Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 10


When Mal and I moved to Nashville to work for Gary and Peggy Walker in 1977, we needed to find a place to live. We contacted a real estate agent and she showed us a few apartments to rent. We couldn’t afford anything expensive because we were only earning $125.00 per week. We still owned our house in Massachusetts and we were not ready to sell it yet, so money was scarce. We found an apartment that was advertised quite cheaply and it sounded nice. The realtor explained, “Oh no sir, you don’t want to live there.” (Wink, wink.) Apparently it was an area of town where the majority of people were African American and this lady refused to let us even look at the apartment. This was very strange for us. We grew up in Massachusetts and to us there would be nothing unusual about living in a primarily non-white neighborhood. This was our first encounter with racism.

But as it turned out, we found a cheaper apartment somewhere else. I think we paid about $100.00 per month. It was an attic apartment with no air conditioning. One wall had a huge hole in it so we covered it with a bureau. The wallpaper was nailed to the wall in places. We had sold most of our original furniture to our close friends, Debbie and Allan Traylor, so we borrowed a couch from our new downstairs neighbor. We lived in this apartment for about eight months.

Things were going great at Gary Walker’s new comic book store “The Great Escape.” Business was growing almost every week. Gary basically let me run the comic book part of the store while he developed the record department. Gary had a background in the music business as a songwriter and producer and he still had a love for the music business. He was in charge of all of the record buying and I was allowed to purchase most of the comic book collections. For some reason, Gary had faith in my ability to buy comic books at “the right price.” We always wanted to be fair to the owner of the comics, but we needed to be able to sell the comics at a reasonable profit. With this philosophy, we would usually buy nine out of ten collections that we bid on because people realized we were making a fair offer. This resulted in our building a great reputation as the honest dealers. Gary taught me that the customer is the most important factor in a successful business. If you treat them right, they’ll keep coming back and they’ll spread the word that your store is the only place to shop.

I learned another important lesson one day while working at The Great Escape. A man came in to the store with a list of old comic books that he wanted to sell to us. The list contained many of the early issues of The Hulk, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man, but he had listed them as poor, fair, and good condition. Gary wasn’t interested in the comic books in “low grade”. If the comic books were in very good, fine, or near mint condition, these would have been very desirable. So Gary explained it to the man and the customer left. I contacted the guy later that day and expressed interest in examining his comic books and perhaps, I’d make him an offer. So after work, I went to his house to appraise his comics. I was surprised to find that the comic books that he graded as poor, fair, and good condition were actually issues in beautiful condition! Most of them were in very-fine to near mint! I made the customer a generous offer and paid for the comic books with my own money. I excitedly called Gary to tell him about this great collection of comics that I had just bought for the store. I knew that once Gary saw these comic books, he’d want to have them for his store inventory.

I was right. Gary reimbursed me for the money I spent on the collection. All I wanted was to be able to buy the gorgeous copy of Spider-Man #2 at the exact amount that we had paid for it. Gary explained to me that he really needed it to be available to sell to a customer for full price and if he sold it to me at “cost” it would deprive The Great Escape of potential profit. I wasn’t very pleased with this decision, even though he did give me a decent price on it. I thought I deserved it at exactly the same price that Gary paid for it. It was the only time Gary and I had an unpleasant discussion. Years later, I learned that Gary was right. Every item we buy has the potential to keep our business profitable. If we were to sell these hard to find collectables to our employees at cost, we wouldn’t make any money on them and we’d be depriving our customers of the opportunity to complete their collections at our store. They’d end up shopping elsewhere for the hard to find comic books and collectables. It’s one of the few negative things about hiring collectors to work in our store. They really desire the product that we sell as much as the customers do!

Mal and I continued setting up at the flea markets three weekends each month, ran the store four or five days a week, and we still enjoyed it. Occasionally Gary would let us set up at comic book shows in Atlanta and Cleveland. I loved doing the shows. We would get set up quickly and while Mal watched our booth, I’d go from dealer to dealer buying up comics that I believed they had underpriced. This wasn’t a common thing for the southern comic dealers to do. They were mostly content to take their time and wait to make their sales to collectors when the show opened. I usually had the opportunity to profit in this way all to myself. More and more frequently, however, I’d encounter a dealer from Ohio doing the same thing as I was. His name was Jay Maybruck and he’d eventually become a major part of our lives.

Because of Gary’s solid inventory and my buying-and-selling ability, the comic book shows were very profitable for us. Being based in Tennessee however, made it difficult to attend most of the big comic book shows. Gary got his start with the flea markets so that’s where most of our energies were focused.

After living in our crummy apartment for about eight months, we decided to buy a house. We offered our house in Massachusetts to our friends who were still renting it from us, but they decided not to buy it. They were upset with us when we told them that we had to sell it, but we had no choice since all of our money was tied up in this house. Reluctantly, they moved out and we sold the house in about a week. With the money, we bought a nice 3 bedroom, all brick house in Hendersonville, Tennessee for $26,000.00. It was about a 20-minute commute to “The Great Escape” by highway.

It was about two months later that I ran into Jay Maybruck again at a big comic book show. He told me he had been noticing that I was “pretty sharp” at buying and selling comics. He said that I was the only other dealer with a “gut instinct” to be able to cash in on upcoming trends in the comic book market. He told me that he wanted to hire me to work with him in Dayton, Ohio. I explained to him that I loved working for the Walker family, but thanks for the interest.

The next time I saw Jay he made me an offer that was so good, that I had to seriously consider it. He offered me $17,000.00 per year as a base salary, offered me 10% of all mail order sales, and told me that we would never have to set up at flea markets again because he only set up at comic book shows. I was thrilled about that because it was much more exciting at the big comic shows. But the biggest promise was that Mal and I would only have to work one weekend each month. Mal and I thought that this could be our big chance to make a lot of money. Even though this would eventually be an important stepping stone for our career in the comic book business, I must explain to you, the reader, that I learned a valuable lesson: Do not chase the money as your primary goal. Your happiness is much more important than money.

We loved Tennessee and the whole Walker family and we were now leaving this comfortable situation for an unknown future. When we finally told Gary and Peggy that we were moving away, I’m sure they weren’t too pleased with us. They had hired another guy to help out at the store and the flea markets, and although he was a good person, he didn’t have the same enthusiasm that I did. To their credit, Gary and Peggy expressed their support for us and gave us their blessing. If they were upset they concealed it well. We called a real estate agent to come to our house to give us an appraisal. He explained that we had just recently bought the house for $26,000.00 and he didn’t think we could get any more for it than that. I told him we’d only list the house with him if he’d sell it for $31,000.00. He tried to point out that there were bigger and better homes in my neighborhood for less than that, but I stood firm. Reluctantly, he gave in. At 10:00 PM that night he put a “for sale” sign on our front lawn. It was sold for full price by the next morning!

Next Chapter: We’re off to Ohio.

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