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. http://www.brownstonedetectives.com/ruth-sam-the-bushwick-fires-1977/ 

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great story. Wonderfully written! This is the essence of comic collecting.

Nick Caputo said...

Thank you for the kind words.

Michael Tuz said...

Nick,
Boy, am I jealous! Growing up in rural Connecticut, there were no such second-hand store nearby where I could find old comics. Even buying the new stuff was an effort, since the nearest store that sold comic books was seven miles from my house. It was a little "Mom & Pop" hole-in-the-wall shop -- today it would be labeled a "convenience store" -- called Viv's that sold a little bit of everything, and in the back corner was a wooden rack that had all of the new comics. The owner Harvey Knott was the only person I ever saw working the lone register; he sat there from opening to closing seven days a week -- including holidays -- watching the money come in. Years later I learned that all of the "new" comics he sold were actually a month or more old, making me wonder if he had brokered some sort of deal to acquire unsold stock at a reduced rate, or if he just had a lousy distributer.
Viv's was dark, dank and musty...a cluttered, ancient wooden building on the edge of swampland on the outskirts of New Milford. I still can recall the thrill of winding my way through those dimly lit overstocked shelves to see if there were any new comics to be found back there. I miss the place...

Kid said...

Great reminiscence, Nick. Brooklyn sounds a bit like Glasgow, and the architecture is pretty much the same I'd imagine. Yeah, there was a thrill in unexpectedly discovering a comic one didn't know existed, but getting sequential runs of US comics was often pretty difficult here in Britain, if not impossible. I recall buying the 'Kryptonite Nevermore' series and Kirby's Jimmy Olsen mags out of sequence over a two or three year period - and not from 2nd-hand shops, but 'brand new' from newsagent's shops (or newsdealers as you'd call them). Nowadays, of course, we get them at pretty much the same time as you, but a little of the magic has disappeared with the old shops you write about.

Anonymous said...

Great story! I grew up in Brooklyn, and visited stores like you mentioned on 8th ave and the most similar was on 86th st around 18th ave.

Tony Belltools said...

Stirred some wonderful memories! My store in Windsor, Ontario was very similar in format what you described. There were stacks and stacks of comics (quite a few were coverless) and other publications of all sorts. My buddy and I used to walk a couple of miles to get there and spent a good chuck of our Saturday afternoons going through the stacks and enduring some gruff comments from the owner if we were not neat enough. The building is still there (a duplex now, I believe) and I pass it occasionally and always think back to the good old days.

Joe Pilla said...

Fine, evocative reminiscence, Nick. I have fond memories, as well, of patronizing such eccentric "used book" shops in the '70s in The Bronx (where I grew up) and Atlanta and Lexington, Ky., where I ventured after college. When I open one of my vintage sf paperbacks (almost certainly purchased in one of those "buy or trade-two-for-one" cubbies) or a Silver Age comic (many bought after digging through dusty boxes on my knees), the decaying pulp paper smell has a Proustian effect, and I invariably flash back to time spent in dim shops rich in such fragrance.

The photo of the burned shop touched my heart, mourning not only the days when comics and books were readily available in neighborhood stores, but those lost, hollowed out NYC nabes as well.

Nick Caputo said...

Michael,

Seven miles! You paint a vivid picture of both the store and the environment. Your journey to Viv's is fascinating and part of the excitement of collecting.

Kid,

Thanks as always. Your experiences are different from those of us in the states but I've always appreciated reading about them these many years on your blog.

Anonymous,

The borough of Brooklyn had many such stores. I had a friend of the family who we visited from time to time in your area, so my brother John and I may have stumbled upon your store sometime.

Tony,

Thanks for your memories. When I was quite young I remember a warm summer day when my brother John and perhaps my cousin Jack trudged about a mile from our neighborhood to Pat's bookstore in Ridgewood. I was hot and tired and complained about the long trip, but I'm sure I was happy when we got there. Later I moved closer to Pat's and it was a regular stop.

Joe,

Your memories, along with those who commented here and on the various facebook pages, has made this look back very special. I very much miss those long-gone days and I'm especially pleased to read the stories you and others have shared, along with those who had entirely different experiences. Thanks to all of you.





David Garrett said...

