Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 73

Cast of Characters:
Paul: age 35
Mal: my wife
Adam: age 10
Cassy: age 5


I worked hard to earn my living as a seller of comic books, toys, sports cards, and collectibles and was rewarded with a fun place to work, relationships with some really nice people, and a sizeable income. Our lifestyle was not extravagant; money was spent carefully and most of it was saved and invested. My biggest “splurge” was usually spent on a nice vacation.

When I was in my teen years, my family would usually go camping for our family vacation each year. My mother and father would pack up the car with the tent, lanterns, sleeping bags, and tons of other equipment, along with the six kids, and we’d head off to the mountains of New Hampshire or Maine to spend the week “roughing it.” Although I usually put up a fuss about going, I’d end up enjoying the vacation. My father would spend time hiking, boating, and playing around with us. My mother ended up doing more work “on vacation” than she did when she was at home. Cooking and cleaning was much more work at a campsite than at home. It didn’t seem right to me. Now that I could afford a little more “luxury” for our vacations, I wanted it to be fun for my wife, Mal, too. We would usually stay in decent hotels and we’d eat in restaurants as often as possible. But Mal and I also wanted our kids to experience camping.

Our friends, Brian and Claire, invited us all to go camping with them for a couple of days. Brian knew that camping wasn’t high on my list of fun things to do so to entice me to commit to this trip, he offered to have the tent set up by the time we arrived. Brian spent time fishing and canoeing with my children, and Claire was patient enough to include the kids while we all played cards. Although we had a great time with Brian and Claire, our camping trip was still plagued by the usual camping hardships including sleeping on the cold, hard ground, waking up feeling all damp, and being attacked by gnats and mosquitoes. For years, we’d joke that we took the kids on this camping trip so they’d be motivated to work and study hard in school so they could get a good job so they could afford to stay in a nice hotel and they’d never have to camp again.

I’ve told you about this camping trip as a “lead-in” for my real story. The night before we met Brian and Claire on the camping trip, Mal decided to hide her jewelry. Mal didn’t own a lot of valuable items but she did have things that were meaningful to her. She had her high school ring, her original, small engagement ring, the special rings I gave her when she gave birth to our two children, a ring her mother wore, and some other pieces like that. We didn’t have a safe to store our valuables in at the time and although we had an alarm system, we thought it would make sense to simply hide the jewelry. Mal placed the small jewelry box filled with jewelry in the bottom of a small wastebasket and then placed a trash bag inside, on top of the jewelry. She made sure that I knew it was there so I wouldn’t throw it away by mistake. Then, the next morning we went camping.

We returned home on Thursday night after our fun camping trip. We were scheduled to leave for a week long vacation in Disney World early on Saturday morning so we were busy on Friday getting all of our last minute errands and details taken care of in preparation for the trip. As Mal was finishing her packing of our clothes for the trip she said, “Paul, could you get my jewelry for me?” I asked her where she had put it and I was shocked when she told me that she hadn’t taken it out of our wastebasket. It was gone! I had wrongly assumed that she had taken it out of the wastebasket as soon as we had gotten home on Thursday but she hadn’t. I had emptied all of the wastebaskets on Friday morning and put them out for the rubbish company to pick up on Friday morning. All of her special rings, necklaces, and pins were now buried at the dump.

Since it was late at night, and we were scheduled to leave early the next morning, there was nothing that we could do to recover the jewelry. We called my mother and told her the story. She took some of my brothers to the dump the next day and they spent hours digging through the trash piles looking for the box of jewelry. They convinced the dump’s bulldozer driver to help by uncovering and moving large piles of trash. The jewelry box was never found. Maybe someday, many years in the future, some kid will be digging around and they’ll find an actual treasure chest buried there.

Next chapter: Neil Gaiman, the creator of DC Comics Sandman comes to town!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 72

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 34
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 10 years old
Cassy Howley: 5 years old

As the 1980’s were coming to a close I took the time to reflect on my current situation. I now had two stores that were successfully selling comic books, sports cards, and other collectibles. With the recent addition of Richard Ortwein and Chris Ball from my newly purchased Fitchburg, Massachusetts store, I felt confident that my group of employees was more than adequate. I now had a bunch of good quality part-time employees, including Mark Dufresne, Rob Leary, Albert Aeed, and occasionally, David Hartwell. Sales were so good that I wasn’t worried about meeting my payroll needs each week. I was paying Richard and Chris more than I thought I could possibly pay them but it was working out fine. I even agreed to pay for their health insurance, which was unusual for someone in the comic book retail industry.

The sports card business was “on fire” and it appeared to many people as if it would be an easy way to make a lot of money. Card collectors and some unscrupulous “flea market” dealers began opening up small card stores in Worcester. They’d rent a small storefront and stock it with new card product and just wait for the money to begin rolling in. At one point in the late 1980’s there were over thirty sports card shops in the city of Worcester. Many of these stores would be out of business within six months. Some hung around longer.

I’m not a big fan of competition. I understand and appreciate the dream of private business ownership, so I don’t criticize people for opening up a store. It’s just that many people try to run a business when they lack the sufficient capital to make it work. Many people just don’t have the “business sense” necessary to take it past a hobby into a real profit-making business. I don’t believe that any business enterprise benefits from having competition. The only thing that I could do to protect our business was to make sure that we did our best to watch our cash flow and be reasonable and fair with our customers. Of course, we didn’t always accomplish this.

One such situation has bothered me for many years. We had a customer named Mike Daley (not his real name). He collected comic books and he’d come into the Worcester store every week on “new comic day.” Mike had a great sense of humor and a deep knowledge of comic books. He’d spend time with our fun group of serious “That’s Entertainment” customers each week (the group that would come in on “new comic day” and hang around for a few hours at a time), talking about comics, laughing at my bad jokes, and having a good time. Mike shopped at my store for quite a few years. One day he called me before he came into the store and asked if I’d be interested in purchasing a 1968 Nolan Ryan rookie card from him. He told me that it was in very good condition and that he wanted eighty dollars for it. If the card had been in perfect condition, it would have been worth about five hundred dollars but in very good condition it probably would sell for one hundred and twenty dollars so I told him that it sounded like a fair price to me. When he brought it into the store later that day, I looked at the card and disagreed on the condition of it. I made him an offer that was lower than eighty dollars. He declined my offer, but he seemed to understand that the card really wasn’t as nice as I was led to believe. But I must have handled the situation wrong somehow. Mike must have felt that I wasn’t being fair to him. Mike cancelled his comic book “reservations” with us and he stopped shopping at my store. I missed his fun personality and for many years I’ve wondered how I could have handled this better.

In December of 1989 a man named Lee came into my Worcester store carrying an old mailing envelope from the mid-1950’s. Inside of it was a comic book published by a company called EC Comics. Lee had received this comic book in the mail in 1954 and he had read it once, placed it back in the shipping envelope and carefully stored it away. The comic book was in near mint condition with beautiful white interior pages but because it had been stored in this mailing envelope for all of these years, there was a slight indentation on the cover where the envelope clasp touched the comic. Lee recognized that this was a significant enough defect to make this otherwise gorgeous comic book actually only be in only very good to fine condition. I offered to pay him fifty percent of the current price guide value of the comic as if it was in fine condition. He accepted my offer and seemed as if he was ready to leave my store when I remembered to ask him this very important question, “Do you have any more comic books?” He told me that he had about four hundred other comic books from this time period.

I went to his home and was thrilled to make him an offer for the entire collection. This collection had over one hundred EC Comics in the original mailing envelopes including The Haunt of Fear, Weird Science-Fantasy, Incredible Science Fiction, Tales From The Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, Vault of Horror, the original comic book sized Mad Magazine, and many more. Lee also had some of the original form letters that the EC company had sent to the mail-order subscribers to inform them of publication changes and subscription expirations. I bought all of these too! There was also a nice selection of hard-to-find 1950’s DC Comics publications including Superman, Batman, Showcase, The Brave and the Bold, and more. Within a year, all of these comic books were sold to eager collectors.

