Monday, May 31, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 104

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 41
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 16
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 12


In our pursuit of the “Will Eisner Spirit of Comic Retailing Award,” the comic book industry’s equivalent of the “Academy Award,” we needed to have visual evidence of many of our claims of excellence. Luckily for us, we had two customers, Memo Salazar and Aaron Banyai, who were talented filmmakers.

I had been involved in minor parts of two previous film projects of Memo’s; one was a very funny look at a local county fair and the other was a low budget, full-length movie in which I portrayed the owner of a comic book store (what a stretch!) My “big” scene was filmed in my Fitchburg store one night after we closed and although the finished scene was only about four minutes long, it took almost an hour to film. Although I was apparently snubbed by the Academy of Motion Pictures (and didn’t even get an Oscar nomination) it was still fun to be part of the movie-making process.

Memo offered his creative gifts to make a short video about our store. He filmed the store building, the displays of new product, back issues, and collectibles. He interviewed customers who were willing to give “testimonials” about our service and vast inventory. He filmed some of our key employees as they described their function in the “That’s Entertainment” hierarchy. In this video, Ken explained about our commitment to creating a pleasant shopping environment while David explained our philosophy of ordering new comic books and related products. I was filmed describing our combined decades of experience in the comic book hobby and business and our commitment to expanding the community awareness of both the comic book industry and our store.

Memo used a clever technique to try to convey the huge size of our store to the viewers. He placed himself on a wheeled cart and filmed while Aaron moved the cart up the aisles so the whole length of our retail space was apparent.

When Memo was finished editing, Ken packaged the videotape, all of the pictures, testimonial letters and documentation needed for the panel of judges. I was confident that this package would convince the judges that we were worthy of this award. A few weeks later I was contacted by one of the judges and he asked me if I’d be interested in organizing a retailer seminar at the San Diego Comic Book Convention (where the Eisner Award is given out) on successful retailing of back issue comic books. I was honored that they thought I could offer sound advice to my fellow retailers and I thought that, perhaps, this invitation was a hint that I was to receive the Eisner Award. I told the judge that I’d be interested in attending if I knew I was the winner but he wasn’t able to confirm anything for me. I wasn’t thrilled about spending almost $1000 for plane tickets, hotel, rental cars, and food, only to be embarrassed by the Eisner Award being given to another retailer. Since the panel judge couldn’t give me any confirmation, I felt I had to decline the offer to attend the award ceremony. In my opinion, it really isn’t “an honor to be nominated.” It’s only an honor if you actually “win.”

I’m glad I didn’t go. We didn’t win the “Eisner.” A comic book store in Australia beat us. I’m quite sure that they’re out of business now.

Next chapter: Ken runs a great new event: The Pro-Am Comic Jam.
Picture: Paul with Mr. T

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 103

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 41
Ken Carson: A store employee


After over fifteen years of operating my comic book and collectible stores in Worcester and Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I missed the national recognition that I had enjoyed in my time with Jay Maybruck as “Sparkle City Comics.” We were known all over the country as the dealers with the best inventory in the comic book business. Our customers loved us and frequently our competing comic dealers hated us because we “monopolized” most of the retail business at the comic book conventions. We were really good at what we did and we were industry leaders. I wanted national recognition again for two reasons. I wanted it for my own ego and I also knew that I could create publicity that would increase awareness of the stores and ultimately, increase our sales. The most prestigious award that was available in the comic book business was “The Will Eisner Spirit Of Comic Retailing Award,” named for comic book artist, writer, and genius, Will Eisner, and I wanted to win this award.

Although all of my employees have strong points, Ken Carson was the right man to tackle this huge task. He got to work right away and within a short time he got us nominated for “The Eisner.” That was the easy part. Now we had to convince the panel of judges that we deserved to win this. We were required to submit documentation about our physical location and the quality of our store image, our inventory, our support of small and innovative publishers, our community activity, our customer service policies, and more. Ken wrote:

Good Retailing Practices:

“That’s Entertainment has developed a strong presence in a number of collectibles areas, including sports cards and autographed memorabilia, Japanese toys and animation, model kits, and role-playing games. These product lines draw a reliable and enthusiastic group of primarily male customers in the 12-50 year old range.

“In the area of sports cards and autographed memorabilia, That’s Entertainment has carefully cultivated a reputation for integrity. We’ve had all of our displays custom-built to properly showcase the high-end items. Sports card packs are a natural compliment to the rarer cards and autographed items, and often serve as an affordable entry-level collectible for younger fans.

“Japanese popular culture has grabbed the attention of high school and college-age customers, with many gathering large collections of imported animation and figures. We maintain several direct accounts to keep hard-to-find items available.

“Role-playing games have likewise appealed to young people seeking new and challenging forms of entertainment. A recent innovation that has come to the fore is the collectible role-playing card game, with “Magic: The Gathering” the genre leader. “Magic” has enjoyed extensive media attention in the past months and That’s Entertainment has been involved from the beginning.

“Comic books remain our number one product line. Our new comic racks are impossible to show in one photo; they stretch over 100 feet along the walls, displaying somewhere around 1700 different comic books at any given moment. We “genre” rack (by subject) to put the small and large publishers on the same footing, and we order just about every new comic book released. Our custom-created subscriber database is not just a time-saver; it’s a tool that allows us to “link” new titles to established comics. Both “genre racking” and subscription linking quickly put even small press titles into the hands of readers who already support similar material, so they can check it out for themselves.

“Browsing is encouraged! We understand that a person has to open a comic book before he or she can be drawn into it! We promote a bookstore atmosphere, with employees eager to guide customers through the infinite diversity that fills the racks and bins. Give us a glimmer of a memory, and we’ll all get involved to track down that particular issue. If something sells out, accounts with several distributors allow us to get it back in stock.

“We’re proud to have many couples as customers, as well as some second-generation subscribers. Diversity within a positive environment makes this possible. We’re also set apart from other comic book stores by our constant and respectful attention to the innovators of the past. Colorful and informative end-cap displays have highlighted the groundbreaking works of famous comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Dave Stevens, Will Eisner, John Byrne, Scott McCloud for the uninitiated. We envy new readers the excitement of discovering such gems for the first time!

“The innovators of tomorrow also get shelf space at That’s Entertainment, with amateur comics displayed right alongside the work of the pros. The names of Matt Oreto, Memo Salazar, and Derek Ring are well known to That’s Entertainment customers. The rest of the world will have to catch up. We’ve had striking success lately with a creator-published comic titled “Monster” that outsold many major releases off of the horror rack!

Knowledge of retailing and collectibles:
“Store owner, Paul Howley, has been actively involved in reading and collecting comics since 1959. In 1973, he began retailing comics at the early Boston conventions. In 1976 he assisted in opening “The Great Escape” in Nashville, Tennessee, and he later helped establish “Sparkle City Comics”, then the nation’s largest convention dealer.

“Paul established That’s Entertainment in 1980, at a 2000 square foot location in Worcester, Massachusetts, New England’s second-largest city. In 1989, he added a second location with the purchase of a financially troubled comic shop in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Carefully balancing inventory, expanding product lines, and putting the focus on friendly customer service brought a doubling of sales within eight months.

“In 1992, That’s Entertainment, bursting at the seams, purchased a 20,000 square foot building in Worcester, and created a 10,000 square foot retail space, the largest full-service collectibles store on the East Coast.

“Along this route, Paul has acquired as much knowledge about collectibles as anyone, and each of us here has his own special areas of interest. These preferences come out in our displays and recommendations, many of the latter coming with a money-back guarantee to our customers. We all share the knowledge that each customer has his own tastes, and that listening is the first step in using our knowledge and experience. We also keep current in the medium with trade magazines, subscriptions to “On the Floor,” “Magazine and Bookseller,” and through study of the Internet.

“As a retail business, That’s Entertainment has grown into profit sharing, employee reviews, “Skillpath” seminars and training, and an annually updated handbook. We belong to the “Chamber of Commerce” and the “Central Massachusetts Employer’s Association.” In the competitive marketplace of entertainment, we are convinced that continuous professional development is necessary for exceptional customer service.

“Company manager, Chris Ball, was named “Salesman of the Year” in the small-business category by the “Worcester Business Journal” in 1994. This is a prestigious award that validates our professional approach within the context of the entire business community. Among comic shops, our sales figures place us in the top 2%, with an increase every year, sixteen years running. In fact, sales are up 21% for the first quarter of 1996. We’re using computers to handle information about customers’ wants. We always knew that “keeping an eye out” for something special for a customer was good business, but the database lets us “remember” more than ever, and to target mailings and calls effectively.

Community Activity:

“We take a variety of approaches to get comic books and our store name out into the community in positive ways. Paul has brought comics as literature into local schools through classroom demonstrations, and a store manager has spoken about comic books at several local libraries. We’ve coordinated successful fund-raising auctions to benefit a local youth battling Leukodystrophy. Several times, we’ve played volleyball for “Easter Seals,” luckily for us, just participating makes you a winner.

