Friday, February 15, 2019

The Corner Candy Store

Thor stops to ponder the latest headlines. Or perhaps he's reading Dick Tracy. The newsstand includes reproductions of Marvel comics on sale at the time, a subtle form of self-promotion. Take notice of the bound bundle on the ground, to be discussed later. Jack Kirby sold newspapers as a kid, so it should come as no surprise that he would remember such details. Journey into Mystery # 124, January 1966.  

During the 1960s and 1970s (and indeed several decades beforehand) candy stores and newsstands were a mecca for children who lived in Brooklyn and other New York City neighborhoods. Comparable to a modern day Starbucks or CVS, you could literally find one on every block. From what I've gleaned through reading accounts from people in my age group, this trend was echoed throughout cities and towns across the United States, and had worldwide counterparts. These establishments drew kids in for many reasons, not the least of which included candy, soda and baseball cards, but for me, and quite a few other youngsters, the product I was most obsessed with (which should be absolutely NO surprise to those who have read this blog in the past) were comic books. 

Every week my older brother John and I, either together or separately, would saunter the streets of Bushwick (a borough of Brooklyn), pursuing our twelve-cent treasures. John bought every Marvel superhero comic, along with a smattering of DC, Tower, Archie/Mighty Comics, Dell and Gold Key titles, whenever finances allowed (I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that John actually paid for the comics. Being the younger sibling by seven years, I benefited from his purchasing power, which he acquired by selling pretzels). While we went to a variety of stores, the closest, and most convenient -just a block away from my house -was owned and operated by a gentleman named Angelo.

The Central Avenue station in recent days. Angelo's store was on the right, somewhere near or before the gate, in the shadow of the elevated M train, which connected residents to Coney Island and Manhattan. On trips with my Mom or brother, either before our departure or upon our return, it was routine to stop in and check out the latest comics. 

I'll attempt to recreate the interior from memory (with help from my brother John), interspersed with other observations and recollections, in hopes of capturing the flavor of those days. The store was long and narrow. Newspapers were placed outside on a makeshift stand and customers could pay through a window-slot. When you entered the register was to the right; a metal display rack prominently showcased TV Guide on the counter, which was a guaranteed point-of-purchase seller, since practically everyone who owned a television bought the weekly periodical. 

TV Guide for the week of August 19-25, 1967. As Jack Doyle opines in his essay Lucy and TV Guide 1953-2013: "By the 1960s TV Guide was the most read and circulated magazine in the United States." You can read the entire piece here:

I'm pretty sure all the assorted candy, chocolate bars and sugary substances, which included Tootsie Rolls, Good and Plenty, Mallo Cups, Mary Jane, Candy Cigarettes, Wax Lips, Sugar Dots (all guaranteed to land you a trip to the dentist), along with cough drops, trading cards and the popular Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum (for the price of one cent!) were below the counter. 

Bazooka Joe was an inexpensive treat and kids loved the comic strip that came with it. I learned about inflation when Topps raised the price from one to two cents (and comics increased from 12 to 15 cents in 1969, an astonishing financial hurdle) Image from the Topps archive blog:  

Topps baseball cards were essential items for almost every child, but "non-sport" cards were also commonplace. It was addictive to buy a pack of cards, often at the cost of a nickel a pop, which consisted of 5 cards and a stick of rock-hard gum. Since cards were randomly inserted it sometimes took a while to complete a collection, although trading with friends helped. A few of my favorites included Batman (at the height of the ABC-TV show in 1966), Marvel Super-Heroes (the Grantray-Lawrence cartoon was then in syndication), the Monkees, Dark Shadows and Planet of the Apes. 

A 1966 Topps Batman card with art by Norman Saunders and Bob Powell. A prolific and talented comic book artist, Powell provided layouts which Saunders completed in paint. Quite a few familiar artists plied their trade at Topps, including Jack Davis, Tom Sutton and Wally Wood.   