At home, my son Adam, was doing great. Adam was developing into a unique individual. He was very confident in many of his abilities. He was a voracious reader of books; sometimes he’d read a book each day. He enjoyed comic books, magazines, novels, and history books. His grammar school was located next to a library and one day he came home all excited because the library had thrown out a lot of old books. Adam “rescued” a whole bag of these books from the dumpster including science books and World War II history books about the Nazi death camps. He read them all. Although Mal and I tried not to spoil our kids with lots of toys, we willingly indulged Adam’s desire for books. Adam was also confident in “who he was.” He dressed in nice clothes when the occasion called for it but he had developed, even at this early age, a fashion sense that wasn’t always typical for kids his age. Nothing seemed to embarrass him. The Imago School was having a play rehearsal one day that called for some of the boys to wear kilts, but Adam chose to wear his while he was waiting for our “carpool partners” to pick him up. He had no problem being seen in a kilt as his local town friends rode by on the school bus. I know that I would have been very self-conscious when I was his age. I guess I was too vain.

Next chapter: The big jewelry goof-up. Another one of my huge mistakes!
Pictures: An example of the vintage "EC Comics" and Adam wearing his kilt.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 71

Cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 34
Brian Paquette: a friend and fellow collector


I had attended a convention called “Spy-Con” in the late 1980’s to promote “The Man From Uncle” comic book series that I was publishing. This convention was a gathering place for fans of spy-related movies and television shows including “James Bond,” “The Man From Uncle,” “The Wild Wild West,” “The Avengers,” and many more. Dealers and fans from around the United States set up booths to buy, sell, and trade many spy-related collectibles. I hoped that I’d be able to locate some of the rare Uncle toys that I was missing in my collection. I was disappointed to find out that most of the dealers only stocked the paperback books, magazines, and fan-produced fiction. There were very few toys offered for sale at this show.

One collector displayed a small notebook that contained photographs of many of his favorite Man From Uncle collectibles and this was of great interest to most of the Uncle collectors. Many of these items were rarely seen by collectors and a group of us discussed the need for a complete listing of everything that was made about The Man From Uncle. When I returned home, I got together with my friend, Brian Paquette, and we came up with the idea of publishing a book about The Man From Uncle collectibles.

I had published the official Man From Uncle comic books in 1988 so I figured that I could handle publishing a “real” book. Brian was an artist and I knew he’d be great with the entire creative end. Between the two of us, we had almost every item ever made about The Man From Uncle television show. We would use our collections as the main part of this new book project. We began photographing the hundreds of items using colorful backgrounds and began to write detailed descriptions of everything. We wanted this book to be different from most of the memorabilia guides based on other television shows so we made sure that the photographs were large and clear and the descriptions were detailed and accurate. We also carefully researched the current values and actual selling prices of these collectibles by attending toy conventions and monitoring dealers’ catalogs and auction results.

Since this project began before home computers were commonplace, the whole book was done by “hand”. The photos were taken using a film camera and then developed at a local photo studio. If the photos came out okay, we matted them with a black paper border. We designed each page and pasted the written descriptions underneath the photos. We got together at my house to combine our collections in order to create a photograph for the front cover of our new book. Brian designed our chapter title pages and was mostly responsible for the professional “look” of this project. We decided to title this project “The Toys From Uncle Memorabilia and Collectors Guide.” My good friend, Michael Warshaw, a very talented writer, wrote the introduction for this book as a favor to me. After a few months of work, we sent the pages to Associated Printers of North Dakota (my favorite printer) and they “screened” all of the photos so the photographs would reproduce quite clearly.

The cost to produce this project in full color, as we had wanted, would have been outrageously high. A cover price of almost thirty dollars would have been required. Brian and I wanted collectors to be able to buy the book for less than ten dollars so the book was printed in black and white with full color front and back covers. Most of the books were sold through Diamond Comic Distributors at fifty percent of the cover price of nearly ten dollars. Although it was a lot of work to put the book together, Brian and I enjoyed this experience.

Over the years following the publication of “The Toys From Uncle”, this book has become recognized as an important reference work and a valuable “checklist” for every collector of “The Man From Uncle.” Ironically, this book now sells on Ebay for as much as fifty-five dollars!

Next chapter: The end of the eighties.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 70

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 34
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 10 years old
Cassy Howley: 5 years old
Zvi Szafran: a favorite customer, college professor, double PHD, great guy.


Over the years of running a comic book and collectible store, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of interesting people. Zvi Szafran is one of the most interesting of them all. He began shopping at my store in the very early 1980’s. Each week I would save all of the comic books that he collected and Zvi would come into the store to pick them up once every few months. He would have come in more often if he could but he actually lived in Columbia, South Carolina. He had relatives in Worcester so when he’d come into town to visit them he’d visit my store too. He would buy all of the huge piles of comic books that I had reserved for him and then he would shop for many back issues that he needed to fill in his massive collection.

I always appreciated Zvi’s business but I mostly enjoyed visiting with him. He was always intelligent, funny, politically aware and also the first person I had ever met who was willing to share his Jewish faith with me. Zvi would explain the many differences and similarities between his faith and mine and he was never critical or judgmental. Zvi told me the following story about a trip to Israel that he and his wife, Jill, made years ago and I thought it was interesting enough to share with you.

Zvi and Jill were taking a bus in Tel Aviv, going to the beach. As they got on the bus, an elderly woman sat in the seat behind the bus driver, and Zvi and Jill sat in the seat behind her.

The elderly woman began to complain to the bus driver that he was late. In Israel, the bus drivers are part of a cooperative where they own their own buses, and they don’t put up with much from their riders. The driver said to the elderly woman, “Shut up old woman, or I’ll throw you off of the bus.” A few stops later, a second elderly woman got on the bus and sat in the seat next to the first woman. The first one said, “Don’t complain about the bus being late or the driver will bite your head off.” The second woman said, “You’re so right. That’s how youth are today. No respect!”

The two started talking and the second asked the first where she was from. The first woman answered with the name of some small town in Poland. The bus driver said, “Where did you say?” When the first woman repeated the name of the small town, the driver said, “That’s where I’m from.” He then asked her what her name was. When she told him, he stepped on the brakes and stopped the bus. He grabbed her and gave her a big kiss. It was his mother! She thought that he had died during World War II in the death camps, and he thought that she had died. They hadn’t seen each other in thirty years!

The driver and his mother left the bus parked on the side of the road, and went off together, leaving Zvi and Jill and the rest of the passengers, to wait for the next bus. It goes to show you that you never know just who you’re dealing with when you meet a stranger, doesn’t it?!

Next chapter: Brian Paquette and I publish “The Toys From Uncle” memorabilia guide.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 69

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 34
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 9 years old
Cassy Howley: 5 years old
Hank: The owner of the “Same Bat Channel Comic Shop” chain
Richard Ortwein and Chris Ball: Hank’s key employees


Late one night, Hank and I had negotiated a buy-out of his comic book store in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. This deal was set to be consummated if his two full-time employees would agree to come to work for me. Richard seemed ready but Chris refused my offer. I didn’t have any extra employees available to take over Hank’s store so the deal was off. My wife was glad. I was almost relieved because I knew that adding a second store wasn’t just double the work, it was much more than that. More employee issues to deal with, more government paperwork, and more stress.

By the next morning, the deal to buy Hank’s store wasn’t even in my thoughts anymore. But that didn’t last long. At ten o’clock, as I opened my store, the first person to come in was Chris Ball. He explained that he had changed his mind and he wanted to come to work for me. Although Chris had a key role to play in the “Same Bat Channel Comics” chain of stores, Hank had convinced him that the future was most likely more secure if he joined the “That’s Entertainment” team. Chris and I talked about my expectations for employees and what I had planned for the future, including my eventual retirement from active participation in the day-to-day operations of the store. We discussed his required salary and I agreed to continue paying him the same amount that he was earning while he was working for Hank. Chris said he’d be interested in the job.

