Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 146

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


I received a phone call from Michael Warshaw, one of my old friends, and he was asking if I’d be willing to be interviewed for an article that was going to be published in the national magazine “Inc.The Magazine For Growing Companies.” Michael was a senior editor of this slickly produced magazine and a staff writer was writing an article about the difficulty that small businesses were encountering with the ever-changing Internet world. The writer wanted a short quote from me to include in her article. I was happy to be a part of a national publication because it would be good exposure for my two comic book and collectible stores.

Anne Marie Borrego (the writer from Inc. Magazine) called me to get the quote she wanted for her article. As we talked, she seemed inclined to include my business as a major part of her story. After our half-hour conversation she decided to make us the central business profiled in this story! She arranged to meet at our Worcester location with Ken Carson, the manager of my stores, and myself. She brought a very professional photographer who took what seemed like two hundred photos of the store and Ken and I. While I enjoyed the interview process, Ken seemed nervous. Although I’m pretty good at “hyping” my business, Ken did a better job of conveying our business philosophy. Here is the article that was published in the May, 2000 issue of Inc. Magazine (the entire content of this article is copyrighted by Inc. Magazine):

“How I Learned To Stop Worrying and (almost) Love eBay.”

It’s not just you. Everyone has a hard time adjusting to change--even a superhero. Consider Peter Parker. Other than being an orphan, he lived a pretty typical life for a New York teenager. Raised by his aunt and uncle, he attended Midtown High School and was your above-average tech geek. But one afternoon at a science exhibit, an irradiated spider bit him. Well, life changed faster than you could say “click-through.” Suddenly he possessed extraordinary powers. Parker immediately saw the opportunity in all this. He figured he would make millions as a television star. So he donned a colorful costume and called himself Spider-Man. But that very night, a guard called to Spider-Man to help catch a burglar fleeing past the stage. Parker didn’t see why he should have to do the guard’s job and let the man run free.

Days later, Parker’s beloved uncle was murdered by that very same burglar. Parker was racked with grief and guilt. Faced with the trauma of change, he had blown it. He vowed to fight crime and never again lose sight of what was really important.

It seems only fitting that Spider-Man’s image hangs above the door of Paul Howley’s flagship store, in Worcester, Mass. Howley has collected comic books and trading cards since he was a kid. When he was eighteen, he made it his living, selling his treasures at trade shows and conventions. Now, at age 45, he runs a company called That’s Entertainment, employing twelve people in two stores. (His second store is in Fitchburg, Mass.) He has enjoyed such success that he doesn’t even go to work most days.

In 1997, Howley started hearing about a new Web site called eBay. At first he dismissed the virtual auction house as a passing fad for “quirky collectors.” But he couldn’t resist checking it out. On a lark he searched for a THRUSH rifle, a mid 1960s toy version of the weapon of choice for the villains in the television series “The Man From Uncle.” That particular gun was Howley’s personal “Holy Grail” of collectibles, and he found it on-screen in an on-line auction-- in the original box! Despite his twenty years in the collectibles business, Howley had never seen one of those guns in its box.

He bid a solid $2000 for the toy rifle. With eleven minutes to go, it looked as if it were his! But then, tragically, he was outbid at the very last moment--“sniped,” as eBay regulars call it. Out of the blue, some anonymous bidder had scooped up the gun for $2700.

Howley was crushed. There, within his grasp, was a prize he had searched for his whole adult life. He had never even spied one in its original box at any of the hundreds of shows and stores he had passed through. But just two minutes on this electronic flea market and there it was-where anyone, anywhere could find it. It was at that moment that Howley became very, very afraid. How could his little specialty stores compete with a giant, wonderfully stocked rival like that--one that was everywhere a laptop could be, virtually in the air around him?

Of course, Howley’s business had suffered setbacks before, such as the slump that followed the 1992 publication of the comic book series “The Death Of Superman.” That was the year That’s Entertainment pulled in record-sales. But the entire comics industry was poised to take a dive. In 1993, Howley’s revenues plunged more than 25%. They fell another 10% in 1994. Howley eventually bounced back, thanks largely to a decision to diversify his inventory.

Now his unassuming store on Worcester’s Park Avenue has the usual floor-to-ceiling shelves with a huge variety of comic books: X-Men, Pokemon, Batman, Jay and Silent Bob. But there’s also a sprawling section offering sports memorabilia, a hugely important addition to the store’s product mix. You name it, Howley’s got it, and chances are it’s signed by Ted Williams.

In the mid 1990s, Howley began propping up his business with a profitable selection of photographs, game balls, jerseys, trading cards, bats, and hockey sticks—many of which are autographed by idols like Drew Bledsoe, Nolan Ryan, and Scottie Pippen. Still, despite the success of that effort, That’s Entertainment just couldn’t get back to the kind of numbers it had had when Superman died.