“This year alone, we’ve aggressively pursued opportunities to donate comic books to libraries, a hospital pediatric ward, and a school excellence program. The local PBS TV station auction has regularly featured our contributions over the past few years.

“We’ve used traditional advertising in all media to promote the medium of comic books. The highest profile was a series of custom cable TV spots, but we’ve extended our reach (and budget) creatively with cross-promotions. We’ve had comic books delivered with pizzas, and made comics available to the stationary-bikers at local health clubs. Theaters and video stores have proved to be natural partners in tying comics to the higher profile productions they inspired. We make displays and contests for all of them from “Crumb” to “Casper” to “The Crow.”

“That’s Entertainment rented a theater and gave away tickets to the first “Batman” movie as a promotional event and “Thank You” to our customers, and staged an elaborate funeral for “Superman.” Having stars Billy Mumy, Davy Jones, and Boston Celtics Dennis Johnson in our store for free autographs exposed literally thousands of people to our product lines. Comic fans also enjoyed appearances by comic creators Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Steve Bissettte, Mike Mignola and many more. Throughout these events we’ve worked hard to develop and maintain a quality relationship with our local media and we believe that this has resulted in a positive effect on public perception.

Quality of our store image:

“That’s Entertainment is known throughout the Northeast for depth and breadth of stock. Other stores send in their customers for obscure and small publisher material, and dealers fill their “want lists” here. Besides offering superior customer service, we take pride in being a “one-stop” collectibles store. Our sheer size and sales volume let us stock and restock all the best in comics. But if even we don’t have an item, we have refined our special order/want list procedures to a science. Our image? The place that either has it, or will happily get it for you!

“Full-visibility comic racks, custom built floor display units, product-line departments, newly remodeled register and office areas create a dynamic, open, bright and inviting atmosphere that is a browser’s paradise.

“That’s Entertainment is always taking steps toward expanding the appeal of popular culture collectibles. It is the genre we love, and even in a highly challenging retail environment, that fact is making the difference in our continued success.”

Along with the above information, Ken needed to have some “visual aids” to include with the package for the award judges to consider so he began to collect some of old photographs and articles from local newspapers. He also came up with the idea to enlist the help of two of our loyal customers to produce a short videotape movie about the store.

Next chapter: Memo Salazar, a gifted filmmaker, helps out.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 102

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 41
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son
Cassy Howley: my daughter


I like to think I’m not complex but I know I’m not really simple. I’m eccentric in many ways and I don’t do things that most “normal” people do. I’ve spent most of my life doing things in ways that seem contrary to the current trends. My business accountants tried to encourage me to use other people’s money by borrowing money from a bank to expand my business. I didn’t want to do it that way. I expanded my business only as sales allowed me to do so. I wasn’t comfortable taking risks with the future of my comic book stores. I have a responsibility to the many employees and their families to keep this business profitable. Slow and steady growth was my plan.

I was also unconventional in my home life. My wife and I tried carefully to plan most of the major events in our lives, especially children. We waited almost six years before we had children so we could get to know each other without the stress that children may bring to a relationship. Once we had kids, we wanted to raise them in a loving environment. I didn’t like the way many other parents let their kids control the whole family life. Many of these parents stopped enjoying a social life because they thought the kids couldn’t be quiet and they’d only be able to sleep in their own beds. I believe that children are flexible and adaptable. We brought our kids almost everywhere we went and when it was time for them to sleep, they’d just lie on a blanket on the floor and fall asleep. Mal always brought blankets, books, paper, crayons, and toys to keep the kids quiet at get-togethers. They learned that there were times that it wasn’t appropriate to speak. We taught them to behave in restaurants. My kids were almost always well behaved. We also taught them to have fun and there was usually lots of laughter in our family.

Laughter was one of the few emotions that I was comfortable expressing although I was capable of experiencing other emotions. If I watched a sad movie, I’d realize that it was sad but I was never moved to cry. In fact, I hadn’t cried since I was a young teenager. My wife, Mal, was very emotional and she had no problem crying. Cassy occasionally cried. Adam had a very sensitive side and he had no problem expressing it. When he was a sophomore in high school he learned of a schoolmate who had been involved with some drug use. It bothered Adam so much that he and a few other students went to her, Bible in his hand, to pray with her. He cried when it was apparent that she was going to continue using the illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, I had no reservation when it came to expressing anger. It didn’t take much for my anger to build up and explode in a rage. Although I know it wasn’t true, it seemed as if Adam was deliberately trying to irritate me. He was a great kid; well-behaved, courteous, intelligent, loving, out-going and funny, and I was proud of him; but there was friction between us because he didn’t always do things the way I thought they should be done. Adam was almost never disrespectful to me but he’d just say something “wrong” and it would trigger my anger. I’d end up screaming at him. Adam never yelled back at me. He’d just listen to me and when I really hurt his feelings he would cry. It was really a problem with me, not with Adam. I rationalized that I wanted “the best” for Adam and I thought it could be achieved only by doing things my way. Mal loved Adam, unconditionally, while I wanted Adam to accomplish certain things as he got older because that was my plan. I wanted to control him and guide him to be what I wanted him to be. I was wrong to impose my plans on him. I needed to be there to guide him as a parent should, but I certainly wish I hadn’t been so hard on him. Somehow, I did have patience when it came time to teach Adam how to drive a car. I’d heard from other parents how tense this could be but I really enjoyed this whole process. I was delighted that Adam was becoming an adult and I was glad to be a part of his life during this time. Adam always knew I loved him even after one of my “screaming angry attacks” and within a short while, we’d be laughing about something together that only the two of us shared with our bizarre sense of humor.

Cassy, on the other hand, was Daddy’s little princess. She was adorable and fun to be around. It seemed as if there was nothing that she could possibly do to upset me. Before I retired from day-to-day involvement in my comic book stores, I’d come home from work to be greeted with joy by Cassy. She would run to me and jump into my arms exclaiming, “Daddy’s home!” Adam would also come running to me. This continued for years until one day when Adam was about twelve years old and Cassy was eight, I came home in a grumpy mood and snapped at them, “Please just give me a minute before you jump on me! I’ve had a rough day!” I know I hurt their feelings because they were rarely so excited to see me come home after that night. As a parent, I should have known better. What could be more important than expressing and receiving love from your children?

Both of my kids loved to act and they performed in plays every year beginning in the first grade at The Imago School. In 1996, as a sophomore in high school, his girlfriend, Meridith, convinced Adam to get involved with a local community theater group for teens that she had been involved with for many years. Adam auditioned and got the part of “Nathan Detroit” in “Guys and Dolls” opposite Meridith as “Adelaide.” As the lead male comic character, Adam was fantastic. He danced, sang and acted as well as any of the other actors in the theater group. Now, you may think that I was impressed mostly because he was my son but the opposite is true. I was highly critical of my kid’s performances. I thought it was better to be honest with them rather than praise less than good performances. If they asked me how I thought they did, I’d tell them the truth. They knew I didn’t “praise” everything they did, like some parents did, unless I thought it was above average. Usually, both Adam and Cassy did a great job when they were on stage. They were always prepared and their “delivery” of the lines was very natural, as if they were saying them, not merely repeating lines they had memorized. Cassy had major parts in her seventh and eighth grade school plays of “Tom Sawyer” and “Wagon Wheels West” and she showed that she had the dedication and skills needed to be a talented actress. I was proud of both of them and Mal and I attended every performance.

Now that I had been retired for a while, I found that I was missing the interaction with my friends and customers from the stores. I guess I enjoyed the attention I got from them. I was once known all around the country as an expert and a leader in the comic book business while I worked with my old partner, Jay, at “Sparkle City Comics.” We really dominated the comic book conventions in the late 1970’s and we were very influential in the pricing trends of that time. We worked as advisors to the comic book price guide and provided important sales information. In the small world of comic books we were famous (or infamous) but when we split up, Jay got the convention part of the business and I got the store. I no longer had to travel forty weeks each year and I could establish relationships with my local customers in a way that couldn’t happen when you’re in a different city almost every week on the convention circuit. But I was no longer important as a “national” comic book guy. I realized that I missed that bit of recognition. I came up with an idea that could give me national recognition again.

I called Ken, one of my most trusted employees, and asked him to find out what it would take to have us nominated for the prestigious “Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing” award for excellence in the comic book business. Ken tackled this task with his usual enthusiasm and attention to detail.

Next chapter: The hoops we were put through.
Pictures: Adam and his girlfriend Meridith performing in "Guys and Dolls."

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 101

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 40
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 16
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 11
Chris: Our store and company manager


Chris, the manager of my Worcester store and overall company manager now that I was “retired” from active involvement, knew that he needed to keep the gross sales increasing each year at both of our stores. Through a mutual friend he arranged to have the first Boston Patriots football quarterback, Babe Parillo, come to our store as a guest. This was a modest success and it inspired Chris to try more sports celebrities. In the meantime, I had learned that Boston Celtics’ great, Dennis Johnson, had a son who attended the same high school as my son, Adam. I asked Dennis if he’d be interested in spending a day at my Worcester store and he said he’d possibly consider it if we’d be willing to donate his usual fee to a charity of his choice. I explained to him that it was our current “policy” to offer free autographs to our customers so his usual fee had to be reasonable enough so that I could financially justify it. I relayed this information to Chris and let him “run with it.” After several phone calls to Dennis Johnson, it was decided that he’d be our guest on Saturday June 15, 1996. I was disappointed because I had already booked a family vacation cruise for this same date and it would be the first big event at the store that I would be unable to attend, but it was the only convenient date for Dennis Johnson and I had confidence that Chris and the rest of our staff could handle this without me.

