Anime store brings Japan to Sioux City
By TY RUSHING
Feb. 04, 2018
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — All it took was one sick day when she was in middle school to hook Jasmine Bennett on anime, the general term used for cartoons from Japan.
"I was home sick and really bored trying to find something to do," Bennett said. "The first anime I ever watched was 'Mamotte! Lollipop', but it really was 'Death Note' that actually made the spark for me."
Those two shows differ vastly in style and contrast.
"Mamotte! Lollipop" is about a seventh-grade girl who accidentally swallows a magical crystal pearl she thought was candy and shenanigans follow suit. "Death Note," meanwhile, revolves around a teen protagonist who discovers a book that allows him to kill whoever's name he writes in it.
Like many anime fans, Bennett collects merchandise tied to some of her favorite shows and has acquired her fair share of clothing, plushies, posters and jewelry.
"So a lot, but not as much as some people I know," Bennett said of her collection, which also includes manga, a Japanese graphic novel somewhat akin to American comic books.
Although she's stockpiled anime-related merchandise for a while, Bennett's options to buy things locally were fairly limited until recently when Anime Corner opened in Southern Hills Mall next to Rue 21.
Anime Corner is a locally-owned and operated store dedicated to all things related to the sub-genre of Japanese pop culture, the Sioux City Journal reported .
Count Bennett among those thrilled about its arrival as similar stores typically open in larger markets.
"I think I sort of wished but I never thought it'd actually happen," Bennett said. "F.Y.E was kind of the void filler for the longest time, but I would've never guessed in a million years we would get anything like this."
The man responsible for making Bennett's and other Sioux City anime fanatics' dream come true is Travis Pilgrim of Dakota City, Nebraska.
The 31-year-old, who opened Anime Corner Nov. 1, has been selling anime merchandise at conventions for the last five years. Pilgrim's own fandom is how he got started in the business.
He has regularly watched anime since he was a teenager. His favorites are "Dragon Ball Z," one of the most successful anime franchises of all-time in the U.S., and "Angel Beats," a story set in an afterlife high school where students can earn another opportunity at life by overcoming past traumas.
Anime initially gained traction stateside when dubbed versions of "Astro Boy" and "Speed Racer" began airing on U.S. airwaves in the 1960s but it dates back decades further in its homeland.
Domestically, it's blossomed into an $18.1 billion industry in Japan with a growing export market led by American and Chinese consumers, according to the latest annual report from the Association of Japanese Animations.
About a third of Pilgrim's merchandise comes directly from the Land of the Rising Sun. In the future, he wants to increase that amount and regularly visit Japan to set up direct supply lines.
Prior to opening Anime Corner, Pilgrim worked full-time as a painter at the Wilson Trailer Co. plant in Sioux City for 11 years. However, he spent weekends traveling to comic book and anime conventions across the Midwest to peddle his wares.
"I started off doing it to help me get to the conventions," Pilgrim said. "I'd set up for a day or two and sell at the convention so I could go have fun at it."
Balancing a regular job and spending weekends on the road wasn't an ideal lifestyle, but it was one Pilgrim maintained until about nine months ago when he decided to sell anime merchandise at cons full-time.
"A lot of nights with no sleep 'cause I would get off at 3 o'clock, drive to Chicago and have to be there to set up at like 6 in the morning and I would leave at like 2 o'clock on Sunday night and have to be at work Monday morning," Pilgrim said. "I used to hire people just so they can drive so I can sleep on the way home."
While anime is definitely a passion of his, Pilgrim said he opened his business more out of necessity than self-satisfaction.
"I kind of eventually accumulated so much stuff I could just open a store without a lot of risk," he said.
Pilgrim said he wanted to open Anime Corner in the indoor mall because of the foot traffic, which is high-volume but tame in comparison to working a con.
"This isn't hectic," he said. "A con is hectic; you'll see 5,000 people in six hours."
Still, business has been good for Pilgrim at Southern Hills, one of the more popular tri-state shopping destinations.
Customers come from all corners of Siouxland and beyond. Pilgrim said he's event met people who've traveled from Omaha and Sioux Falls to shop at his store.
Anime Corner is fully-stocked with, DVDs and Blu-rays, collectible figurines, Gundam kits, plushies, T-shirts, messenger bags, wall art, throw blankets, manga, and anything else a person could want covered with characters from both popular and obscure anime franchises.
There are even some edible items for sale at Anime Corner including Pocky, a chocolate-dipped pretzel-like cookie stick created in Japan in 1966 that also has developed a devoted following stateside.
Additional snacks are definitely something Laura Valentine of Remsen, Iowa, a 37-year-old "Sailor Moon" super fan would like to see more of in the store. "Sailor Moon" is a story about a team of young super-powered female protagonists named after bodies of the solar system and one of most revered anime and manga series of all-time.
In particular, Valentine wants more flavors of Pocky — mango and grape especially — and Japanese variations of Kit Kat bars such as green tea, roasted corn, soy, sake and sweet potato.
"Any candy that has an anime character on it would sell good," said Valentine, who made her first trek to Anime Corner about a month ago.
Outside of that and a few other suggestions, Valentine, who's watched anime since the 1980s, is happy to have something like Anime Corner in her neck of the woods.
"I was excited because the only place that had really anything (anime related), which was a small amount, was a comic book store in Sioux City," she said.
Colin McCue, a 21-year-old anime fan from Sioux City, has been to Anime Corner a few times since it opened.
"I absolutely love the selection that they have there," said McCue, who got into anime after a friend introduced him to it his sophomore year of high school.
Another thing McCue likes about Anime Corner is that he was already familiar with Pilgrim and his business practices before the store opened. McCue is the president of the anime club at Western Iowa Tech Community College and the club takes an annual trip to Anime Nebraskon or NebKon, one of the many shows where Pilgrim sets up a booth.
Although he really loves working for himself, Pilgrim also likes that he can bring something unique to Sioux City most people don't anticipate encountering in a community this size.
"I see a lot of fan girl moments where they walk by, don't know there's an anime store and start squeaking," he said. "I don't think anybody expects to see it in Sioux City; it's the big cities that get them."
Information from: Sioux City Journal, http://www.siouxcityjournal.com