Buying comics for 21 years has taken me to lots of stores in lots of cities but I got my start back home in Quincy, California.
My Little Town
In 1990 there were two places I regularly bought comics: the Chevron and Safeway. The other gas stations and the other grocery store probably did as well, but these were the places my parent’s when and so these were the spinner racks I saw.
I went to Chevron (now a 76 Station) every weekday morning with my Mom as she drove me to school and continued on to work. Their spinner racks were just inside the door, I would stop there and leaf through them while she picked up a cup of ice and a bottle of diet coke.
We went to Safeway regularly and I could sometimes get a new comic from the spinner rack by the magazines or the latest issue of Disney Adventures at the check stand.
It was a simple system and worked well for me. I saw comics on a daily basis and could get them when I was allowed or had money to spend.
Wide Open Spaces
Quincy was and is a great little town, but there are a lot of things it doesn’t have. About once a month my parents and I would head to Reno, NV for a day or a weekend. It was an hour and a half each direction but but worthwhile to stock up on stuff at Costco or Target, buy clothes, or see a movie in its opening month. When my friends and I were old enough to drive, going to Reno was a great Saturday adventure including hanging around in a mall. On these trips I discovered comic book stores.
The first one I probably went to was actually a sports card store (which I was also interested in at the time) in the same shopping center as Target and Mervyn’s. It was run by a friendly guy who also sold comic based cards and a few comics.
Shortly after that we found a real comic shop in a local mall that was huge with new comics and back issues. The place was so massive I didn’t know where to start looking. At first I would start looking through the new releases for anything I might have missed at home and then I’d go into the back issues, rarely hunting for anything in particular but maybe if I was lucky I could find a few consecutive issues of a title for cheap. The problem wasn’t finding something I wanted, it was picking just a few things I wanted.
Costco also turned out to have comic books. They would have shrink wrapped packs of around ten comics for cheap. I’d find a few gems there but lots of random stuff as well. These packs are responsible for the only issues of the Legion of Superhero comics I own.
Once I knew comic shops existed I had to find them everywhere I went. On any trip the first thing I would do when we got into the motel room was find the yellow pages and flip through to comic shops. Then we had to use whatever maps we had to find the place.
My mom remembers one instance where we opened up the yellow pages to comics and on the opposite page were the listings for Convalescent Homes with handwritten notes saying “rude staff,” “appointment 10am,” “will call back.” It was a sobering twist to the start of our vacation.
Another instance of comic shopping I’ll never live down was a trip to Concord, CA with my mom to see her parents. These trips always involved at least one comic shop trip (some in Concord and/or Comic Relief in Berkeley) but on this occasion my mom planned a busy day in San Francisco. We took BART over and bussed to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, then we got on a bus for the SF Zoo but as we rode I saw a comic shop on the street. We noted where it was and she promised I could come back. So we have fun at the Zoo, get back on the bus and go to the shop (which I think was Amazing Adventures). Then we got on the MUNI Metro street car downtown, I insisted on standing in the middle where the long traincar turned and noticed drops of what had to be blood on the floor. We got downtown and went to a store, then took a cab around the corner to FAO Schwarz (so that we could say we rode in a cab) and then BARTed back to my grandparents’ home. When we got there my grandmother asked what we did for the day and I answered, “I saw blood on the bus.” My mom got disappointed looks from her parents as she tried to tell them we had actually done a lot.
Getting close to home
We moved to Quincy because my dad got a promotion and transfer in the US Forest Service and shortly after we moved to town she got a job at the book/gift/art supply/frame store and eventually bought it. Each day after school I would walk to Epilog Express and spend my afternoon doing homework, watching tv (which she had installed in the office for me) and reading until the store closed and we could go home.
She also took an active role in the small town serving on several boards. One night she came back from the Chamber of Commerce to say that she had just met a man who had come to town to open a comic shop. He had family in town and had big plans for his store in a small but expensive space just next to the theater. My mom offered to rent him space in her store but he had already bought fixtures and made his plans.
The shop opened up and my classmates made regular pilgrimages down from school each day. I don’t remember much about the man but he was always very nice and enjoyed talking with us as we looked at the new issues or flipped through the back issues he brought along. We were hooked and the guy had great timing. It was comics’ heyday: Batman Returns came out that summer and the Batman cartoon had just started with the X-Men following close behind and Superman was about to die.
Looking back the man must not have been a very good businessman, because I’m probably one of the few people to make a profit buying multiple copies of the Death of Superman. My mom actually went to the shop to pick up two issues in their black plastic bags before I got out of school in case he sold out. We got two issues, one to open and the other to keep sealed so it could stay mint and become valuable. As expected he sold out at the shop and a few days later my mom talked with the guy again and he said he wished he had another copy because he could sell it for more. So I sold him back my open copy for several times what it cost so he could then sell it in his store at an even higher price. I took my profits and got the fourth printing of Superman #75 and a few other comics. But I think I still have a sealed black plastic bag somewhere…
Sadly the comic shop didn’t last. It had expensive rent and steady sales that didn’t reach his expectations. It was only open for six months but that was long enough to get people hooked and for the Safeway and gas stations to pull their spinner racks. Once the shop closed there was no place in Quincy to buy comics.
