Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Comic Shop Memories

Karen: My very first "real" job was at my small town's comic shop. The phrase "shotgun shack" is an apt description; the space was about 8 feet wide and 25 feet long. With the long boxes stacked along either wall, the actual walking space from end to end was no more than 3 feet wide. It was cramped, with dim lighting and cracks in the walls. Yet, it was an honest to goodness real comic book shop, something I had never even imagined existed until Mr. Markgraf opened his store. (None of these pictures are of his shop -I simply added them for flavor.)

I was a regular customer from the age of 11 up. When I hit my
teens, I struggled to find a job. I applied at all the usual places (the new mall was a popular site for teen job-seekers) but nothing came my way. Then, Mr. Markgraf asked me one day if I'd be interested in working in the shop part-time. As Mary Jane said to Peter Parker, "You just hit the jackpot!"

When I look back on it now I am amazed that my parents let me do it, as the days that I worked, I was the only person in the shop! But it really was a different world back then. Hiring me gave the owners a chance to have a few days off each week and even go on trips. I started out working two days a week but it moved up to three and sometimes four at a time. I'd also sometimes com
e in on Wednesdays and assist with putting the new comics out. Being alone in the shop usually wasn't scary though. Well, except for the time a guy I'd never seen before lurched through the door and asked me, "Are you alone in here?" That was a wee bit disturbing.

I knew I had a good thing going. I could read as many comics as I liked, for free. This was the early 80s and the independent market had come alive, so I was reading all sorts of stuff. It was here that I was first exposed to Elfquest and Nexus (back when Nexus was in a magazine format). Mr. Markgraf was a smart guy; he probably knew he'd get back a fair amount of what he paid me. At least I got a discount.

My friends enjoyed coming by, too. Most of them weren't comics fans but they were all geeks of one sort or another, and it had higher prestige with them than working at Hot Dog on a Stick. One of my friends did read comics and sometimes she and I would sit
behind the register with a big stack of books to peruse.

Now don't think I didn't help the customers; I did. I offered suggestions, found back issues, and generally chatted them up. For the most part, it was fun meeting other fans. But there were always those customers that I dreaded seeing. There were the ones who you could smell as soon as they opened the door. In that confined space, especially in the summertime, and without an air conditioner, it was nearly lethal. There was the the shambling mess of man who had an ever-present crust of snot around his nose, who loved to share his knowledge. For hours. There was the uber nerd who would come in and start arguments with me over comics history. Even when I dug a book out to prove him wrong, he'd insist he was right.

Perhaps the worst though was the sheriff's deputy who was always trying to pick me up. Seriously, I was a teen-ager and this man must have been in late thirties. He'd come in, all puffed up in his uniform, with his pomaded hair and talk about some criminal he'd caught or some other exploit. A couple of times he pulled out his rev
olver to show me. He would ask if I was seeing anyone and I was smart enough to say yes. It didn't really deter him though.

But despite those things, it is a job I look back on fondly. When I go into comic shops now, I always scan them with my past in mind. I'm often awed at how much space some shops now have, or the great displays they put up. I always note the level of cleanliness, or lack thereof; whether the shop focuses on new product or has a strong back issue inventory; and of course, how they treat their customers. I've
been in far too many stores where the employees never even acknowledge your presence. But that type of store seems to be disappearing. Most of the shops I have patronized in the last ten years make an effort to welcome their customers. There's been a lot of diversification, just to survive, and many shops are a combination of comic, game, and toy store. But one thing hasn't changed: the role of the shop as a place for comic geeks to get together and express their love -or hate! -for their hobby. I hear many of the same discussions now as I did then; oh sure, the names may change, but it's still pretty much the same. It's oddly reassuring.

With the decline of bookstores, I wonder if the comic shop is not far behind. Here in Phoenix, our biggest comic seller, Atomic Comics, went out of business suddenly last summer. All four stores closed. But thankfully a number of other stores appear to be going strong. I would really hate to see them disappear. Comic shops are like a safe haven, a clubhouse for comics fans where they can be themselves and find like-minded people. I suppose if they did disappear there would still be conventions, but it's not the same as having a place to go week after week in your own community. Long live the LCS!


Weird WWII said...