So that’s where Howley was when he first encountered the power of eBay. When he was fighting for that THRUSH gun, he was up against collectors from everywhere—Asia, South America, and just down the street in Boston. The same was true for any item he could think of, from out-of-print laser disc movies to old Archie comic books. Why would collectors bother with a store when they could find anything they wanted on the Net?

It wasn’t that he couldn’t keep selling stuff. The question was, Where would he get it? “I didn’t see eBay as a threat sales-wise,” Howley remembers. “But it is so easy to use, why would somebody sell their collectibles to a dealer that would pay roughly 50% of the value when they could get 100% on-line?” Howley had always depended on his ability to buy entire collections, like the 30,000 comics That’s Entertainment recently bought from one fan to bolster its selection of vintage funny books. Suddenly, any customer could instead sell his or her treasures on eBay, and probably for a better price. Howley’s stores and all others like them were becoming obsolete.

But Howley, like Spider-Man, experienced an epiphany after that initial shock.

Just as Peter Parker discovered that his new superpowers could be harnessed to prevent tragedies like the murder of his uncle, Paul Howley realized he could use the newfound power of eBay for good. He saw an opportunity wrapped inside the on-line threat, one that he could exploit. As an option, it sure beat closing up shop on the spot.

So Howley set up a new computer on a landing in the back of his Worcester store. He even dedicated one employee to the full-time job of eBay auctioneer.

The eBay connection turned out to be a gold mine for That’s Entertainment, a whole new source of revenues. Even better, the explosive growth of eBay did little to erode the stores’ traditional base. The majority of Howley’s suppliers continued to come in to sell and trade their wares, so the revenue boost from eBay represented real growth.

For starters, That’s Entertainment could move items that didn’t have any particular regional appeal. It’s easy to sell Ted Williams stuff in the shadow of Boston. Moving a Stan Musial bat is another story. In Red Sox country, fans of the old-time St. Louis Cardinals great are rare. For months a bat autographed by Stan The Man sat in the Worcester store, its $150 price tag attracting no buyers. So in February, Howley’s staff decided to auction it off on eBay. A fan in San Diego outbid all rivals and got it for $175. “There was some pretty intense bidding,” recalls Ken Carson, manager of That’s Entertainment’s Worcester store. “And the great thing is, we would have never had that connection with that guy.” Not to mention the 16% boost in price, thanks to the auction process.

The beauty of eBay is its power as an outlet for some of the more obscure items that walk in the door. Last year a regular customer brought in a giant stage prop of a cat’s head from a concert by the 1970s glam-rock phenomenon “Kiss.” The seller offered it to the store for $250, but Carson wasn’t confident it would sell for the 60% markup needed to justify the purchase. After some bargaining, he and the seller made a deal: That’s Entertainment would auction the prop through its eBay account and take a 40% commission.

Next chapter: The conclusion of the Inc. Magazine article.
Picture: Paul Howley, owner of That's Entertainment (from INC. Magazine article)

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 145

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


In June of 1999, our daughter Cassy explained to us that one of her friends needed a place to live. Amy, (not her real name) was one year ahead of Cassy in school but they had been in the school musical of “Annie” together, and had both been on the cheerleading squad. Amy’s parents lived in another state and for two years Amy lived with the school principal and his wife while she attended Laconia Christian School. Amy wanted to change her “living arrangement” and she asked Cassy to see if she could live with us for the next school year. I wasn’t too interested in having someone else around the house but Amy was determined to continue her education at Laconia Christian School and we all decided to give it a try.

I had occasions to observe Amy in both the school musical and the cheerleading squad and I knew that she tended to be stubborn and sometimes she would refuse to give her best effort to the tasks assigned to her. Amy was a very intelligent and articulate girl with a lot of potential but she just didn’t seem happy. She claimed that she didn’t trust men but she was usually fussing about her appearance in order to attract their attention. She was a complex girl. We didn’t really need the chaos and drama that living with another teenager could be. Mal and I knew that if this new living arrangement was going to work we’d need to establish some “ground rules” and needed to meet with Amy’s parents before we’d commit to allowing her to live with us.

Since we didn’t know them, we were very surprised that Amy’s parents didn’t bother to call us before they would allow their daughter to come and live with us. Perhaps they just assumed that our home would be a safe family environment for Amy; but, still, we expected them to call to learn a little about us. When no call came from them, we contacted them and met at our home one day before the new school year began to discuss any potential problems. We explained that Amy would be expected to maintain better than average grades in school, pick up after herself, and she would need to stay busy after school by participating in a sport or at a job. We didn’t want her just hanging around at our house while Cassy was very busy after school in sports and drama. Babysitting for a sixteen-year old wasn’t part of our plan. The people she had been living with warned us that Amy tended to make a mess wherever she kept her makeup. This was a concern because our house was brand-new and had lots of white carpeting. We insisted that all of her makeup be kept in the bathroom that she’d share with our daughter. Amy and her parents agreed that these were all good ideas.