Thankfully my mom decided to step in. She recognized there was a market and that it could integrate into her business but mostly she just wanted to make sure I could keep getting comics. She bought the comic shop guy’s fixtures and got his distributor contact information. She made a few calls and we were in the comics business with our first issues arriving in October 1994.
I say we because my days of hanging out at Epilog were over. Just before I turned 11 I went to work. I would go through the solicitations and pick out what comics we should order (no more than 4 copies of each) and go over it with my mom so she could call the distributor to place the order. When the comics came in I would open the boxes, check the shipping invoice and put the comics on the shelf and move suitably old issues to the bins.
Our timing wasn’t as great as it could have been. We came in just as Spider-Man’s Clone Saga was heating up and shortly before publisher Marvel Comics bought distributor Heroes World and kicked off what John Jackson Miller calls The Eclusivity Wars (http://blog.comichron.com/2010/11/lost-year-exclusivity-war-months-from.html) that would wind up shuttering two of the three comic distributors. We didn’t last very long. While we always had customers there were fewer and fewer coming in, and because of minimum order requirements, we had to order more from the distributors.
After we pulled the plug there were still a few long boxes filled with unsold back issues. Most of them would eventually be picked up for quarters during sidewalk sales and some went to a comic shop owner who was passing through town. The final stragglers filtered down into my personal collection. And while the store did lose money on this venture as a whole and I do feel some guilt, my mom says it wasn’t that much money and there was one great high point in the whole story.
In the summer of 1995 my mom decided to take a scenic route on her way to attend a Quilter’s workshop in Maine. My aunt and I went with her to New York then drove up to Boston before she continued on her way and we went back to our homes. My mom mentioned this trip on one of her phone calls with our distributor who got her in touch with a guy in Marvel’s promotion department. We met him on Friday, August 11, 1995 and he gave us a tour of the offices.
Most of the visit is a blur. We arrived and went to check in at the front desk but were told there weren’t any tours that day but we said who we were there to see and he arrived and whirled us around the nearly empty offices. Since it was Friday most people go to work from home he said which was why the legendary bullpen was empty except for a few people hard at work. I was too intimated to look over their shoulders or bother them but I still wonder what pages I passed by only to read months later. We stopped at a closet where our friend in promotions handed me an all white edition of Spider-Man #400 with the “death” of Aunt May, an uncut sheet of X-Tinction Agenda insert cards and some Spider-Man coasters. Eventually it was over and I could breathe again.
Once we stopped selling comics that was it for Quincy while I lived there (though I hear they have been available in town for the last few years). I would discover though that I could order collections through our regular book distributor and would get whatever I could.
After the comics stopped selling I continued to work there, cutting down matboard and eventually working as a sales clerk. I was able to find a way to increase business when at a sports card convention in Reno I discovered Magic: The Gathering and immediately became obsessed. After a few consecutive trips to stock up in Reno, I suggested we try to sell these in the store. Our first order sold out within days and we quickly reordered. They were a runaway hit selling to people of all ages in town and encouraged by the Sunday night game nights I lead.
My mom wanted to move on from the store and in the fall of 1997 began the MBA program at UC Davis. She sold Epilog in February 1998 and quit in September 1998. I quit in January 1999.
Without a place to get comics in town I became more dependent on out of town stores. I was dependent on Wizard magazine for news and suggestions. Picking up comics once a month made it hard to see everything that was available but it was great to come home with a pile of comics and to sort and resort and then read them by myself. The only conversations about comics I was having at this point was with my parents or when people wanted to talk to me about Superman’s new electric powers.
My mom going out of town for college helped keep my purchases regular. She had been to enough comic shops to know what a good one was and she found them near the apartment she stayed in for two nights each week and later seven. I would write a list and she would take it to the store who filled it. I once got to come with her when my school was out. The woman at the shop we went to was happy to make recommendations much to my mom’s disappointment.
In the summer of 1999 I went to Australia for two months and used the internet to keep track of what was coming out and asking my mom to get them for me. That was also the summer that she collected Star Wars merchandise for me and Beanie Babies for my aunt.
I go to comics, I mean college
In August 2000 I left Quincy for San Francisco State University for schooling, new friends and experiences and some comics along the way. I knew the city fairly well from visiting my grandparents but with my friends we found the some of the other sides of this multifaceted city. We also discovered comic shops in what seems like every neighborhood. Most of my friends were lapsed comic readers from the boom years and one who was a deeper reader.
