union Hall is the home of the Muppet Vault, an occasional video celebration of rare Jim Henson ephemera, as well as frequent singalong events and appearances from comedians like Eugene Mirman and David Cross. It is also the home to Geeking Out, an event where comedians get as enthusiastic as they possibly can about music, celebrities and other topics without restraining orders being issued. Wanderlust, thy name is Union Hall.
11) Coney Island
After being devastated by Hurricane Sandy, Coney Island is living up to the current New Jersey tourism campaign by proving that it is “stronger than the storm.” Eight months on from the disaster, the Wonder Wheel is once again spinning and the sideshow freaks are freaking. (No word on if the Warriors are coming out to pla-a-a-a-y). Even the fabled Coney Island Mermaid Parade – in which attendees do their best Little Mermaid impersonations by dressing up in ocean-themed outfits – will be held this Saturday after much-needed funds were raised on Kickstarter to keep the event from going all glug-glug. Yes friends, Coney Island is back, and still as much of a symbol of Americana as always. I’ll meet you at Nathan’s.
It’s one of those simple ideas that you kick yourself for not having: opening a bar that also is home to an arcade. But the mad geniuses behind Barcade got to it first. Which is fine, because now we can all enjoy the retro fruits of their labor. Walking into the cavernous Barcade is the closest thing to time travel we have yet. The cacophony of sounds emanating from old friends like Popeye, Tapper and Ms. Pac-Man feels like a safe aural blanket of nostalgia that will give you the warm and fuzzies. Of course, that could just be a side effect from all the beer you just drank too. Note: if you can’t make it to Brooklyn, the Barcade empire has expanded to Jersey City and Philadelphia, with a New York City location to open later this year. That makes my Pooyan tingle just thinking about it…
9) Action Burger
Despite the dubious claim that it is “America’s first comic book/sci-fi themed restaurant,” Williamsburg’s Action Burger serves up delicious meals with its nerdery. While you wait to sample enough varieties of hamburgers to make Morrissey rip every hair out of his pompadoured head, you can either play some old video games or marvel at the comic and toy paraphernalia on display. The restaurant is owned by Steve Bala and Vlane Carter, two lifelong comic fans who wanted to create a place that hungry fanboys could call their own. (Proving that these guys are the real deal, Carter’s own indie comic is available on the premises). Of course, you could be a dick and play devil’s advocate by saying that the last thing geeks need is more hamburgers, but where’s the fun in that?
8) Bergen Street Comics
There are two types of comic stores in the world: unkempt disasters where the latest releases not-so-peacefully coexist alongside of rarities like Tippy Teen in dusty longboxes, and upscale establishments which are as organized as they are clean. Both of these have their charm, but Bergen Street Comics definitely falls into the latter camp. Arguably the best-known comic store in Brooklyn, this Park Slope mecca for geeks has been featured on HBO’s Bored to Death (where it was the go-to shop for Zach Galifianakis’ character) and, as seen above, has featured performances by Jonathan Coulton.
The special appearances and signings are terrific, to be sure. Yet at the end of the day, the best things about Bergen Street Comics are its knowledgeable staff and great selection of new releases and graphic novels. Plus, it doesn’t have that mysterious aroma of cat piss that so many of its competitors seem to cultivate. Advantage: Bergen Street Comics!
7) Twenty Sided Store
It’s easy to get down about life given all of the tragedy that surrounds us on a daily basis, but there are still some things to be optimistic about. Case in point: there is no longer a stigma to being a Dungeons and Dragons player. Role-playing games are bigger than ever, and the Twenty Sided Store is there for dungeon masters and Magic: The Gathering aficionados alike.
Supplying gamers with the tools of their trade is one thing, but this retailer goes one further by hosting events every day of the week. Such happenings as board-game socials implode the cliche that gamers still rule over their imaginary worlds from the comfort of their parents basements. Nope. Visitors to the Twenty Sided Store are just regular folks. And the social aspect the establishment provides means that visitors probably don’t need a saving throw when it comes time to getting their freak on either. Now that’s progress.