Shortly after the school year began, it became apparent that Amy wasn’t going to participate in any “after-school” activities so we drove her around to apply for jobs at various retail stores and she was hired at “Fashion Bug.” Since Amy didn’t know how to drive, this commitment to work a part-time job would require Mal or me to drive her there and pick her up when her shift was done. Amy didn’t keep this job very long though. She had difficulty remembering her work schedule. Her “cloudy” memory caused another problem.

Amy was taking a couple of prescription medicines (one was Ritalin) that were intended to help with her with her ADHD. Well…she was supposed to take these. The problem was that she usually forgot to take them. Mal casually asked, “Amy…have you been taking your meds?” Amy got upset that her medication was mentioned in front of another student and she demanded to be allowed to take care of herself. We suggested that she keep the drugs in her bathroom so she’d be able to take them as part of her daily “getting ready for school” schedule. After she had been with us for a month or so, we noticed that she had only taken a few of her pills. We also noticed that Amy seemed to be more “clear-headed” when she was not taking the Ritalin. We called her parents to suggest that they talk with Amy’s doctor to see if the drugs were really necessary. Amy’s father was reluctant to even try this because he was convinced that Amy couldn’t function without these drugs but after Amy urged him to talk to the doctor, he agreed to get the doctor’s professional opinion.

A conference call was arranged and it was determined that Amy would cease using the medications for a trial period. Her behavior and moods would be closely monitored.

I am personally opposed to most of the prescription drugs that the medical community is pushing. I rarely even take an aspirin. I also have mixed thoughts about the misdiagnosis of attention-deficit-disorders. Although I’m sure that some children actually have this disorder, I’m also sure that many who are diagnosed do not. In Amy’s case, after being off of Ritalin for a few weeks, she began to be very clear-headed. She walked around the house smiling and whistling “show tunes!” She initiated intelligent conversations during our rides to and from school and during mealtimes. We had high hopes that this arrangement would work out for all concerned but it didn’t take too long to realize that things were falling apart.

Amy ended up breaking most of the “rules” that we had all agreed on. Her grades fell far below average, she left makeup in her bedroom resulting in several stains on the carpeting, and rarely picked up after herself. But worst of all, she tried to convince our daughter that it was a waste of effort for Cassy to try to get good grades in school. Cassy was a “straight A” student and she was motivated to do her best, so when it became clear that Amy was going to be a bad influence on Cassy, we made the difficult decision to end this arrangement. Amy would need to find another place to live.

Another family agreed to take Amy. Sadly, even though there was no indication that she needed it, Amy’s father insisted that she get back on the medications. A few years later Amy’s life spun out of control. She began using illegal drugs, got pregnant, ended up living on the street in another state and wound up in a mental hospital.

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for this chapter.

Next chapter: My old friend, Michael Warshaw, includes us in another publication he works for!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 144

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


This chapter was originally going to be about the friend of Cassy’s who came to live with us for a while, but I realized that it happened after the events in the story that I’ll be telling now.

Our son, Adam, was spending the summer in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island with Phil, his best friend from high school. They were living in a nice, fully equipped small home behind one of the famous Newport mansions, just a short walk away from the ocean. It was Adam’s intention to work full-time to save up some money to pay for his second year of college at The Boston Conservatory but he knew he’d have lots of time to enjoy this three-month arrangement.

Adam was a very independent nineteen-year old and although he did like to have fun, we assumed that he’d make smart decisions, especially because he would be living with Phil. But, as it turned out, Phil had several family trips planned so Adam was basically living by himself for quite a bit of the time. Adam enjoyed being with people, so he explored the area in an attempt to connect with people his own age. Adam would call us about once every two weeks, mostly because we pressured him to call. He’d fill us in on his activities, his hunt for employment, and he’d tell us about his newly made friends from Rhode Island. It was his new friends that worried us.

Mal, Cassy and I spent a weekend in Newport so that we could visit Adam since we hadn’t really gotten to spend much time with him since he went off to college in 1998. Cassy went to spend the night at Adam’s place. The next day we decided to take Adam out to lunch so we met him at a park where he was hanging out with some of his new friends.

These young people (nicknamed “Park Rats”) spent most of their waking hours hanging out in a seaside park in Newport. Most of these kids were in their late teens. They were tattooed, pierced, and dressed in a punk-style. Some of them used various illegal drugs, (Ecstasy was the most abused drug) while most of these kids smoked cigarettes and illegally consumed alcohol. These were not the kind of kids we wanted Adam to be spending time with but I was surprised to hear all of the nice things they had to say about my son. It was clear that they loved him. This was comforting to us but we were still concerned about the influence that these kids could have on Adam. Adam was a confident “leader” as a youngster and wasn’t easily swayed by peer pressure. We hoped this would continue to be one of Adam’s strengths.

