Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part #21


When we opened our store, That’s Entertainment, in April of 1980, we were using Phil Seuling’s Seagate Distribution to buy most of the new comic books we sold each week. We supplemented this with product from Capital City Distribution of Wisconsin. Soon, Capital City began offering better terms than Seagate. Seagate required payment two months in advance but Capital was now offering me 30 days credit. This was important in the beginning of the store because it allowed me to increase the amount of new product I stocked without draining my cash reserve. The only drawback to switching to Capital City was that everything was shipped from Wisconsin so it would take longer to get the new comics each week. My competition would get his shipment of new comic books two days before me. This may seem insignificant to many of you, but the comic book collectors wanted their comics as soon as they were printed. If the competition had the comic books first, the collectors would buy them there instead of at my store. I knew that my back issue prices were lower than my competitor, but I also knew that the steady stream of sales of the weekly new comic books had the best growth potential.

I began to aggressively promote my new comics’ reservation service in the hope that my good customer service skills would eventually lead to loyalty as far as the new comic books went. After a few months in business I had about sixty regular weekly customers signed up for my subscription service.

My partnership with Jay wasn’t going so well. I believed that the comic book shows and conventions were a part of our business that had no future. I was the partner who watched out for “the bottom line” profits and I didn’t like the direction the comic book shows were heading. The show organizers were raising the booth fees too high. There were a lot of smaller conventions now competing with the big guys. Comic book stores were opening up all around the country and they were selling comic books every day so the average collector didn’t need to go to the comic book conventions anymore. I knew that I didn’t want to travel or do any more comic book conventions. I believed that running a store would be a more stable business. Jay disagreed.

When it became clear that we had such different opinions of the future for our business, I suggested that we split up the business. Jay and I divided up our large inventory. Jay took most of the expensive vintage comic books to sell at the comic book conventions. I figured that the comics that were priced from 50 cents to ten dollars would sell the best through our store. We worked long into the night to divide the stock in an equitable fashion. When we couldn’t agree on who would get a particular item or a group of items, we’d just play a hand of poker for ownership. We were determined to make this break-up as pleasant as possible. For the most part, it went okay.

My wife, Mal, stayed at home every day to take care of our son, Adam. She had put Walt Disney characters displaying alphabet letters on his wall near the crib. She would point to each letter and explain to Adam the sounds the letters made. I’d get home from working at the comic book store around 7:00 PM and I’d spend as much time as possible with Adam. We would take turns reading books to him almost every night in the belief it would instill a life-long interest in reading and it became a very special time for us together. We also found that it made bedtime something that Adam looked forward to.

Mal didn’t like my work schedule. The store was now open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and I was there, by myself, all of these hours. Mal wanted us to be able to get together with our friends on the weekends like a “normal” family. Saturday was the busiest sales day of the week so I knew I had to be there but I decided to begin looking for an employee to allow me to take other days off to be with my family.

Next chapter: We meet the local Mafia.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part 20


When I got the phone call from my wife, telling me that our house had been robbed, I quickly got on the first bus from New York to our home in Sterling, Massachusetts. After I got home and checked on my wife and son, I went to the town center where there was always a bunch of teenagers hanging around. I convinced them that I was not someone to “mess with” and that I’d be back in fifteen minutes to find out who robbed my house. They were apparently convinced that I was serious because they gave me the name of a local creep. When I went to the police station the next morning with the information, he was brought in for questioning. The thief denied that he did it, so the police let him go.

About a week later I saw the criminal in a local store. I introduced myself and gave him a good scare. He whimpered,” I’m sorry man, I didn’t know it was your house. Please don’t have me killed!” Of course, I had no intention of hurting him, but I made it clear that if he ever even looked at my house again, he’d regret it. He lived up the street from us and for the next two years he would actually walk on the other side of the street being very careful to not even look at our house. We never got back any of the items he stole because he had already sold them. Eventually, his girlfriend stabbed him to death.

Being robbed changed the way we lived in many ways. I was fortunate that the thief didn’t steal our huge baseball card inventory that I kept in my home, but now I was always worried that he’d come back again or that he’d tell some other thieves about what he saw when he was inside my house. I had an alarm system installed in my home and in our new store. Whenever we’d return to our house after being away, even for a short time, we’d have the uneasy sense that we were going to come home to find the house broken into again. The alarm system we had installed in our store was very different than most home systems. This system had a central station that actually listened to sounds in the store after we closed each day through several microphones strategically located throughout the building. If someone broke a window or a door the company would hear the sound of glass breaking. If anyone was inside the store and made even a small sound, the company would call the police. The best part was that because there were no false alarms with this kind of set-up, the police took every alarm call seriously and they’d arrive at the store within minutes of a break-in.

It was around this time that I almost lost my enormous personal collection of comic books. I had installed shelves in the basement of my house and carefully stacked my comic book collection on them. The bottom shelf was about four inches off of the floor. When we first moved into this house I had noticed an old, burned-out sump pump in the corner of the basement. I asked the original owner if there was a problem with water in the basement and they assured me that there was no problem, but that the sump pump was installed “just in case”.

Apparently they were not telling the truth. During a very heavy rain, I just happened to go into the basement to get something and I noticed about three inches of water covering the entire basement floor! I screamed for my wife to help me get my comic books out of the basement. We carried the 30,000 comics up the stairs and within an hour the water had risen to six inches. Once the comic books were safely upstairs we tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue the dozens of other boxes of personal items. I now saw my old elementary school report cards and old photographs floating in two feet of water. We called the fire department and they came and pumped out our basement until the torrential rains stopped. Even though I’m still a collector, that day changed the way I feel about material possessions. While I still take care of the things I buy, I’m no longer obsessed about the condition of my collectables. I try to keep in mind that these collectables are just “things”. The collectables are not the center of my life. They are sort of all around my life, but no longer are they the center. Relationships with family and friends are much more valuable to me now.

Next chapter: My business partner, Jay, and I split up.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part 19


In 1980 I began searching for a location to open my new comic book store. I lived in a small town and I was smart enough to know that I’d need a large customer base to make my store profitable so I started my search in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester is the second largest city in all of New England and more importantly, there are ten colleges located there. There was already a comic book store in Worcester but I knew I could offer better customer service than he could.

I contacted a real estate agent and explained what I wanted. I would need at least 1000 square feet of retail space on a major road and it had to be cheap! He showed me around Worcester and the only location that I was interested in was at the edge of a “tough” neighborhood. The rent was only $350.00 a month but the realtor warned me not to rent this building. I liked the location. The store was on the third busiest road in the city and it was on a corner next to a traffic light. Every day, thousands of cars would be traveling past my store and many of them would be stopped at the traffic light looking into the side window of the store. The store didn’t have a parking lot nearby but it did have some parking spaces in the front on the street. At the time, I didn’t know how important adequate parking would be.

I offered to rent this storefront on a month-to-month basis. I didn’t want to sign a lease because I really wasn’t sure that this comic book store could be profitable. I knew that I had run out of space for our inventory in my small house. I could have rented some warehouse space in which to store the collectibles but this storefront was actually cheaper and I was hoping to recover most of the monthly expenses with some retail sales. The owner of the building agreed with my request and rented the storefront to me at the end of March of 1980.

Now that I was paying rent, I rushed to get the store ready to open. Many people would have moved slowly, planning carefully to do things right. Not me. I obtained the proper business licenses the day after I signed my rental agreement. I quickly put in an order for a huge shipment of new comic books and comic related books from Phil Seuling’s Seagate Distributors. I asked them to send me one copy of everything they had in stock. I knew it would be important to look as though the store was well stocked. I really didn’t need to have multiple copies of books--just lots of different books. I had the electricity, gas heat, and telephone turned on within two days. I made signs out of poster board. I bought a bunch of used banquet tables on which to put most of my inventory. I bought two used comic book “spinner” racks from an old drugstore. No fancy displays. No cash register. We decided to call the store “That’s Entertainment”. I ran a small classified advertisement in a local “penny saver” magazine that cost me one dollar. I was open for business on April 15th, 1980.

Because I still planned to set up at local baseball card shows, and they were usually held on Sundays, I decided to be open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00AM to 6:00PM. This would allow me time to sell our baseball cards on Sundays and have every Monday off. I spent most of the first day moving stock from place to place trying to make this store look organized.