Our staff wanted this to be a big event and worked together to make it so.A connection was made with the local sports-talk radio station and they agreed to do a “live-remote” from our store during Dennis Johnson’s appearance. Someone in our organization got the idea to contact the mayor’s office to inform them of this exciting event for the fans of the area and since we were allowing everyone to get Dennis’s autograph at no cost, the city government decided to assist us to make this event even bigger. The mayor agreed to send a representative to our store on the day of the appearance to make an official proclamation declaring June 15th Dennis Johnson Day in Worcester. Once the local newspapers heard this they were all willing to help us promote “Dennis Johnson Day.” The newspapers included our event in their calendar section and one paper ran a small announcement. We mailed thousands of flyers to the customers on our mailing list and our employees put flyers in everyone’s bag at the cash register. They also tried to make sure everyone heard about it verbally.

Chris knew that we’d have to try to recoup our expenses by offering the attendees an opportunity to buy some Boston Celtics items or photographs for Dennis to sign. Chris ordered Celtics key chains, bumper stickers, pennants, and basketballs. He also ordered hundreds of 8x10 color and black and white photos from a company that is fully licensed to print them but he wasn’t able to convince the company to offer a return privilege on the photos we couldn’t sell. These photographs would have to be sold for four dollars each for us to make a modest profit and we were not sure that our customers would be willing to spend that much since they were used to our normally lower prices. Our previous events had much cheaper photographs available because the other celebrities didn’t care if the photographs were officially licensed. We worried that our customers would think we were just being greedy so we decided to give a portion of all of the proceeds to “Sports Alive,” a local charity that promoted athletics and educational programs in Worcester’s schools and neighborhoods. Chris also arranged for “Fleer,” a large trading card company, to donate lots of basketball cards for us to give away to everyone who attended this event. Everything seemed to be under control and it was almost all arranged without much involvement by me. My key employees, Chris, Ken and Dave paid close attention to all of the details and they were prepared to handle this guest appearance.

I was on a cruise while this event was going on at my store but as soon as the cruise ship docked in St. Thomas I began calling Chris to see how everything was going. I kept getting a busy signal. I continued to dial the phone number, over and over again, for almost two hours! Who could possibly be on the telephone for that long on such an important day?! I finally got through to the store after the event was over and found out that the sports-talk radio station “took over” our only phone line to broadcast the appearance from our store. It was a major detail that none of us had anticipated and I’m sure that it disrupted our business and probably frustrated many people who were trying to contact our store to ask questions about this event.

Chris explained that things had gone fairly smoothly. The customers enjoyed it (especially the free autographs) and we sold enough stuff to pay for all of the expenses. Chris was smart enough to have Dennis Johnson autograph a few hundred of the unsold photographs that we would have been stuck with so that sometime in the future we might recoup some additional funds. These signed photos would also be good to have available for the customers who couldn’t make it to the store for the actual event. We sold dozens of them over the next few months.

Later, when I ran into Dennis Johnson at my son’s high school, he told me that my employees had done a nice job and he was pleased with how everything went. He was honored to have the mayor declare that day as “Dennis Johnson Day.”

Next chapter: A look into my character…not too pleasant.
Picture: We have "DJ" Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics as a guest at our store.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 100

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 40
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 16
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 11


Mal and I, along with our two kids, had just spent a week in England with my sister’s family, then a week alone in Paris (including a trip to Euro Disney, now renamed Disneyland Paris) then we finished this great vacation with another week at my sister’s rented home in Windsor, England. My sister’s husband, Greg, took some time off from his work to introduce us to some local places of interest including the Windsor Horse Racing Track, The Chesington Amusement Park, and the famous “white cliffs of Dover.” These white cliffs are actual cliffs that contained part of the World War Two English command headquarters. This underground system of tunnels, communications centers and war rooms was restored to illustrate how this actually looked during the war and it was a relaxing and educational trip. All in all, this three-week vacation was really enjoyable, mostly because of the hospitality of my sister and her family.

When we returned home to Bolton, Massachusetts, we began to prepare for the beginning of the new school year for Adam and Cassy. Adam was to begin his second year at Lexington Christian Academy. His first year went extremely well and he made friends quickly there. He was elected to be the sophomore class president by his newfound peers based more on his popularity than any serious “campaign promises.” The previous year he had his first serious girlfriend but that didn’t last very long. He began to be more interested in Emma, a classmate who was a good friend and confidant. After a short while his friendship became more of a boyfriend-girlfriend thing but it didn’t take them too long to realize they were better off as friends. Then came Meridith. She was transferring to this high school as a sophomore and it didn’t take very long for something to develop between her and Adam. Meridith was a good friend with Emma and when it was apparent that romance wasn’t going to happen between Adam and Emma, she expressed interest in Adam. Adam fell for her pretty fast.

Mal was still battling her Fibromyalgia and she was exhausted and in pain all of the time, but she was trying to continue on with her regular routine as much as possible. One day after dropping Cassy off at The Imago School, Mal was invited out to breakfast with Kim, an old friend of ours. Kim had recently lost a significant amount of weight and Mal was surprised to see her eating bacon, eggs, and cheese for breakfast. Kim told her that she was successfully using “The Atkins Diet” and she explained the low carbohydrate diet to Mal. Mal was excited to try something new to get rid of the small amount of “extra” weight that she was unhappy with. She had tried other diets and had only occasional success with them. If she could lose some weight and still get to eat some bacon every now and then, this sounded like it would be worthwhile to try it. She’d just have to cut out bread, pasta, processed flour, and foods that are high in carbohydrates. Mal bought the Atkins book and read all about it before she tried it and it seemed to make good sense. After faithfully following this diet for a month or so she found that she had lost most of her unwanted weight but more importantly, she began to feel better. It seemed as if the symptoms of her Fibromyalgia were diminishing. Some scientists believe that Fibromyalgia is caused by a yeast imbalance and this seems a likely possibility since almost ninety percent of the people the disease affects are women. The medical community has been divided on this disease for many years. It was sometimes called “The Yuppy Disease” because it seemed to primarily affect women between the ages of 25-40. The environment to which many women were exposed was thought to be the cause since many of these women lived in new homes that were airtight and perhaps the air they breathed was contaminated. I don’t know what really causes this disease but I know my wife began to feel healthier when she cut out certain foods.

Since I had decided to “retire” from day-to-day involvement at my comic book and collectible store I knew I needed to be able to count on a stable, regular income for my family. Previously, I existed by paying all of the store’s expenses and paying all of my employees before I took any money for myself. My “pay” varied from week to week. Some weeks it was huge and some weeks there would be no money available for me, but that was okay because I was a pretty good saver. When the money was rolling in, I didn’t spend much of it. I knew I might need it later. So Chris, my company manager, and I agreed on a regular amount that would be paid to me each week in a paycheck. This turned out to be about forty percent less than I was accustomed to take but I knew that it was very important to allow the business to be comfortable to pay for the everyday expenses and to have the funds available to hire the additional people to replace me. (Don’t feel bad for me, I’m still making a good living.)

We also had to deal with paying off the loan for our huge building in Worcester. We financed this building by taking out a mortgage on my family home so I wanted this paid off. Each month, since 1992, we had paid an extra amount over and above our required mortgage. Some months it was only an extra one thousand dollars, but sometimes we paid an extra five thousand dollars directly to the principal loan amount and by the beginning of 1996 we had paid off the entire loan. It’s a liberating feeling to be free from the nagging obligation of loans.

Next chapter: Chris, the store manager, books a great line-up of sports celebrities as guests at the stores.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 99

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 40
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 16
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 11
Sharon: my only sister
Greg: my sister’s husband


In the mid-1990’s, my sister Sharon’s husband Greg was offered an opportunity to work for a year in England. The American company he worked for needed to increase sales in Europe and they knew Greg could successfully tackle this project. Greg moved his wife and three children into a large, rented home in Windsor, England.

We had made the decision to cut back on expensive vacations in order to afford Adam’s expensive private high school education but when Greg and Sharon offered to let us come to England to visit them we jumped at the chance. We had enjoyed our previous trip to England in 1991 and we knew we’d like to go back and with the offer of “free” housing it was an offer we couldn’t turn down. Mal loved my sister and she was eager to see Sharon again. My kids also loved their cousins and they enjoyed being together whenever it was possible, which wasn’t often enough since my sister had moved away to New Hampshire.