I wasn’t convinced that this drastic change-of-heart was authentic. I was worried that if I agreed to buy Hank’s store, based on Chris’s agreement to come to work for me, there was no way to force Chris to actually follow through with his commitment. Once Hank had my money, Chris could just quit and I’d be stuck with another store and I wouldn’t have enough employees to handle the increased workload. I was still in the process of trying to find another full-time employee for my Worcester store and I wasn’t having much luck. I knew Hank pretty well and I trusted that this wasn’t a trick to get me to buy his store. Hank was a man of principle and an all-around nice person. My dilemma was that I didn’t know Chris well enough to really trust him yet. He might be doing this just to help Hank’s financial picture.

When we were done discussing a lot of the details, I told Chris that I’d think about this situation and I’d get back to him with my decision soon. I called Hank and told him about this new development. He assured me that Chris made this decision on his own. Hank didn’t have anything devious up his sleeve.

I called my wife and told her that the deal was back on. I was still uneasy about the decision but I trusted Hank enough to take the risk. After I closed the store I drove to Fitchburg and gave Hank a check for thirty thousand dollars. Hank used this money to pay off most of his debt to Diamond Comic Distributors and it allowed the rest of his comic book store chain to survive. Hank began removing his inventory that night. By the next morning I had enough of my inventory there and I was able to open this new store on time. The customers had no idea that there was going to be a change of ownership and everything went quite smoothly. Business was pretty good already but with a new “fresh” inventory and with a renewed enthusiasm of Richard Ortwein, business increased quite a bit. Within six months the store earned enough in profits that my entire purchase price was recovered.

Chris Ball spent much of his time at the Worcester store. I needed the help there and I wanted to spend time training him in the ways I wanted things run and my basic philosophy of business. Chris was a great employee. He worked hard at keeping our customers happy. He had a tremendous memory for details and was willing to do any task I needed done. After a few months had gone by I began to feel confident that Chris intended to stay with my company.

Next chapter: One of my favorite customers tells me an amazing story!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 68

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 34
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 9 years old
Cassy Howley: 5 years old
Hank: The owner of the “Same Bat Channel Comic Shop” chain


I called my wife and told her that I was going to meet with my friend Hank about potentially buying one of his comic book stores. She urged me not to make an impulsive decision but I’m sure she knew I’d do it anyway. I do tend to make quick decisions, but it frequently works out okay when it is comic book related.

When I arrived at the “Same Bat Channel Comics” store in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I was introduced to one of Hank’s employees, Richard Ortwein. Richard seemed to be a friendly guy. Hank’s “right-hand man,” Chris Ball, wasn’t with him on this night. I had seen Chris many times in Boston while we were all waiting to pick up our new comic books each week and I knew that he was a good guy too. Hank didn’t mention to any of his employees that he was entertaining offers to sell this store to me. He probably figured that the odds were slim that I’d actually buy it because I had told him about my recent purchase of a huge collection of old comic books. There was no sense getting his employees upset or worried about their jobs unless he was sure that I was going to really buy the store.

Hank showed me around the store, including his back room and storage area. This store was a very typical comic book shop. He had display racks along the outside walls to display the new weekly comic book releases and he had the back issue comic books in bins in the center of the store. As I examined his comic book inventory I noticed that it wasn’t very comprehensive. Hank had spread his inventory out over his five stores so it was pretty weak in this location. The inventory wasn’t going to be a major deciding factor in my decision to buy the store because I already had enough extra stock to fill numerous new stores. Hank wanted thirty thousand dollars for this store, without the inventory, and it seemed reasonable to me. I knew I could have made a lower offer but I considered Hank to be a friend and I knew he needed the money from this sale.

Hank didn’t want to discuss the sale around Richard so he suggested that we go to a nearby restaurant for a more private talk. Hank began to give me all of the details about this store. His rent was fairly reasonable and he didn’t have any lease that I’d be locked into. His customer base was fairly small but the store was profitable. The store employed two full-time employees (Richard and Chris) and one or two part-time people. I asked Hank if he thought that Chris and Richard would be interested in working for me if I bought the store and he thought they probably would at least be open to the possibility. Then Hank told me how much he was paying them. I was actually shocked at the high salary he was paying the two full-time guys. It was more than I had ever paid my employees. I questioned whether I could afford to pay the same salary to them if I bought this part of Hank’s business. Even if I could afford to do it I was quite sure that I didn’t want to pay that much!

While we were going over the details of Hank’s offer, Richard and Chris “just happened” to come into the restaurant. Hank didn’t want to be dishonest with his employees so he told them what we were discussing. Both of the guys were surprised that Hank’s situation had gotten to the point where he really needed to sell off this store. They thought that things were going great but, as it frequently is, the employees were unaware of the details and difficulty of keeping a business profitable. Chris had plans to become the overall manager of Hank’s chain of stores and was sure that he’d be making a huge salary soon. Now it must have seemed as if his dream was crumbling.

I explained that for me to agree to buy this store I’d need both Richard and Chris to agree to begin to work for me. Chris said he had no interest in leaving Hank’s business. Hank tried to convince Chris that his future looked brighter with me but there seemed to be no way to make this work. That was the “deal breaker” for me so I thanked Hank for his offer and called Mal to tell her that a deal wasn’t reached. She was thrilled that I wasn’t buying this store.

Next chapter: Chris shows up at my store the next morning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 67

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 34
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Dean Howley: 9 years old
Cassy Howley: 5 years old


A few months ago, my brother Jay expressed his shock and dismay at the way I retold my story of “The Talking Toilet Guy” and “The Smelly Lady”. He wondered why I’d be “proud” of being so inconsiderate to people who were obviously mentally ill. Other old friends have been surprised by my interest in casino gambling and they’ve questioned why I’ve mentioned it in my “life story”. Well, I’ve included these incidents in my story to paint a fuller picture of who I am. If I only listed the good and positive things I’ve done in my life and in my business it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of me. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been a jerk. I’ve been inconsiderate and rude. I’ve been greedy and selfish. I’ve treated many of my employees unfairly. I’m an imperfect, flawed human being and I’m not proud of any of these characteristics. But I am working on these issues. You see, I believe that we have the power to change ourselves with God’s help. There is a “textbook” with most of the solutions and answers that many of us are seeking. I believe that there’s quite a bit that I can learn from reading the Bible as I’ve been discovering these past thirty or so years. I’ll never be perfect but I am changing for the better as I hope you’ll notice, but I’m still planning to tell the whole story, warts and all.

1989 was a busy year for my family. Adam was working hard at The Imago School. Cassy was busy with her dance lessons. We took Adam and Cassy to Disney World again and then Mal and I went to Los Angeles (and Disney Land) without the kids. Our beautiful in ground pool was completely finished at our Bolton, Massachusetts home. Mal and the kids loved having the pool because they’d normally have to travel to a nearby town to enjoy a community pool. I was thrilled because they’d be able to enjoy the convenience of just walking out to the back yard to swim. I only enjoy swimming if the water temperature is above 80 degrees. That meant I didn’t swim very often because unless you heat the pool, the temperature rarely gets that warm. I’d occasionally break my rule just to play with the kids in the water.

At my store things were even busier. Business was at a point where I couldn’t handle the intensity with just a couple of part-time employees and myself. I had recently lost my only full-time employee, Pat, and I was searching for a replacement. There were plenty of people willing to work at my store, even for the low pay that I was offering. I think that most of them thought that it’d be fun. They probably thought we’d basically be sitting around reading and discussing comic books and collectibles all day but those easy days had come to an end. The store was now hard work.

We had hundreds of regular, weekly customers and hundreds more who shopped at our store slightly less frequently. We had to sort and save the weekly new comic books for all of the customers that were part of our “subscription” service. We had to evaluate and make offers on every collection of comic books, toys, records, and sports cards that we were offered. Then we’d have to “process” these collectibles. For comics, that meant we’d place them in special plastic bags that we had specially manufactured for us, tape the plastic bag closed, put a blank price sticker on the bag, put the collection in alphabetical and numerical order, and I would personally price every comic book. For sports cards there was a similar process but I had help from my employees when it came time for these to be priced. My days at the store were hectic and then I’d do all of the bookkeeping and bill paying at home. I needed a full-time employee that I could really count on and most importantly I’d need someone I could trust. Honesty and loyalty were my two main criteria during my search for another full-time employee.