My first customer came in around 2:00PM. He was on his way to my competitor’s store and he was surprised to stumble across my new store. He told me how much he disliked shopping at the other store, but until today, he had no choice. He spent about an hour looking around my store and spent a little bit of money. He promised to help spread the word about “That’s Entertainment”. By the end of our second day we had made enough money to pay all of our first month’s expenses!

I knew it would be important to quickly establish “repeat” customers so I offered a subscription service. I printed a list of every comic book that was being published and asked each new customer to check off the comic books they’d like me to save for them each month. We got new shipments of comic books each week and by using this free service the customers would be certain to get every comic book they enjoyed. It also helped me because I knew in advance how many copies of each comic book to order so that I wouldn’t get stuck with unwanted inventory. My customers were assured that they wouldn’t miss an issue of their favorite comics.

By word of mouth, it became known throughout the small comic book collector “world” that shopping in my store was more pleasant. Each day, new customers would find us. Sales rose almost every week. My partner, Jay, convinced me that I was needed at the big summer Creation Comic Book Convention in New York City. I decided to combine this trip with a big family camping trip and closed the store for five days. My parents and siblings, Mal, Adam and I went to a campground in Rhode Island for a few days before the comic book show.

I then met Jay in New York while Mal and Adam drove home without me. When Mal arrived at home she discovered that someone had broken into our house. The thief stole money, jewelry, our stereo, and more. Mal quickly called my sister, Sharon, and her husband, Greg, to come to be with her until I could get there from New York. When I got the phone call from Mal about the break-in, she did not yet know what had been stolen. She just needed me to be there with her so I jumped on a bus and rode for five hours to get home.

During this long ride, I’d imagined that the thief could have stolen the thousands of dollars worth of baseball cards that I had stored in my home office. The crook could have still been in the area. Even though my relatives were there with them, I was concerned about the safety of my family. This was many years before there were cell phones and I really just wanted to be able to talk with my wife to assure her that things would be okay. But I couldn’t. This was the last comic book show that I’d ever go to without my family!

Next chapter: I catch the crook.

Picture: Our run-down home in Sterling, Massachusetts AFTER we fixed it up!

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part 18


Since I was only supposed to work with my partner, Jay, at five or six of the major comic book shows, my wife and I had lots of time to spend with our newborn son, Adam.
Jay was very busy traveling on his successful shopping mall buying trips. He would send all of the collectables up to my house so that I could “process” them and get them ready to sell.

The comic books were easy to sell because we had a great customer base at the major comic book conventions in the United States. Our new inventory of baseball cards was a little more work. The baseball card conventions were usually small, one-day shows that were less than a couple of hours away so I began to set up at some of these. I knew nothing about baseball cards when we first started selling them, so I studied as many price guides and dealers’ catalogs as I could find. Our sales of vintage baseball cards were great.

My wife, Mal, would usually stay at home with Adam while I was working at these local shows, but sometimes she’d surprise me by coming to the show to have lunch with me. When I had to be out of town at the big comic conventions it was very difficult to be away from Mal and Adam. Even though Adam was getting stronger, it was hard for Mal to be alone while I was away. I missed them too!

Jay drove up from Ohio to pick me up to go to the big Albany, New York comic book convention organized by the comic book store, “Fantaco.” Although it was only about a three-hour ride from my house to the convention, I began to realize that I wasn’t enjoying the traveling anymore. I decided that I needed to get out of the convention business. But first, I needed to focus my energy on this big show.

When we arrived at the Albany Convention Center, we were surprised at how organized this comic book show was. There were staff members hired to help all of the dealers unload their inventories. There was adequate security staff. The staff was also very friendly. As usual, we had the best location for our ten-booth display of old comic books. When the doors opened to the public, hundreds of collectors poured into the huge display room. Our booth was crowded with eager buyers for the first few hours and sales were great.

It was at this convention that I learned two important lessons about the comic book business. A very young boy, perhaps 12 years old, came up to my display and pointed to a copy of “Fantastic Four” #1 from 1961, and asked “How much is that comic book”. I didn’t take his inquiry very seriously, and I replied “ Oh, that’s a lot of money”. The young boy then said, “ Well, how much?” I said, “It’s $695.00.” He replied “Oh. Do you have a cheaper copy?” I showed him a copy that was priced at $295.00. To my surprise, he said, “I’ll take this one. Do you have issues #2 through #150?” Within ten minutes this pre-teen spent over $1200.00 and paid in cash! After he had completed this transaction I learned that he had just sold his horse and his parents allowed him to spend the proceeds on his new hobby of collecting comic books. I learned at that moment to take all customers seriously, regardless of my first impression of them.

I also learned a valuable lesson about the media at this convention. The organizer did a great job of promoting this show through the local media. There were television news programs there to do stories about this show. When they came to our booth to interview us, we were in a goofy mood and decided to have some “fun” with them. The interviewer began asking the typical questions: “Why do people collect comic books? What is the most expensive comic book you have?” We reached into a box of comic books and pulled out an “Iron Man” comic book and we made up a story about how this issue featured the first appearance of “Iron Man” wearing a yellow belt. We explained that it was very rare and it was worth over $1700.00. We figured that the news reporter would investigate to determine how accurate our information was and they’d find out that we were kidding them. Later that night we watched, along with thousands of citizens in Albany, as they ran this television interview with our completely made up nonsense! I’m sure many collectors got a laugh out of that story. This taught me not to believe much of what I read in the newspaper or see on television.

We had a very successful convention but I knew I didn’t want to continue to travel away from my wife and son. Jay and I discussed my options on the drive home from Albany. I decided that it was time to look into opening a comic book store. While Jay enjoyed the fast pace of the convention business, I was more interested in establishing relationships with “steady” customers. It was more fun for me to nurture long-term, repeat business with other collectors. I believed that the big comic book conventions would eventually be negatively affected by the opening of comic book stores all around the country. In the early days, collectors would save up money to spend at the big shows, but now stores were springing up and offering the collectors a place to spend their hobby money every day. I wanted to be a part of the more stable business of owning a comic book store. Jay and I decided that he would continue to set up at the shopping malls to buy new inventory and he would also sell at the big conventions without me. My job would be to open and run a comic book store. I remembered my experience at a “grouchy” comic shop in Worcester so I started looking for a retail store location there. I figured that I could offer better customer service than that!

Next chapter: We get robbed!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part 17


Our baby wasn’t actually due for another seven weeks but we were now on the way to the hospital. The hospital we chose was 45 minutes away from where we lived. Mal was in labor throughout the night and on October 10, 1979, our son Adam Dean Howley was born. The day he was born there was a huge snowstorm. There hadn’t been snow this early in Massachusetts for over forty years.

Being born so prematurely, Adam was very small. He only weighed a little more than four pounds. His tiny lungs were not fully developed and he was jaundiced, but other than that he seemed okay. On the third day Adam stopped breathing. The doctors kept him alive somehow and put him on a medication to keep him breathing. It was very difficult for us to leave Adam in the hospital when Mal was discharged but we had no choice. We had figured that Mal and the baby would be in and out of the hospital within three days or so, so the long distance wouldn’t be a problem. As it turned out, we were mistaken. We had to make the long trip to the hospital every day to feed Adam. At first, because Adam was so weak, the nurses had to feed him with a tube down his throat. After a couple of weeks he was strong enough to eat without the tube. We would stay in the hospital for hours each day for the chance to hold him when the nurses took him out of his incubator. It was sad for us to see him with all of the wires attached.

After two weeks in the intensive care unit of Framingham Union Hospital, Adam continued to lose weight. He just couldn’t keep his food down. He now weighed only three pounds, eight ounces. The medicine that the doctors were giving him to keep him breathing was causing him to reject his food. The hospital policy was to keep the infants until they weighed at least five pounds. The decision was made to take Adam off of the medicine. Luckily, his breathing improved and he began gaining some weight and after three weeks in the hospital, Adam was allowed to come home with us.

Even though Adam was still very weak and tiny, I was committed to working at the biggest comic book convention of the year…the Thanksgiving Creation Show in New York City. This show drew the largest crowds in the country and they were big spenders. I hated leaving Mal at home with Adam, but I had no choice. We had appointments with our largest customers including the president of The Superglue Company, two major retailers from England, and a president of a regional Pepsi Bottling Company. I called Mal from New York as often as I could.

