My history of comic book stores

My friend, Ron Edwards, writes a great comic book blog that is a mix of comics, politics, history, and autobiography. This week, he posted about the comic books stores he has frequented over the years. I felt compelled to do the same.

When I was young, we lived pretty far from anywhere alongside a high-traffic two-lane road. Biking anywhere would be taking my life in my hands for five solid miles of dangerous drivers. In elementary and middle school, I got Star Wars and G.I.Joe comics directly from Marvel via mail order subscription. Seeing that brown paper wrapper in the maillbox was always a treat.

In 1987, my mom saw an ad for a local comic book shop and took me and some friends. Beachhead Comics was in a cramped converted house in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They had a cool mural on the wall featuring Batman, Spider-man, Cerebus, and She-Hulk:×681.jpg As an eager thirteen-year-old, I was amazed by the oodles of things I had never heard of packed into their place. While the staff was polite, they had a bit of a “go away, kid, ya bother me” reaction to our youthful ignorance. (I went back in a few years ago, in my late-thirties. The store seemed exactly as I remembered it, except dustier. The phrase “old man’s comic book shop” still fit.)

Soon after, a store opened much closer to where I lived: Cap’s Comics Cavalcade. Cap’s was my store all through high school and I was there almost every week. They were in suburban strip mall with a nice, airy space. They had huge tables of back issues in the center, new comics on the one wall, role-playing games on the other wall. There were shelves in the back with a few toys and collectibles. I think they focused primarily on superhero comics, but that’s all that I wanted in those years. I was there almost every week and developed friendships with several of the staff, who didn’t talk down to a high school kid who was far too eager about all this stuff. I still miss Cap’s. I fell in love with comics and with superheroes in that store and with role-playing games in that store. I bought boxes and boxes of mainly Marvel superhero floppies (including an embarrassing number of crossover events and variant covers of X-men #1).

I went to college in a western Pennsylvania town far past its prime. The only comic shop I knew of in Johnstown was in a nearly-abandoned strip mall that was completely inaccessible without a car. And they were only open Saturday mornings or something like that. I think I made it there once, but with a tiny space crowded with cardboard boxes of poorly-organized trade paperbacks, it was no Cap’s. My mom was too indulgent of her only child and continued to pick up my pull list from Cap’s and mail them to me every month or so. She had better friendships with the staff than I did in those days. I remember reading Death of Superman out of those manilla post-office envelopes from my mom. The quality of the superhero books I was reading declined over my years at college, and I crossed them off my pull-list one-by-one.

After college, I did a year of graduate school at Penn State. Comic Swap was a cool little store half a block from campus. In a college town where retail space was at a premium, it had two big rooms below street level. Comic Swap carried a little of everything, with walls of comics in the front room and a few back issues and games in the other room. It was cramped (like everything in downtown State College) but tidy and welcoming.This was where I started shopping for comics with my then-fiancee, now-wife. I learned that she is much more talented at finding new series than I am. She discovered Strangers in Paradise at Comic Swap, and Poison Elves. I remember that the owner had just started doing comic book reviews for the local free weekly newspaper. During one trip, I overheard someone complimenting him on using is platform to “Promote the good stuff.” His response stuck with me. “Well, the crap sells itself. It’s the good stuff that needs a little help.”

I moved back to my hometown after that, but by that time, Cap himself had retired and sold the store to a guy I didn’t really get along with. The culture of the staff changed from “professional and enthusiastic” to “cliquish and condescending.” If you weren’t friends with one of the staff, you got talked down to, no matter how thick the pile of comics and games you were lugging to the counter. This particular attitude is rife in comics shops in this area. It’s driven me away from any number of them over the years.

I took my business to a former rival of Cap’s called Comic Masters. They were set up inside a shopping mall that was slowly failing. When they opened,they were across from a Waldenbooks. As the mall was remodeled around them, they moved into the old video arcade: They’ve always had a very clean, well-lit store, as you’d expect for a mall. They’re heavily focused on superheroes, and have scads of collectibles and T-shirts right up front, along with kids’ comics (which is a nice touch). Walls of graphic novels, trade paperbacks in the back, with tables of back issues. The staff has always been very positive and helpful (except for one thing which I’ll get to).

Comic Masters is where I bought most of my Sandman trade paperbacks. It’s where my wife discovered Transmetropolitan and Preacher. It’s also where I figured out what kind of comics shopper I am. Every trip to the store, I have to buy something extra. Maybe it’s a trade of something I’d read about online. Maybe it’s a few floppies of new series that look promising. I can’t just get my pull-list items and leave. Because of this compulsion, when money was tight, I often wouldn’t go to the store for months at a time. Which was good for my budget, but when I’d show up, some of the issues that should have been in my pull-box weren’t there. It really irked me after a while, as reordering them or hunting down the missing issues in back issue boxes at other stores was a big pain. That drove us elsewhere.

Dreamscape comics was a little more focused on all different types of comics, beyond simply selling superhero titles. They had a sizable space a few blocks from downtown Bethlehem, with a dizzying amount of inventory. Anything you wanted, you could find it at Dreamscape. Probably 80% comics, 20% games and collectibles. My wife discovered Liberty Meadows there. Still the funniest comic I’ve ever read. The owners were friends of friends of ours, which gave each trip something pleasant to talk about. We were happy with Dreamscape for years, until their mass of inventory got the better of them. The shelves got fuller and fuller. Cardboard boxes of trade paperbacks and collectibles started to block the walkways. Aisles became dead ends. We physically were unable to browse any more. Our pull list atrophied as series would end and we hadn’t found anything to replace them with. I was sad when I canceled our pull list there, but it was necessary. The owner died quite unexpectedly four years ago, and the store is closed now, although the big sign still hangs over the empty storefront:

After trying a number of shops in the area and being repulsed by their cliquishness, we ended up back a Comic Masters. In the intervening years, they seemed to have gotten a handle on the pull-list problem. Even though it’s more superhero-focused that I prefered, I was happy there. I like that they completely rearrange the store every year or so, experimenting with placements of the cash register, collectibles cases, new comics, etc. It keeps it fresh. When my wife got laid off and I called to cancel my pull list, the owner was very grateful for the call, but it was a sad day. I haven’t been in since.

My job sends me to Manhattan every so often, so I have done some browsing there. Midtown comics is convenient to the bus station, and packed with everything you could want, but kind of sterile and even a little corporate. St. Marks Comics has the cool, weird layout you’d expect of the NYU area, but also has that dust-covered patina I think of as “Old man’s comic book shop.” I liked Jim Henley’s Comics on 32nd street, even it’s a bit out of the way. It also has the weird layout, but a greater focus on independent comics. They shelve their trade paperbacks alphabetically by author, which is kinda cool. Jim Crocker’s Modern Myths is a great store, with a clean, welcoming layout. But requiring 45 minutes and two different trains to get to, it’s the farthest store I’ve been to in the NYC area.

These days, when we go on trips, I’ll often look up local comic shops. Sometimes they are cramped and dusty, like somebody’s attic. Often they are clean and colorful, like someone bought a mass-produced “comic book store starter kit.” I am often disappointed. Rationally I know that in the age of the internet and my decades of experience, I should not expect to be surprised by something I see in some little shop somewhere. But somehow, my heart still holds onto the hope that in some little, out of the way comic shop out there, I’ll find something amazing. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back.