While I was looking over some possible candidates I got a phone call from a woman in Worcester. She explained that she was responsible for liquidating the estate of the former owner of “Colonial Stamp and Coin,” a collectible store that was once located in Worcester. She told me that her uncle had owned this store and that he had a huge inventory of old comic books that he used to sell until there was a devastating fire in the late 1970’s that closed the store. He had a warehouse filled with coins, stamps, comic books, cards, and magazines that he had not yet brought to his store. After he died, this woman was named as the executor of his estate and she was efficiently getting rid of everything. She had already sold the coins and stamps and was in the process of completing the deal to sell off the large baseball card collection. She was now entertaining offers on the comic book collection.

Although my “policy” was that the comic books must be brought to my store in order for me to properly evaluate them and make an offer on any collection, I decided to make an exception for her. I tried to set up an appointment to see the comic books as soon as I closed my store that night but she explained that she had a competitor of mine already scheduled for that evening. She assured me that she wasn’t going to sell these comics without getting at least two bids so I would get an opportunity to see the comic books the next day. I called my part-time employees and asked them to fill in for me at the store while I bid on this big collection.

When I arrived at the storage building I was surprised to see hundreds of boxes and piles of comic books from the 1950’s to the late 1960’s in varying conditions with most of them being in near mint to mint condition. She explained that her uncle would buy collections of comic books and only bring these copies to his store when he sold out of similar issues. Many of the comic books in this collection were comics that were not eagerly sought-after in the 1970’s but they were really hot now! This was bigger than I had anticipated. I started in one corner and carefully evaluated each and every comic book. I wrote the price I would offer for each book in my notebook and worked as fast as I could. It ended up taking two full twelve-hour days to finish this process and make my final offer. After this painstaking work, I was told that my offer was only four hundred dollars higher than the competing comic dealer’s offer. She explained that the other dealer came in and barely looked at the collection and just made an offer off of the top of his head. She appreciated that I took the time to go through everything so carefully and she accepted my offer. I paid her and began making dozens of trips from the storage building to my store to unload this new collection.

Collections like this one are very scarce. I have always had a great inventory of old comic books and we are well known for having comics in stock that are very hard to find. But this collection was important because we actually needed over two thirds of it in our stock. This collection had complete runs of the famous EC Comics including Tales Of The Crypt, Haunt Of Fear, Weird Science, Crime Suspenstories, and dozens more. There were also great groups of the pre-hero Atlas Comics including Tales of Suspense, Journey Into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales To Astonish, and more. These books were scarce and I knew they’d sell quickly to eager collectors. Normally I’d try to get this collection ready for sale and I’d “premiere” the collection as a special event but I knew it would take me such a long time to price these comic books because I didn’t have any full-time help. Also, I had paid such a high price for this collection and I’d need to start recouping my investment as soon as possible. As soon as I could price a full box of the comics I’d make them available for sale. Many of the comic books sold right away. I had several other comic book dealers buy full runs from me before my customers even got a chance to see these comics!

As I was busily pricing this massive collection I got a call from my friend Hank. He wanted to try to convince me to buy his Fitchburg store. I told him that I had recently spent a small fortune buying this collection but I would still meet with him after I closed my store that night.

Next chapter: Hank makes me an offer I can’t refuse. Sort of.

Picture: Adam at a local pool, and Mal, Adam, and Cassy in Disney World again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 66


In the late 1980’s comic book stores were springing up all over the United States. New comic book sales were reaching levels that hadn’t been seen since the 1960’s. I had a fairly good relationship with many of these storeowners. I had been in the comic book business for quite a number of years and I’d known these guys for a while. One such man was Hank Stolz. He owned four or five comic book stores in Massachusetts called “Same Bat Channel Comics”. I’d run into him every week while I was picking up my huge new comic book shipment in Boston and my cousin Steven and I noticed that Hank was buying enormous quantities of extra comic books and “trade paperback” editions. We knew he had a bunch of stores but these quantities were really huge! Apparently, business must have been great for him.

Hank was one of the most friendly and down-to-earth comic retailers of our whole group. He was quite young…early twenties perhaps. He was married to a nice woman and had a child. This was an unusual thing in the comic book business. Many comic dealers are rather strange. They tend to live alone. But not Hank. He seemed happy and successful.

Hank called me one day and asked if he could drop by my home after work to discuss something with me. I always loved talking about the “business” so I agreed to meet with him. When he arrived I could tell that he was upset. He explained that he had gotten behind in his payments for his weekly comic book shipments with Diamond Comic Distributors and they were threatening to “shut him off.” If he was not allowed to continue to get the new comic books each week his customers would be forced to shop elsewhere and his stores would go out of business very soon. If Hank’s stores went out of business, his father could lose his home because he had taken a large loan against his home to help finance Hank’s stores.

Hank was hoping there was something I could do to help him out of this situation. He offered to sell me his “chain” of stores but I declined because I knew I wasn’t ready to go from one store to five stores over-night. Although he owned one small store on Main Street in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, most of his stores were in high rent shopping malls in Massachusetts and New York. If I were going to buy his stores, I’d need adequate time to review his lease agreements with the mall companies. Also, I had recently lost my only full-time employee, Pat Donley, and I didn’t want to try to deal with hiring more people right now. There were just too many reasons to not buy his stores.

After seeing that this was an emotional and difficult time for Hank, I offered a potential solution to his dilemma.

I had a friendship with Steve Geppi, the owner of Diamond Comic Distributors. I called Steve and explained that Hank was also a friend of mine. I told Steve that I really believed that it was Hank’s intention to repay all of his back debt, but if he wasn’t allowed to continue to receive the new weekly comic book shipments his stores would go out of business and Diamond Comics would end up with a huge unpaid debt. I suggested that Hank could be required to pay, in cash, for each week’s new shipment and as long as he paid at least a portion of his back debt it would be a “win-win” situation for everyone. Eventually Diamond would get all of the money owed to them and they wouldn’t get stuck with the huge orders for new product that Hank had ordered two months in advance. Hank would be compelled to pay for each week’s shipment with cash so that he could keep his customers coming in on a regular basis for the new product. If Hank failed to keep his end of the agreement the comic book shipments would be stopped and he’d end up out of business. This plan was in everyone’s best interest so Steve Geppi agreed to give it a try. He had nothing to lose.

Before Hank left my home I explained to him that I was convinced that the high rent that most shopping malls charged made it very difficult for a comic book store to be profitable. I expressed some interest in buying his store located on Main Street in Fitchburg, Massachusetts (because it was more like my store in Worcester and the rent was fairly reasonable), but Hank wasn’t interested in selling just one of his locations. He assured me that he’d contact me if he changed his mind about this.

Next chapter: Hank changes his mind.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 65


I arrived at my store early on the Saturday that I was going to give away the five hundred free tickets to our private showing of the new Batman movie. My store doesn’t open until ten o’clock but I knew that I wanted to be there around seven o’clock to be sure that the store was organized enough in case there was a good sized crowd of people. I had no idea what to expect. By seven o’clock there were about one hundred people waiting in a line for my store to open! The first person had arrived at four o’clock in the morning! Everyone seemed to be enjoying passing the time by talking about comic books and the excitement and anticipation about the Batman movie was growing. I explained to the people in line that I couldn’t begin to give the tickets away until the store opened at ten o’clock but nobody seemed to mind waiting.

By the time that my employee, Pat Donley, got to the store we had about three hundred people waiting in line. My wife, Mal, and my two children, Adam and Cassandra, arrived at just about ten o’clock and by that time we had almost five hundred people in line.

I was giving the tickets away as a “Thank You” for my loyal customers, friends, and Worcester residents, so making a lot of money in return was not my intention. As it turned out though, my “gift” was returned to me in huge sales. I thought that most of the people in line would come into the store to get their free ticket and then they’d leave but I was wrong. Most of the people stayed and shopped. Many bought Batman related merchandise but by the end of the day I was surprised to see that we had sold a bunch of every product line that we carried. It was a fun-filled day for me at the store. Almost every customer was in a good mood and the excitement was building for next week’s special screening of Batman. Our small store was jam-packed with so many people that we had to have some customers wait outside until there was room for them to enter. After eight hours of “ringing the cash register” my pointer finger was sore. (For some reason, cash register manufacturers put a small raised bump on the #5 key and it actually made my finger hurt because of the heavy use!) But I certainly wasn’t going to complain about this situation.