Part of the excitement of collecting was the hunt. Back in the late sixties, early seventies there were 4 drug stores in my neighborhood within easy walking distance for getting new comics. There was one used bookstore within easy biking distance where you could pick up older comics for a nickel(Annuals were 12 cents). The comics were in the middle of the store on a large table with wooden slats that separated the piles and kept them upright. The store was run by a very old man who had an old dog that would lie around near the front counter. Sometime around 1972 the man must have passed away as the story closed and never reopened. I never knew his name, but always remember him and would have liked to thank him for contributing to a great childhood. Thanks for your article.

Kid said...

I find David Garrett's comment rather touching. I wonder what happened to the dog, and find myself hoping that the man simply retired and he and his dog lived happily ever after. (Although, given their advanced years, 'ever after' may not have been too long.) It would be nice to think that when they DID eventually 'go', they 'went' at pretty much the same time.

tomlupo said...

Anonymous said...
Great story! I grew up in Brooklyn, and visited stores like you mentioned on 8th ave and the most similar was on 86th st around 18th ave.

That was Joe's Discount Book Store.
I started buying old comics there around 1973.

Richard Humberstone said...

This prompts a few memories of buying comics as an 8-year old in the mid ‘60s! Most UK newsagents had spinner racks, or wall mounted racks for US comics. These would mainly be cents issues overprinted with the UK price with a stamp (10d or £0.04). I remember distinctly picking up Sgt. Fury Annual #1 (Price 1/6 or £0.075). Some Marvel comics were officially distributed and had the UK price printed in place of the cents price during their US print run. These were normally kept with the UK kids comics with other magazines and newspapers. If I recall correctly, there were around 10 issues per month (I was lucky enough tbe able to afford all with my pocket money), and the on sale date would correspond with the cover date. The spinner racks contained comics that could be as much as two years out of date.

The UK had a sales magazine called “Exchange and Mart”, from which I remember ordering Avengers #2 and #4 for the extravagant sum of 10/- each (£0.50) in 1969/70. I was forbidden from any more purchases by my parents when they found out the cost!

The UK also had a network of second hand bookshops called “Popular Book Centres” who would deface comics for sale with a large diamond shaped stamp with their name and offer to buy back comics at half price. Another square stamp was used into which the price would be written in biro or marker! Comics that I found here included early Spider-Man issues (#10 and #11).

Richard Humberstone said...

Another memory just surfaced! The UK branches of Woolworths in 1971/72 had enormous boxes of mint Marvels from 1965-1967 for sale at 4p each (£0.04). This is where i managed to pick up long runs of Fantastic Four, Strange Tales, Avengers and Tales to Astonish.

Kid said...

Richard, you must have been lucky, because although I remember Woolworth's selling US comic books in the '60s, my local store no longer carried them (that I ever saw) in the early '70s. Must admit I'm mighty envious of your good fortune. I do, however, recall being able to buy, 'brand-new' off the spinner-racks, late '60s Marvels in Blackpool in the early '70s ('73/'74). Several of my local newsagents even had pristine copies of the 1965 Journey Into Mystery Annual (Thor versus Hercules) around 1973. (Must've been discovered in a warehouse somewhere.)

(Hope you don't mind me butting in, Nick?)

AirPiratePress said...

The 1960's in London was my hunting ground for old comics. A certain amount I bought from newsagents, but many came from "junk shops", print shops and other small businesses that bought and sold comics, paperback books and "nudie magazines" as a sideline. Later in the 1960s and early 1970s, actual second-hand book & magazine stores would sell actual paperbacks and comics. First there were Popular Book Centres (in New Cross and other locations). Then there was Bonus Books in Woolwich, not far from where I lived, where I pretty much found all my comics for 6d each (that's about 6c each at contemporary 1960s exchange rates), including Hulk 1, Daredevil 1, Tales of suspense 39, Tales to Astonish 27, X-Men 1, Journey into Mystery 83 and Strange Tales 110 among others. Yes, Bonus Books was my prime supplier of mainline early Marvels. Long since gone, now. But I still remember the stale paper smell and I still have the yards of Bantam Doc Savage paperbacks I picked up there. I wish we still bought our old comics that way. I hate that Amazing Spider-Man 1 is "worth" about $4000 ... we should still be able to buy a copy for 6c ...because no one really wants an original copy when they can get shiny new trade paperbacks with airbrush colouring, do they?
Alan McKenzie - marvelsilverage.blogspot.com

Richard Humberstone said...

