A wondrous ‘curated nerd space’ opens up in Chestnut Hill
Multiverse, a new BIPOC-owned speculative fiction bookstore, aims to attract and guide speculative fiction lovers of all ages and types.
On one of their first dates, Wyndmoor couple Gralin Hughes Jr. and Sara Zia Ebrahimi Hughes watched a Star Wars film with a live orchestra soundtrack.
On the 10th anniversary of their marriage, Oct. 13, the couple (along with their 9-year-old child Sami) had their hands wrapped around large golden scissors, cutting a ceremonious ribbon for the opening of their new bookstore that celebrates their love for comics and speculative fiction.
Enter Chestnut Hill’s Multiverse, a “portal” Gralin and Sara described as a curated nerd space. Popular DC and Marvel titles grace the store’s hardwood shelves, along with works by acclaimed comic, fantasy, and science fiction authors Essa Hansen, Kat Leyh, Rachel Smythe, Aiden Thomas, and others. Then there are boxed puzzle sets, games, and prized collectibles for speculative fiction fans of all ages.
“We really wanted to create a space that was welcoming for everybody from different backgrounds and different world experiences,” Gralin said. “And this is a multiverse, a place where everything can exist together in one space.”
After six years of manifestation, the couple was able to land the Chestnut Hill storefront, located on the lower hill at 8026 Germantown Ave. Gralin said they were initially looking at Germantown, where he grew up, but the move to Chestnut Hill “just felt right.”
Growing up in central Florida as an Iranian immigrant, Sara said the thought of walking into a comic book store was “intimidating.”
“I felt like I had to pretend I already knew everything,” she said. “It never felt like a space where I could come in and be like, ‘I read this one excellent story, what else would you recommend?’ In the pre-Internet days, there wasn’t a way to research this stuff or find out about it. You were forced to rely on other people’s knowledge.”
Instead of walking into a shop herself, Sara would borrow books from her friends, or pretend to have read certain titles to fit in. Gralin, too, said a comic book store was “sometimes a scary place” while growing up.
“There was a lot of gatekeeping,” he said. “I always wanted people to teach it and explain it to me, make me feel welcome … It was like if you didn’t know about this thing, then you don’t really belong here. It was tough.”
The name “Multiverse,” Sara said, is a nod to the multiple possibilities that exist within popular comic stories, but it also points to her and Gralin’s vision to welcome all levels of fandom, but especially readers of color who have longed for that sense of togetherness.
While online book stores and forums connect fans from around the world, comic book fan and Multiverse visitor Kiersten Adams said having a physical space is an empowering move that invokes community, especially among the city’s “Black nerds.”
“With online stores, there’s an overwhelm of choice,” Sara said. “We really want to provide that curated experience, instead of an algorithm deciding what’s the next step in your journey.” For her, establishing Multiverse is a way for lovers of speculative fiction to get a guide in their search for their next read.
“There’s something really beautiful about being in a physical space,” Adams said. “I’m really excited for the future of this place. It’s welcoming, and [Gralin and Sara] encourage people to come in, be in the space with us, and explore.”
While excited for the store’s opening, Gralin said there was nervousness going into the process of ownership. He didn’t know how a BIPOC-owned book shop would be perceived in Chestnut Hill, but they were surprised to see how many minority-owned businesses already exist in the area.
Sara said witnessing pioneers like Ariell R. Johnson, who opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, the first Black woman-owned comic shop on the East Coast, inspired them to fully pursue the opening of their independent book store. “We credit her bravery for taking that next step to open [Multiverse],” Sara said, “and it was one of things that was like, ‘OK, this could be real for us.’”
Courtney O’Neill, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District, said the opening of Multiverse is a welcome addition to the lower hill and the couple’s presence is shifting people’s minds when it comes to traditional comic book stores.
“I love [Gralin and Sara’s] story, how they found each other, and realized there are more people like them,” O’Neill said. “We have a very diverse business population, and I love that they are on board and bringing something you don’t traditionally see or think of from people of color.
“I’m embarrassed that I had a stereotype in my head,” O’Neill added, referring to the fact that a majority of comic bookstores are white-owned, “but I’m glad that they corrected it.”
Reader and first-day Multiverse customer Daniel Farmer said he never envisioned a Black- and brown-owned comic bookstore in the area, but he’s excited to see the face of Chestnut Hill continue to change.
“I think it’s really special that this is on the Hill, and it’s really going to represent a new kind of openness and availability for more people to come up and enjoy,” he said.” It’s a special neighborhood, and a lot of valuable and interesting things happening up here.”
Multiverse. 8026 Germantown Ave., Phila., 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Sunday and Monday closed. www.multiversephilly.com.