I had the privilege of working at a comic shop back in the 80s in Arlington, Texas called Lone Star. I was 15 and only worked on the weekend but I was the luckiest kid I knew being the first to have a job and it being at a comic shop. It seems that your description of the customer is no different then mine so those weirdos are universal in the biz. The most interesting guy was some guy who worked for the oil companies in the Middle East and he had a huge special order and hold box in the back. This guy got the coolest stuff that I had never even seen before. Huge hardback collections of EC stuff, weird independent stuff I had never even heard of and the comic memorabilia this guy had was incredible! Now this was a time when it was next to impossible to get comic t-shirts or toys but this guy had Batman watches, neon signs and all sorts of stuff. I remember I was working one day when he came to pick up his hold box. He was in his late 20s, slick hair with aviator glasses and totally awesome! I remember helping him put all this stuff in his Bronco, 5 long boxes of just about everything you could imagine and he gave me a tip in the form of a couple open Super Powers Parademon toys. I never did see that guy again but I did see his hold box for the next year or so as it filled up again. I later graduated to the idea of needing more cash and went onto other jobs but I will always remember the time I put in at my local comic shop and will suggest the same to any geek who can to work at one just so you can say you remember the customers, smells, sights and honor of being the guy behind the counter of the comic shop.

Thanks for reminding me of those days so long ago,

dbutler16 said...

Sometimes it's not easy being a chick, eh, Karen? Some creepy stories mixed in with all of the fun stuff there.

I first started going to my LCS when I was ten, and continued through high school. I tried to get a job there a couple of times, but the owner wasn't interested. :-(

Like Karen, when I go into a comic shop now, I look at their selection of back issues (and prices), trade paperbacks, etc. It seems like they are all a combination of comic, game, and toy store nowadays. They probably need to sell something other than comics to stay alive. I am worried about the future of comic book shops. The closing of Borders reminds us that printed books are on the decline, though I realize that comics are unique and less liable to fall victim to the electronic age, but the writing is probably still on the wall. Despite the doom and gloom, though, Rochester has at least six comic book stores that I know of. Not bad.

Finally, long live Comic Book Guy! He's my second favorite Simpsons character, after Homer.

david_b said...

The Comic Guy on Simpsons ranks as my fav as well, along with Otto and few other secondary characters.

Growing up in a farmtown, we never had LCS's.. I knew of one shop in Milwaukee which sold only vintage comics, records and books, and had this creepy older guy, with a jet-black curly hairpiece. It's one of those that are SO obviously but you try not to stare. When I finally started college in Milwaukee in the early 80s, I'd take the bus downtown to grab old comics, and finally saved enough to grab Avengers 67,93 and FF 67, all in NM condition and very memorable.

Soon another store opened by my college which sold both new and vintage stuff. Another one-man outfit, it was my treat to trot there weekly for the latest Titans and Avengers.. A real nice guy ran it, I'm sure he's still there.

Doug said...

I love going into shops where I've never been before. Like others, there's that wide-eyed survey that takes place upon the first footfall inside the door. To be honest, one of the first things I do is check out the clerk/workers. Truly, as has also been said, there are some interesting characters behind the counter sometimes. I also like to inspect the consumers -- again, various lifeforms do populate comic book stores. That "quality of life" can be directly proportional just what is for sale in said store.

In downtown Normal, IL, there are two stores in close proximity, both dealing comics. One is part of a multi-store chain, called Acme Comics. It's pretty much a superstore, with action figures, belt buckles, posters, gaming accessories, etc. in addition to a great collection of trades, back issues and of course new releases. But just a few doors down is a place called "Mother's" -- it's upstairs and is that place, selling roach clips, bongs, and a wide array of R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, etc. underground-type comix. I prefer the former to the latter...

One of the neatest places I found a comic shop was in Philadelphia, just blocks from the graveyard where Ben Franklin is interred. Very cool store, and unexpected in that part of town.

One of the embarrassments of comic shops is the display of such things as Lady Death, etc. I've been in shops that sell comics and baseball cards with my father-in-law -- strange feeling to attempt to explain that I don't read those sorts of things. Of course, this particular experience was back in the '90's, and the X-girls didn't look a heckuva lot different that some of the Indie stuff. Butt-floss, as my partner is fond of saying...