Shortly after the Thanksgiving convention, Jay came up with an interesting idea. He would rent space in shopping malls around the country. He wasn’t interested in selling product at these malls. He only wanted to buy collectibles there. He would put up a nice display of the types of collectibles we were willing to buy. He spent thousands of dollars on advertisements in local newspapers and local radio spots to inform people that he would be in the mall for one week to pay cash for their unwanted collectibles. People lined up with boxes and bags full of comic books, old toys, and baseball cards. Jay would buy almost every collection that he was shown. He would load the new purchases in his van and eventually ship everything up to Massachusetts where I’d get it all ready to sell.

The baseball card market was just starting to catch on and we soon had one of the best inventories of old cards in the area. Jay was able to buy so many cards at reasonable prices that we eventually began to “wholesale” many of the 1950’s and 1960’s cards to other dealers. I set up a display at a few of the early baseball card conventions in New England and we did quite well.

My youngest brother, Rick, was my best worker at these shows. He was only thirteen years old but he really learned quickly. He could assist the customers with their purchases and he was good with money. He would also basically run our booth while I was busy selling large groups of vintage cards to other dealers. Instead of payment for his work, he preferred to take baseball and basketball cards. At the end of one show he decided he’d take a gorgeous 1957 Willie Mays card as part of his payment. As he was slipping it into the protective plastic sheet he pushed a little too hard and folded the card in half! We still laugh about that today. Unfortunately, Rick outgrew his interest in sports cards and traded his cards to someone. If he had kept them all they’d be worth thousands of dollars now.

Jay’s buying trips were so successful that I no longer had space in my small house to store them. I knew that soon I’d need to rent some extra storage space. I had gone to the nearby city of Worcester, Massachusetts to see a comic book store called “Fabulous Fiction Bookstore”. When I was looking around in it one day, I overheard a customer say to the owner, “You’ve got a nice inventory here, but isn’t this comic book a little overpriced?” The owner of the store gruffly replied, “I’m the only store in town, so if you don’t like my prices you can get out!” I decided that if I were ever to open a retail comic book store, then this would be a good city to open in.

Next chapter: The traveling became too much to bear.

Picture: Our son, Adam Dean Howley is born!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 16


I was working full-time at Gen Rad Company in Bolton, Massachusetts, primarily for the health insurance they provided. I was paid a decent salary and enjoyed the people I worked with. My boss, Diane, was a very pleasant woman in her late 50’s, but she lacked the vision to bring our production control department into the future. Everything was done by hand. There were no computers. We kept track of the movement of materials in the company by writing and then erasing the information on index cards. It seemed like an enormous waste of time to me.

My commitment to my comic book partner, Jay, was that I’d be available for the five or six big comic book conventions each year. Diane was accommodating enough to allow me to take the occasional Friday off so I could travel to these shows. I’d come back from these shows really exhausted but it was a necessary thing. After I worked there for six months, Diane called me into her office and told me that I was doing a great job. She explained that normally I’d have to be working there for a year before I would get a review and a raise, but she thought I was so good at my job that she’d make an exception. She gave me a 20% raise in pay. I thought about it for a few minutes and thanked her for her kindness but I explained that I made more money in a single weekend at the big comic book conventions than I earned in a whole year at Gen Rad.

I gave her my two weeks notice. I knew that my health insurance policy would cover most of the expenses for the upcoming birth of our child so I wasn’t concerned about that anymore. It’s a good thing we did have this coverage. In August of 1979, my wife Mal smashed head-on into a telephone pole when she was about 6 months pregnant. We rushed to the hospital to be sure that the baby was unharmed. Thankfully both Mal and the baby were okay.

When we were sure that Mal was okay to travel, we went on a business trip to Disney World with Jay Maybruck and one of our best customers. This customer was a serious collector who spent at least $20,000.00 each year on old comic books. We were his favorite comic dealers. We took very good care of him. We rented one of the nice three bedroom condos right on the golf course. The customer enjoyed the attention we gave him and we all had a fun trip. Good customer relations are important.

Our baby wasn’t due until late November so we thought we had plenty of time to fix up one of the bedrooms to be the nursery. Mal’s mother and her sisters, Carol and Madeline, were helping to put up wallpaper in the baby’s room one day when suddenly Mal’s water broke. This was way too early! The baby wasn’t due for almost seven more weeks!

Next chapter: Our baby comes…and stops breathing!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 15


It had been two and a half years since we’d moved away from our family and friends. We had lived in Nashville, Tennessee and Dayton, Ohio, worked with Gary Walker and learned how important it was to care about your customers, worked with Jay Maybruck and learned a lot about marketing and pricing strategies, traveled to dozens of places including Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego, New York, New Jersey, and met hundreds of interesting comic book creators and collectors. But we missed our family and friends.

While we lived in Tennessee, Mal’s Mom and Dad and her two youngest sisters came for a visit. This was something special because they had really never traveled outside of New England. Mal’s brother Richard and his wife Diane came to see us in Tennessee. Mal’s oldest sister, Ginny, and her husband Denis, and their three kids came to visit us when we lived in Tennessee and when we lived in Ohio. Two friends from Massachusetts, David Hathaway and Warren Weatherbee visited us in Tennessee. My young cousin Jud came for a week in Tennessee. My childhood buddy, Allan Traylor and his wife Debbie also visited us in Tennessee. My Dad visited us one day while he was in Ohio on business. We enjoyed these visits but it wasn’t enough.

Mal and I had been married for five years now and we wanted to settle down. We wanted to move closer to family. Most importantly, we were considering having children. Unfortunately, the prices of homes in Massachusetts had risen sharply. An average three- bedroom home now cost about $60,000.00.

Our friend, Warren Weatherbee, had been dabbling in real estate sales. He told us he knew of a house that could be bought really cheaply. While we were on a short trip to Massachusetts, we made an appointment to see the house but when we arrived we were told that we couldn’t see the inside. The outside of the house was a mess but the owners were only asking $16,000.00 for it. Warren assured us that the house could be fixed up so it would be livable.

When we got back to Ohio we made our decision. Without even seeing the inside of this small house, we made an offer of $15,000.00 cash for it. Since we knew the place was in rough condition, we didn’t need a home inspection and since we would be paying cash for it we wouldn’t be involved with the long process of obtaining a mortgage from a bank, and could complete the purchase very quickly. The owners accepted our offer. Warren took care of all of the details for us. Now we had to break the news to Jay!

When we told Jay that we wanted to move back to be with our family, I’m sure he wasn’t happy, but he supported our decision. Jay suggested that we’d remain partners if I could attend the five or six major comic book conventions each year. These shows were the most profitable part of our business and we both needed to be there. Jay would attend the smaller shows located near his home in Ohio and I’d either drive or fly to meet Jay at the big shows. This seemed like it would work for the both of us.

We hired a moving company in December of 1978 to bring most of our stuff up to Massachusetts, but we packed up our old van with my comic book collection, irreplaceable personal things like photographs, and our houseplants. We made it almost all of the way to our new home. We had pulled off of the highway to get gasoline at my friend, Ray Frank’s station, when the transmission died.

Ray Frank was an interesting guy. He had married one of Mal’s best friends from high school and we had become good friends and got together quite frequently. Ray was a great mechanic and an honest one. But he wasn’t cheap. His hourly rates were probably the highest in the area. He enjoyed playing the part of a grouchy, unpredictable, cranky guy, but I knew him differently. When Ray realized that I didn’t have the money to pay him to fix my transmission, he let me work at his gas station to pay it off. At the time, minimum wage was about $3.00 an hour. Ray gave me $6.00 an hour even though I was pretty useless at a gas station since I’m the most unmechanically inclined person I know. He also gave me a full set of snow tires as a gift. Many people just didn’t get to know him like I did.

Before we got up to our “new” home in Sterling, Massachusetts, a group of our friends, including Suisei Goguen and Debbie Traylor, decided to surprise us by cleaning up the inside of our run-down house. We heard that it was so bad that Suisei cried at the prospect of us living there. By the time we arrived it was still in rough condition, but it was clean. This house was about 100 years old and at one time it had been a railroad station. The house had a living room, dining room and kitchen, and one bathroom that had the toilet installed in the middle of the floor. The house had two bedrooms upstairs with no heat. The living room had no ceiling or sheetrock on the walls. The outside of the house was covered in old, broken asphalt shingles. It looked like a shack but it was all paid for and we were happy to be back.