Like many kids my age, I raced home from school to watch Dark Shadows, the supernatural soap opera which initially aired weekdays at 3:30. Of course I collected the card set and even had the display box that I asked for at a newsstand. That's long gone, unfortunately.  

  The November 28th, 1970 edition of the Sunday News featuring Dick Tracy by Chester Gould. The Sunday edition was usually bought after attending church. Image courtesy of Michael J. Vassallo.   

In my household The New York Daily News was required reading for my father (also named Angelo). My brother John has often recounted that he had to scour the neighborhood for the paper when Angelo's was sold out (don't come home without it!). I always loved the comic strips and read many of them every day, but Sunday was particularly special, since they were in color and consisted of either half or full pages. Candy stores received the "guts" of the Sunday paper three or four days in advance (minus the main news section, which was inserted on either Saturday nights - the "Night Owl" edition - or Sunday mornings). The comics section was in effect the "cover" of the Sunday paper, with each component placed inside it; this gave me a sneak peek at the latest Dick Tracy adventure, which I anxiously anticipated. For years Dick Tracy was the headlined feature and the first thing consumers saw, an indication of just how popular comic strips were for all ages. Waiting for Sunday to arrive, not only to read the latest exploits of my favorite detective, but also the serialized adventures of Little Orphan Annie and Dondi, often felt like an eternity!

Segueing back to Angelo's store... Located towards the rear was a counter with a few swivel seats, where customers sat down for a snack and perused the latest headlines or sports scores. I'm not certain, but Angelo may have had a fountain and perhaps fresh Ice Cream. In those days small establishments did not have refrigeration units (it was solely the providence of supermarkets if I recall correctly); instead they sold bottled soda in a cooler filled with ice. You had to dip your hand into it and fish out the selected item, which placed you in a state of ecstasy on oppressively hot summer days. 

This scene is perhaps SLIGHTLY exaggerated by Lee and Kirby, but since the entrance bears a resemblance to Angelo's I think it fits perfectly here. Fantastic Four # 11, February 1963. 

The wall along the left side had wooden racks that housed the latest comic books. That area of the store piqued my interest the most. Comics were distributed to stores on a Tuesday, packaged in a wire-bound bundle which often included TV Guide and an invoice on top, obscuring all but the corners for identification. A major point of contention for anxious youths, who had no understanding - or concern - for business operations, was that the proprietors, or their help, had to inspect the contents and check everything off before the product was placed on sale. When they were busy, or just didn't care, we were told to come back later; instead we usually headed off to the competition, hoping for a more efficient outcome. One of our least favorite owners was a cantankerous old man (everyone was old to us back then!) who seemed to take perverse pleasure in berating us, proclaiming: "You went to the other store first, didn't you?" He was the only person I knew who kept comics behind the counter, which meant that he had to take the extra time to hold up each individual title and ask us: "You want THIS one?," which we would either accept or reject. The only visible comics were those placed high above our heads, hanging on a wire. In retrospect his behavior may have been completely justified. Perhaps too many comics were pilfered by hooligans in the past. 

From what John and I recall Angelo was pretty good at putting the comics out quickly. In later years I was given the ultimate honor: allowed to cut open the fabled bound wire and put the comics on display. Angelo even dubbed me "The Comic Book Kid!"

Angelo's likeness is unclear after all these years; I originally thought this image of the gruff-looking newsstand vendor with the stogie, as illustrated by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, was similar, but my brother John offers a description which rings true "I remember more of a fairly good looking tough Italian gentleman in his late 40's to early 50s, who had a mustache." Batman # 199, February 1968. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database. 

Metal shelves took up the rear, populated with a multitude of magazines; Time, Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, Esquire, along with the forbidden Playboy and other "girlie" titles. There were also plenty of Men's Adventure mags, quite a few which were published by Martin Goodman, who ran Marvel comics. Some famous names got a start writing for those publications, including Mario Puzo, before he became acclaimed as author of The Godfather. We ventured into this area to check out Mad, Creepy, Eerie or Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Male, August 1969, previewing Mario Puzo's bestseller The Godfather, which would gain further notoriety when it was adapted into film by director Francis Ford Coppola in 1972. Cover painting by Mort Kunstler. Image from  where you can read much more about this and other pulp mags.  

