The comics and games store has been a staple of Sarasota's geek culture for more than a decade.
Rose Hedberg faced a common problem when moving to Florida a few years ago: She didn’t know many people.
Her days were quieter than she wanted. Hedberg would go to work at the Bradenton Police Department, return home and do it all again the next day. It paid the bills, but it wasn’t much fun.
But things have changed since she started playing Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy tabletop role-playing game, at The Dark Side comic shop in Sarasota. Now her life has become something more fantastical.
Sometimes she plays as Lady Selene of House Viermeier, a paladin. Other times she’s Sarissa the Witch or Greenglass the Bard. One of her more personal roles is Aveline Winthrop, the warlock librarian, which harkens back to her time as a librarian in Chicago.
It’s just a game, of course. But it’s an experience she has shared with her group of Dark Side friends — called the Heroes of Undermountain — almost every week for two years. And that has made all the difference.
“A lot of people here, myself included, have been the other,” Hedberg says. “You gravitate toward this because this is such a welcoming community. We’ve all been on the outside of things. Here, people aren’t going to make fun of you for anything.”
The Dark Side has served as a hub of activity for Sarasota’s geek (which we say affectionately) community for more than a decade. The store’s interior is vibrant — comics, posters and toys from every era line its walls — but what truly matters is the community it holds.
The shop is bustling with people of every age, creed and color wearing their favorite nerd tees and headwear while playing every game you can imagine. Some deal in cards and board games while others carefully execute attack strategies with miniature dragon armies in a fantasy battleground. The most important thing, Hedberg says, is that they’re doing it together — and having a great time.
“It’s just the fantasy of it,” Hedberg says. “I mean, who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
The Dark Side’s origin story begins in New Orleans where now-owner Brian Polizzi decided to leave his position at a national law firm. He said it was a good job but not one that made him feel particularly heroic.
“I wasn’t doing any lawyering, but I was doing the support for the lawyers,” Polizzi says. “They’re all good people, but ... they celebrated one day when they prevented one of our clients from having to pay out money to somebody that was hurt.”
He sold his house, bought some comic book inventory from a friend who had closed his shop and made his way to Florida. He settled on Sarasota, where he has family, as his comic shop location.
The Dark Side was a dream job for Polizzi. He views comic books as an escape not from reality itself but from pessimism. He says they’re also an art often underrated.
“They inspire me,” Polizzi says. “Comic books as an art form are different than others. You actively participate in a comic book. When you’re moving between panels, and Superman is punching somebody in one panel, and someone is flying away in the next, you’re making that visual connection.”
The beloved shop has repeatedly moved locations over the years. Its new spot in Sarasota Commons comes from a need for more space — The Dark Side is always growing.
Part of that continued growth, Polizzi says, is its ability to adapt to trends and interests in the geek community. Although the shop initially had a LAN (local area network) gaming section where customers could link their computers together on a local network to play video games, the store now has a massive area for tabletop, miniature and board games that’s often-populated with customers every night.
Polizzi chalks it up to a resurgence in the board game market he has seen in the past five years. The Dark Side has 2,500 feet of dedicated space in its 6,500-square-foot location for playing tabletop and board games.
Cheryl Miller oversees many of those games. A self-professed board game enthusiast, Miller teaches people how to play board games three nights a week at the shop. If you stop by during a weeknight, there’s a decent chance you’ll find her holding court, explaining the rules and passing out cards to a group of curious beginners.
It’s good for her. Miller works from home as a computer programmer and says she often feels the need for human connection. She has found that in ample supply at The Dark Side. By her count, she has played 370 unique games with 167 people a total of 763 times since 2015.
“If there’s three people playing a board game, and there’s someone wandering around with nothing to do, we grab that person and bring them in,” Miller says. “I’m compelled to make sure everybody’s happy.”
Your Kind of Place
Although the financial benefits of having an oft-returning client base are obvious, Polizzi stresses his shop’s many events are to nurture a sense of community. Customers often play games right up to when the store closes at midnight, something in which he takes a particular pride.
“The whole point of the shop, initially and continually, has been to give people a place to go,” he says. “To give people a community that will accept them and they can have fun with.”
Sometimes that community stays longer than they expected. Hedberg was eventually hired by Polizzi and now works at The Dark Side part time. It’s her turn to welcome newcomers to the store and teach them how to play Dungeons & Dragons.
She admits the drive to the store — especially after working all day in Bradenton — can be tiring, but that feeling evaporates the minute she walks through the shop’s doors.
“I get paid to hang out and talk about the stuff I love with people I enjoy,” she says. “I don’t have to fake enthusiasm for anything. I get to talk about stuff I was never able to talk about before.”
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