We planned to spend a week with Greg and Sharon exploring England, a week in France, and our third week with Greg and Sharon. When we arrived, Greg arranged to have us picked up at the airport. We spent the week traveling and sightseeing with Sharon as our unofficial tour guide while Greg was working. We enjoyed his time with us after work ended. Sharon is a really good cook and we enjoyed quite a few “home cooked” meals but we also had the chance to eat out in some local restaurants including “Ye Old Beefeater.” During our visit to England we ate there a couple of times because the food was so much better than most other English restaurants. About three weeks after we got back to the United States we began to hear news reports about the outbreak of “Mad Cow Disease” found in English beef!

While we were in England, Chris, my store manager, called to tell me that he planned to fire one of the managers of my store in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I was sad to hear that things had developed that way because we all really liked this employee. He was liked by many of our customers and he was fun to be around but it was decided that he just wasn’t able to properly do his job as a manager.

For example, we had a great relationship with the manager of the local movie theater. The theater would allow us to set up a large display in the lobby of the theater to advertise our store if we would agree to put up movie posters in our store to direct our customers to this particular movie theater. One of the more artistically talented guys at our Worcester location, Ken Carson, was willing to design and assemble these theater displays so there was no excuse that we wouldn’t have some free advertising for any comic book related movie. When the feature film version of “Casper The Friendly Ghost” came out I asked the Fitchburg store co-manager why we didn’t have a display in the theater lobby. He tried to explain to me that even though “Casper” was indeed based on a comic book, he saw no need to promote our store at that time. He actually said, “We have enough customers already.”

On another occasion, when he was instructed to maintain an inventory of “essential” trade paperback editions of popular comic series, he replied, “We already have plenty of other editions available. I’m sure the customers will just buy the ones we have.” The final straw was when he began to sell his own comic books at a local flea market and we found out that he was directing our store customers to shop at his flea market booth instead of buying the comics at the store. This couldn’t be tolerated. So, after fifteen years in business with no people being fired, we believed it was necessary to fire this employee. It was an awful feeling because this employee was, over all, a really nice guy. I was a little troubled because this was going to be done while I was out of the country but I knew I needed to trust Chris on this. Thankfully, the employee found another job very quickly.

After a week in England with my sister, my family and I traveled to Paris via the high-speed “Chunnel” train. My young daughter, Cassy, worked at learning important French words and I was amused at her efforts to list these words and phonetic pronunciations in her small notebook. We were prepared to be treated rudely by the French because none of us spoke the language but we were pleasantly surprised at how courteous the citizens were. We did find out that one stereotype about Europeans was true. Most people we encountered had horrible body odor. Apparently, deodorant wasn’t a hot-selling item over there. It didn’t help that Paris was in the middle of an unusual heat wave and the temperatures were well into the mid-90’s every day we were there. Mal and Cassy would put a lot of perfume on their sleeves before we left our hotel each morning so that when they were suddenly overwhelmed by the people’s odor, they could block their noses with their sleeves and at least smell something good. Adam and I didn’t mind too much but Cassy was so short that she was always stuck under someone’s armpit on a subway train or in an elevator.

Our week in Paris included lots of the usual tourist destinations including museums, churches and castles. Our only mistake was that we planned to be in Paris during “Bastille Day.” This was the equivalent of our “Fourth of July” holiday and the French people went “crazy” on this day. Fighter jets flew directly over our hotel building while huge parades blocked the streets. Thousands of noisy people crowded the streets and we were kept awake long into the night by the sound of exploding firecrackers. Although we all enjoyed our week in Paris, my kids were sick of touring castles and they were eager to get back to England to see their cousins; Emily, Jesse, and Jacob.

Next chapter: The end of our big vacation and I take a huge pay-cut.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 98

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 40
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 15
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 11


I’ve been luckier than many people because I’ve been relatively healthy for most of my life. I’ve never been admitted to a hospital, had a broken bone or been seriously ill. I have had “hay fever” for a month each year. I injured my back while working at a computer company in the 1970’s and although I’ve never really recovered from that, it’s really minor discomfort and it comes and goes. Pretty lucky, especially considering that I don’t take very good care of myself. I don’t exercise and I love to eat “junk-food.” I should be in bad condition but for some reason, I’m not.

My son, Adam, was born prematurely and he almost died twice at birth. He had a very serious asthma attack when he was young. He had allergies that caused constant nasal stuffiness and discomfort for him for eight months each year during the first sixteen years of his life. He inherited my crooked teeth and he endured a corrective “lip-bumper” to expand his jaw and two sets of corrective braces to straighten his teeth. He rarely complained about this though. He just knew it was part of life.

When my daughter, Cassy, was young, she was a tiny girl. She was so small that she wasn’t even “on the charts” as far as average height and weight goes. At eleven years old she was the height of most seven year olds. We took her to a recommended endocrinologist to determine if there was anything “out of the ordinary” with Cassy’s development but we were told that she was just going to be small and there was nothing that could be done for her. Cassy suffered severe chest pains because of a heart defect called “mitrovalve prolapse” for most of her childhood. She also got “my teeth” and ended up with braces for a few years.

My wife, Mal, was not so lucky. Although she had a healthy early childhood, when she hit her late-teens she found out that she had developed tumors in her left eye. Although these were not malignant tumors, they still presented a problem for her eye and they needed to be removed. She was sent to “Mass Eye and Ear” a division of Mass General Hospital, in Boston and her surgeon was the top eye specialist in this highly respected hospital. Mal’s first eye surgery required the eye to be removed from its socket and the tumors were removed by cutting the eye on the backside. This surgery took place before laser surgery became commonplace. Eventually she needed several more surgeries because the tumors returned. Finally, shortly after Adam was born, lasers were used but there was too much scar tissue inside of her eye and she was left permanently blind in her left eye. Mal has adapted to this partial blindness but it’s not always easy. Driving isn’t simple when your depth perception is bad, (try closing one of your eyes while you drive!) but she manages.

In 1995 however, Mal began to get tired easily. We led a typical, modern busy lifestyle because of our kids activities at school and the extra after-school activities like sports, horseback riding, music lessons and community theatre involvement but until 1995 Mal had plenty of energy. Now these “normal” activities left her exhausted. We both assumed that this would soon pass but then she began to experience intense pain in different spots on her body that several doctors couldn’t explain. Some of the pains were located in her joints but others were seemingly just small, random spots on her body that defied explanation. One doctor suggested that this could be a form of early arthritis and since some relatives in Mal’s family had suffered with arthritis, it was recommended that she see a specialist. After a long series of tests it was determined that Mal had “Fibromyalgia.” This disease is similar to “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” but along with exhaustion comes joint and muscle pain. At that time there was no cure for this disease but the doctor recommended a change in diet and suggested more exercise. Well, a change in diet could be done but Mal certainly didn’t feel well enough to increase her exercise. Her whole body hurt.

The normally energetic Mal was so tired and even though she tried to get to bed earlier she found that the pains in her body would prevent her from sleeping through the night. Lack of sleep made it harder for her body to “re-energize” and she began to need short “cat-naps” during the day. She was determined though, to not let this illness take over her life and she continued to remain as active as possible in the day-to-day activities of the kids. This was getting harder to do because our kids were involved in lots of things.

Adam was maintaining good grades at Lexington Christian Academy and he had arranged his first “real” date with Kelly Crispell, a girl he had briefly known at The Imago School during his first or second grade. We had a family rule that our kids weren’t allowed to date until they were sixteen but we allowed him to invite her to our home for a visit. We thought it would be okay if we all ate together and watched a movie but afterwards Adam explained that he found it uncomfortable for us to be hanging around them. A few months later when Adam was sixteen he went on the real date with Kelly. Mal and I drove him to a movie theater to meet Kelly, who was driven by her folks. While the teens saw the movie we visited with Kelly’s parents. It was a strange thing to deal with. Our child was almost an adult. How bizarre!

As the school year was ending I was told about a local family whose young son Joey was struggling with a terrible disease known as “leukodystrophy.” This is the fatal disease that was seen in the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil” starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon. Most children afflicted with this debilitating disease die within a few years and they suffer with blindness and seizures during their short lives. I was asked if I would donate some comic books or other collectibles that could be sold so the money could be donated to the family to help pay for the expensive experimental medicines that could help ease young Joey’s pain. I decided to contact some of the comic book publishers to solicit donations of merchandise from them as well as choosing some of my own store inventory to auction off at a local fundraising day of activities for the Johnson family. Adam and I set up a display of interesting collectibles and I played the part of the auctioneer. We raised more money from this auction than the rest of the rest of the fundraising activities combined. Many of my customers came to support this very worthwhile cause.

Next chapter: After fifteen years we fire our first employee…not a fun decision.

pictures: Adam with his first "girlfriend" Kelly
Adam and I at a fundraiser for young Joey Johnson

Monday, May 17, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 97

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 40
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 16
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 11


As of January of 1995 I was “retired” from active participation in the operation of my two comic book and collectible stores. I was now able to be more involved in the lives of my children and I’d be more available to help my wife with day-to-day family issues like carpooling. I knew this would be a big relief for Mal.