So those are some random thoughts/memories. I'm looking forward to the rest of today's conversation!


Edo Bosnar said...

I think, despite all of the drawbacks she mentioned, Karen had what many of us here would have considered a dream job back when we were kids/teens.
Like david_b, I also grew up in something of a farm town, and only discovered my first LCS in the nearest larger city (Salem, OR) when I was about 12. And for me that was heavenly at the time: a store dedicated solely to selling comics as well as old paperbacks and pulps. The guy who ran it was pretty cool - an aging geek (probably in his late 30s/early 40s at the time), but he often seemed frazzled for some reason.
Interesting that Brian above mentions that he worked for Lone Star in the 80s. Another thing I did about the same time I discovered that LCS was send away for Lone Star's catalog. For the next few years, while other kids my age were saving up for their first car, I bought tons of cheap mainly Marvel and DC back issues - stuff like the complete runs of the Inhumans, Black Goliath, Red Wolf and a bunch of those pre-Implosion DC titles. Great memories, although probably not the best use of my limited financial resources...

Matthew Bradley said...

Like so many others, I had my first "job" at the Bookfinder in nearby Fairfield, CT. I say "job" because I wasn't old enough yet to work legally, which I think would have been 16 at the time, so the owner paid me in credit. Of course, I probably would have spent my wages on comics anyway, so that was no big deal.

He sold used books as well as comics, and I remember scoring my first copy of Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (the OMEGA MAN tie-in edition) there. Talk about planting the seeds of my future! Don't remember much about him other than that he was a heavy smoker, so the smells of the books, comics, and cigarettes all sort of mingle together in my memory.

I just did scut work, and had no interaction with the customers...what few there were. That was where I picked up my first sizable amount of back issues, and today I can still remember specific issues that I got from there. Seemed like heaven at the time, although it was a pretty sketchy looking place.

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,
Great topic. I hear what you’re saying about a different world. When I was young (pre-teen) I used to go up to London to the comic shops in Soho and Denmark Street (think Times Square in the 80’s). Unbelievable!

Possibly the best comic shop in the world was called ‘Dark They Were And Golden Eyed’. Google it and you’ll get 11 million hits. It was the biggest science fiction fantasy bookshop in Europe in the 70’s, but in the 60’s it was a famous ‘head shop’ and sold all kinds of...interesting paraphernalia, shall we say. The founders of all the other famous London comic shops worked there at one time or another. If you shopped there when I did, you were rubbing elbows with the likes of Alan Moore & Neil Gaiman (though I had no idea who they were at the time). The Fortean Times was published upstairs and the whole basement (length of 3 or 4 stores) was comics.

Now I’m lucky enough to have 2 comic shops in driving distance. ‘They Walk Among Us’ in Richmond mainly sells toys and collectables now, but ‘30th Century Comics’ up the road is basically the place Karen is describing, but with British accents. And the guys who run it? Think Comic Store Guy cloned! Superb.

There’s a smell you get from assembling a hell of a lot of very old comics that you get from nothing else, and when you walk in there, it swirls about you like a snowglobe of your favourite memories.

Even though it’s far cheaper on ebay, I go there at least once a year. When I get a run of a comic down to only 1 or 2 missing issues, I go there at my birthday and finish off something which has usually taken about 35 years to complete. I like to do that in good company.


p.s. Doug - please tell me there's really a place called Normal, Illinois.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Were the early '80s the "dawn" of the comic shop? I went to my first comic shop in 1981--"Starship Enterprise"-- after meeting them at seller's booth at a local mall. It was a godsend compared to the "Hey Kids, Comics!" spinner racks I had frequented at convenience stores.

I had many great years of comic shop visits until 1985, when a "Comic Book Guy"-type employee ruined the experience. They finally fired the creep, though.

Luckily, there were several stores in the area and much better stocked with the back issues I craved. I miss the long conversations about artists, writers, storylines, etc. I still frequent a rather nice comic shop now, but other than the owner's father, the employees--much younger than I am--rarely even say hello.

Doug said...