Adam got a full-time job working as a reservations clerk for a local hotel. He didn’t like the job because he was stuck in an office with no personal contact with other people but he knew he needed the money for college. He told us, quite frequently, when he’d call us, how much he hated this job.

Late one night, at about midnight, Adam called us. He told us that he and his long-time girlfriend, Meridith, had just broken up. Although he assured me that the decision was mutual, I didn’t believe him. From our conversation, and the lateness of the phone call, I could tell that the break-up was not his idea. I knew he loved her. We had no good advice for him so we just listened while he tried to express his thoughts about this situation. Eventually it became clear that Meridith was unhappy with the way Adam was currently living and spending so much time with the “park rats.” She told Adam that he needed to grow up before they could get back together. Adam tried to convince us, (and himself) that this break-up was a good thing.

As the weeks went by, Adam seemed to believe that everything was under control and he’d tell us about some of the positive things going on in the lives of his new friends. He’d call to tell us how excited he was that he convinced one of his friends to stop using heroin and that he got him to join a drug abuse program. He told us about how he convinced another kid that a “life of crime” was not a good thing. While we were glad that Adam was helping these kids, we really just wanted him to come home because we were nervous about the influence this group could have on him. Adam insisted that this is where he needed to be. He was now an adult and he could legally make these kinds of decisions on his own. Besides, the summer would be ending soon and he’d be going back to college.

Next chapter: In the meantime, Cassy has a school friend who needs a place to live.
Pictures: Adam and some of his Rhode Island friends.

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 143

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


We had been living in our new home in Gilford, New Hampshire for almost five months and I kept noticing that almost every time a guest commented on how much they liked our new home, Mal would tell them about the house that she really wanted. I loved our house because it was brand-new and was in perfect condition. Mal thought that it had no “character.” (By “no character,” I think she meant that it had no creaking floors or crooked walls)

The house Mal really wanted was located in Laconia, New Hampshire and was a reproduction of a 1700’s antique farmhouse. This home had five bedrooms, multiple fireplaces, and the barn was actually a garage. I also liked this house but there were several reasons why I thought we shouldn’t buy it. For one thing, it was built in a condominium community of primarily smaller homes and the monthly condo fees seemed expensive to me. I also thought that if we bought it, we would have a difficult time re-selling it when our time in New Hampshire was over because this home, being new, wouldn’t appeal to the true antique home enthusiasts and new home owners are more interested in houses with large family rooms and large kitchens. The majority of potential homebuyers also wanted large bathrooms with huge bathtubs. This home had none of these features. It also did not have a basement because one of the owners was afraid of basements so they decided not to build one in this house! It was very unusual for a home in New England not to have a basement. The sellers were also asking too much money for this home even though it was beautiful. When we first saw the house it was priced around $439,000 and it was way out of our price-range. It had also been for sale for almost a year.

Mal’s birthday was coming up and I thought that I would consider purchasing this other house for her. I know it sounds crazy, but I knew she’d really love that other house. I also felt confident that I could sell the home we had just recently bought and I’d probably make a small profit on it. I called a real estate agent and I found that the owners had dropped the price twice since we had originally seen the property. It was still out of my price-range but I knew the owners were very eager to sell it because of health issues. Mal and I went back to see the house and she loved it even more the second time. I noticed a few small things that I’d need to get repaired and some areas that would need some painting but overall it was quite nice. I’d have to think about this whole idea a bit more because I didn’t think we could comfortably afford such an expensive home, especially with our agreement to pay for half of Adam’s college expenses at The Boston Conservatory. With tuition and room and board around $30,000 each year, money could be very tight for us. Mal and I discussed this for the next couple of weeks until we decided we should really see the house again before we make any final decision.

Our real estate agent called the owners to schedule an appointment for us to inspect the property again. When we arrived, the owner explained that they had received a very low offer but they were seriously considering it because they urgently needed to sell the house. We told them that we really wanted to buy their house but we couldn’t afford to pay as much as they were asking. We offered them $310,000 and they accepted our offer. We were quite excited! The next morning we got a phone call from our real estate agent explaining that the other people who had made a lower offer on the house had believed that their offer had already been verbally accepted by the sellers and they threatened to sue them if they sold the house to us, even though our offer was higher. The owners were afraid and decided to give in to the threat and sold the house to the other couple. We were very disappointed but we didn’t want to cause any more stress for the elderly couple. We learned to enjoy the home we already had.

Next chapter: Cassy has a schoolmate who needs a place to live.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 142

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


As our son, Adam, was finishing his first year of college at The Boston Conservatory, he received an offer from Phil Doreau, his best friend from high school. Phil’s family had acquired a nice home behind one of the famous mansions in Newport, Rhode Island and Phil arranged it so that he and Adam could live there, rent-free, for the summer! The home was a few hundred yards from the beach and there were plenty of seasonal jobs available in the area so it seemed like an almost perfect setting for Adam. Adam would work full-time and save a substantial amount of money to help with his college expenses for his second year. We were all pleased with this arrangement and knew Adam and Phil would have a lot of fun together.