Since we were planning to try to have a child, we realized it would be a good idea to get health insurance. Mal and I had gone three years or so without any insurance, but now we would have to be more “grown-up”. I didn’t think I could afford to buy insurance on my own, so we decided that I should get a job at a normal business that provided insurance as a benefit. This would work out because I really only needed to be available for five or six weekends each year to work the conventions with Jay, so I had plenty of time available for a “real” job. I got a job in the production control department of a company called Gen Rad in my old hometown of Bolton, Massachusetts. My job consisted of keeping a written record of the movement of materials in this large factory.

The people who worked in the office with me were very pleasant and I enjoyed working with them. The problem was, that almost every number I saw reminded me of a specific comic book issue! #247 was the “Adventure Comics” with the first appearance of “The Legion Of Superheroes.” #83 was the “Journey Into Mystery” comic book with the first appearance of “Thor.” #4 was the “Showcase Comics” issue that introduced “The Flash.” I had to keep telling myself that this job was important to us because we needed the health insurance. I had to stay here because Mal and I were now expecting a child!

Next chapter: …And we thought we were prepared!
Picture: Our run-down house in Sterling, Massachusetts before we fixed it up.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 14


In 1978, while I was working for Jay Maybruck at Sparkle City Comics, I learned quite a bit about business. I learned how important it is to be able to make quick decisions. If you are faster at making decisions than your competition, you’ll frequently be the winner of collections of old and valuable comic books. If you respond to your customer’s needs faster than your competition, you’ll also sell more old comic books. At Sparkle City Comics we did both.

I also learned that it was important to have a lot of available money to buy collections of old comic books because you never knew when a great collection would become available. There were many times that we ended up buying massive collections simply because we were the only dealers who had the cash necessary to complete the purchase.

I remember one day, while we were at our Ohio office, we received a phone call from a man in Kansas City. He explained that he had a huge collection of comic books from the 1950’s and early 1960’s he wanted to sell. Jay and I immediately made arrangements to meet with this man at his home to evaluate his collection. We asked him to describe the condition of the comics and to give us a list of some of the more valuable books he had. We determined, based on his descriptions, that we were very interested in buying the entire collection, jumped into Jay’s car and drove twelve hours to see it. It turned out that this man didn’t understand how to determine the accurate condition of his comic books. Many of them were in beat-up condition. Some had the covers missing.

Jay was furious with this guy but he managed to stay composed until we got outside. Jay had quite a bad temper at times and he wanted to make this guy “pay” for wasting our time. It took a lot of effort for me to calm Jay down. We decided to stay in Kansas City overnight and we’d check out some of the local comic book stores in the area. We went to Clint’s Books and spent thousands of dollars buying up great old comics that we knew were underpriced. At least our long trip wasn’t completely wasted.

In our business relationship, I was the “good cop” and Jay was the “bad cop”. Jay was usually seen as the tough, all-business guy, while I enjoyed the role of the easy-going guy. As a team, we were very successful. At almost every comic book convention, our sales would be at least $20,000.00. Our best show was the big Chicago Comic Convention. We arrived for the three-day show with two vans and one station wagon full of comic books. We had a great first day of sales. At the end of the first day a dealer from Minneapolis offered to buy our whole display if we’d give him 65% off of the sticker price. For some reason, Jay decided to accept his offer. We ended up leaving the show with a briefcase filled with $33,000.00 in cash. Jay had sold all of the comic books that he had brought to the show but he still had a great inventory back in Ohio.

Jay surprised me with an offer to become an equal partner with him from that day on. I would inherit half of his inventory in exchange for my abilities and knowledge. This arrangement wouldn’t last much longer.

Next chapter: We miss our friends and relatives.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 13


In late 1978 I was working for Jay Maybruck’s comic book company, “Sparkle City Comics”. Jay was the business guy (although he wasn’t very good at managing money) and I was the comic book collector/reader. I collected almost every new comic book published and I loved to read the older comics. On the average, I’d read about 200 comic books each month. Many of these were comics from the 1940’s and 1950’s that Sparkle City Comics would get in collections.

One night, on our way home from a comic book convention, I was reading a comic book titled “ Teen-age Dope Slaves”. This was a 1952 comic book that reprinted the old newspaper strip of Rex Morgan M.D. It was an interesting anti-drug story. This comic book was worth about $150.00 . I happened to notice an interesting message on the back cover of the comic. It explained that additional copies of this comic book were available for your school or civic organization. Now I knew that most comic books were printed in Sparta, Illinois and shipped out directly to the magazine and book distributors around the country. The publishers usually didn’t get very many copies sent to their offices. But this advertisement indicated that they would have extra copies of this comic book available. Even though this offer was over 25 years old, when we got back to our Dayton, Ohio homes, Jay wrote a letter to the publisher of the comic requesting copies of “Teen-age Dope Slaves.” Imagine our surprise when we got a reply stating that the publisher was sure they had copies of “Teen-age Dope Slaves” in their warehouse and as soon as they found them they’d send them to us at a cost of 10 cents each plus postage! We quickly sent a money order to buy 100 copies.

About two weeks later we got a letter from the publisher explaining that they hadn’t found the comic books we’d asked for but they’d keep searching the warehouse. They explained that there were thousands of comic books in the warehouse and it could take a few more weeks to locate the comic book we wanted. In the meantime, they’d found a different comic book about drugs titled “Trapped”. This was a 1951 comic book “give-away” that was distributed to schools. It had a strong anti-drug message so the publisher thought we might be interested in them. This comic book was not listed in the comic book price guide so not too many collectors were even aware of its existence. They had sent us 25 copies of “Trapped.” We priced them at $6.95 each and put them into our inventory.

At the first New York convention that we attended after receiving these comics, a serious collector was astounded to find a copy of “Trapped” available at our booth. He had heard rumors this comic existed but had never actually seen it. After he bought a copy he explained that this was one of the few comic books that was favorably mentioned in “Seduction Of The Innocent”, the anti-comic book book that was written in the 1950’s by Fredric Wertham. In 1978, any comic book that was mentioned in “Seduction Of The Innocent” was in high demand. By the end of the convention, we had sold all of the copies of “Trapped” that we had. We didn’t tell anyone where these copies came from.

When we got home we ordered 100 more copies. We priced these copies at $25.00 each and sold out very quickly. We ordered 200 more copies and started selling them for $100.00 each or we would trade them for about $200.00 worth of comic books we needed for our inventory. These books were just about the fastest selling comics in the business.

Even though we were making a huge profit on these comics, we were eager to get the comic books we were really waiting for “Teen-age Dope Slaves!” When we called the publisher, they apologized for not finding them in their warehouse.

We decided that we couldn’t just sit by and wait because we were concerned that some other comic dealer would discover this treasure filled warehouse. We arranged a meeting with the owner of the comic book publisher and drove to New York to discuss purchasing everything in the warehouse. The owner seemed very pleasant. He talked about his interest in The Boy Scouts and then started rambling about his cartoon characters, community involvement, and some other things that didn’t really make much sense to us. After about 30 minutes we brought up the subject of the potential fortune sitting in his warehouse somewhere in New York. We explained that old comic books were now quite valuable and we’d be willing to pay a reasonable price for everything. We were stunned at his response. He insisted that there was no warehouse! He denied that they had any copies of the old comic books they had published. When we pointed out that we had bought some old comic books directly from his company just recently, his secretary ended our meeting.

We left the building feeling like we were part of an episode of The Twilight Zone. This ended our business dealings with this company. They stopped selling their old comic books. We later discovered that some unscrupulous warehouse employee had stolen most of the valuable comic books and artwork and sold them directly to other comic book dealers throughout the United States.

Next Chapter: The comic book business explodes and we become partners in the business.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 12


I was a comic book reader and collector. My boss at Sparkle City Comics, Jay Maybruck, was not. He understood the business side of selling comic books and had access to a lot of cash to buy comic book collections. Together, we were quite a team. Jay was not the kind of boss who forced the boring tasks on his employees. Jay would bag, sort, and price the comic books right along side of my wife and I. Jay had a natural ability to price his comic books at just the right price to make them irresistible for the collectors. He didn’t really believe that the pricing information in the Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide was accurate for most comic books. The common comics from the late 1960’s-1970’s were readily available and although the price guide listed them at $2.00-$3.00 each, Jay would price them at 75 cents. Because of this low price policy, we would sell thousands of common comics each month. Other comic book dealers would spend thousands of dollars on our inventory to fill in their stock.