My father was turning sixty in January and I had booked a short three-day cruise for him and I to go on for this milestone birthday. He had never been on a cruise and I knew he’d enjoy it and I was certainly looking forward to spending some uninterrupted time with him. Unfortunately, my father’s older brother, Tom, who had been fighting cancer for a while, died the week before our planned trip. I loved my Uncle Tom. He was also my “godfather” and I had fond memories of him from my childhood. Each Christmas, for quite a few years, I would receive a gift of a flannel shirt. Even though these were not the type of shirts that I was wearing at the time, I still appreciated that my Uncle Tom and Aunt Eileen were so thoughtful to buy me a gift. In 1965 I was looking forward to getting my flannel shirt because most of my friends were now wearing them but for some reason Uncle Tom bought me an early “Rolling Stones” record album! I wasn’t a fan of “The Stones” back then but I grew to enjoy them and I think of my Uncle Tom almost every time I hear their early songs.

Obviously, my father and I had to cancel our trip, but since I had already paid for the cruise, I convinced my wife to go on the cruise with her youngest sister, Madeline. We knew she’d be criticized for going on a “vacation” instead of going to my uncle’s funeral but at the time, I rationalized that I would be there to “represent” my family and Mal’s attendance wouldn’t be necessary. It was my mistake, not Mal’s. I had insisted that she go on the cruise.

It was strange for Mal to be away on a cruise without me. In our more than twenty years of marriage we had very rarely been apart for more than one day. I was pretty spoiled by my mother and my wife. I was good at my business but I was nearly helpless at home. I couldn’t cook, I didn’t vacuum or clean, and I certainly had no idea how to use a washing machine. When I was a kid, my mother did all of that and now, as an adult, my wife did everything for me. That was all about to change.

Our two kids were in different private schools and their school vacations were not scheduled at the same times. This meant that we couldn’t go on a vacation as a whole family (other than at Christmas) during the school year. We decided that it could be a good mother-son “bonding” time for Mal to go on a vacation with Adam so in March of 1995 they flew to Florida for a visit with Mal’s father and her sister Ginny. Mal used to say, “I can’t believe a forty-year old man can be so helpless. If you can’t find something to eat, you deserve to starve.” I’m pretty sure she was joking. Previously, when we traveled, I always took care of the flight arrangements, rental cars, and hotel reservations but since I was going to have to learn how to take care of household chores and deal with getting Cassy to school, preparing her school lunch, and actually cook meals while Mal and Adam were gone, we figured it was time for Mal to learn how to handle the details of a vacation. She did a great job. I wasn’t so good. Most of the “meals” I prepared were from a can or fast food, but we all survived.

It’s a good thing that Mal had “taught” me to survive on my own because shortly after her vacation with Adam, it was time for her to go on a vacation with Cassy! They went out to Colorado to visit Mal’s sister, Madeline, and our old friends, Art and Suisei Goguen. Mal and Cassy were away from home for eleven LONG days and they had great fun while I was home doing very “un-fun” stuff. At the time, I really hoped we’d never have to be apart again.

Next chapter: Mal gets sick.

Friday, May 14, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 96

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 39
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 15 years old
Cassy Howley: 10 years old
Chris: The manager of my company


When I was twelve years old I commented to my slightly younger brother Jay that I didn’t want to work past the age of forty. I have no idea why this crazy idea popped into my head at such a young age. When I was a kid it just struck me as a good idea. I had watched my father work very hard to support his family and I thought it would be more “fun” to be playing at home instead of working at an office. When my children were born I began to seriously consider the possibility of “early retirement.”

When I hired employees I hoped that these would be the right people to take over my comic book and collectible store when I ceased coming into work each day. Some worked out great and others not so great. I had employed dozens of people since I opened my Worcester store and I never had to fire anyone. Some of the worst employees left on their own and unfortunately, a few of the good employees left to either start their own comic book stores or left because they desired more money or decent benefits. I was now paying higher wages and we had developed a good benefits package so most of my employees were satisfied enough to stay working for me. I placed many of our best employees at the Worcester location since most of my earnings came from this larger store. My Fitchburg store was profitable and it was important to me, but my main focus was on the fast-paced activity and high sales of Worcester.

Chris was being “groomed” to be the overall company manager. He would oversee all employee-type issues and he would see to it that the inventory was properly balanced by moving stock between the two stores for the maximum sales potential. Chris also learned to do our basic bookkeeping and bill paying. He did a really good job of this.

David Hartwell was responsible for the ordering of all new comic book products, which still accounted for the majority of our annual sales. His job was to order enough to satisfy the needs of our customers without having any extra, unsold copies. Our slogan was, “Nobody ever went out of business by selling out, but lots of stores go out of business with unsold inventory.” David was also instrumental in our increase in sales of independent and alternative comic books as well as maintaining our high sales volume of mainstream super-hero comic books.

Jose Rivera was one of our most popular sales clerks. He had a love and enthusiasm for comic books, toys, and Japanese animation. Almost everybody loved Jose because of his helpfulness and positive attitude. Jose had been a customer of our Worcester store since he was a teenager and we were happy to hire him when he became available.

Ken Carson was spending most of his week at the Fitchburg store, working with Bernie, but as my fortieth birthday drew near, it was clear that he would be needed in Worcester.

We had quite a few other people working for us, including full and part-time employees, and I was fairly confident that this group could take care of my comic book stores in my absence. I was ready to actually retire from day-to-day involvement in the business that I had spent many years building. It was a strange feeling for me. I loved my business! I enjoyed my friends and customers and I still was excited about most of the different products that we dealt in. How could I possibly leave this business that was so much a part of my life?! I knew I wanted to be a major presence in the lives of my two children and I enjoyed spending time with my wife and kids even more than I enjoyed my stores. I figured it was worth a try. So, two days before I turned forty, I turned my business over to Chris Ball and the rest of the gang of “That’s Entertainment.” Chris had a cake for me and he had converted an action-figure into a miniature Frank Sinatra and stuck it onto the top of the cake to indicate that I had done it “My Way.”

Next chapter: My father’s 60th birthday gift and my wife goes away for far too long!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 95

Cast of characters:
Paul: age 39
Mal: my wife
Adam: age 15
Cassy: age 10


While my whole family was watching television together we saw a brief commercial advertising a new attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida. The commercial was “hyping” the new, cutting-edge virtual reality interactive attraction at EPCOT. Adam was really intrigued by this and he asked if we could go to see it. Cassy had seen a commercial advertising a new attraction based on the popular movie of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and she wanted to see that. We hadn’t been to Disney World for a while and we knew that we would not be able to afford many of these kinds of expensive vacations once Adam started to go to Lexington Christian Academy because of the high tuition expense. We asked our kids if they wanted to invite two of their friends to come along with us and we all agreed that it would be nice to travel with two of our neighbor’s children, Nathan and Laura Daman. The Daman family had been friends of ours for quite a long time and we had shared the car-pooling duties to and from The Imago School for many years. We knew that the Daman family couldn’t spend the money for air travel to Florida because they had three children in private school, so we planned to drive our mini-van the 1500 miles to Disney World. Nathan and Laura were excited because they had never been to Disney World and my kids were happy to share this vacation with them.

We planned to leave early one morning in August but for some reason, once we had the van all packed up the night before, we changed our mind and decided to leave right then. Since the kids were all excited to go they were easy to convince. Mal and I each drove while the other slept and we ended up driving twenty five hours straight and we arrived in Orlando Florida earlier then we had anticipated. We had rented a large trailer in the same trailer park where Mal’s sister, Ginny, lived, so it was ready for us even though we got there early. The next day we got ready early and as usual, we arrived at Disney World before the park opened so we’d have a full day of “park time.” We headed directly to EPCOT and found the new attraction, “Innoventions” to try out the new virtual reality thing. We were the first group of the day to arrive there.

While we were waiting for the doors to open I began chatting with the Disney employee at the door. He told us that the virtual reality glasses were valued at $125,000 each and he explained how “cool” the virtual reality game experience would be. Then to my astonishment, he explained that only four people from each group of one hundred and fifty “guests” would actually get the opportunity to try this game! I told him that this virtual reality game was really the major reason that we made this long trip to Disney World and that I thought the television commercials were very deceptive because it appeared as if all of the “guests” would get to have this experience. The employee made it clear that there would be no possibility of our whole group getting to try this game. We all discussed this situation and we agreed that if only one of us could do it, it would be Adam. The employee was smart enough to sense our disappointment so he assured us that Adam would be chosen. Even though I didn’t personally get to try it, it was exciting to see Adam have so much fun.

The next day when we went to MGM Studios to see the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” attraction we were unable to pre-arrange it so that Cassy would be chosen to be part of the audience participation part. When we got there we were ushered into the attraction with a large group of other “guests.” We had tried to prepare Cassy in advance so she wouldn’t be too disappointed if she wasn’t chosen to “ride the giant bee” in the show and she seemed to understand. When the Disney “cast member” asked for volunteers from the crowd, dozens of kids raised their hands. For some unknown reason, both Cassy and Laura were chosen! Both of my children had a great vacation and Nathan and Laura had fun too.