Richard --

The name of the town "Normal" has some history. It doesn't mean "normal", as ordinary, but instead refers to teaching. Here's a snippet from the town's website -- the Normal University is now known as Illinois State University and is still the leading teaching college in our state. By the way, for reference Normal is about 125 miles southwest of Chicago or 150 miles northeast of St. Louis. Here's the text I mentioned:

1850-1860s: The Normal University
In 1857, Governor William Bissell signed a bill to create a normal school. Based on the French teaching schools, the term "normal" was the general name for all schools set up to be teachers’ colleges. The bill stipulated that the permanent location would be the place that offered the most favorable inducement. Jesse Fell took up the campaign for Bloomington and obtained financial backing totaling $141,000, which surpassed Peoria, the closest contender, by $61,000. Abraham Lincoln, in his capacity as an attorney, drew up the bond guaranteeing that Bloomington citizens would fulfill their financial commitments. The university first held classes in Bloomington while the campus was being built north of Bloomington. By 1861, Old Main, the all-purpose building for the university, was completed, and the state’s first public institution of higher education had a permanent home.


Doug said...

All --

We may have mentioned this before, but who do you see when you go to the comic shop?

I would say it's generally males aged early 20's-early 50's. By look, I'd say it could also range anywhere from the stereotypical comic fanboy to professionally dressed folks.

I'd also like to ask how the stores you frequent do as far as stocking back issues. Personally, in the suburbs it's very difficult to find much from the Bronze Age, unless you want the too-highly priced books on the walls. If, however, I go to some of the locally-owned, non-chain stores in the city then I can find some longboxes with nice books for anywhere between $1-$5. That's what I want -- "reader" copies.


William Preston said...

My comic shop experience is all in the mid-late '70s, in Philadelphia. I lived in Newtown, northeast of Philly, and had been relying on a local bookstore/giftshop and then 7-11s for my comics. My parents used to go to Philly a lot to dine out, and at some point, my father figured out that there were some comic shops there. I think we first visited Comics for Collectors en route to a 76's game. At some point, my parents began dropping me off there to leave me for hours, and it turned out that around the corner there were two other shops. Fat Jacks was a great place that I ended up frequenting more. There was a place across the street from Fat Jacks that was more of a general magazine shop that carried comics that were a few months old and sold them at a discount. When I first started seriously collecting certain Marvel lines, that place helped me fill in some of the immediate backgrounds that I'd missed.

Fond memories of my teen years.

dbutler16 said...

To answer Doug's question, I would agree that the typically age range is early 20's-early 50's. If I had to guess at an average age, I'd probably say 35-40, but to be honest, I don't go into comic shops very often any more, so many of you others can probably come up with a more accurate estimate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Doug – as always, you give full value. So it means ‘non-specialised’. We have something similar here, where ‘public’ schools are actually private (what you call public schools, we call state schools). The word public doesn’t denote that they are publically open, but rather that they are NOT run by the church, as most schools were originally.

Hey Karen....is Atomic Comics a chain? When I lived in Virginia, I used to go to Atomic comics on Mercury Boulevard, Hampton. http://www.atomic-comics-emporium.com/


Fred W. Hill said...

Creepy cop in comics shop encounters, Karen! Certainly doesn't sound like someone I'd want being charged with enforcing the law and protecting people.

Anyhow, the first time I'd even heard of comics shops was when I lived in San Francisco from 1974-76. Actually I lived on the Navy base on Treasure Island, which was just off of the Oakland Bay Bridge, and attended school at Potrero Hill Junior High, and I heard about a comics shop from other collectors but never had a chance to check it out, and considering my allowance barely covered the new comics I collected it wasn't exactly like I could afford to buy expensive back issues at the time! It wasn't until the early '80s, by which time I was in San Jose, that I ever ventured into a comics shop, near the university, and had just enough money to splurge on back issues, initially trying to fill in all those gaps in my collection, such as all the Giant-Size Avengers that were so key during Englehart's run. I also started reading the Comics Journal and did get interested in some of the more offbeat stuff. At another comics store I bought one of the Swords of Cerebus collections in 1983 on the same night I wrecked my first car, just one week after I got the thing! Nevertheless, I became enamored of the series and got that regularly over the next few years. A few years ago a couple I know started a comics shop in the Jacksonville, FL, area, but it didn't survive the recent economic decline. Last time I went into a comics store was actually in Pasadena, CA. I'd gone there with a friend to attend a conference at CalTech last June, and while walking around near our hotel happened to see a comics shop, so I went in to check it out. Really nice place with lots of stuff and I bought at least $50 worth of stuff. Yeah, here I am nearing 50 and still geeky, but with a bit more money!