Like every candy store, Angelo's also sold wooden airplanes, spinning tops, rubber balls, (Spalding, pronounced "spaul-deen" by New Yawkers, or Pensie Pinkie) and other inexpensive toys. In those days we didn't have hand-held devices or computer games to play with; they were far in the future. On the other hand you didn't need much money to have fun. 

EVERY kid had a Spaldeen or Pensie Pinkie in his possession! Which one was better continues to be a point of contention to Brookynites. Pensie Pinkies were cheaper, but both were used to play stickball, punchball, stoop ball or just plain bouncing. 

While Angelo's candy store was our primary source for comic book purchases, many similar shops populated Bushwick. We often went elsewhere to track down comics Angelo didn't carry, particularly Gold Key titles. The one company that was absent from almost every store in my neighborhood were the line of  Charlton comics. 

While this photo was taken in 1940, the store on the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Starr Street remained in business at least into the early 1970s. This was another candy store that my brother and friends bought comics at, since it was conveniently located across the street from the park and close to my school. Image from Brooklyn's Bushwick and East Williamsburg Communities by Brian Merlis and Riccardo Gomes, an excellent history of the neighborhood. Thanks also to my friend Sunita Shiwdin, who gifted me with the book. As owner of Mahalo New York Bakery, Sue's store evokes the best aspects of the Mom and Pop stores of the past. If you live nearby, or are traveling to Queens, stop by her shop for delicious cupcakes and extraordinary treats, all freshly baked. Her made-to-order cakes are truly out of this world. And while Sue doesn't SELL comics, she does have a mini-library with donations from yours truly and my buddy Barry Pearl, including books, fanzines and comics to enjoy while you're having a snack. You can learn more about her store here: (End of free plug. Now can I have a cup of Coffee?)

Yours truly at Mahalo New York Bakery, reading a copy of Ghosts # 92, September 1980, sporting a Don Heck cover. Coffee, Cupcakes and comics. Who could ask for more?    

 One fine day in June, 1971, Steve Ditko's cover to Haunted # 1 appeared out of the blue in Angelo's store. Charlton comics finally began to receive distribution in Bushwick. I was familiar with the company from issues of Captain Atom and Thunderbolt in my brothers  collection, possibly purchased at a discount store on Knickerbocker Avenue (the main shopping thoroughfare). The comics were often stacked in piles and consisted primarily of old Hot Rod titles, which I had no interest in. A copy of Ghostly Tales surfaced at my Barbershop and the local used bookstores sold a few. Even at a young age I was a devotee of Ditko's work and immediately snatched this comic off the rack!   

Luncheonettes also often carried comics, magazines and paperbacks. I discovered All in Color for a Dime when I stopped with my Mom at a huge luncheonette on the corner of Knickerbocker and Myrtle Avenue. Somehow I managed to coerce her to part with the $1.50 to buy the book. A treasured item, it remains in my collection to this day. 

My beat-up copy of All in Color for A Dime, the book that propelled my interest in comic book history.  

 Once we moved out of Bushwick into Ridgewood, Queens I lost track of Angelo's. In the 1970s, and into the early 1980s I frequented a candy store located about seven blocks from my apartment. The owner was a pleasant man named Walter, who treated me (and everyone) with kindness. Whenever I came in for new comics he would bring the stack out from the back and read each title out loud. I would tell him what I wanted and sometimes put books out for him. Walter told me he originally tended bar just a few doors down from the candy store where I met him; he became the owner (I believe) in the early 1960s. Walter lived only a block or two away from me and I sometimes saw him and his wife when they walked home. When my brother started to work in Manhattan he discovered that new comics were sold two weeks in advance and bought them regularly on his trip home. We also found out about a store that specialized in comics and related ephemera, the Little Nemo Shop on Ascan Avenue in Forest Hills. 