In the fall of 1994 my son, Adam, was to begin attending Lexington Christian Academy for high school. This prestigious school was located near Boston and my wife was going to have to make the nearly one hour (each way) commute to get Adam there and pick him up at the end of each school day. It would mean almost four hours of driving just for Adam and we would still have to get our daughter, Cassandra, to The Imago School each day when it was our turn to drive in the carpool with the Daman family. Mal was not looking forward to this nightmarish schedule. A week before Adam’s school started classes we were presented with a list of all of the families with children attending the school. Mal contacted the Tedeski family, who lived one town away from us, and suggested a carpooling possibility. They had already committed with another family but they agreed to also drive Adam on their “designated” days. Mr. Tedeski drove to our home to pick Adam up in the morning even though it was out of his way. The other family involved in the carpool was not as cooperative. They insisted that Adam would have to be driven to their house on the mornings that it was “their turn” to drive even though it was expected that we drive out of our way each afternoon to get their child home. We were just happy to reduce the driving requirement.

Adam fit in with the other students at Lexington Christian Academy right away. Most of the students were hard working, motivated and eager to be taught. It was “suggested” that all students should participate in the sports program and almost every student did. Adam’s former school didn’t offer any sports and Adam didn’t have much interest in joining the town leagues so he had very little athletic talents although he had played “T-Ball” and one season of little kids soccer. He reluctantly decided to join the junior-varsity soccer team. He went to every practice and played in almost every game but he only scored one goal in the whole season. He didn’t seem to mind because he enjoyed spending time with the other team members.

Adam was a fun guy and he made friends easily. His true passion was acting. The Imago School had made acting fun for Adam and in the eighth grade he was the lead actor in the musical, “Rags to Riches.” Chris Greicco, a dedicated and creative teacher, taught Adam drama at Lexington Christian Academy. Before Adam went to high school his desire was to be an actor. It didn’t matter what he would act in. Film, television or theatre was fine. But once he was taught and directed by Chris Greicco his interest became mainly theatre.

My daughter, Cassy, was now in the fourth grade at The Imago School and she had many friends at the school. A new girl, Bethany, came into Cassy’s class this year. Cassy had noticed Bethany’s name on the Imago School family list and she had called to arrange for Bethany to come over to our house to play before the school year started since she lived very close by. For some reason they didn’t hit it off on this first time together but by the middle of the year they really became “best friends.” Bethany was a fun, giggly, girl and when Cassy and Bethany got together they laughed most of the time.

Next chapter: I prepare to “retire” from my comic book business.
Pictures: Adam using Disney's virtual reality gear and Cassy riding the Honey I Shrunk The Kids giant bee

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 94

Cast of Characters:
Paul: age 39
Mal: my wife


While the nation-wide sales of comic books and sports cards declined, we were fortunate enough to discover new products to add to our store inventory so that our gross sales figures were stable. “Magic The Gathering” cards were the hottest selling product in the specialty stores like mine and we were able to establish relationships with numerous distributors to maintain a good, continuing supply for our eager customers. We sold all of our supply at low prices while most of our competitors began to charge huge premiums above “suggested list price” on packs of these cards. We knew that this would benefit us in the long run because our customers would realize that we were honorable and we could be trusted to sell our products at the lowest possible prices. We try hard to think long-term.

There was a company in Hawaii that manufactured a juice called “Passion Orange Guava Juice.” This was combination of these three fruits. Underneath the bottle top they included a round cardboard disk with an illustration on it. These disks were nicknamed “POGS” and thousands of Hawaiians began to collect them. Eventually, the company created a simple game that included these POGS as game pieces.

The game could be played with two to six players. One at a time, each player would stack one of his POGS, image face down, in the center of a playing area until about ten to twelve POGS are in the stack. A player then throws a thicker POG, called a “slammer,” on top of the stack attempting to turn over as many POGS as possible in his turn. The player “wins” the POGS that flip face up. The next player restacks the remaining POGS and repeats the process. The winner of the game is the player who was able to turn over the most POGS. The game became very popular in Hawaii and some clever entrepreneur began to distribute these POGS into the rest of the United States. Other companies began to manufacture similar game piece disks that could be used in the game. There were POGS with pictures of birds, flags, animals and flowers. As these POGS became more popular, the companies began to license images of Star Wars, NASCAR, comic book heroes, television cartoon shows, and hundreds more. The game of POGS caught on with mostly young children and it became a national obsession. Part of the reason that these were so popular with kids was that they retailed for a nickel or a dime each and any kid could afford to buy them. Adults also bought POGS to play with and some people even bought them to just “collect.”

My store began buying POGS from various suppliers. We bought most of the POGS in “bulk” boxes of 1000 assorted styles for two cents per POG and put a sign in our store windows advertising that we had these available. Crowds of customers streamed in to dig through our large boxes of POGS. This game had now really caught on with young-teens and it seemed as if every school playground had regular POG games going.

Within a few months, the craze had grown so big that we were now ordering new assortments three times each week. Some companies started manufacturing “deluxe” POGS with metallic finishes, 3D pictures and even holograms. These sold for more than the standard nickel. Some sold as high as twenty-five cents each. It may seem like it would be difficult to make much money on items that sell for a nickel or a quarter, but believe me, we sold thousands of these every few days. It was an exciting time because the kids loved the product. Sales remained strong on POGS for almost six months but Chris, my store manager, always ordered in an intelligent manner. It would certainly have been easier to just order a huge quantity of POGS at one time but he was content to order in smaller quantities a few times each week. This worked nicely because our customers now had a reason to come back to the store multiple times each week to see the new shipments. If we had ordered a ton of the POGS at one time, the customers would have seen everything the first time they came in and they’d have no enthusiasm to come back.

Without much warning, the public school system banned POGS from the schoolyards. Apparently someone thought the game of POGS seemed like gambling since players “won” the opponents POGS. Sales screeched to a halt because school is the main place that children get together and now they’d no longer be able to play POGS at school. Any area that was affected by this change in school policy saw sales of POGS drop by 90% within a few weeks. Many retailers got stuck with huge inventories of unwanted POGS because they ordered hundreds of thousands of them at a time, but not us. By the time the POG craze ended we had less than fifty dollars worth of inventory left. It was time to find “the next big thing.”

Next chapter: My son starts high school and my daughter finds a “best friend.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 93

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 39
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 14 years old
Cassy Howley: 9 years old


The end of 1993 brought lots of change to my circle of friends and family. I bought our first real personal computer for my family and presented it to our kids as a “big” family gift. I think it was a Packard Bell system that operated at a whopping 66 megahertz for an outrageous $3,000. In “the olden days” these computer systems were a nuisance to get ready to use. All of the software had to be loaded using multiple floppy discs. Luckily, we had Adam to tackle this task. Even though he had never used a computer before, he had a knack for putting electronic equipment together. Within thirty minutes it was up and running.

Adam was halfway through the eighth grade at The Imago School and they did not offer a high school program there. We knew that we had no interest in Adam attending the local public high school. I had gone there twenty years earlier and it wasn’t challenging to me at all. It was “common knowledge” that the schools had only gotten worse over the past two decades so we began to consider our options. We had heard good things about Lexington Christian Academy, a college preparatory high school located in a suburb of Boston. The tuition was over $10,000 per year but we discussed this as a family and determined that we would “sacrifice” our big family vacations in order to afford this challenging school for Adam. Adam toured the school and scheduled an appointment to take the entrance exam.

As we were driving to the school on the day of the entrance exam, we realized that the almost one hour commute to and from school each day was going to be horrible. The only practical way to get there was by the major highway Route 128, also known as “Dead Man’s Highway,” because of the poor design and crazy drivers traveling at over 80 miles per hour! I was still working at my comic book store in Worcester on a regular basis so I couldn’t commit to helping Mal with the school commuting. She would have to deal with getting Adam to his new school and Cassy to her school each day. This drive wouldn’t be pleasant but it was worth the aggravation to provide the superior educational opportunities for Adam.

Adam took the test and got the highest score of any of the incoming freshmen so he was offered a spot for the next school year. His test score also allowed him to take another test to determine if he was eligible for the “Headmaster’s Scholarship.” His score on this test was the highest and he was the recipient of this distinguished award. This scholarship would have been for a full, four-year tuition at Lexington Christian School but since my income was deemed to be too high, Adam received an annual stipend of $750.00. Obviously, it’s not quite the same, but every little bit would help. Most importantly, we were very proud of Adam.

Business at my two comic book and collectible stores was still growing. Baseball cards and comic book sales had dropped a bit but we got lucky enough to find a product that would sell enough to make up the difference. It was called “Magic The Gathering” and a small company called “Wizards of the Coast” created them. This was a trading card fantasy strategy game that was also collectible because the manufacturer deliberately printed less of certain cards to make them “rare.” A customer had requested these cards a few months before they were released so I was probably aware of them before most of my local competitors. I ordered ten full boxes and we sold all of them within a few weeks. Demand for these cards became intense and the prices rose quickly on the “short-printed” cards. We were able to get a few more small shipments of these cards but we certainly couldn’t keep up with the demand. Luckily, we had a good relationship with numerous distributors and they took good care of us with “Magic The Gathering” cards. By the time the second series of cards were released, we were pre-ordering over fifty boxes that had a retail value of over $100.00 each. These sold out within one day. When the third series came out we sold over one hundred boxes the first week. My Fitchburg store co-manager, Richard Ortwein (who had recently returned to work there after a short time away), was smart enough to alert the local media about this amazing new product and the local newspaper ran a large story about these cards and our great second store.