William said...

Fate is a fickle thing my friends. It was sometime around 1977 or so, I was about 11 at the time, and on the weekends I used to watch late night TV (mostly Godzilla movies and such) on UHF Channel 51. One night this commercial came on for a place called "Starship Enterprises". As I watched the commercial my jaw hit the floor. This was the first time I became aware that such a magical place as a "comic book" store existed. It was located somewhere in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which was quite a few miles from where I lived (a town called Davie). I begged my mom to take me there, but she was quite cold to the idea. (She basically said no). I should mention that I had a part time job working at a dog kennel at the time, so I had a little spending money that I desperately wanted to relieve myself of. As fate would have it, around that same time, my dad started working at a vet clinic (my dad is a veterinarian, btw) that was located in the heart of Ft. Lauderdale. One day, I was with my mother and we were going to pick up my father. As we are driving down the road guess what we happened to pass right by…? Go on, guess. That's right… a strip mall… and in that strip mall, there was "Starship Enterprises". What are the odds, in a city as big as Lauderdale that we should just happen to randomly pass right by the place I wanted to go to most in the world? We also just so happened to be running a bit early, and after a little pleading, good old mom pulled over and let me go inside. It was the greatest day of my life up to that point. In all my 11 years, I had never beheld such wonders. I remember seeing a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #33 on the wall, and I was hypnotized by it's total awesomeness. However, it was a bit out of my price range at the time, so the first back issue I ever bought was a Marvel Team-Up #13. I liked Spider-Man, and I liked Captain America and it was reasonably priced. Thereafter, I always accompanied my mother on those occasions when she had to go pick up my father. On those subsequent visits I acquired such treasures as "Origins of Marvel Comics", "Son of Origins of Marvel Comics", and "Marvel Comics Greatest Super Hero Battles", as well as a plethora of various new comics and back issues.

A few months later "Starship Enterprises" just so happened to move a new location that was much closer to my house, and my mother would drive me there about once a week. That is when I really got into collecting comics. I bought long boxes and comic bags and back issues galore. Ahhh, those were indeed the best days of my life. Until the owner suddenly snapped one day. But that's a story for another post.

Edo Bosnar said...

When Fred mentioned San Jose, it reminded me of when my family moved to the San Jose area in the mid-1980s and I occasionally visited two comic shops near our apartment in Sunnyvale, which each had versions of the Simpsons' evil comic guy working in them. One was run by a pair of middle-age hippies; the wife was really nice (and did most of the work) while the husband was this skinny, cranky guy with long hair (tied in a ponytail) and beard, who sat behind the counter reading comics or magazines and berating the mainly teen customers for their taste in comics, music, etc. The other place was owned and operated by a more clean-cut fellow who was more into baseball cards than comics, but who had evil comic-shop guy's corpulence and attitude as well. He would also frequently comment loudly or argue with customers about how lousy the fan-favorite artist of the day was (e.g. he really hated Sienkiewicz) or similar matters. Anyway, when I first saw that character in the Simpsons, I really got a good laugh, because he seemed like a perfect mash-up of those two guys.

Fred W. Hill said...

I went to both comics shops, Edo, and actually lived in Santa Clara from late '82 to early '84, when I moved to San Jose itself, living for a few years near Capital Expressway, then moving in 1986 to a place near the Winchester Mystery House (and working as an assistant manager at the Bob's Big Boy next door to that for a few months before being transferred to the Santa Clara store). But I regularly went to the comics shop on El Camino Real, which I recall as being spacious and really nice. I got those Swords of Cerebus collections at the other one, but didn't go there often as it was a bit out of the way and didn't have much of a back issue selection. There was also one in Mountain View I went to a few times. We might have seen each other back then at one of those places.

Edo Bosnar said...