The next Saturday was the big day. Pat Donley stayed at the store because we were open for business at the same time that we would be showing the movie. I arrived at the downtown Showcase Cinema location and paced the floor while I waited for the courier to bring the film from the other Showcase theater. In the meantime I greeted many of my customers as they entered the lobby and directed them to our reserved theater. My mother and father sat with Mal, but we had decided that our two children were too young to see this movie. Adam wasn’t happy with us but Mal and I were concerned about the dark, evil, somber tone of the movie at that time in his young life. He was only ten years old. He’d get to see it a couple of years later. Cassandra was only five years old and she didn’t seem to mind missing this movie.

The courier finally showed up fifteen minutes before “show-time” and we actually started the movie right on time. The crowd loved the movie. They cheered and clapped when Batman first appeared on-screen. The movie was visually exciting and the soundtrack was dynamic. Tim Burton did an amazing job of entertaining both young and old. He even made it seem okay that Michael Keaton was Batman. My father said it reminded him of the old-time movie serials and the teen-agers thought it was cool. It was definitely a success. It was a lot of fun to see this movie with just a room full of friends. As the film ended I made sure I was at the exit of the theater to thank each and every person for attending our showing. I also invited everyone to comeback to my store for a “Batman party” where we had a huge Batman cake, soda, and lots of snacks.

I was the last person to leave the theater and by the time I got back to my store the whole store was packed with people. Everyone seemed to have a fun time and my store had a record-breaking sales day. This special movie showing cost me a few thousand dollars but the huge sales on both Saturdays, the great stories in the local newspapers about our store, and the goodwill generated by this event made it successful beyond my expectations.

Next Chapter: Hank Stolz and the Same Bat Channel comic shop.

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 64


I had planned carefully for months for the big screen debut of the Batman movie. Everything was under control. Well, maybe not. Three weeks before the special screening, the Showcase Cinema called and told me they weren’t sure if the Batman movie would be playing in the downtown Worcester theater. They had opened a theater in another section of town and wanted to have the film there instead of downtown. I explained that I had completed almost all of my promotional work for the originally agreed upon location and the special tickets had already been printed. They didn’t care.

It was interesting to me that most of the theater managers had so little confidence in this movie. Tim Burton had directed two other movies that were only minor hits but there was a lot of good “buzz” on this movie within the comic book industry. A few small companies had managed to buy the licensing rights to produce toys based on the movie and a few other companies started making t-shirts featuring Batman and the Joker that were actually based on the comic book series instead of the feature film. We bought and sold hundreds of these t-shirts in the months before the movie’s release. As it got closer to the actual opening day of the film the serious comic book collectors were buying almost anything with Batman on it.

The comic book series had been selling poorly for a few years. Sales had slipped in the United States to around 100,000 copies per month of the Batman comic book. Because of the collector interest in this soon-to-be-released movie, sales of the Batman comic book soared to almost 500,000 per month! Back issues of the comic book series from the 1960’s and 1970’s were flying out of our store and our stock was rapidly dwindling. Comic book stores all around the country were reporting huge increases in the sales of Batman related merchandise because none of the big department stores had enough confidence in the movie to order large quantities of the toys and t-shirts. Our little comic book industry basically had an exclusive with this film.

I knew that I’d have to convince the Showcase Cinema management that it was essential to play the Batman movie in the downtown theater as we had contracted for the success of this event. I finally went back to Carol Boole, my inside contact of the company that was in charge of this release, and begged her to try to fix this mess. Two weeks before the film was to be shown, she worked out a plan with the Showcase manager. The Batman movie would premiere at the other location and first thing the next morning they’d have a courier bring the film to the downtown location in time for our special screening. Then the courier would rush the film back to the other theater in time for the noon show. I had no choice but to believe that this would actually work.

Two Saturdays before the screening I was going to give away the five hundred free tickets. The night before the ticket give-away, I stayed late to clean the store and have everything organized for the morning. I didn’t have any idea what to expect. Would there be very many people interested in waiting in a line for a free ticket to a movie that many thought might be a “bomb?”

Next chapter: Batmania

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 63


It was early 1989, and it was getting closer to the release date of the big-budget Batman movie. I had been unable to convince the company that was handling the distribution of the film to the Massachusetts area to let me organize a big Worcester premiere. I was explaining my predicament to my friend, Linda Weatherbee, and she told me that her sister, Carol, worked at that company! I now had an inside contact person that I may be able to work with.

Carol was smart enough to realize that Worcester was an important city for movies because of its large population and she was willing to work with me to make the release of the Batman movie a special event. She wasn’t able to convince the company to allow us to have a special premiere but she allowed us to have a private screening the morning after the movie opened. I purchased five hundred tickets at a slightly reduced price from the Showcase Cinema in downtown Worcester for a 10:00AM show. I decided to give these tickets away (for free) so that this event would be run as a “thank you” for my customers. I wanted to somehow let them know that I appreciated all of the business they had given me for the past nine years and this seemed like an interesting way to do it. There were some potential problems though. I couldn’t really purchase any more tickets because none of the theaters held more than five hundred people. I had over a thousand regular customers and their family members that I wanted to give these tickets to. I didn’t want to make the difficult decision of who wouldn’t get the free tickets so I came up with a plan that would be as fair as possible. I’d give one ticket to each of the first five hundred people who came into my store on a Saturday two weeks before our special presentation. This seemed like a good, fair plan.

I designed a large illustrated ticket with the Bat-Symbol on it and had them sequentially numbered from #1-#500. I kept the first six of the tickets for my wife, my Mom and Dad, myself, and some of my employees. I wrote some press releases to send to local radio stations and newspapers. I began “hyping” the event to my regular customers when they came into the store. Everything was under control and the movie wasn’t going to be released for another three months!

Next chapter: What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 62


In early 1988 we were beginning to hear more serious rumors about a big-budget feature film that Warner Brothers was making of Batman. We were excited about the many possibilities that this could bring if the movie was any good. Our comic book industry could get much needed national attention in the media and people might be interested in reading comic books again. Although my business was growing each year our main customer base was made up of serious collectors and it would have been great to get more of the “general public” interested in going into comic book specialty stores like mine.

Unfortunately, the early rumors we were hearing were not good. A comic book writer wasn’t writing the movie. The movie was going to be directed by Tim Burton who was primarily known for directing Pee Wee Herman’s movie “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice” starring Michael Keaton. Both of these were pretty good movies but they were comedies and, as fans, we wanted a serious Batman movie. Then we began hearing rumors that Michael Keaton was being considered for the role of Batman! Horrors! He’s short, balding, has no chin, and his body isn’t in great shape. How could Tim Burton possibly make him into a serious and believable Batman?

The answer became obvious as publicity photographs were released. Since Michael Keaton wasn’t a well-built “muscleman” they’d have to make the costume look the part. They built a rubber costume that made it appear as if Michael Keaton could actually be The Batman. He didn’t look like the Bruce Wayne that we’ve all come to know from the comic books or the Adam West television show but at least he’d look like a superhero when he was in the costume.

When I was satisfied that the movie would at least be visually interesting, I decided to try to put together a project to make this movie a special event for my customers. I called the Boston office of National Amusements (the company that distributed the films to the local theaters) and tried to arrange it so Worcester would be able to have a big premiere on the first night of the movie’s release. I tried to assure them that I would be able to generate a lot of good radio and newspaper publicity for the movie. They explained that although Worcester was the second largest city in all of New England, they were more interested in premiering the movie in Boston. I tried to get them to agree release it simultaneously in Boston and Worcester but they just didn’t think Worcester was an important market for them. I was frustrated because I wanted to be involved in this big-budget movie premiere. There hadn’t been a good major comic book related movie since the Christopher Reeve Superman movie from the 1970’s and I was now reading really good things about this upcoming Batman movie.

Next chapter: A sign of intelligent life in Boston.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 61


Over the many years I’ve been in business, I’ve dealt directly with many companies to buy our inventory. Most of the companies treated us as valued customers but some were less than professional.