This also was the year (1993) that two of my favorite customers, Paul Dinsdale and Christine Carelli, got married. This was a big deal for me since I was involved in “setting them up.”

Next chapter: Do you remember “POGS?”

Picture: Adam receives the "Headmaster Scholarship For Academics" at Lexington Christian Academy

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 92

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 39
Mal Howley: my wife


As the president of Marvel Comics in the mid-1990’s, Terry Stewart proved that he had no interest in working in “partnership” with the comic book stores that made Marvel Comics the number one comic book publisher in the United States. Stewart reduced our discounts on the Marvel comic books we ordered each month. He also publicly stated to stockholders that his long-term goal was to sell directly to our customers so that Marvel wouldn’t have to share any of the profits with any of us. He had a “mail-order” catalog inserted into some Marvel comic books and insinuated that comic book shops were dangerous places to visit. He viewed us as unnecessary “middlemen” and worked hard to get rid of us. All of these changes irritated most comic book retailers but Stewart’s biggest mistake was the most destructive blunder for Marvel Comics. Stewart thought that the current group of independent distributors was not doing a good enough job promoting Marvel Comics so he authorized the purchase of a small, second-rate comic book distributor (Heroes World) in New Jersey. In his misguided plans, there was no reason to let the existing comic book distributors make a profit on the distribution of Marvel product.

Heroes World was made the exclusive distributor of the entire Marvel product line. Since Marvel produced almost 60% of the comic books in the United States, this move by Stewart adversely affected the remaining distributors who now lost 60% of their entire revenues! Diamond Comics Distributor immediately negotiated with some of the other comic book publishers to become the exclusive distributors for their respective companies. Most of the publishers understood that Diamond did a great job and they were the most financially stable distributor in the business. Many of these publishers signed up with Diamond Comics. Because of the enormous loss of revenue, this was the final “straw” for the remaining comic distributors and it wasn’t long before they all went out of business or were bought-out by Diamond. In the meantime, Heroes World struggled to figure out what they were up against. They went from a tiny distributorship handling a few hundred accounts to trying to process orders and take care of thousands of retailers overnight. They failed, miserably, on almost every detail. They lacked adequate personnel, phone lines, facilities, and employees who could actually count. Thousands of retailers complained about missing books from each weekly shipment. Frequently, the invoices were incorrect. Overall, it was a nightmare for the retailer. The retailer’s life was further complicated by now being forced to order from an “extra” distributor. For many years we were able to order almost all of the comic book-related products from one distributor. Now we were forced to deal with this inept group of unprofessional and ill-prepared people. Terry Stewart also began to charge shipping costs to each individual comic book store. Diamond Comics had spoiled us for many years as they offered us “free freight” for all of our regular weekly shipments. They offered us this in order to maintain their competitive edge over “Capital City Distribution” and the other smaller distributors. Now we found ourselves paying hundreds of dollars each week for shipping costs. Many retailers fought back by reducing their dependence on Marvel’s products. We cut our advance orders for Marvel comic books as low as we could without adversely affecting our customers. I was lucky because I had an employee, David Hartwell, whose primary job was to order all new comic book products and he had anticipated Terry Stewarts “betrayal.” David had been recommending other publisher’s comic books to our customer base for almost a year and we had reduced Marvel’s market share in our store from 55% to only 25% while our overall comic book sales actually increased. We still needed Marvel for our survival but we were determined to try to reduce our dependence on them. Apparently, many other storeowners had the same general idea. Sales of Marvel Comics dropped like a rock. Unfortunately, Terry Stewart’s policies caused hundreds of other comic book stores to go out of business. As these stores closed, the sales of every comic book publisher, including Marvel, plummeted. It didn’t take long before Marvel declared bankruptcy. They closed their stupid “Marvel Mania” restaurant. They began to discontinue many low and moderate selling titles in an attempt to reduce their fast-growing losses. The situation looked grim.

If Marvel went out of business every comic book store would be in danger of losing so much revenue that they may also be forced out of business. Although we had no respect for Terry Stewart and a handful of his underlings, we wanted Marvel Comics to survive. We joked that we looked forward to the day when we’d get to see Terry Stewart wearing a paper hat asking us, “Would you like fries with that?”

Our wish didn’t quite come true but it wasn’t too long before Stewart was gone from Marvel. Heroes World was closed down and Diamond Comics began to distribute Marvel comic books to the remaining comic book stores. However, significant damage had been done to the industry. Annual sales of new comic books dropped from over one billion dollars in sales to $240,000,000 dollars in sales and almost 4,000 comic book stores had gone out of business in the United States during Terry Stewart’s reign at Marvel.

Next chapter: A quick wrap-up of 1993.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 91

Cast of Characters:
Paul: age 39
Mal: my wife


This chapter is a very simplified explanation of the betrayal of our industry by Marvel Comics.

Most manufacturers, publishers and suppliers understand how important their relationship is with stores like mine but many collectors believe that they are the actual customers of these companies. In actuality, the retailer is the direct customer of the manufacturers, publishers and suppliers. We are treated with respect, courtesy and gratitude by most of our suppliers but occasionally we end up dealing with some companies with bad attitudes and poor customer service. The Upper Deck Card Company and The Topps Company were so bad that we decided to end our direct dealings with them. We now pay a little bit more for their product but we buy it from wholesalers who appreciate our business. This is the story of Marvel Comics.

Marvel Comics began publishing comic books in the 1930’s as “Timely Comics.” These comic books were distributed to local stores and newsstands through a system that offered returns on any unsold product. The retailers only made a small profit on each sale but they were not taking any risk because they could just send back any unsold comic books for full credit. In the 1970’s Marvel Comics began selling comic books on a non-returnable basis to “direct-market” distributors who resold them to convention dealers and comic book stores. This new system allowed the retailer to make a larger profit on each comic book but we assumed all of the risk. We could not send back any unsold product. Marvel Comics made more money because they could control the print-run as they knew they’d be no copies coming back for credit.

In the early to mid-1980’s, the management of Marvel Comics realized that we were “partners” in this business with them. As our individual stores grew, Marvel Comics made more money. Marvel’s management, including my friend Carol Kalish, devised programs to help the retailer increase sales. They helped us to pay for upgrades to our store fixtures and offered us “co-op” credit towards any mainstream advertising that we did. We worked together to “grow” the industry and comic book sales increased greatly. The industry even survived the greed of Wall Street tycoon, Ronald Perlman. He bought Marvel Comics and bled it dry by spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying up other “entertainment” and hobby companies including Fleer, Skybox, Pannini Sticker Company and more. Under his command, Marvel began flooding the market with sub-standard product at the same time that they increased the cover price of almost all of the comic book issues. Although many retailers expressed their displeasure at the policies of Perlman, the industry was still strong. This all changed when Marvel Comics became a publicly traded company.

Marvel hired Terry Stewart as president in the 1990’s and throughout his reign as president he made it clear that he was no longer interested in being “partners” with any of us “lowly” comic book retailers. He instituted policies that improved Marvel’s bottom line but adversely affected almost every comic book specialty store. He thought very “short-term” to please stockholders each quarter and his poor decisions were dangerous for the business in the “long-term.” He announced plans to open a chain of Marvel Mania restaurants that most retailers knew was doomed to failure. He attempted to lure our customers away from our stores by running advertisements in the comic books for his mail-order company called “Marvel Mart.” In face-to-face meetings Terry Stewart insinuated that he knew a better way for all of us to run our businesses. He was insulting and very condescending. As a result, retailers realized that Marvel’s management couldn’t be trusted to act in our best interest and they “revolted” by reducing the quantity of Marvel Comics product that they ordered. When Stewart saw the sales of his company’s product drop by 20% he made the biggest blunder of his disastrous career. Diamond Comics Distributors and the handful of other comic book distributors were all doing a fine job of getting Marvel’s product to every retailer in the United States but Stewart decided that he could do a better job and then the extra profit would boost Marvel’s bottom-line. He authorized the purchase of “Heroes World,” a small comic book distributor in New Jersey. This was a disaster that had potential to destroy the entire comic book industry.

Next chapter: The retailers fight back.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 90

Cast of characters:
Paul: age 38
Mal: my wife
Adam: my son
Cassy: my daughter
Davy Jones: formerly of The Monkees


With all of the advance publicity done for Davy Jones’ guest appearance at the Worcester store, all that was left was the store preparation. My staff worked hard to clean up the displays of comic books, collectible toys, music CD’s, and sports cards. They swept the floors clean and did their best to make the bathroom presentable. I spent a few days selecting rare and valuable “Monkees” collectibles to have in a display behind the table where Davy Jones would be seated to meet and greet the customers, if anyone showed up.