The pricing inaccuracies were even more noticeable on what we called “key” issues. Collector demand was very strong for the first issue of a comic book series, or a first appearance of a major character, or issues drawn by popular comic artists of the day and because the demand was greater than the supply of these key issues, Jay believed that these comics should be priced higher than the official price guide. I remember Jay and I surprising other comic book dealers by paying 100% of the current price guide price on certain comic books. We would then price them at what we thought they should sell for and usually we’d be right.

One day, at a convention in Buffalo New York, I saw a copy of a comic book titled “An Earthman On Venus.” A talented artist named Wally Wood drew this comic. I recognized that this comic book was very scarce (mostly based on my own experience) and so I bought it at the dealers full asking price of $18.00. We put it into a clean new plastic bag and priced it at $120.00 and sold it within a week.

At another show, after we closed up our booth on the first night, I was reading an old comic from 1954. It was World’s Finest #71 and it featured Superman and Batman together in an adventure. Earlier in this series, Superman and Batman had separate stories in each issue, but I realized that this was quite possibly the beginning of their “team-up” stories that would run for many years. We had paid about $8.00 for this issue. I put a large label on the plastic bag that read “first Superman-Batman team-up” and I sold it the next morning for about $180.00. If I had this same copy today, it would sell for $1250.00.

On another night, I was reading an old Batman comic book from the 1960’s that had a reprint of a 1950’s story called “The Riddle Of The Red Hood”. I remembered reading this story when I was a kid, but something struck me as odd. At the end of this story, it’s revealed that the criminal known as the “Red Hood” was actually “The Joker” (Batman’s most famous villain). I realized that it was in this story that the origin of how “The Joker” became a green-haired, white-faced criminal was explained for the first time! I did a little research and found out that this story originally appeared in Detective Comics #168 from the early 1950’s. When the convention opened the next morning, I searched the other dealers’ inventories until I found a copy in nice condition for under $20.00. Again, I re-bagged it and labeled it as the first origin of The Joker and sold it very quickly for about $300.00. Keep in mind that this comic book had been sitting, unsold, in another dealer’s booth for the entire first day of the comic book convention! (This comic book sells today for about $4000.00 )

We became so “respected” by comic collectors and other dealers (for our pricing intuition) that we decided to cash in on our newfound reputations as experts. So, in 1978, we started publishing “The Investors Newsletter”. This 8-12 page monthly newsletter featured our opinions about the comic book market. We would list the comics that we believed were underpriced and would explain why we thought this. We would list the comics as good long or short-term investments. Most issues also had a front cover of our sheep mascots drawn by popular comic book artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s including Marshall Rogers, Howard Chaykin, Gil Kane, Walt Simonson, John Romita, and more.

These are some of the comic books that The Investors Newsletter recommended as good long-term investments:
Brave and the Bold #28 (first appearance of The Justice League) was listed in the price guide at $27.00 while we were selling them for $125.00. They now sell for $7000.00
More Fun #101 (first appearance of Superboy) was listed in the price guide at $210.00 while we were selling it for $325.00. It now sells for $10,000.00
Showcase #22 (first appearance of the modern Green Lantern) was listed in the price guide for $60.00 while we were selling it for $90.00. It now sells for $6200.00
The Incredible Hulk #181 (the first appearance of Wolverine) listed in the price guide at $1.20 but we were selling them for $2.50 each! They now sell for about $1500.00
(we did goof, however, and suggested this comic book as a good short term investment!)
Amazing Fantasy #15 (the very first appearance of Spider-Man) was listed in the price guide at $360.00 while we were selling it for $500.00. It now sells for $42,000.00

Now I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “Well, almost all comic books are more valuable now than they were in 1978!” The point is, we predicted many of the fastest rising comic book prices in the hobby. If a collector had followed our advice he could have made an average return of about 200% in a twelve-month period. Our advice was so good that it wasn’t long before the popularity of our newsletter made it difficult for Sparkle City Comics to profit on these trends. Our newsletter subscribers were now buying up the recommended comics before we could buy them. After 13 issues, we discontinued publication of The Investors Newsletter.

Next chapter: My comic reading leads us to an important discovery!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Life With Comics: Part # 11


We accepted the offer of Jay Maybruck to work for him in Dayton, Ohio, and said good-bye to all of our friends in Nashville including Ray and Virginia Sawyer, Gary and Peggy Walker, Greg and Karen Walker, Cliff Furline, Bill Mullins, Lonnie Cummins, and dozens more. We sold our house, loaded up the rental truck and rented a townhouse apartment in Huber Heights, Ohio, just down the street from my new boss. Jay was a single guy about a year or two older than I was. He was formerly a schoolteacher, but the prospect of making huge money drew him into the rapidly growing comic book business.

At the time that I accepted his employment offer, Jay had one of the best inventories of valuable old comics I had encountered. I was eager to be associated with such an impressive company.

Jay taught me how important “image” is for a business. He wanted to be perceived as the biggest comic book dealer in the country. He named his business “Sparkle City Comics” and was one of the first comic book dealers to develop a recognizable character logo that would be used in all of his advertising. For some reason, Jay used sheep and a Shepherd named “Hans, The Herder” as his company’s pitchman. At comic book conventions, our large comic book display racks featured full color paintings of lots of cute sheep dancing and being silly. I know it probably sounds stupid, but this tactic really worked! We were recognized at every show we went to because of these sheep.

We were also in a position at almost every major convention that made it impossible to miss us. Jay made a deal with the owners of America’s biggest convention organizer, Creation Conventions, to buy ten full table spaces at every show they put on! The normal cost of these table spaces was about $150.00 per table, but Jay agreed to pay for a full years worth of spaces in advance at a greatly reduced cost of $50.00 per table. This helped the convention owners to have up-front working capital and it gave Jay the best location at each convention and saved him a ton of money over the year in table fees. Because we had the best display locations at these shows, the collectors would spend most of their money with us. Just as importantly, many collectors would offer us any comic books that they wanted to sell. We could pay a fair price (usually higher then any other dealer) because we were confident that we could sell the comics to other collectors very quickly. Sometimes the comic books would re-sell within minutes of our purchasing them!

At a convention in New York City, a collector sold us a complete run of Marvel Mystery Comics #1-10 (from 1939-1940) for $12,000.00. We sold the entire group to a collector from England for $19,000.00 about twenty minutes later. Our great locations, strong inventory, and available cash for purchasing comic books enabled us to dominate the national convention market. Our competition didn’t like us but the comic book collectors loved us.

When I say “us”, I really mean Sparkle City Comics. Jay was the owner and I was just an employee who was paid a weekly salary. Although Jay knew I was very good at “the comic business”, he didn’t follow through on his original promises. I did earn the base salary of $17,000.00 per year, but I never received the percentage of our growing mail order business. I was promised that I’d only have to work one weekend each month, but the schedule was actually much different. We would stock our comic book inventory on Wednesdays, load up Jay’s van on Thursday, drive Thursday night, arrive at most shows by Friday afternoon, set up our huge display on Friday and usually work until midnight buying and selling with the other dealers. The show would open on Saturday morning and we’d sell to the collectors until the show closed at around 8:00 PM. We would go back to our hotel room and “process” the comic books that we had bought during the show so they’d be ready to sell first thing in the morning on Sunday. We would sell comics all day Sunday and then take down our display at around 6:00 PM, would load the van and drive Sunday night through Monday night to get back to Ohio. Tuesday we would unload the van. Mal would do the laundry while Jay and I restocked the comics on Wednesday and then we’d start again on Thursday. We attended forty-two comic book shows that year!

Although it was hard work and very long hours, I enjoyed it for a few reasons. I got to be with my wife, Mal, almost all of the time because she always traveled with us. Jay always traveled in style. We ate at nice restaurants and stayed at decent hotels. This time in my life was also very fast paced and exciting. We became known all over the United States. We became comic book “celebrities” in a way. We also became trendsetters and market makers.

Next chapter: My knowledge and love of comic books creates hot trends in the market.

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.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 9


I arrived at this small comic book convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee really early so that I could convince the organizer to let me have the best space in the room. I learned from my experiences in Boston that the tables closest to the entrance were the best because many collectors would spend their money on comic books as soon as they saw the issues they wanted. If you were set up far away from the door, the collectors were frequently out of spending money before they got to you. Unfortunately, this organizer had already assigned the tables to specific sellers and since I booked the show late, I had a table tucked into a corner. I set up my small display of early Spider-Man comics and covered the whole table with a thick clear plastic sheet so that the collectors could see the comics I had for sale but couldn’t steal them. In the mid 1970’s, this was a common practice.