In the meantime, Mal, Cassy, and I were still living in New Hampshire. One day as I was at Cassy’s school, my nephew Jesse DeMund caught up with me and asked if I’d be interested in hearing the “demo” CD that he had just finished making with the other members of the band he was in. We sat in my car and I was pleasantly surprised to hear this high-quality music. The vocals were clear and not drowned out by the music (as is the case in most unprofessional bands) and the songs were very well written. This was an entertaining CD.

The band was called, “Oxygen.” Jesse played the drums, Paul Howard played guitar, Chris Friedrich played the bass, Bryan Parys played guitar, an older guy named Mark played guitar, Brendon Waldron was a singer, keyboard player and handled the soundboard, Brian Waldron was the lead vocalist and occasional keyboardist, and Brian’s wife Sherri sang backup vocals. All of these young people were talented and together they sounded quite professional. Most of their songs were co-written by Bryan Parys and Brian Waldron. All of the band members were Christians and they chose to create and play Christian rock music.

The first time I heard the band perform was at a large Catholic church in Concord, New Hampshire. A group of us went to support the band members that we knew and we all enjoyed their performance. It was a bizarre experience to sit through a regular Catholic Mass that periodically had fun, rock music throughout the service. Shortly after this performance, the band members decided that Mark, the guitarist, was just not “fitting in” with the rest of the band. The band members felt he was too much older and he was interested in a different style of music so they asked him to quit the band.

“Oxygen” played several concerts at local places but the band wasn’t earning much money for all of their effort. Occasionally they’d get fifty dollars or so, but they didn’t seem to mind. They just loved playing their music. But now that they had a “demo” recorded, they had a shot at bigger and better things. They could use this demo CD to let potential “clients” hear their music. It could have led to some new possibilities for the band.

The band members had some things in common but they were different in many other ways. Paul, Chris, Bryan and Jesse were good friends and they were all attended the same high school. Brendon and Brian Waldron were brothers. Brian was married with a child and he had a full-time job that he needed to have to support his family. Although Brian enjoyed being the lead singer in the band and he had hopes of being discovered by a major record company, he didn’t seem to be very interested in the business side of the music industry. Some of the other band members were already “dreaming” of stardom; even fantasizing of performing in concerts all around the country and traveling in a deluxe tour bus. These dreams seemed premature to me because the band appeared to be neglecting some basic business principles. For example, the band resisted copyrighting all of their original songs. Several of the band member’s parents urged them to put a little bit of effort into protecting their valuable songs but for some reason the band members just didn’t bother. It just wasn’t a priority for them.

Mal, Cassy and I (and many of the other parents) traveled to most of the “Oxygen” concerts, including several concerts that were quite a long distance away from where we lived in New Hampshire. At one such concert, the band members were excited because they were promised that there would be a very large crowd waiting to hear them perform. It was an all-day neighborhood festival in Nashua, New Hampshire. The band members met down there but they hadn’t gotten clear directions from the festival organizers. Mal and I ended up driving around the city just hoping to find some sort of advertising poster or notice about the festival but we didn’t find any. Eventually we ran into someone who thought that they had heard about this event and they gave us some vague directions into the neighborhood they thought the event was in. As it turned out, the festival was in a tough section of the city and we were just about the only people who were not Hispanic. By the time we arrived, the band members had been talked into using their own sound equipment for the festival organizers. Brendon was the “resident techie” and he was always good at it but it seemed like the poorly organized festival organizers were really taking advantage of his good nature. The band was supposed to perform their concert set but now they were “tricked” into working the whole day. In the middle of the day, the “guest of honor,” Tito Puente Junior, arrived in a limousine. The “Oxygen” members laughed at Tito’s arrogant attitude. He thought he was “hot stuff.”

When the time came for “Oxygen” to perform, there were only a handful of people waiting to hear them. The large crowd they had been promised just never showed up. While this didn’t negatively affect their performance, I know they were disappointed. To make matters worse, Brian hadn’t bothered to ask if they were going to be paid for their performance. Apparently the festival organizers didn’t plan on paying the band for any of their work or for the use of all of the band’s sound equipment. Reluctantly, the festival organizers compensated the band by giving them fifty pounds of beef ribs. To their credit, the band members accepted the beef and learned to laugh about the experience.

I had some spare time at this point in my life and I offered to help the band in any way I could. I believed in their talent and their devotion to the message of the music and I knew I could do a better job for them on the business end. The band members all agreed to let me help them, especially because I didn’t want to get paid for any of this work. I was doing it, primarily, just to help my nephew, Jesse. I suggested to my brother-in-law, Greg, (Jesse’s father) that we should put up the money for the band to produce a CD so they’d have a product to sell at their concerts. Greg was certainly willing to get involved in this way. The band seemed very excited about this project. They rented recording studio time late in the evenings because the rent was cheaper and within a short time they had a master recording of their music. I found a CD pressing company in Worcester, Massachusetts who offered us a decent price for the manufacturing and packaging of the CD.