Fred, I was living and going to college in the South Bay from 1986 to 1988. Anyway, I think the shop on El Camino still exists, at least it did about 2 years ago when I visited the area last - although I'm not sure, is it in Santa Clara or Sunnyvale? However, the two shops I'm thinking of don't exist anymore, and weren't on El Camino. One was in that Town & Country shopping center that itself no longer exists, while the other was on Murphy Ave in those days before the entire street was redone to be all trendy and chic - in fact, it was really seedy, with a bunch of boarded storefronts, a bar or two, plus the aforementioned comic shop, a used bookstore and an antique dealership. Used to love strolling up and down it, because it was like stepping into a different world - it was such a nice contrast to the rather bland apartment complexes and shopping malls in the rest of the town.

Karen said...

The Bay Area has a lot of comic shops. I lived there for 16 years right after I got out of college and sometimes on Saturdays a friend and I would literally go from one end of the bay to the other, stopping at shops. Before I moved to Phoenix, Dr. Comics and Mr. Games in Oakland was my regular place to go.

Richard, Atomic Comics in Phoenix was a chain of 4 stores. The owner had some close ties with folks at Marvel and got a lot of pub from them, also got people out here to do signings. It was shocking when they closed because they were so dominant here.

Fred W. Hill said...

Hi, Edo, now that you mention it, the one on El Camino was in Santa Clara, and I had also been to the ones on Murphy and Town & Country. The one on El Camino was the one I went to most often, mainly because it was the closest to my job (both the Bob's Big Boy and the K-Mart where I worked part-time for a couple of years). I left the Bay Area in 1990 to move to Florida and haven't really kept up with anyone I used to know there.

Redartz said...

Sorry to jump in late on such an interesting topic. Lots of good stories here!

My first experience with a comic book shop was in 1974; a friend in Middle School had been talking about comics to me for weeks, and I finally gave in and went with him for a visit. I was hooked but good. Edo, your description of the thin aging hippie fits the owner of my new hangout well. He was a musician, and was usually out, leaving his mother to watch the store. It was quite a discovery to learn you could buy old comics; my first purchases were back issues of Amazing Spiderman and Not Brand Echh #5. This store had a nice selection of books, but sadly they vanished two years later when the owner turned his store into a disco...

Incidentally, my great regret is not buying the Amazing Fantasy #15 in the store's display (priced then at 25 dollars). Oh, foolish youth.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

To William:

I guess you didn't read my comment, but it turns out we're both "Starship Enterprises" customers. However, it was too far from my home and I was just a wee lad of nine in 1980, so my visits were limited. I lived in Sunrise at the time.

Bruce said...

Great memories, Karen - thanks for sharing.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

later "Starship Enterprises" just so happened to move a new location that was much closer to my house, and my mother would drive me there about once a week. That is when I really got into collecting comics. I bought long boxes and comic bags and back issues galore. Ahhh, those were indeed the best days of my life. Until the owner suddenly snapped one day. But that's a story for another post.

The owner "snapped"?!? You have to tell that story!

I believe "Starship Enterprises" was originally located on Oakland Park Blvd and Powerline Road.

Hagop said...

Markgrafs was also my comic shop growing up! This is the only reference to the shop or the Markgrafs that I can find on the internet. They and their shop had a big impact on me at a young age. Great, wonderful people and I miss them.

Jerry said...

Back in the mid-1990s there was a Markgraf's comic book shop in Santa Maria, California. It was a fantastic shop with the best assortment of comics in the valley. At that time there were roughly five to six stores selling comics, games, toys, and other related collectibles. The store was ran by Mr. & Mrs. Markgraf, both well into their sixties or early seventies. As I frequented their shop often during the week I eventually learned that they were getting ready to retire and were on the look out for someone to buy their business or their inventory of comics they had to sell. Do not recall exactly when it happened but one day I went to their store and they had closed up. After the closing of their store the overall health of the other comic book shops in the valley began to dwindle as the market began slowly drying up. I believe that within a couple of years only a couple of shops remained.
As I have no knowledge of their history I find myself wondering if this couple had came out to California from Chicago?

Karen said...

Hi Jerry, I wish I could recall exactly where Al and Faye came from. Based on their accents, I thought it was the east coast, maybe New York or New Jersey, but they could have been in Chicago at some point too. Bless them, they gave me my first real job. Al was a real character. Faye was a very nice lady. I know they had some children but I don't think they lived in the area. I sure wish I had seem them again before they left town. But after college I moved away and never got back to the shop.

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