I was the first comic dealer set up at this show. I watched with curiosity as the dealers from the southern states showed up to set up their displays. Many of them arrived late and seemed to move quite slowly. This surprised me because the show was opening within an hour and it didn’t look as if they would be ready. There was one dealer who stood out from the rest, however. He was an older man (in his late 40’s) with graying hair, was a little heavy, and he was working so hard that he was actually sweating! I watched as he brought in load after load of “chicken boxes” full of comic books. Chicken boxes were thick cardboard boxes that were covered in wax. Chicken companies like Weaver and Tyson used them to ship their product to the supermarkets. The southern comic dealers would get these boxes from the supermarkets, wash them out, and stored comic books in them. You could fit two rows of about 150 comics in each box.. This hard working comic book dealer carried far more boxes of comics than he’d ever be able to display in his small booth. He set up his display and put the extra comic books under his tables. He was the only dealer in the room smart enough to realize the value of using all of the available space to display merchandise and maintain some extra stock to replace comics that sell quickly. He also kept some low demand comics under the tables just in case someone asked for them.

His energy and his attention to detail impressed me. He worked hard to locate the comic book that each collector was looking for in his large assortment of comics. I was also impressed because other than me, he was the last dealer to pack up his comics at the end of the show. He was there to sell comic books and he’d stay until the last collector was finished spending. That was my intention also. When the show was completely over, I approached him and introduced myself. His name was Gary Walker from Nashville, Tennessee. I told him that I was looking for a job in the area. We really liked Tennessee and figured we could work here for a while and eventually get around to work in Disney World. I explained that I’d like a job in “shipping and receiving” at a big company, since that was my past job experience. Gary politely said he didn’t know of any job openings in that field.

Then, almost as an afterthought, I mentioned that I had owned a comic book store for a while. Gary was surprised. He had been seriously considering opening a comic book store of his own in Nashville. He invited Mal and I to come to Nashville to work for him and that sounded good to us. Early that next week, we packed up our suitcases and drove to Nashville. We stayed in a motel for a short time while we began working with Gary. Gary was married to Peggy and they had two children. Greg was in his late teens and Karen was about 14 years old. In a very brief time, we found that we were really welcomed into his family. Mal enjoyed spending time with Karen while I worked with Gary, sorting comic books. It wasn’t long before we started sleeping and eating at the Walker’s home. It was a nice place to work.

After a couple of weeks, Gary made me an offer of full time employment. I think it was for $125.00 a week, with no benefits. It wasn’t great money, but I really liked the environment: comic books, friendly people, no snow. Best of all, I got to spend a lot of time with Mal. Gary ended up with a really good deal. He basically got the two of us for one small paycheck.

Mal and I went back to Massachusetts, packed up all of our belongings, rented a truck and moved to Tennessee. Our relatives and friends were sad to see us move away, but they understood and most were very supportive. As we drove away from my parent’s home, Mal cried. This was really a big move for us to take. We probably wouldn’t see our relatives and friends again for quite a long time. I don’t remember being sad. I only remember the excitement of beginning a new adventure. Looking back, I wonder how my Dad felt; his oldest child was moving far away for the first time. Did he think I was crazy? All I remember is that he had a positive attitude about my life’s plans. I’d tell him these crazy ideas and he’d ask me if I’d thought them through. He would then urge me to go after my dreams. He’d say, “Do it now before you have kids.” So now we were headed to Nashville!

Before Gary Walker opened his store, his main source of comic book income came from setting up at big flea markets. Once each month he would set up in Nashville, Indianapolis, and Louisville. These required a lot of preparation. We would stock the chicken boxes full of comics, load his truck, drive to the flea market, set up, and then work hard to sell the right comic books to the eager collectors. Gary taught me a very important lesson. He would be sure to get the names and addresses of as many comic book customers as he could. About a week before each flea market we would send a postcard to everyone on our mailing list to remind them that we’d be coming to town. Collectors appreciated the “personal invitation” to see our new comic book stock and they would be sure to stop at our booth each month. It became very clear to me how important a mailing list is for small businesses.

Although the flea markets were Gary’s “bread and butter”, we were all looking forward to opening a comic book store. It didn’t take too long for Gary to find a small building for rent on the edge of “Music Row” in downtown Nashville. Now, many of you only think of Nashville as a town of barefoot country folk, corncob pipes, and yodeling. Well it wasn’t that way at all! In 1976, Nashville was a large city full of all types of music and culture. Gary’s first comic book store was located within walking distance of Vanderbilt University…a world-class university. I was amazed at the vast array of different college students who became customers. We had students from all around the world shopping at our store.

One of the first things we had to do was come up with a name for the store. Gary ran a contest at the flea markets and encouraged our customers to submit their ideas for our new name. During dinner at the Walker’s home one night, we all started suggesting possible names for the store. Mal just started saying all kinds of strange combinations of words until she hit on a name that we all agreed would be perfect. “The Great Escape!” That was what the comic book hobby really was…a great escape from the pressures and trials of real life. Gary and Peggy gave Mal a check for her creativity and “The Great Escape” opened for business.

Next Chapter: We settle in…but not for long.
Pictures: Our boss, Gary Walker.
Mal sitting outside of The Great Escape.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 8


After six months of dealing with comic book collectors, working by herself (with no telephone), driving a lousy commute through heavy traffic each day, and not really knowing much about the product she was being forced to sell, my wife grew to feel trapped in our first comic book shop. She had had enough. Because I was seemingly more interested in my business than in her, she also had had enough of me. She moved back into her parent’s house. I was shocked. Everything seemed fine to me. I enjoyed my full time job at the computer factory and I loved working at the store on Saturdays. I had continued selling at the monthly comic book conventions one Sunday each month. I made time for everything I enjoyed except my wife! After a few days of separation, I explained to Mal that my commitment to her was much more important to me than comic books. She agreed that when we got married, it was a commitment to God and me and that it was forever. Our marriage wasn’t based on just “feelings” or “moods”. I told her we’d obviously get rid of the comic book store. I convinced her to come back to me and we decided that it was time to make some changes in our lives. We thought it would be good for us to get away from the “comfort” of our families and friends so that we would have to rely on each other more. I quit my job at the computer factory. I remember the “exit interview” given to me by my boss. He said (in a condescending tone) “You need to face the facts and grow up…you’ll never make any money selling comic books.”

Since we weren’t working, we thought we’d take advantage of the free time by going to Disney World and I convinced my whole family to go, my Mom, Dad, all six kids, and Mal. My brother Jay had married Annette and she came too. We drove down in three cars and camped in Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. We all had a great time. In fact, it was so much fun that Mal and I decided that we would move to Florida so that we could work in Disney World. It seemed like such a happy place!

After we got home from this vacation, my brother, Jay, decided that he was moving to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since Mal and I were still not working, we loaded up the van with his stuff and helped him move south. We figured we’d go from Tennessee to Disney World to apply for work. Jay and his wife Annette, were headed to Tennessee to join a group of “believers” in a commune-type life. Mal and I ended up staying with them for almost a month. We enjoyed being around the members of this “group” of people who really seemed to care about each other.

One of the men living there had some old comic books from the early 1960’s that he wanted to sell so he could donate the money to the group. I had gone to a local flea market and heard about an upcoming comic book convention so I decided I’d sell the comics as a favor to these nice people we’d met. After a little investigation I contacted the organizer of the convention and rented some table space from him. I figured it would be a fun way to spend a Sunday. Little did I know how pivotal this day would be!

Next chapter: We meet the hardest working man in the comic business: Gary Walker!

Picture: My wife, Mal

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 7


My wife agreed to run our new store on Monday through Friday and I’d run it on Saturday. Mal and her mother would go to Atlas News and Magazine Distributors and pick out the new weekly comic books for the store.

At this point, I need to tell you about Mal’s family. Mal’s mother, Madeline, was born in a very rural part of Howland, Maine in 1925. She was of Irish/Scottish/ English descent and she was one of nine children. In 1946 she married Richard Daher, a truck driver who was 100% Lebanese. This was quite a mix in those days. They moved to the tough city of Lawrence, Massachusetts to begin to start their own family. They had eight children: Virginia, Rose, Richard Jr, Priscilla, Marilyn (my Mal), Alan, Carol, and Madeline. Although Richard earned good money as a hard-working union truck driver, it’s expensive to raise eight children and so it took almost 27 years for them to save enough money for a down payment on their first home in the quaint community of Hudson, Massachusetts. By the time they moved there, the two oldest girls were married and living in Lawrence. Priscilla had died of a type of Meningitis when she was 13 months old.