Each Wednesday my friend and I would make a regular trip around our neighborhood stopping at Borders, Suncoast, Tower Records and Comics Outpost II on Ocean Avenue. Only the last one of those still exists and I haven’t spoken with my old friend in years.
Comics Outpost was a fine shop. It was a little dark and the walls were covered in old action figures still for sale, but there were back issues to flip through and new comics clearly displayed and easy to look through. The staff were friendly and accommodating and set up my first ever pull list. The best feature it had though was being just a 20 minute walk from State. I lived on campus in the dorms for my two years and in an apartment for the third. In the meantime my parents moved from Quincy to Phoenix, AZ and in when I would visit I’d explore the stores my parents recommended.
In 2003 the owner of Comics Outpost moved and sold the store to a guy named Gary. He was friendly and outgoing but never learned my name or recognized me as someone with a pull list. At this point I was going to the shop by myself and never felt welcomed or appreciated.
The final sour point in going there was when I got my pull list and found a it contained comic called “Spider-Man & Wolverine.” I asked why this was in my list and Gary said that he ordered it for anyone with either Spider-Man or Wolverine on their pull list. He didn’t try to sell me on the comic, he just expected me to buy it despite not knowing me or my tastes.
I see the future
Luckily in the summer of 2003 I finally moved off campus with my good friend Eric into an apartment on Noriega St betweeen 25th and 26th Aves. I was living there for a two weeks and driving to work before my father came to visit and we decided to take the train to a baseball game. Walking home at night we passed by 1653 Noriega where a party was taking place. People were laughing, music was playing and in the corner of the window action figures wrestling. I said to my dad, “I think this is a comic book store.”
By chance I had moved within two blocks of Isotope Comics (http://isotopecomics.com/).
A few days later I went back during regular business hours and met James Sime, Jared and Ryan. Despite not knowing who I was they were excited I came into the store and talked with me. This was what I had been looking for in a comic store. The Isotope sells comic books but offers so much more. Here was a place where I didn’t just come in, get my books and leave. I could get entangled in a conversation about the art and stories on and off the page. I could relax and read through my books with a beverage. Or come back at night for an epic party with a comic creator I admired or was discovering for the first time.
I went back to Comics Outpost, introduced myself and told them I wasn’t coming back.
The Isotope was everything I wanted in a comic shop before I could describe it. I would have started shopping there simply because of the proximity to my house but now I can’t imagine ever leaving it.
Come and see the show
One fun part of living in the city is the constant stream of events and doin’s. One of my favorites is the comic conventions which excite even my non-regular comic reading friends. Each year is a different experience compiled from panels, movie previews, cosplay sightings (which I translate for my friends), back issue discoveries and more.
In addition to attending, I’ve also had a booth at WonderCon and APE for a few years to peddle my mini-comics. It’s expensive and rarely profitable but I’ll always remember those years of sitting with my best friends for a weekend talking comics with anyone who comes by. The best moment I’ve ever had at WonderCon was when someone came to my both and said they loved the comic they got the previous year and wanted to see what new comics we had.
We’re in this together
San Francisco also has a wonderful library system that seems intent on giving the people what they want. I’ve been a loyal customer since I finished college and realized I could read what I wanted from now on. Their comic section has expanded by leaps and bounds since I’ve been here and there are some treasures waiting to be discovered on the shelves.
As loyal as I am to the Isotope, I still love popping into other comic shops if I’m out of town or in a different neighborhood. My mom quilts and visits fabric stores and told me that in that community there are FabShop Hops (http://www.fabshophop.com/) to tour different stores and see what unique fabric they have to offer.
These days there is such a wide variety of types of comic shops I like to see what flavor I’ll find. Will the be an old model dark room with dinged up long boxes and dusty toys on display or are they an Isoclone, emphasising atmosphere and experience or something in between?
I rarely buy anything when I travel because I want to keep my dollars local but I’m still a sucker for back issue bins. Though these are disappearing as more and more stores give space to shelves with collections. At first I found this troubling and wondered what we were losing in face of progress. And this is progress, it’s better for stores and the industry to push easily approachable/digestible new complete(ish) stories rather than yellowing samples of those same stories.
And the back issue bins have only moved out of stores and gone online. If I have a craving for a comic that came out before I was born, I no longer have to play the lotto and bounce between the many shops in town, I simply go online and find that specific issue in minutes. eBay is fine but my preferred marketplace is Mile High Comics (http://milehighcomics.com/). They’ve usually got what I’m looking for along with sales and discounts from their mailing list.
Incidentally, Whatever…(http://www.whateverstoreonline.com/) is my second favorite comic shop in San Francisco. If I we didn’t have the Isotope, I’d be there every Wednesday.
Over a third of my comic buying life has been at the Isotope which is where I’m going today. And I’ll be back next Wednesday and next party for the books, community and experience.