Brian had arranged for the band to perform at a huge, multi-day music festival in New Hampshire called “The Inside Out Soul Festival.” The festival featured many of the country’s top Christian performers on the “Main Stage” and over ten thousand people were expected to attend. “Oxygen” would only get to perform on one of the smaller stages on the outskirts of the property but this was still an exciting opportunity to be heard by many people. The only problem was that it was looking doubtful that the CD would be ready in time for this big event. After much begging and pleading, the manufacturing company promised that the CD’s would be ready on the day of the big concert. One of the band members would have to drive the two and a half hours down to Worcester to pick them up so that they’d be available to sell at the concert. Brian was at the festival with his family and he didn’t want to leave to pick up the CD’s because he was having fun. Besides, no one seemed sure that the CD’s would absolutely be ready. He didn’t want to waste a trip. Greg and I were frustrated that the band didn’t seem to understand how important it could be to have the CD available for sale while the band was performing. They could potentially sell a hundred CD’s! Eventually they realized how important it would be to have the CD’s so Brian and Bryan drove down to the factory. When they arrived, they were told that it could be another few hours before the product was ready so they decided not to wait. They wanted to have fun at the festival. So the concert went on with no product to sell to the crowd of enthusiastic and interested fans.

After their “set” was over, I convinced my nephew, Jesse, to go for a ride to Worcester to pick up the CD’s. They were ready for us when we arrived and we loaded over one thousand CD’s into my car. We had a fun ride back to the festival, listening to the finished product. The boys had done a great job on the music and the packaging was pretty good.

When we arrived back at the festival I learned that the band would have another opportunity to perform on one of the smaller stages so they’d have a chance to push their debut CD. We encouraged Brian, as the lead-singer, to promote the CD throughout their performance but he was uncomfortable hyping his own product. He mentioned it a couple of times but not very enthusiastically. Despite his reluctance, the band still sold a dozen or so CD’s to the small crowd that had gathered to hear them perform.

A few days after the festival the band had a meeting and we handed out a bunch of CD’s to each band member and asked each of them to do their best to sell them to their friends and relatives so that Greg and I could recoup our investment. Over the next month, Bryan Parys sold several and his mother, Barbara, sold quite a lot. Paul Howard and Chris Friedrich sold a decent amount but Jesse DeMund sold the most. Brendon Waldron sold a few but Brian Waldron only sold one or two.

I arranged for the local newspaper to do a big story about the band and a friend of mine with a local talk-radio show invited the band to do an on-air interview. I had convinced the local record store to carry the “Oxygen” CD and made sure that the record store was mentioned in the newspaper and on the radio. I contacted the youth pastor (an old friend) of the church in Bolton, Massachusetts and offered to bring the band down to perform a concert in the church for just a few hundred dollars because I had already arranged for them to perform the next day at the huge “Bolton Fair” that draws about fifty-thousand people each year. The Bolton Fair committee agreed to pay the band $650 and allow them to sell their CD’s to the crowd.

The church concert was amazing! About one hundred kids packed the front of the church and rocked to the music. The band was hot and the crowd responded and we even had some “crowd-surfing” happening! Sales of their CD’s were great and the band ended up making over one thousand dollars for that night. The next day, the concert at the Bolton Fair wasn’t very crowded. The fair attendees seemed more interested in the amusement rides and animal exhibits but we still had a small, enthusiastic crowd and sold some more CD’s. Overall, this was a well-received and profitable two days for the band. We were all happy to be done with the days of being paid in beef ribs.

A few months later I contacted another friend who was responsible for organizing a large church’s New Years Eve gathering. I suggested that they hire “Oxygen” to perform as part of the youth gathering. She agreed to pay them one thousand dollars for a one hour concert. I called Brian Waldron to tell him about the offer and he told me that he had already made plans to attend a local “First-Night” celebration with his family. I explained that the concert was planned to be in the very early evening and that he would most likely be home by 9:00 PM so he could still celebrate the New Year’s Eve holiday with his family. He refused to change his plans and he wouldn’t even mention it to the other band members. Later, when the other band members found out, they were pretty upset. This could have been their biggest “gig” to date and now the opportunity was gone.

The band got together for a business meeting to deal with some important issues and it became clear that Brian thought he was the band’s leader. The other guys thought that every member should have an equal say in the direction the band was going, including what concerts they’d like to book. Brian was very firmly convinced that this was his band and the other members were just employees. This was the beginning of the end of “Oxygen.” It wasn’t long after that meeting that the other band members moved on to other things and most of them have been quite successful. Bryan Parys is a gifted guitarist in a Massachusetts band. Chris Friedrich has been touring the United States with an innovative “jazz-rock-fusion” band that was recently signed with a major record company. Jesse DeMund is the worship leader at his church. Brendon Waldron is married. Brian Waldron is currently working in a hair salon of his own.