Topps Chewing Gum Company has been manufacturing trading cards since the early 1950’s and in the 1980’s they were still the leader in the baseball card business. When we first opened our store and decided to deal in sports cards, we contacted Topps and opened an account with them. We were told that we must pay for the product three months before it would be shipped to us and we would not have return privileges. We were also told that the local candy distributors would get the product significantly before us. This didn’t seem right to us because the local candy distributors paid less for the baseball cards than we were being charged, had full return privileges on any unsold product, and they had thirty to ninety days to pay for the cards after they receive them. We were told that we had no choice so we continued to send them our money. Each year we’d buy at least one hundred and fifty cases of the Topps baseball cards, which meant that I had to tie up over twenty thousand dollars for months before we ever received the product. I would sometimes hear that the candy distributor was selling the baseball cards directly to collectors at a price below what I paid for them! These distributors were supposed to only sell to retailers but all they cared about was moving the product quickly.

After a few years of this I decided to call the customer service department of Topps in New York. The head of the customer service department was the type of woman you’d expect to find at a truck stop diner. In her thick New York accent, she basically said, “That’s our company policy and there’s nothing we can do for ya. If you don’t like it just don’t buy our product, okay Hon?” Although I knew that I needed to have Topps cards as part of my inventory, I decided that I would no longer directly support this company. I began to buy very small amounts from local sources. I paid a slightly higher price but I was no longer letting Topps hold my money for months at a time. I’m sure that Topps didn’t care at all, but I certainly felt better.

The Upper Deck Card Company released their first baseball card product in 1989. The suggested retail price for each pack of cards was an outrageous eighty-nine cents when all of their competition was pricing their cards at fifty cents per pack! We thought that it would be very difficult to convince baseball cards collectors that these new cards were worth the money but we ordered the cards anyway. To our surprise the cards sold quite well so we continued to order large amounts of their product and developed a good reputation with our customers as a reliable source for Upper Deck products.

In the third year of our relationship with them, Upper Deck began to limit the number of cases we were “allowed” to buy. The first year that Upper Deck created football cards I sold almost one hundred cases in the first week. The second year they only allowed me to buy ten cases. This didn’t make any sense to me because I was selling out of every case that we were getting and I actually wanted to buy more!

When I called the customer service department to request an increase in my “allocation” Jay McCracken (the top guy) informed me that the policy made good business sense. He actually said, “You are like the child and I’m the father so you’ve got to trust that I know what’s best.” I explained that he doesn’t understand my business. I’d now have dozens of sports card collectors who would have to go elsewhere to find the Upper Deck products that I used to be able to provide to them. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea that my customers would now be forced to shop at other card shops. He didn’t see any problem with that. From that moment on I developed other sources for a much smaller quantity of Upper Deck product. There’s no sense in promoting and building a demand for a product that I’m not able to provide to my loyal customers. Although Upper Deck still hasn’t changed their policy, I was later told that Mr. McCracken was let go and last I heard he was running a small (and probably an unprofitable) sports card shop.

There was a time in the early 1980’s that I used to get periodic visits from an old salesman for a company called Selchow and Righter. He used to drive a beat-up old Buick and he’d come into my store and almost plead with me to buy a Parcheesi game or some jigsaw puzzles or a Scrabble game. I explained to him that I was primarily a collectibles and nostalgia store so if he had anything that was based on old television shows or movies, I might be interested. Occasionally I’d buy a few puzzles from him. One day, one of my customers, Zvi Szafran, told me about a great new game that he saw on a trip to Canada. It was called “Trivial Pursuit” but it wasn’t currently available in the United States. He encouraged me to try to buy the rights to distribute this game in the USA but I didn’t believe that it would be a popular game. A few months later, on the TV show “Family Ties” starring Michael J. Fox ) the actors were shown playing Trivial Pursuit and they were pretending to have fun playing it. People were curious about this new game.

The salesman for Selchow and Righter came into my store and offered to sell me some Trivial Pursuit games because they had recently bought the United States rights. I was still reluctant to buy a bunch of them because the suggested retail price was so high. Most board games were being sold for $9.00-$12.00 at that time and Trivial Pursuit was a $30.00 game. I bought ten games from him. To my surprise, I sold all ten pretty quickly. I called the salesman’s toll-free phone number and ordered a dozen more. I put a sign in the window of my store that read, “we have Trivial Pursuit” and it became crazy! So many people kept coming in trying to buy this game that I was ordering more almost every week. I was too timid to order a huge amount because I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck with any of these when the “fad” ended. After a couple of months of successfully selling these games, the big department stores started ordering them so I knew it was only a matter of time before the excitement would end. I called to place another order and I found that Selchow and Righter had disconnected their toll-free phone number. I called the regular number and left messages for the salesman but he wouldn’t return my phone calls. I was irritated but I could “live” without Trivial Pursuit. The big department stores and toy stores were now fully stocked with the game and they began discounting the price.

When the salesman finally showed up at my store again, he was driving a new Lincoln. He explained that Trivial Pursuit was the hottest game on the market and if I’d like to buy six Trivial Pursuit games I’d have to also buy a case of Parcheesi games and some Scrabble games. That attitude was enough for me. I tried to explain to this guy that this wasn’t good long-term business thinking. I believed that companies should take care of the customers who support them but it was apparent that Selchow and Righter didn’t agree. I didn’t order anything from him.

A year or two later, when the Trivial Pursuit craze was over, the salesman stopped into my store and sheepishly asked if I was interested in buying some Trivial Pursuit games, some Parcheesi games, or some Scrabble games. I declined.

Most of the companies we deal with recognize our unique “partnership” in business and we are usually treated with respect and gratitude. In a future chapter I’ll discuss the most outrageous antagonistic attitude of all: Terry Stewart and the betrayal of Marvel Comics.

Next chapter: The year of The Batman.

Friday, March 5, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 60


I was stuck with the sloppy tenants in the apartment building I had purchased. These people were quickly destroying my property. The building wasn’t very nice when I first bought it, but now it was becoming a slum! I couldn’t legally force them out because they always paid the rent on time. Occasionally, I’d bring my two kids, Adam and Cassandra, with me to expose them to this situation as a learning experience. Both of them were shocked at how filthy these tenants were and we’d discuss that just because people are poor, there was certainly no need to be dirty. We discussed that the tenants were actually nice people but they were unnecessarily gross. My kids proclaimed that they’d never be messy like that.

It was around this time (the late 1980’s) that the real estate market in Worcester, Massachusetts, collapsed. As it turned out, I had purchased this property at the absolute peak of the market and the value was dropping fast. Fortunately, all of the tenants of the apartment building were paying their rent so this property wasn’t losing too much for me each month. The separate commercial building was another story.

We had rented the commercial part of this property for seven hundred dollars per month to a young woman who wanted to open a Jamaican restaurant. For the first two years she paid her rent although it was almost always a struggle for me to get it from her. I’d stop in after I closed my store and she’d say, “I’ll give it to you tomorrow.” But it usually wasn’t available the next day either. Some days she’d give me fifty dollars towards her rent and sometimes a bit more. But usually there was some excuse why she didn’t have the money. Since my store was located right next to her restaurant, I could see that she had lots of customers every day. There was a steady stream of people coming in and out of her building. I later heard a rumor that she had been selling drugs out of her restaurant. I asked a lawyer what I should do about this and he explained another stupid law in Massachusetts. Apparently, I could have my property taken away from me because somehow, as the owner of the property, I’m responsible for any illegal activity that takes place there. The problem was that until this lady was arrested and convicted of a crime, I had no right to evict her for “suspected” illegal activity! Eventually she got caught and was arrested and served a year in jail. A relative ran her restaurant while she was in jail and he paid the rent as best as he could. When she got out of jail she began to fall behind on the rent again. At one point she owed me nearly seventeen thousand dollars in back rent! I had tried to find a new renter but the economy in Worcester, Massachusetts was in a horrible recession and I could find no other interested parties.

In 1988 my wife, Mal, and my friend, Kevin Simpson, drove into Boston and waited in line for a few hours to get an autograph for me of Davy Jones (from The Monkees). This may seem unrelated to anything now but later in this story it becomes relevant.