Kid, thanks for your comments. The Woolworth Marvels must have been '72, as I distinctly remember the 4p post-decimalisation price. There was something special about those Woolworth Marvels - minty fresh with a new smell that I still remember! Alas, they were all sold as I went through college circa 1975-1979. I worked in a Woolworths stockroom as a Saturday job in 1973, and they were definitely gone by then!

Kid said...

Richard, Woolworth's were obviously selling them at a discount price because they were older mags, because the decimalisation price for new mags was 5p. Just think - a time when back issues were cheaper than new mags. As Al says above, wouldn't it be great if that was still the case?

Nick Caputo said...

David,

Thanks for sharing that touching story. I think we've all had experiences such as yours at one time or another. One of my favorite candy stores where I bought new comics in the 1970s was owned by a delightful man named Walter. Every week I went in to buy the latest product and he would take them out from the back before he put them on the racks and go through each title, naming each one out loud for me to say yea or nea. "Thor", "Spiderman", "Conan", "Ghost Rider", "Swamp Thing", "Kamandi". He and his wife lived a block or two away from me and my Mother and I would often greet him on the street. He was wonderful with kids and pleasant to everyone. EVen when I began going to a comic store I continued to purchase comics from Walter, just to be loyal. Some years later I heard that he was robbed and shaken up. He closed down the store and I never heard from him again. A sad ending for someone who was pleasant to all and a staple of the neighborhood.

Nick Caputo said...

Richard, Alan and kid,

Thanks for sharing your fascinating stories. Woolworth's was a staple in the states too. I had a few in my neighborhood and occasionally bought old comics there.

Unknown said...

Nick! It's been such a long time since we chatted about Monster Blog. I found your blog via a link on comics.org and here you are reminiscing about hunting for treasures the old fashioned way.

Like everyone else commenting here, I bought all my new comics off the spinner racks in corner stores that sold various combinations of newspapers, magazines, candy, cough syrup, you name it. Finding old comics back in the early to mid '70s was a lot more difficult growing up in Wallingford CT.

There was one used book store -- I can't remember the name but I can visualize exactly where it was -- that had shelves of old paperbacks in massive bookcases they built with flat open tops where they stacked loose comics on top. The shelf was just over my head as a child so I basically had to grab handfuls of comics blind and then see what I found. After a while, I got the hang of pushing everything to one side and methodically going through everything to find my gems.

I don't remember them charging much of anything for the loose comics but they did have a pretty copy of Incredible Hulk #3 for $30 pinned way way high on the wall out of touch. I was amazed a comic could cost so much.

Cheers, buddy.

Unknown said...

Now why did it decide my Google account was "Unknown". Sheesh, da noive.

Philip Parodayco

Nick Caputo said...

Philip,

Good to hear from you! I love that story of having to reach for the comics. Being "vertically challenged" (aka a shrimp), I often had to battle to reach comics I wanted. Stores also afforded that problem as well. Sometimes I (ulp!) had to ask for help from the shopkeeper.

Thanks for sharing your memories. I hope you look at some of other offerings here and feel free to comment on anything that strikes your fancy. I always check and try to reply to everyone.

SMR said...

Even in a little town in central Illinois (where I grew up) as late as the early 1980s there were several places very much like the ones you describe--guitar shops, furniture shops, candy stores, etc.--that sold used comics on the side, usually for less than 50 cents apiece. In some cases, the proprietors knew absolutely nothing about comics or their value, so I amassed many treasures from the 60s & 70s. Practically anything that was published before I was old enough to read and collect (late 1970s) was a treasure in my mind. The "haphazard" nature was definitely part of the appeal. You had to be lucky, and you might just strike a vein of silver age gold. I really "discovered" DC's silver age war comics in those days, snatching up dozens of them and loving them. Thanks for sharing your (and your brother's) memories.

Nick Caputo said...

SMR,

I'm glad to hear that you were able to acquire those treasures, including some fine DC war titles.