Copies of the “Oxygen” debut CD are still available. If you’re interested, email me and I’ll sell you one for $5.00 plus $1.59 for postage. All of the proceeds will be donated to a charity that is near-and-dear to me. It is really a fun CD!

Next chapter: I try to buy a nice birthday gift for Mal.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 141

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


We became friends with Art and Suisei Goguen many years ago. Our kids were close in age to their kids and they frequently played together. Eventually the Goguen family moved away to Colorado and began a new life in a beautiful rural area. Mal and Cassy traveled out there to visit them and experienced several new activities including horseback riding up and down mountain ranges. On May 24, 1999, we received a phone call from our long-time friend, Barbara Weatherbee informing us that Art and Suisei Goguen had lost their daughter Arwen to Juvenile Diabetes just one day before she would have turned fifteen years old.

We quickly made arrangements to fly out to Colorado for Arwen’s funeral service. Our son, Adam, wasn’t able to come with us. Several of our other friends wanted to go too, but were unable to get the time off from their jobs. Art’s close friend, Ken Lee, decided to meet us at the Boston airport and travel with us. Together we rented a car and drove to the funeral service, which was held at the church that the Goguen family attended.

The church was filled with people, and it appeared to be mostly young friends of Arwen. Several classmates related emotional stories about how much they loved Arwen and would miss her involvement in their lives. I was saddened by these stories but what struck me the most was watching Arwen’s mother listen to all of these emotional stories. Suisei seemed to be in a trance with the life sucked out of her. We felt so sad for both Suisei and Art. As sad as this service was, it was even sadder when we went back to their home after the church service.

While Suisei did her best to see that everyone was comfortable, I sat and talked with Art. He explained that his job kept him away from home several weeks each month and although he missed his family while he was away, it was a necessary part of his job. He had arranged to be home this particular week because his son, Beren, was graduating from high school and many of his relatives were going to be in town for the ceremony. Art chose to stay at home for a bit longer in order to celebrate Arwen’s fifteenth birthday with the family.

Arwen had been living with diabetes for many years and she was diligent to check her blood-sugar levels often and give herself the required insulin shots. On that day in May, the alarm clock went off in Arwen’s room and when they went into her bedroom to see why she wasn’t shutting it off, Arwen was found unconscious on the floor. While they waited for an ambulance to arrive, Art, trained in CPR, worked to revive his daughter for over thirty minutes but it was too late. It’s assumed that Arwen awoke in the middle of the night and got out of bed to check her blood-sugar level but was unable to administer her medication.

Although Art told me this heartbreaking story in graphic detail, he managed to keep his composure. He must have been a wreck inside. What could be worse than losing your child? I learned how fragile life really could be.

Next Chapter: Adam is offered a great opportunity and the story of the Christian rock-band, “Oxygen.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 140

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


My company was being run by an overall company manager while I was living over one hundred miles away in New Hampshire. Now that I no longer employed him, I was in trouble. I had to find someone I could trust to take over the day-to-day operations and take care of the finances and payroll. I had some very good employees at the time but none had been trained to handle all of these important and confidential tasks.

My long-time friend and employee, Pat, was currently managing the store that we opened in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, but the store wasn’t growing fast enough or generating the profit necessary to keep it open. I talked Pat into closing the Rhode Island store and coming to work at the Worcester location to manage things while I decided what would be the best for the company. I had known Pat for many years and I trusted him completely. In order to pay Pat the amount of money he needed to support his family we agreed that he would begin to list some of our huge inventory on eBay. The extra income that this Internet auction site would provide would help pay his new salary and his health insurance premiums. For this idea to work, Pat would need to list about twenty auction lots each day. This seemed like a good solution for both of us. I now had a trusted friend overseeing my business and Pat would be able to provide a decent income for his family that he had “uprooted” from their home in Pittsburgh to Massachusetts.

We informed our Rhode Island store landlord that we were moving out. Since the landlord was actually the same guy who was renting out half of my Worcester store building, he had no problem with it. He was a great guy to do business with. We packed up a huge moving truck and brought the entire inventory and all of the fixtures back to our Worcester store location. For the next several months Pat tried to sell this excess inventory on eBay. He sold quite a lot of inventory this way but it just wasn’t enough to justify the expenses of his salary plus the high eBay fees. Pat’s wife really wanted to be back in her hometown and her unhappiness in Massachusetts put so much pressure on Pat that he finally decided to quit and return his family to Pennsylvania. I knew I’d miss him because Pat was such a good friend, but he had to take care of his family and he wasn’t really very happy working at my store.

It was around this time that Ken, one of my part-time employees, told me he was willing to increase his hours at the store. It didn’t take him long to learn all of the necessary details to effectively run the two stores. I hoped that this time I had the right manager.