My son, Adam, was really enjoying his time at The Imago School. He seemed to enjoy learning and he had an easy time making friends. His report card grades were always very good but it was always noted that he was disorganized. His desk was always the messiest in his class but somehow he could dig through the mess and find the work he needed. His teachers tried to get him to get more organized but Adam just didn’t seem to be bothered by the mess.

The Imago School was offering what they called a “classical” education. They were taught history, English, literature, Latin, math, science, and much more. There were no “after school” activities to divert attention and resources away from the students’ education. They did offer a few special activities though. One of the founders of the school would write an entire play each year based on The Reformation. These were historically based plays that included every student in the school. The plays weren’t very exciting but the students thoroughly enjoyed performing. The youngest students only had small “walk-on” parts but they understood that as they got older the parts for them would get larger. The system worked pretty well so that there wasn’t much envy or jealousy. It was understood that eventually, each student would get speaking parts. The Imago School Reformation Plays played a major part in developing my children’s interest in pursuing a career in acting and performing. These plays were two or three hours in length but all of the parents enjoyed them, or at least pretended to enjoy them. Even the parents who didn’t enjoy the play recognized the enormous amount of effort that was put into these Reformation plays.

The Imago School also had an annual “Fine Arts Revue” that showcased the talents of the students. Many students played classical violin and piano. The performers wore dress-shirts and ties or “school dresses”. It was a nice night of serious talent until Adam decided to perform. He decided to perform a funny song entitled “Under My Bed” dressed in his pajamas. Our friend, Allan Traylor played background guitar. The song was about all of the “scary” things that could be found under Adam’s bed. It was pretty funny and the audience liked it. Adam would go on to perform a funny song for each of his remaining years at The Imago School. Our daughter, Cassandra, took over that tradition when she later attended Imago.

In 1988 Cassandra began her gymnastics and dance lessons. She was the smallest kid in the classes and she was adorable!

Next chapter: A story about a few companies with lousy customer service (Topps Card Company, Upper Deck Card Company, and the company who manufactured Trivial Pursuit!)

Pictures: Adam singing at the Imago School Fine Arts Revue
Cassy as a Hula-Baby

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 59


The owner of the building I had been renting for the past eight years was unwilling to give me a lease on the property. He was content to rent the building to me one month at a time but I was afraid that he’d eventually raise the rent to an outrageous level so I bought the commercial property that was directly next to the store. The property consisted of a brick commercial building that was currently rented as a restaurant and a separate three-story apartment building. The apartment building was fully rented but the rents were significantly below “market value”. I notified the tenants that I would be raising the monthly rent and they all agreed that I was being reasonable.

A young, single man named David rented the top floor apartment. He paid his rent for the first two months that I owned the building but when he was late paying the third month’s rent I became concerned. David told me that he didn’t have the money to pay his rent. I asked him if he was thinking of moving out and to my surprise, he moved out that weekend.

The second floor contained a three-bedroom apartment that was rented by a young, newly married couple. They continued to rent this apartment for the next two years but when they decided to have a child they moved to a safer neighborhood.

The first floor apartment had three bedrooms, a large living room, a dining room, and a large kitchen. An elderly lady, Mrs. Ducharme, had rented this apartment for over twenty years. She lived alone but she was quite active. She volunteered at a local senior center and she walked all over the city. She kept the front of the property clean and always paid her rent on time. Since my store was right next-door, she’d bring her rent of two hundred and fifty dollars in cash to me on the first day of the month. I’d write her a receipt for her payment. After I had owned the property for about six months I noticed that she seemed to be getting more forgetful. She began coming in to my store to apologize for being “late” with the rent and she’d give me another envelope with money in it. I’d explain to her that she had already paid the month’s rent but she’d insist that I take this additional payment. I’d tell her that she didn’t need to bring me any more money until the next month. The very next week she’d bring in another envelope with two hundred and fifty dollars in it. At one point I explained to her that she had now paid her rent six months in advance. I told her I couldn’t accept any more money from her. I was worried about her so I located the phone number of her son who lived in Arizona. I called him and introduced myself and explained that I thought his mother was losing her mental ability and I wondered whether she should be living alone. At first, he got angry with me and said it was none of my business. He later calmed down and thanked me for my concern but he offered no solution. Two weeks later he showed up with a moving van and he loaded up all of his mother’s things and was moving her out to Arizona. Mrs. Ducharme came into my store crying. She asked me why this man was making her move out. I had to convince her that her son would take care of her and that this was for the best. Her son didn’t say a single word to me and I never heard from Mrs. Ducharme again.

I rented the second floor apartment to three guys. Rick, Ray, and Bernie were “gamers” and they were primarily customers of my main competitor but they began shopping at my store after they rented the apartment, probably because we were so nearby. Rick was a serious guy but he was friendly to me. Ray was a great guy. He was friendly and soft-spoken and he had a generous, easy-going spirit. Bernie was much older than the other two and although he was friendly to me, he was also kind of “gruff” on the outside. These three guys rented this apartment for a few years until they decided to move out of state to North Carolina. Ray got a job doing social work. I just recently learned that Bernie killed himself.

I rented the first floor apartment to a family consisting of a mother, a father, and two children. This family always paid their rent on time but they were disgustingly sloppy. There was trash and garbage all over their apartment. The basement began to fill up with their junk. The grass in the front yard was destroyed and littered with broken bottles and trash. The apartment building ended up infested with cockroaches after this family was there for six months. We had never had any of these problems before this family moved in. I knew I had to do something about this but I quickly learned that the liberal Democrats of Massachusetts had essentially removed the rights of the property owner. As long as these people paid the rent on time, I couldn’t force them to move out. The next two years were full of constant repairs to the building, pest exterminators, and mediating conflicts with the other tenants. This family would actually call me at home to complain that some other tenant had parked in “their” parking space. I’d explain that there were no reserved parking spaces but it usually required a trip into the city to smooth it out with everyone.

One day I received a notice from the Board of Health stating that I had three days to clean up the mess in the yard before they’d fine me five hundred dollars per day! I called the Board of Health and explained that I couldn’t possibly get it all cleaned up over the weekend because the trash companies were now closed until Monday. They gave me a twenty-four hour extension and I spent most of Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, cleaning it up. I hired a trash company to pick up all of the junk first thing on Tuesday morning so the city inspector could examine the property on Tuesday afternoon. In typical city government fashion, the inspector didn’t come to the property as we had arranged. He came ten days later. By that time, the gross tenants threw more trash in the front yard so all of my work was in vain and I was summoned to court. I was furious and I tried to explain the situation to the judge. He was not sympathetic. He said it was my responsibility to keep this property clean. I asked him if he’d feel the same way if I threw old tires and trash on his front lawn for him to clean up. He was clearly agitated by my attitude. I then told him that I was tired of the “Nazi Gestapo tactics” of his court and he threatened me with contempt of court. My wife didn’t really want me to be thrown in jail so I didn’t tell him that I did indeed have contempt for his court. I had no choice so I paid the fine. It was clear that the landlord business was not for me.

Next chapter: More wacky tenants.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 58


My store was running great in 1988. David M. Lynch was my one full-time employee and Pat Donley was a part-time employee. Both of these guys had strong knowledge of both music and comic books although Pat’s main interest was the more modern era of comics. David knew the entire history of comic books from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and he knew almost everything about older music. Pat’s expertise with the current music scene helped when it came to buying records and tapes to sell in the store. Pat also knew a lot about sports and sports cards. Between the two of them we had a really good team of “experts.”

I was still working at the store about four days each week and we all got along pretty well. Pat seemed to enjoy annoying David by playing 1980’s music on our in-store music system and then he’d give David a hard time when David played his 1960’s music. But overall it worked out.