The site of Walter's store as it stands today on the corner of Woodard Avenue and Woodbine Street in Ridgewood. I believe it has been a grocery store since he closed up but the physical structure outside is pretty much the same as I remember it, without the 7 Up, Coke and other signs that were displayed.  When you walked in a metal rack several rows long was directly on the left side. On the right was another section that held some of the higher priced and over-sized comics (Marvel Treasury Editions and DC Dollar titles). To the right of the comics was a section that had newspapers and magazines. The store also had a huge candy counter and a few swivel seats where you could sit (in earlier years he made egg creams and sold fresh ice cream). There was no such thing as hand-held devices back then, so people actually had to use a phone booth when they needed to call someone. Like many stores in that period Walter had one in his store. I also recall that Walter had a few older paperbacks for sale, such as the Man From Uncle.     

In my teenage years I began collecting my own comics, and despite other options I made it a point to stop by Walter's store, often buying a few westerns or reprint titles. One day I learned Walter was robbed and assaulted. Shaken up by the event, he closed the business and sold the store. I never encountered either him or his wife afterward; he most likely moved out of the neighborhood. I often thought about Walter and hoped the remainder of his days were peaceful. He was a good man.  

I bought this copy of Marvel Tales # 137 (March 1982) in Walter's candy store, explaining to him that it was a reprint of Amazing Fantasy # 15, the original which he probably had for sale back in 1962. If only he had kept a few for resale 20 years later. Jack Kirby pencils; Steve Ditko inks.       

Eddie's News Stand, located on Forest and Putnam Avenue in Ridgewood, was one of the last neighborhood candy stores I frequented. It remained in business, I believe, until a few years ago, but I took this recent photo (February 2019) to preserve its memory, since it may soon be gone.

I clearly recall buying this issue of Sgt. Fury at Eddie's, the final issue of an 18 year run. In a nice touch, the last issue reprinted the first issue. Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos # 167, December 1981.     

 Walter's closing symbolized the end of an era for me. Into the late 1980s there were a few neighborhood candy stores that still carried comics, but they were rapidly dwindling away. Not as profitable as they once were - and taking  up valuable rack space - comic books were largely discarded from newsstands. The growth of the direct sales market, where publishers sold comics to specialty stores on a non-returnable basis, escalated in the 1980s, but It also meant that comics were becoming marginalized. Children in particular found other interests and were often ignored by the publishers. Less places to sell magazines eventually affected all periodicals to a large extent. In Manhattan, where newsstands were once ubiquitous, they now are barely part of the landscape (and many only sell soda, candy and Lotto). In my Glendale, Queens neighborhood I can canvas Fresh Pond Road or Myrtle Avenue and find hardly a trace of magazines, let alone comics (only a few large stores, such as CVS or Stop and Shop supermarket carry a small selection of periodicals, and the Archie digests are the sole comics item). It is indeed a different world.  

The candy stores I frequented in those bygone days were populated with distinct characters that embodied their surroundings. Comic books were part of that landscape, one magical fragment that has stood the test of time. I hope I've provided a glimpse into that era, when a candy store was more than just a place to buy comics: it was a gathering of friends on their way to a movie, the park or after a game of stick-ball. Like Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" with great longing and beautiful simplicity, there was at times a truthfulness to those childhood days that I continue to cherish.   

One of the last times I may have bought a new comic book in my neighborhood was at a stationary store on Eliott Avenue in Maspeth, accompanied by my friend Frank. As we perused the spinner rack I noticed one of Charlton's new titles. Perhaps it was prophetic that a comic book from this company, which relied on sales by the average consumer, often boys and girls reading westerns,war, mystery, romance, hot rod and other genre material, would have their final titles sold in the waning days of the candy store. Charlton Action # 11, October 1985, Steve Ditko art. 

Special thanks to my brother, John Caputo and my cousin, Jack Sanzone, for their recollections.