I met Mal’s parents in 1972 when they were in their late forties. I’m sure I wasn’t the kind of guy they wanted their daughter to marry. Mal’s father was very conservative and I looked like a hippy with hair down past my shoulders. He was a union supporter and I believed that unions were destroying the productivity of the American worker. I would argue with him that the unions were corrupt and they didn’t really offer him any long-range protection. I believed that non-union companies would recognize valuable employees and that unions only rewarded the worst employees by eliminating merit based pay increases. Our biggest disagreements were usually about minorities. I believe that people should be given a chance to prove themselves, but he would lump people in groups based on their skin color. It was an odd thing, considering that he was born of immigrants. It was very much like the relationship of Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, Meathead from the TV show of “ All In The Family”. But even with all of our disagreements, there was never any yelling or screaming. He probably just considered me a stupid kid. But he never bad-mouthed me to my face. He was a really good father-in-law.

Mal’s mother was an interesting woman. She never bothered to get her drivers license. Except for a brief time, she didn’t work outside the home. She considered her job to be raising her children. She skimped and saved money as best as she could. The family didn’t go away on fancy vacations. A vacation for them would be a trip to visit a relative in Maine. Family was very important to her. Almost every Sunday, most of the family would gather together for a big family dinner. The family would also play card games and make jigsaw puzzles together. Very Norman Rockwell. One of Mal’s mother’s best character traits was that she never had a bad thing to say about her children or their spouses (even though some of us weren’t the greatest).

Mal and I lived close to her parents and we spent a lot of time with Mal’s mother. Mal would even pick her up to take her grocery shopping with us. She would follow Mal, pushing the shopping cart, and never complain about the boring grocery shopping. She just enjoyed being with one of her kids. We would frequently meet her and her husband for “coffee and…” at the local diner after supper. Other than their children, Mal’s parents had one major goal. They would sacrifice and save money so that when they retired at age 62, they could sell their house in Massachusetts, buy a little house in Maine, get a dog and a Cadillac and finally get to relax.

Mal’s parents gave up a lot to provide for their family. Having experienced the responsibilities of a large family, Mal decided that she wasn’t really interested in having kids of her own. She had babysat for her younger siblings for many years and was sick of it.

I also came from a large family. My parents had six kids: Me, Jay, Sharon, David, Jeffrey, and Rick., in that order. Being the oldest kid made me feel special. I got to experience things first. I could read before my siblings. I could stay up later. I’d always be their first kid. My father frequently worked more than one job at a time to provide for us. They bought their first house in Newton Massachusetts and eventually moved us out into the “country” of Bolton, Massachusetts so that we wouldn’t be “ruined” by growing up in the big city. Even though it meant a much longer commute each day to work, my parents did what they thought would be best for us kids. My Dad was an electrical engineer. My mother stayed home to take care of us. She didn’t work outside the home until we were all in school. She always had “balanced” meals prepared for us (including desserts!) and we rarely (if ever) ate out. We just couldn’t afford it.

My most vivid memory of my Mom is of her constant occupation in the kitchen. It seemed as if she was always stuck in there! Occasionally, we would gather in the kitchen to play “Tripoly” or some other family card game and mom would join in, but usually it would be Dad and all of the kids playing some outdoor game like soldiers at war, or building a stick fort, or having “acorn fights” that would usually end up with someone getting hurt. Dad would also make up games like “stock market” to teach us math skills while we were having fun. I never heard my parents talk about retirement.

Now, back to our store. While I worked at the computer company, Mal would drive about 45 minutes each way to run the comic book store. The commute was never easy for her because the traffic was horrible and it was always dark when she would be driving home. Mal is blind in one eye and it’s hard to drive in the dark. Although Mal had picked up some stuff while working at the comic book conventions with me, she really didn’t know too much about comic books. Comic book collectors usually like to talk about comic books. Some collectors are obsessive about it. Mal really couldn’t discuss comics because she didn’t read any. It would annoy her when the customers kept rambling on and on as if the comic book characters were real. She began to feel trapped in this small store. Remember, we didn’t even have a telephone so that she could call a “normal” person. She began to hate comics and would actually hope that no one would come in to the store.

Sales were slow during the week, but when I’d come in on Saturday, sales were great! I loved to talk about comics with collectors! I as one of them! I loved owning a comic book store and we were making a profit. I thought everything was going great. But Mal just felt trapped. After about six months she couldn’t stand it anymore. Not only was she done with the store, but she was done with me! I was unaware that there was even any problem because I was so busy pursuing my own dream that I didn’t see (or I ignored) her unhappiness. She went back to live with her parents and I closed the store.

Next chapter: AAARRRRGGGG! Let’s get out of here!
Picture: Mal's Mom and Dad

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 6


After living in our first house for only six months, on a whim we put it up for sale and sold it for almost full price on the first weekend. Now we had to pack up all of our stuff again, including my growing comic book collection. We rented a three-bedroom apartment in Marlboro Massachusetts. One of the two extra bedrooms was needed for my huge comic book collection and one for my buddy, Harry Wilson, to live in. Harry had been the best man at our wedding and he needed a place to live for a while.

We knew we didn’t want to stay in an apartment for very long because we felt that we would be just throwing our money away on rent so we decided that we’d try to build a house. We bought an acre of land in Berlin, Massachusetts that bordered 700 acres of conservation land that could not be built on. We paid $7500.00 for this lot and found a builder to put up a small three-bedroom house for $19,000.00. Within three months we were moving in. Our friend Harry moved out and got married.

We continued to buy and sell comic books at the Boston comic book shows and we were actually making a decent profit while we were building up a good inventory. I quickly learned to be able to “spot” trends in the comic book market and capitalize on them by buying the comics from dealers who priced them too cheaply and reselling them to eager collectors. My wife, Mal, and I continued to work our normal daytime jobs. Mal worked as a secretary at a local computer company called Data General and I was still at Data Terminal Systems making electronic cash registers. Actually, since I am not mechanically inclined at all, I ran the shipping and receiving department. I loved my job. I started at this company when it was basically a “start-up”. Everyone involved in this company in the early days cared about the long-term success of the business. We all pitched in to help each other when it was needed. The company always paid me well, and every quarter I would receive a very generous bonus. Inevitably, as the company grew, the sense of “family” vanished. The vice president of manufacturing hired a guy to serve as my boss and we didn’t get along very well. I wasn’t enjoying my job anymore. I also felt that I was thought of as the young kid of the company even though I was now twenty years old. It was time for me to make a change.

In the 1970’s, Massachusetts was not an easy place to live for young hard working Republicans. Taxes were out of control and rising. Liberals like Ted Kennedy were pushing for higher taxes all of the time and the voters in Massachusetts were voting these politicians back into office over and over again. Massachusetts was called Taxachusetts for good reason. My wife and I were discouraged and so we both quit our jobs. We had monthly mortgage payments to make on our new house. Without jobs it would be tough to make ends meet. We were not making enough money selling comic books to pay all of our living expenses.

Our friends, Tim and Olivia Roberts had two children and one on the way and they agreed to rent our house for the amount of our mortgage and property taxes. Mal and I moved into the barn at The Freedom Farm. The owners, Paul and Barbara Weatherbee, didn’t charge us any rent. We were however, expected to help out a little bit around the farm. Mal helped by trying to keep the meeting rooms clean for the Bible study groups and weekly worship times. My job was to take care of the chickens. We kept the barn pretty cold that winter to help keep the heating costs down. The barn wasn’t insulated very well and on a cold winter night you could feel the wind blowing through the walls.

There was always a lot of activity at The Freedom Farm. People would come and go at all times of the day and night. Although we knew and loved most of them, we longed for the quiet of our own place again. After about four months in the barn, we rented a small two-bedroom apartment in Hudson, Massachusetts. I got a full time job in the shipping department of Prime Computer in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Mal didn’t want to re-join “the Rat Race”. We had been fairly successful selling comic books at the (now monthly) comic book conventions, so, after a short discussion, we decided to try to open our first comic book store. We figured that if we could make a profit at a once-a-month show, we’d make a fortune if we were selling comics six days a week! Even though we lived about 45 minutes away, we wanted to open the store near Boston because we knew we’d need a large population as a customer base. There was already a comic book store in Cambridge, right next to Boston, called The Million Year Picnic, so we looked in some of the nearby cities. We ended up renting a tiny storefront next to a magician supply store in Watertown, Massachusetts. I had a good feeling about this location because the first time I met with the landlord, he introduced me to the famous pulp author, Walter Gibson. Wow! If the author of The Shadow was wishing me good luck, how could we fail?!