Over the years I had accumulated an extensive collection of “Monkees” memorabilia, including all of the legitimately released records and almost every toy, jewelry, book, magazine, and clothing item ever produced! I tried to choose some of the most interesting-looking items for the display but I was nervous about having my own, personal collection out on display where there was a chance that these things could be damaged or stolen. I was always cautious and a little bit paranoid about shoplifting so my staff tried to be vigilant and aware of what was happening at all times. I decided to stand right next to Davy Jones behind the table. I set up an extra cash register on this table next to all of the merchandise that we were offering for sale so that customers could be tempted to buy a nice item to be autographed.

The night before Davy’s appearance, I barely slept. I was excited about meeting him but I was also very worried that no one would come to see him. By the time I left my house it was pouring rain. I thought that this was the beginning of a horrible day. I arrived at the store at seven o’clock and was disappointed to see that there was no one waiting in line to see Davy Jones. I kept myself busy by walking around the inside of the store, straightening out our shelves and displays, and listening to a cassette tape of music that featured Davy Jones as the lead vocalist from the days of “The Monkees.” This seemed to relax me as I realized that it probably didn’t matter that no one was interested in meeting him other than me. I’d certainly have fun with him!

By eight o’clock a few serious “die-hard” Monkee fans began to line up outside my store in the pouring rain. Because my staff wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another half-hour, I couldn’t let them into the store early to get out of the rain. That made me feel bad but I couldn’t help the customers and take care of all of the remaining details at the same time. As my employees and my wife and kids arrived they explained that there were probably lots of people just waiting in their cars for us to open the store so they wouldn’t get soaked in the rain. I had to leave at 8:45 am so I could get to the hotel where Davy and his road manager were staying by the pre-arranged 9:00 am pick-up time. I hated leaving the store when I had no real idea of the possible “turn-out” but I had to do it since I didn’t trust anyone else to pick him up and I was too cheap to send a limousine. I wanted to be in control of the situation in case Davy was too tired to wake up after his exhausting schedule. I have no idea what I would have done if that was the case but I knew I’d figure out something.

As it turned out, although he was indeed exhausted, Davy Jones was a complete professional. He was ready and waiting for me when I called his room from the hotel lobby. We arrived back at my store by 9:30 am, a full half-hour before the scheduled time of his appearance, and I was thrilled to see that we had a few hundred people waiting in line. My staff had all arrived and they opened the store early to get as many people out of the rain as possible. With “Monkee” music playing on our stereo system, the customers seemed to be having a good time talking to each other about “The Monkees” and excitedly anticipating Davy’s arrival. I brought Davy into the store through our side entrance and walked him to the back end of the store where we wanted him to sit. The cable news station and a local radio station were already waiting there for some quick and lively interviews and Davy handled them gracefully while his fans waited in line and listened to every word he said. As it neared the time for the ten o’clock autograph session to begin we positioned the uniformed police officer we had hired for security next to our guest table. My son, Adam, got behind the table with me to assist customers who wanted to buy any of the merchandise we had for autographing. A large pile of the five different “eight by ten” photographs that I had a local printer duplicate sat directly in front of Davy Jones. I priced them at $2.50 each or all five for ten dollars. I assumed that most customers would buy one or two but I guess the offer of all five for ten dollars, along with Davy’s neatly written autograph, was just too good to pass up. Hundreds of fans bought all five!

I had an agreement with Davy that he would sign autographs from 10:00 am to noon and then he’d get a two-hour lunch break and then he was to sign for two more hours. When noon approached, his road manager said, “Hey, let’s break for lunch.” Davy looked at the huge line that still went all through the store and out onto the sidewalk and said, “We certainly can’t have all of these fans just stand and wait while we go off to eat!” We sent out for tuna fish sandwiches while he continued to sign autographs and visit with the fans for almost five more hours. Davy posed for photographs with eager forty to fifty-year old women who couldn’t believe they were actually meeting him in-person! When a group of kids confined to wheelchairs came in, he gave them all free copies of his current music compact discs. I don’t think there was anyone who was unhappy with Davy Jones that day. Even though he was functioning on only two hours sleep, he was funny, friendly, full of enthusiasm, and eager to please everyone.

A little after five o’clock we decided that we needed to end the autograph line. Davy had performed “above and beyond” our original agreement. I felt as if I had taken advantage of his good nature. Davy never complained. At the end of the event when we went into the private “front-room” of the store and it was time for me to pay him I remarked about his kindness to all of the almost two thousand people who came to see him. Davy said, “Paul, it’s because of people like these that I can continue to make my living in the entertainment business. They are important to me.” It was refreshing for me to hear a celebrity really appreciated his fans. Although I had negotiated a fair contract with Davy, I decided that I would pay for his meals and his hotel for two nights. I also decided that since I sold over two thousand photographs at a very high profit, I would share some of this money with Davy. By the time we were done, Davy ended up with more than double the money he was expecting. He thanked me for the unexpected generosity and he said that he enjoyed the visit. When I brought him back to his hotel room he thanked me again and told me that I was one of the very few people in the past thirty years who didn’t try to take advantage of him. Davy must have believed that I was an honest man because he asked if I would be interested in becoming partners in his book publishing business. He was having trouble keeping his books “in print” because of his busy touring schedule and he wanted me to take over this aspect of his business. My wife and I discussed it but I eventually declined because I was intent on retiring from active work in the next two years and although I’d love to get to work with Davy Jones on a regular basis, I knew what my long-term goals were.

Besides setting a new one-day sales record at my Worcester store, this Davy Jones event was one of our best in terms of customer satisfaction and excitement. Very few of my regular store customers came to see him though. Almost two-thirds of the nearly two thousand people who came to our store that day were first time visitors and most of them were women. I’m sure that many of these “new” customers have continued to shop with us on a regular basis so the actual financial rewards have kept growing.

Next chapter: Terry Stewart, president of Marvel Comics, almost destroys the entire comic book industry.
Pictures: Davy Jones as a guest at our store.

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 89

Cast of Characters:
Paul: age 38
Mal: my wife


We had booked Davy Jones of The Monkees to make an appearance at our store in Worcester, Massachusetts in September of 1993. Davy’s manager agreed that he would receive a “lump sum” fee and Davy would be responsible for all of his own travel expenses. Davy would also agree to sign free autographs for any visitors. We wanted to be sure that Davy was safe so we hired a Worcester police officer as security for this event. We wanted this special event to be “perfect” and we tried to anticipate every possible problem that could come up. Our store had arranged to have many guests before but this would be the highest expenditure we ever had for an in-store event so I wanted it to seem really special for my customers.

We printed thousands of “flyers” to give to everyone who visited our store in the three months prior to Davy’s visit and we encouraged all of our employees to be sure to verbally advertise this appearance. We sent out the flyers to everyone on our huge mailing list and ran our newly created television commercial on cable television channels for a thirteen-week period before the September event. I was excited about the opportunity to meet one of my favorite childhood performers. I wanted my customers (and any new visitors to my store) to have the opportunity to get a personal autograph from Davy Jones without having to pay for it. But I wouldn’t mind making a bit of money on this event if I could figure out some way to do it.

Davy’s manager would get me some copies of the two different books that Davy had written about his days as a “Monkee” that I could sell. I ordered two full cases (forty copies) of one book and twenty copies of the other at a wholesale price of fifty percent off of retail price. Agreeing to purchase these on a non-returnable basis, I wanted to be sure that I didn’t order too many copies. I also got lucky because a good customer of mine had five different vintage photographs of The Monkees from the 1960’s that he offered to allow me to copy so that I’d have something interesting for Davy to sign for my customers. A local printer reproduced five hundred of each of the 8 by 10 photos on a glossy paper at a very low price. The possibility that I would sell that many photos was low but the cost was reasonable and, just in case I ended up with a big crowd, there would be something there for them to get signed. I also knew many people might bring items from their own collections to get autographed.

We contacted the local cable news station and they agreed to do a small news segment about Davy’s appearance. Two of the larger newspapers also expressed interest in covering the event. I was satisfied that we were “covering all of the bases” as far as publicity goes but the almost complete lack of interest on the part of my loyal customer base surprised us all. We would try to remind every customer about the upcoming appearance and most of them would just shrug and say, “Yeah, I’m not a fan of The Monkees.” We’d try to get them interested by reminding them that he is a famous celebrity and he would be signing FREE autographs but as the day got closer we all began to believe that we’d really made a mistake.

A week before the appearance Davy’s manager called to inform us that Davy had a “gig” in New York City that wouldn’t get over until almost one o’clock in the morning on the day he was supposed to be at my store. By the time his concert was over he’d be exhausted and he’d still have a five-hour drive from New York to Worcester, Massachusetts. By the time Davy and his road manager checked into the local hotel there would be less than two hours for him to get some rest before I was to pick him up to bring him to my store. I certainly wasn’t happy with this new development. I hate surprises, especially when the financial risk was so high. I enjoyed being in complete control of my situations and this was ruining our careful plans.

Next chapter: Even the weather is against us!

Picture: A young Davy Jones of The Monkees.