The biggest problem was that I was not paying these guys what they were really “worth”. Even though my store had grown in sales to a comfortable level I was reluctant to commit to paying them a higher salary. It’s not that I was greedy. I always wanted to be conservative in my promises to my employees. I was concerned that if the business collapsed I would not be able to meet my commitments to them. In my business, after all of my employees and the bills were paid, I kept whatever was left as my paycheck. The employees came first. There were some weeks when I didn’t get paid at all. But there were other weeks when I was “paid” a substantial amount. Pat Donley was a college student so he didn’t require a lot of money, but David needed more and I was unwilling to pay him as much as he needed so he quit. He began selling comic books at a local weekly flea market. Looking back, I wish I had shared more with these early employees.

I had been renting the same store building since 1980 and I still had no lease. The landlord insisted that I rent it on a monthly basis. The store was located in a rough neighborhood but it was on a major road with heavy traffic. I had offered to buy this building numerous times but the landlord turned down my offers because he knew that he had a reliable tenant who would be happy to continue to pay the rent on time each month. I didn’t complain much because he had not raised my rent in the eight years I’d been there. He lived in another state and he seemed to be unaware that the Worcester area had become a “hot” real estate market. I was worried that the landlord would eventually realize that he could charge two or three times as much for rent. I needed to secure the future for my business. I contacted a real estate agent and was surprised when she told me that the building right next to my store was for sale. Included in this package of property were a 1200 square foot brick retail building that was currently being used as a restaurant and a separate “three-decker” apartment building that had three decent sized apartments. All three of these apartments were already occupied but the tenants were not paying very high rents. The top two apartments were only paying $250.00 per month and the ground floor apartment was only paying $200.00 per month. The real estate broker convinced me that I could easily double the rents that the tenants were currently paying and they’d still be getting a great deal. I made an offer of $185,000.00 and it was accepted. Suddenly I was in the “landlord business”. I was comforted knowing that I would always have an alternative place to move my store if my current store landlord ever decided to raise my rent.

Next chapter: My wacky tenants.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 57


I really enjoy most of my customers. I consider many of them to be more like friends than customers but sometimes I’m amazed at the depth of these friendships. I have a customer named Bob Jean (not his real name) who used to come to my store all the way from Rhode Island every two weeks. Bob collected lots of Marvel and DC comic books and he also enjoyed Disney comics. He also loved old television shows from the 1960’s so we’d always have lots of things to talk about when he came to my store. We had a lot of common interests. Bob would always bring his wife with him when he came shopping and she would patiently stand around while we would talk and laugh about comics and TV shows. Sometimes she’d wait for over an hour! I’m sure she was bored but she never seemed to complain about our visits.

Bob called me one day in 1988 and asked if I’d be interested in buying his old model kit collection. Usually I don’t ask why people are selling their collectibles. It’s really none of my business and it wouldn’t affect my offer anyway. But this time, because of my friendship with Bob, I asked. He told me that his wife was sick and he could use the extra money that he could get by selling off some of his collection. We arranged a time for him to bring in the model kits so that I could make him an offer. As it turned out, Bob had a really nice collection of un-built, still in the box, character and monster model kits made by Aurora Plastics in the 1960’s. Bob told me that he wanted $4400.00 for this collection. I didn’t have much experience selling such hard-to-find model kits so I needed to rely on the listed values from a toy price guide. It became clear that Bob was hoping to get almost full price guide value for these kits. Even though I knew I had no specific customers “waiting” to buy these expensive model kits and I knew they’d probably take a long time for me to resell, I agreed to buy them for Bob’s full asking price. I’d just have to price these kits higher than the current price guide values in order to justify this large purchase.

Marketing these old model kits wasn’t going to be easy. Although I did maintain a large mailing list of customer’s names and addresses, I had no indication if any of these customers had interest in old model kits. There were really no computers or email in those days, so a full post office mailing would be expensive and it may not have been effective. I’d need to think about this. I thought about placing an ad in the local newspaper but their advertising rates were outrageous. There were toy shows in Massachusetts that attracted hundreds of toy collectors but there were no shows coming up soon. I wanted to get these into the hands of collectors because I had invested a lot of money in these models and I wanted to begin to get some money back right away so I priced these model kits and displayed them by just putting them on top of my comic book shelves. The display looked great because these Aurora kits had beautiful paintings on the box lids. Included in this collection were Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature of the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, King Kong, The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Forgotten Prisoner, Zorro, The Land of the Giants, The Lost in Space Cyclops Monster, The Lost in Space Robot, Batman, Superman, Superboy, The Penguin, and many more. Now I had to figure out a way to let the collectors know I had these.

The next day a customer came in and commented how nice these kits looked and although he didn’t buy any of them, he mentioned that he had a friend who collected old Aurora model kits. Collectors are an interesting group of people. They’re usually thrilled to share their enthusiasm and information with other collectors. It makes it seem as if there is a real underground “grapevine” through which information quickly travels. Word got out that I had these kits and collectors that I’d never met before came into the store. Without any advertising on my part I sold almost half of these expensive model kits within the first week! With most of my investment back, I now wasn’t worried about selling the rest of the kits quickly.

A few months later I got a late-night phone call from Bob. He was calling from a hospital in Rhode Island where his wife had just died. He needed a friend to talk to and I was available. Even though I hate funerals, I knew that Bob needed me to be there so I went down there to be of any help that I could.

One of the things about being in a big retail business is that you get to know thousands more people than the average person knows. On one hand it’s a nice, positive thing. But on the other hand, there’s also more opportunity for sadness when some of these customers and friends suffer illness and tragedy. Sometimes it’s hard for me to deal with.

Next chapter: I lose David M. Lynch.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 56


Our lives were changed when Debbie Traylor died in October of 1988. My wife, Mal, lost her best friend. My old friend, Allan Traylor had lost his wife and he now had the difficult job of raising his five-year old son, Peter. Several people pitched in to help take care of Peter so that Allan could return to his job. Mal offered to take care of Peter after school as often as possible. Our children, Adam and Cassandra, loved Peter and they got along great.

Losing Debbie changed my life too. As she was struggling with cancer many of us were praying for her full recovery but as she got sicker it appeared as if our prayers were not being answered. I had been taught that if we’d pray for things that God would “answer” our prayers. With Debbie’s death I decided that God is “in control” and that my real prayer should be for the desire and ability to trust that our Creator loves us and has a plan for our lives. I no longer feel the need to pray for the same thing over and over again. I believe that my prayer is heard if I pray sincerely for something. God “gets it” the first time. The answer to our prayers just may not be the answer we were hoping for.

Allan eventually found love again and married a great woman named Pascale and they raised Peter and Pascale’s two children, Monica and Frank. Pascale was part of a large, close family and we all found it difficult to schedule much social time together. We still keep in touch and we consider them as good friends but it’s not the same as spending time together.

One day in 1988, an old friend, Don Phelps, came out to my store to sell me an old comic book. It was the first issue of Captain America from 1941 and it was in beautiful, near mint condition. It was valued at about $5000.00 and Don sold it to me for $4200.00. I was willing to pay that high a percentage for it because I had a good feeling that our “big-city newspaper” would be interested in writing a story about a our local comic book store paying “crazy” money for a comic book. I was right. The newspaper ran a full-page story about me, the store, and about old comic books in general. They even included a large photo of me holding the Captain America #1. Newspaper readers tend to notice and read articles that have pictures included. As I had hoped, this article generated a lot of interest in the local community. We got dozens of phone calls from people who had old comic books and other collectibles that they wanted to sell to us and we were happy to purchase them all. That’s how we stay in business. We need to constantly replenish our inventory of older collectibles.

I decided to price this comic book at $7,000.00. I also knew that I could eventually sell the copy of Captain America #1 for at least as much as I paid for it so I knew it would all work out great. Surprisingly, it took almost six months for me to find a collector willing to buy this comic book from me for the $7,000.00. This exact same copy sold for an astounding $150,000.00 in 2003. Even though I only made $2800.00 on the comic book when I originally sold it, the value of the new publicity for the store is worth many thousands of dollars. I bought many collections of toys and comic books that I’ve sold at a profit because of the article and I’ve gained dozens of new regular collectors and customers who spend money at my store every month. It’s hard to place an accurate value on my purchase and marketing of the Captain America #1 but I’m guessing that it far exceeds the $150,000.00 sale price of the comic book in today’s market.

Next chapter: My customers heard it through the grapevine.