6) Scott Eder Gallery
In the tech-heavy area of Brooklyn that is whimsically known as DUMBO lies an unassuming brick building that is home to one of the finest comic art galleries on the East Coast. The Scott Eder Gallery has featured exhibitions of everyone from Drew Friedman to Jeffrey Brown. (A show dedicated to Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is currently on display). The pieces on view are always compelling and, better yet, available for purchase at reasonable prices that make for great investments. Not that commerce is the driving force here: Eder isn’t just a curator, but a fan himself whose specialty is indie/underground comics that celebrate the fringes of the medium. Hours vary, so be sure to give the gallery a call to see if they’re open before popping by.
5) Vinnie’s Pizzeria
I know what you’re thinking: how can a pizza place possibly be the fifth nerdiest place in Brooklyn? Simply by featuring the coolest special signs ever known to man, and Vinnie’s Pizzeria does just that. Artist Sean Berthiaume regularly creates illustrations showcasing Vinnie’s latest pop-culture inspired specials featured on a sign at the store. (You can see a gallery of the greatest signs at the Special Bored blog).Word spread quickly about these clever works of art and Vinnie’s soon went viral. The rest was history. Cheesy, delicious history.
4) Joseph Koch Warehouse
Those looking for the Zen-like experience of “the endless convention” can find a life-changing amount of comics and toys at the Joseph Koch Warehouse in Sunset Park. As the above video perfectly illustrates, the store is nothing short of organized chaos, and that is what is so beautiful about this place. Those collectible holy grails you have been searching for may very well be on a shelf somewhere in the store. You simply have to make the journey to find out, and the folks at the Koch Warehouse will do the rest. And if you find a copy of Fast Willie Jackson lying around somewhere there, do me a favor and pick it up for me, okay? Happy hunting.
3) Gotham City Lounge
If it existed in the comics, the Gotham City Lounge would probably be an den of iniquity. Fortunately, in real life it is much, much friendlier. Bushwick’s Gotham City Lounge is affectionately referred to by management as a place “where heroes gather.” Complete with awesome 3-D murals of Superman and Batman located on the exterior, this is one hardcore nerd bar decorated with action figures and comic items aplenty. (Think of it as Cheers for the San Diego Comic Con set). After the novelty of the decor wears off, regulars keep coming back for events like a screening of the old Superman films and Game of Thrones viewing parties. The downside to it being such a cool place is that suddenly your local pub seems utterly inadequate. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Gotham City Lounge is that it isn’t even the nerdiest bar in Brooklyn. More on that in a minute…
2) Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company
On the shelf in my bedroom lies a cannister of X-Ray Vision. I would totally fail at the whole great power/great responsibility thing, so I never opened it up. Those of a more heroic nature than myself may want to head to the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company for capes, particle guns, deflector bracelets, etc. You want it, they’ve got it. Okay, so most of these aren’t functional, but their purchase does support a good cause. The BSSC is actually a clever fundraising store for 826NYC, a non-profit organization designed to help children and teens develop their writing skills. In a neat twist worthy of the Batcave, the 826NYC headquarters is located behind a “secret lair” in the storefront. Each visitor to the store is requested to create their own superhero name. Regardless of which moniker you may choose, by making a purchase at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company you can help make the world a bit better for the next generation. And that’s pretty super indeed.
1) The Way Station
The past few years have seen Doctor Who reach unparalleled levels of success in America. Ratings are great and all, but you know the series truly has arrived when a bar has a TARDIS installed inside. That bit of Gallifreyan tech is the centerpiece of The Way Station, a welcoming place that offers up pure nerdvana for all who enter. The first thing you notice upon arriving is a perfect replica of the TARDIS that leads to the steampunk-influenced saloon’s bathroom. After you get done gawking about how it is, in fact, bigger on the inside, you will marvel at the Who-themed murals adorning the walls. Owner Anders Heidel has created a bar/tourist attraction that has even been visited by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan (whose framed autographs are also in the bathroom), and last month, Smith and Steven Moffat stopped by to screen “The Name of the Doctor.” In other words, if you visit there’s at least a slight chance you can get loaded with Eleven. Good luck having that happen at an Applebees.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.