The diorama in the storefront window at Level-Up Entertainment and Farpoint Toys in the Hamilton Mall had become part of the video game and comic stores' shared identity since it was erected in November 2011.
Visitors to that corner of the Mays Landing complex, comic fans or not, were captivated by the elaborate street scene of dozens of heroes and villains duking it out in a still-life Marvel menagerie.
Spider-man, clinging to the side of an auto repair shop, snares a baddie in his web, while a few feet away, humanoid rock giant Thing, of Fantastic Four fame, struggles to free himself from the clutches of a squad of soldiers clad in green armor. A Waldo figure hides amongst the carnage as a game for passersby.
Customers and mall occupants alike were upset when Farpoint co-owners Justin Daniels and Penelope Pappas took down the display earlier this month.
"We had pretty much every employee at (neighboring) Johnny Rockets in mourning," said Pappas, who is engaged to Daniels. "In unison, they were like, 'Aww...'"
But fret not, faithful patron - there will soon be a new diorama in its place, and this time, Daniels and Pappas are turning to the community for help.
The pair have started a project page on online crowd-sourced fundraising site Kickstarter, through which supporters can pledge their cash to help get projects off the ground.
In an industry in which passion for the material is as important as inventory, the diorama was a shining beacon of its creators' geek credentials. It had been as much a conversation starter as it was an attention-getter, and played a big role in helping the young store build customer relationships.
Financing the new diorama through Kickstarter allows customers to have an impact on the store, Pappas said.
"The community feeling was something we really wanted to build," Pappas said. "Kickstarter is a really great way to get not just the local community, but the Internet community, involved."
The last diorama cost Daniels and Pappas about $2,500 for toys and materials, and that's not including the several pieces Daniels already owned. The pair have set a goal of raising $1,500 for the new project, and with 48 days left, have raised $1,331 amount. Any funds raised over the goal amount will be used to improve the project.
Contributors will receive rewards for reaching various donation tiers, from having their name included in the final product to T-shirts and making-of DVDs. For $1,500, one donor can receive the entire diorama after it's retired in April 2014.
The store has become a destination for the Atlantic County geek community since it opened in the summer of 2011 as a collaboration between Level-Up and Farpoint, the owners of which knew each other through their shared interests. Both stores had struggled in their previous locations, Level-Up in Northfield, and Farpoint in a smaller, less trafficked spot in the mall's upper level.
The partnership, so far, has been a boon for both businesses, Level-Up co-owner Gregg Mester said.
"I think it's worked really well on both sides, they bring people in, and we bring people in. It kind of helps feed each other," said Mester, who owns the store with friend Sean Rothwell.
The store owners have made many friends through the diorama, one of whom is Vineland social worker George Scully, who made the trek in December 2011 at a co-worker's recommendation.
Upon seeing the diorama, Scully had what he referred to in a blog post as a "Ralphie Moment," in reference to an early scene in the film "A Christmas Story," in which the main character and his family stand in awe of a holiday display at a local department store. In the months since, he's become a regular at the store.
The new diorama will be unveiled on Free Comic Book Day, May 4. Scully, for one, can't wait to see what they have cooking.
"It's art," Scully said. "There's a lot of love in what they do, and they're good people, and I just really can't wait to see what's next."
To donate, visit kickstarter.com and search "Farpoint Toys."
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