We called our store Comic Relief. I agreed to pay $100.00 per month for rent and that included the heat. My only other expenses would be the electric bill and the phone bill. I called the electric company and they got me hooked up the next day. The phone company was a different story. Because I was new in the business world, the phone company insisted on a $100.00 deposit before they’d give me phone service. I refused to send them that much money for them to just hold. Consequently, I had no phone installed. This was my first big mistake. We bought some used store fixtures from some stores that were going out of business. We handed out flyers advertising the store at the monthly comic book conventions.

Now we needed the comic book inventory. We put our entire back issue inventory into the store but I knew that we’d need to find a source to get all of the weekly shipments of new comic books. The new comics buyers would be the customers who would come in to the store every week for the newest issues and then they’d hopefully buy some of our older comic books too. Back then, there was only one distributor servicing the “direct market” retailers like me. The distributor, Phil Seuling, had made a deal with Marvel Comics and DC Comics to buy comics directly from them at a big discount and then he’d resell the comics to the small retailers like me. The big comic companies liked the idea because these comics were being sold to Phil Seuling on a non-returnable basis. For over 30 years comic books had been sent to magazine and book distributors and whatever they couldn’t sell to the small retailers would be returned to the publishers for credit. In the early 1970’s, the comic book publishers would end up selling only one copy for every three or four that they printed. Now, through Phil Seuling, every copy ordered was a final sale. This was a much more profitable business for the publishers. Phil Seuling received 60% off of the cover price of the comic books and he would resell them to the small retailers like me for 40% off of the cover price.

Although we were happy to be able to get the new comics, there were some problems with dealing with Phil. He required pre-payment three months in advance for all of the orders. He also required us to order the comics in 25 issue increments. This was okay on a major title like The Amazing Spider-Man, but we certainly couldn’t sell 25 copies of Sgt. Fury or The Rawhide Kid. In order to be considered a full service comic book store we wanted to carry all of the comics published, so we started an account with Atlas News Distribution near the big city of Worcester Massachusetts. They wouldn’t take advanced orders for comics but for some reason they liked us and allowed us to dig through the stacks of new comics when they arrived and pick out anything we wanted to buy. We only got a 25 % discount off of the cover price, but we were allowed to return any unsold copies.

I was still working at my full time job so I couldn’t go to the distributor to pick out the comics. My wife and her mother would handle that for the store. My wife agreed to run the comic store Monday through Friday and I’d run it on Saturday. That was my second big mistake.

Next: Trouble in paradise.
Picture: Mal (after recent eye surgery) and I, shortly before we were married.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 5

A brief introduction:
My name is Paul Howley, owner of the Eisner Award winning pop culture collector’s store known as “ That’s Entertainment ” in Worcester, Massachusetts. My store has been around for over twenty years and it’s been a long and interesting combination of events and people that have brought my store to its current place. I am not a talented writer, so please try to overlook my lack of writing ability. It is not my intent to boast or brag about my store or my life…I just want to tell you my story.


In 1973 my wife, Mal, and I went to our first comic book “convention” at The Statler Hotel in Boston. The first comic book dealer I met was Donald Phelps. He had a nice group of comic books from the 1940’s including a straight run of Batman issues #20-35, all in very fine-near mint condition. I immediately spent my entire weeks paycheck at his booth. I had become interested in Batman in 1959 when a family friend gave me my very first comic book…a Batman comic. In 1966, the Batman TV show starring Adam West premiered. It was one of my favorite TV shows of the 1960’s. I remember watching it with my Dad and getting mad at him because he was laughing at how silly it was. But to me (at 11 years old) this was a serious TV show! Batman was really in danger. Oh, and what a great colorful cast of villains! The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman…and eventually Batgirl! But, alas, the show only lasted three years. I had to be satisfied buying the new issues of Batman comics.

Then, in 1971, my Mom bought me a copy of the hardcover book “ Batman from the 1930’s to the 70’s”. This thick book was a collection of many of Batman’s best adventures from (duh) the 1930’s to the 70’s. This cool book introduced me to a lot of the early appearances of characters from “the Batman Family” like Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Ace The Bat-hound and dozens more. I had never bought a really old Batman comic book before, and now, at my first comic book convention I’ve bought a bunch from the 1940’s! I’m sure it probably worried Mal a little bit. Usually we were very careful with our money. As a matter of fact, we were thinking about saving money for a house and here I was blowing my paycheck on comics! But she knew I was getting a thrill out of buying these comics. She quickly suggested that it might be a good idea if I thought about selling some of comic books that I no longer wanted in order to pay for these expensive new additions to my collection.

Also at this convention was a young man named Will Murray. Will Murray would go on to eventually be recognized as an expert on Doc Savage and The Shadow and many years later, he’d take over running the monthly Boston comic book conventions. Will was sharing a table with a friend of his to reduce his expenses. Both of these guys were so friendly and willing to spend time talking to us about comic books. They told us that there was a long waiting list to rent booth space at this small comic book convention. If I really wanted to get involved in the buying and selling they would be willing to rent me one third of their 8-foot-long table for about $10.00. It seemed like a good idea to us, so we committed to setting up at the next show. The shows were usually once every three months, so I had plenty of time to sort through my comics to pull out the ones I’d be willing to part with. I really didn’t want to sell any. I liked them all. But if it made it okay with Mal for me to spend our hard earned money on old comics, then I’d do it. I had no price guide (The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide was around, but I had not discovered it yet) so I used some of the prices I’d seen in other dealers advertisements to determine my selling price. I had no plastic bags to protect my comics, so I lightly wrote the price on the back cover of each book. This was fairly standard practice in the early days of comic book selling. Occasionally you’d run into the dumb comic seller who’d use a pen or a marker to write the price on the back. What idiots!

Our first show was amazing. It didn’t take long for some of the other dealers to realize that I was a beginner in the business. They swarmed around our table and bought up many of the comics that we had under-priced. We didn’t care. It gave me the extra money I wanted to buy more comic books without draining our “house-buying fund.” These early conventions were full of interesting people. The young guys who eventually became Newbury Comics were there. George Suarez of New England Comics got his start at the early Boston shows. Bill Cole was there. Ron Johnson (one of the true gentlemen of the comic business) was there. Joe Carroll…the ultimate friendly comic book fan was a regular. Gerard would sometimes show up dressed as Captain Marvel Junior, but he was really a great guy. Monte was always there selling all kinds of magazines and comics. There was a hippie-type guy named Desi selling collectable comics and toys who was gruff on the surface but who was really one of the kindest guys there. There were also two older men (brothers) that for some reason were called “The Fruit Brothers”. Maybe their “real” job was selling fruit. They would yell and scream at each other at various times during each convention. They were colorful characters.

Everyone who sold comics in those days had regular “normal” jobs also. Comic book selling was just a supplement to our incomes back then. It was much more fun to be selling comic books when you were not concerned about employees, payroll, rent, and other major expenses that can overwhelm you when you are depending on the income from comic book selling. I looked forward to selling at the Boston shows and Mal was always there to help, even though she didn’t really like comic books. She enjoyed it because I enjoyed it.

After we had been married for about six months, with a short-term loan from my parents, Mal and I bought our first house in Northboro, Massachusetts. It was a small 2-bedroom home on a cute one-half acre lot, with no basement. The extra bedroom immediately became the comic book room. We were only 19 years old and we looked like we were 13 years old. Neighbors would call us “the little people” and deliverymen would ask us if our parents were home. We’d reply, “We don’t know…they don’t live here.” Wiseguys, huh?

When we had lived in this house for about six months, we noticed that the real estate market was getting pretty hot. We had paid $23,000.00 for our house and we guessed that we could probably sell it for about $30,000.00. We called a realtor we knew and listed it for sale for $32,000.00. The house was sold by the first weekend for full price. After the sales commission, we made almost $8,000.00 profit. Keep in mind, in 1974, that was about the annual pay for an unskilled worker like me. I was now making money selling our own real estate, working at the cash register company, and selling comic books. I was an amateur entrepreneur.

Next column: We build a house and then quit the rat race.