Larry Bledsoe is pictured inside his Oneida comics shop, Red Paw Comics & Cards, on Thursday, June 8, 2017. (Ben Garrett/IH)

For Larry Bledsoe, opening a shop centering around comics and trading card games was as much about filling a niche as anything.

The California native, who moved with his family to McCreary County seven years ago, was a security contractor who, in his words, was “tired of seeing factory after factory closing.” So he decided to strike out on his own, and — like many successful small business owners — turned a hobby into a job.

“I thought, hey, I will make it or break it on my own,” Bledsoe said of his decision to open Red Paw Comics along Oneida’s Four-Lane. “I’ve been into comics a long time and I felt that people here could use something a little closer to Knoxville.”

The timing was good. Tenth Inning Cards & Comics, which operated out of the same small shop that Bledsoe is now leasing, was closing its doors.

“I was looking to get into a place, they were looking to get out of it, and I figured I could fill the void they were leaving,” Bledsoe said.

With an increased pop culture focus on superheroes, collectible card games and the niche that Red Paw serves in general — think Pokemon, or the CBS hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory — the timing was even better. This niche culture is becoming mainstream.

“The nerd culture is kinda becoming its own thing, and it’s becoming acceptable,” Bledsoe said. “Like the country song says, it’s the new cool.”

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to stereotype those who are in to Pokemon or Magic or comics. Bledsoe points to himself, as a child in California. “I played football and I was into comics,” he said.

Bledsoe traces his love for comics to his childhood. His parents owned a bowling alley and there was a comic book store next door.

“I would take my money and go in and buy whatever comic book was out at the time,” he said. “In California, you just get all that pop culture out there. So I bounced around between the comic books and games.”

His father, a Vietnam veteran and career military man, was eventually transferred to an Air Force base in Utah. They stayed there a while, and Bledsoe worked at Snowbasin ski resort near Salt Lake City, the home of the 2002 Winter Olympics. His parents eventually tired of the snow and moved east, to McCreary County. He almost stayed on.

“I worked where the world came to play,” Bledsoe said. “You couldn’t ask for better than that.”

He liked the snow and the mountains — the Rockies dwarf the Appalachians, and the highest point in Tennessee was the starting elevation at Snowbasin — but didn’t want to live half a country away from his parents. Still, he considered going back. “But it just would’ve broken Momma’s heart, I feel,” he said.

So, one thing led to another, and Red Paw Comics came to be.

For the most part, Red Paw specializes in the card games. There is Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering, Vanguard and Yu-Gi-Oh. In fact, Bledsoe hosts gaming nights for all four, each of which has its own set of devoted players, or collectors.

Wednesday is Vanguard evening at Red Paw. Thursdays is a Commander League for Magic, and Friday offers Magic players an opportunity to play the standard format. Saturday afternoons is Pokemon, followed by Yu-Gi-Oh Saturday nights.

Each event is free-to-play, with prizes offered when enough players are present.

“I’ve been into this and I’ve enjoyed this all my life,” Bledsoe said. “The No. 1 goal is to get them through the door. I have to give them something that Walmart can’t.”

The goal is to offer a tournament atmosphere that is more relaxed than the high-stakes games in Knoxville.

“It’s a chance to visit, a chance to talk about what deck styles you like. It’s as much a social thing as anything,” Bledsoe said.

Especially popular is Yu-Gi-Oh. Bledsoe walked into what he calls a “pretty good Yu-Gi-Oh base” in Scott County.

“They love the game, and they were already playing on Saturdays,” he said.

People will sometimes begin arriving at noon on Saturdays, hours before the games begin. Then they’ll continue to show up one or two at a time until the tables — which can seat 22 — are filled.

“That’s a couple dozen people in here,” Bledsoe said. “They’ll trade, they’ll barter back and forth, then they’ll want to try things they’ve built. It give you a chance to play in a tournament atmosphere but it’s more relaxed than in Knoxville.”

For newcomers who aren’t familiar with collectable card games, Bledsoe describes it as like sports trading cards — but with a strategy.

“If you had a Mark McGuire card, it would be cool to have, but you don’t do anything with it. But with Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic, it’s like playing chess where you get to choose all your pieces in secret, then you get to play out your game with everything you’ve chosen.”

Beyond the card games, Red Paw specializes in comics. The old standards are still around — like Batman, Superman and Spiderman — but the focus is shifting.

“We’re starting to get into the anti-heroes, like Deadpool,” Bledsoe said. “These comics are a little more edgy.”

The zombies theme is also big — thanks in large part to AMC’s The Walking Dead, a hit TV drama that was adapted from the popular comic series of the same name.

Bledsoe said pop culture is giving a boost to the comics industry.

“The push in the movies has helped a lot, because everyone watches the movies,” he said. “So they see it on the big screen, and they want it. Like when Guardians of the Galaxy came out. They saw it on the screen so they wanted to come in here and get a copy.”

New comics are release every Wednesday. That tends to be a big day at Red Paw. Bledsoe keeps a pole order, where customers essentially place advance orders for the comics they want.

“We keep their name behind the counter with the comics they want. So if they want X-Man, we’ll put that on the pole order so we don’t sell out,” he said.

A large part of Bledsoe’s customer base is younger — middle school and high school kids.

“Sometimes a mother will come in and she’ll say, ‘I’m not crazy about my kids reading pictures,’” he said. “My response is, ‘But at least they’re reading.’”

Another growing aspect of Red Paw is the Japanese culture. Manga comics are proving to be popular, as are Japanese candies, which Bledsoe keeps in stock. He calls it a “Japanese pop thing,” and while he can’t compete with the online retailers like Amazon on everything, he can keep some stuff in stock that fans are unable to get unless they want to drive to Knoxville.

Then there are board games, and Red Paw still carries baseball card and other sports trading cards, even though their popularity has vastly declined in recently years.

For the most part, though, Red Paw is about socialization among a group of people who have a common interest. Bledsoe was playing Magic at Tenth Inning when it was open, and has gotten to know many of the people in the Scott and McCreary County area who are players or comic collectors.

“I have two sports guys who come in on Saturday, and they just sit and talk sports,” he said. “I have a couple of EMTs who work odd shifts and they just come in on their days off. It’s a cultural thing; it’s something you have to be into. But the people who are into it are here, and I just try to fill that niche as much as I can.”

Red Paw Comics & Cards is located at 19456 Alberta Street and is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday-Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday.

This article is the June 2017 installment of Business Spotlight, presented on the third week of each month by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce as part of the Independent Herald's "Back Page Features" series.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.