Saturday, August 26, 2017

Neighborhood Book Shops and the Thrill of Collecting Comics

During the 1960s and into the early 1970s it was commonplace for a neighborhood in New York to have stores that had no exact classification. A segment of these establishments also bought and sold used books, magazines, records, coins, stamps, war memorabilia and assorted ephemera. Of the ones I frequented in Brooklyn and Queens many were owned by middle-aged (or older) couples. The interiors also shared similarities; cluttered, dusty and often unorganized, but with a sense of wonderment and surprise. Who knows what treasures might lurk within the ruins?

For those like my brother John, it was a place to seek out old or missing comic books to add to his collection (in those days my older brother did all the buying while I reaped the benefits!). Virtually every store had their comics displayed on wooden or metal shelves in stacks that were easily accessible. They were not wrapped in plastic and had no particular order that I recall. Popular titles such as Superman and Fantastic Four were mixed alongside Swing with Scooter, Betty and Veronica, Bugs Bunny, Tarzan or Undersea Agent. Unknown companies and unusual titles that were rarely distributed on newsstands in my neck of the woods surfaced with frequency here; ACG, Charlton, Dell, etc. I recall seeing batches of I.W./Super Comics, a company that repackaged and reprinted stories from defunct companies. Most were generic war, crime, mystery and children's material, a few featured characters we were not yet familiar with, such as Doll Man, Plastic Man and The Spirit. My brother and I passed on these comics, which often featured new covers by the likes of Ross Andru and John Severin.   

  Blazing Sixguns # 16, circa 1964. John Severin cover art; Sam Rosen lettering.  

Israel Waldman, publisher of I.W. (whose initials comprised the company name) bought the plates from companies that had gone out of business, even though he didn't own the copyrights on characters. This didn't deter him from producing titles starring recognizable heroes such as Jack Cole's Plastic Man, who had appeared regularly in the 1940s and into the 1950s. Shortly after a three-issue run the hero was revived by DC, which HAD legally secured the rights to Quality titles (the original owner), including Blackhawk and Plastic Man. The attractive cover seen above is illustrated by the talented Gray Morrow. Sam Rosen, known for his distinctive lettering for Marvel in the 1960s, provided most of the logo designs and cover lettering for I. W./Super. Both cover images from Comic Book Plus. 

When I questioned my brother John on his purchases at the stores we most often frequented, which included the Ruth and Sam Book Shop, located in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn; "Pat's," and "Kirk's," both residing less than a mile away in Ridgewood, Queens (I should explain that we always referred to the proprietors name rather than the establishments formal designation) he was at a loss to recall exact titles. Since John collected many of Marvel's it's likely that he picked up issues of X-Men or Journey into Mystery that were missing from his collection. Both of us are certain that when John had a part-time job he bought stacks of late 1950s/early 60s Batman and Detective Comics for reasonable prices.  

Detective Comics # 253, March 1958. Shelly Moldoff cover art; Ira Schnapp lettering. One of the many Batman-related comics my brother John and I suspect was bought at the Ruth and Sam Book Shop.  Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.

  In the days before the Overstreet Price Guide became an essential "tool" for dealers, including those without a clue to their perceived worth, there were opportunities for collectors to find real bargains. Many of the "mom and pop" shops had no interest in the subject matter at hand and only wanted to move merchandise. They often paid little and sold comics for pennies. Of course there were exceptions, which began to escalate by the mid-1960s. Sparked by the Batman TV phenomenon, articles in magazines and news periodicals emphasized that early issues of Action ComicsSuperman, Captain Marvel, Mickey Mouse and the like were sought out by collectors willing to part with considerable sums of money. Proprietors kept the more expensive and older titles behind the counter, where they were less likely to be pilfered by the more daring hooligans with itchy fingers. 

Strange Tales # 125, October 1964. Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks; Sam Rosen letters. The above issue is one of many I purchased at "Pat's" (perhaps called Ridgewood Books or some such; I don't quite recall). Pat was more knowledgeable than some of the other owners; he was one of the few in that period who had a price list and sold copies of The Comic Reader, the first fanzine I had ever seen back in 1972. Many of the "Human Torch," "Nick Fury" and "Dr. Strange" issues of Strange Tales in my collection came from his store.    

I won't deny a trace of sentiment for those long gone days, but looking back there was a less structured, haphazard and often thrilling sense of the unexpected in rummaging through stacks of comics that were not encased in plastic, marked with notations on grading, artist and appearances of important characters (all items that raise the price of a title, natch!) or price lists. It wasn't a complicated or high-brow enterprise for these folks - get the product in and out. First come, first serve. Most of us benefited from that process.       
It's a lot easier to buy old comic books these days. With the internet a world of dealers is at your fingertips. I've benefited from it as well as countless other collectors, but the process is antiseptic. The sense of sight, smell and touch when discovering that elusive item you'd been searching for was invigorating in a way that only a collector can understand. Comic Conventions offered similar sensations but differed considerably; dealers were usually (but not always) more savvy, leading to less bargains and more calculation as to worth. 

The passage of time can often lead to a greater appreciation for what was once commonplace. None of us could imagine that one day these unpretentious wonderlands would vanish from the landscape, surviving only through our distant, sometimes hazy memories. For those of a certain age the shops that sold old comics epitomized the continuity of childhood. Like the corner candy store or nearby record shop they were an omnipresent and all-important part of the neighborhood tapestry, where you just might discover a buried treasure among the debris. 

My friend Frank recalls buying Amazing Spider-Man # 12 (May 1964) at Ruth and Sam's for the exorbitant price of two dollars! That was a lot of money to a kid in the 1960s, but when he expressed hesitancy Sam had a simple retort: "Money talks. Bullshit walks!" (store owners could be crusty, eccentric and cantankerous, but for those reared on the streets of Brooklyn it became part of our everyday experience). Like many kids, Frank was enthralled by Steve Ditko's startling cover scene. He HAD to know how this turned out and soon returned to acquire his treasure.    

 The remains of Ruth and Sam Book Shop after a devastating fire in 1977.  Image from The Brownstone Detectives site. 

While composing this piece I began doing some online research, hoping to track down information or photographs on the stores I described. The first site I came upon jarred my memory. The Brownstone Detectives blog detailed the devastating Bushwick fires of 1977 which destroyed many buildings, including Ruth and Sam's store. I didn't realize forty years had passed, which made this look back particularly bittersweet.