One day, our son Adam called to invite Mal and me down to Massachusetts to see him perform in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at his college. We were eager to see him tackle such a fun role. We drove to the college and were surprised to see Adam in his colorful costume. He had also dyed his hair a strange green color for the role. Adam was upset when we arrived because this was a student-directed play and the college had now, a few hours before the play was to start, decided that they wouldn’t allow the performance to begin because the director hadn’t legally gotten the “rights” to put on the play. Students were frantically trying to get everything smoothed out but it became clear that this play wasn’t going to happen. The actors were angry with the college professor who was overseeing the project because he should have been aware of this potential problem. Apparently, according to several students, this professor was lazy and wasn’t very good at his job. We visited with Adam for a few hours and went back to New Hampshire disappointed, but we knew we’d see Adam perform some other time.

Next chapter: We get a horrible phone call about our friends in Colorado.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 139

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14


I had moved most of my family to New Hampshire and we were now settled into our new home. Adam was busy enjoying his first year at The Boston Conservatory and we usually only heard from him once every few weeks. He invited us to attend a play in which he was asked to perform titled, “Savage In Limbo.” It was an honor for him to be asked because it was primarily a play for the senior students and Adam was only a freshman. He warned us that the language was a little rough and he didn’t want us to be shocked. We weren’t shocked. Adam had primarily performed in comedies or musicals in the past and it was refreshing to see him in a serious drama. His performance was excellent and, when it was over, a professor from the college came over to us and praised Adam for his strong performance.

Since I was now living over one hundred miles away from my two collectible stores I needed to trust that all of my employees would continue to act in an efficient and professional manner. I trusted my manager, Chris, to oversee everything and to lead the staff by word and example. Chris had been with me for almost ten years and I had always been impressed by his dedication to the business and his interest in keeping our customers happy. I had big plans for Chris to eventually take over the company while I was away. I even had him written into my personal will. I was shocked when things began to unravel at the Worcester store. The potential problem in my delegating so much responsibility is clear. The situation that developed was not unique, but nonetheless extremely disappointing. Changes had to be made.

During this same time period, Mal and I (and many other volunteers) were very busy getting ready to put on the big musical of “Annie” at the school that Cassy attended in New Hampshire. Our show had completely sold out three weeks before the performance but the owner of “The Christ Life Center” allowed us to sell a few more tickets for the balcony area of their building. These tickets sold quickly too.

As usual, two weeks before the actual performance, the play seemed doomed to be awful! Some kids still refused to learn their lines, several songs still needed work, some sets were still not built, and our pianist had to work at her full-time job and she couldn’t always make it to the rehearsals. By March 26th, 1999, the first day of the real performance, everybody pulled it all together and put on a really great show! The audience loved it and commented on what a great uniting event this was for the school. Remember, almost half of the entire school participated in this production!

Not everyone at the school was happy though. A couple of teachers complained that the play took too much time out of the students schedules and that some of the kids complained that putting on a play was much more work than they anticipated. I explained that by comparison to the athletic program, which only includes ten to fifteen students for any one sport, the play was actually less of a commitment of time and energy. Basketball and volleyball players practiced every weekday for several hours and then traveled in busses for hours to play in the out of town games, all at a great cost to the overall school budget. This play actually made a profit, which went back into the general school budget. I also explained that if the students came to the play rehearsals with all of their lines and songs memorized, there wouldn’t be as many stressful moments. We also had a complaint from a parent about a scene in the play where several characters pretended to smoke cigars. I realized that we just couldn’t please everybody. Overall though, almost everybody enjoyed the play. When the second performance ended, even the students who complained that it was too much work asked what play we were going to do next year because they wanted to be involved again!

Once the play was over, it was obvious that I still needed to deal with the situation at my store. After a concerted effort to fix the situation, I parted ways with the manager on April 1, 1999.

Next chapter: Now what was I going to do?! I need a new manager!
Pictures: Cassie performs as Annie again in “Annie” for Laconia Christian School

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 138

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14


After living in a small condo for almost six months, (and not enjoying it) we decided to start looking for a house to buy. Unfortunately, we still owned our home in Bolton, Massachusetts and a lot of our money was tied up in it. We decided to try to sell it.

We contacted a few local Massachusetts real estate agents and decided on a local woman who was friendly and serious about selling our house. We agreed on a commission, negotiated a shorter term for the exclusive “right to sell” and signed the brokerage contracts. Within eleven days we had an offer that we accepted. The potential buyers were from California and they had an expensive home that they needed to sell in order to buy our house but our agent talked with their agent and was assured that the house in California would sell very quickly. We were pretty excited that our house “sold” so fast. Our agent stopped marketing our house because we were all confident that the deal was certain to go through as agreed. A few weeks went by and our buyers still hadn’t gotten any offers on their house in California, so they lowered their “asking price” on it. A few more weeks passed, still with no offers, so they lowered the price again. Eventually, after we took our house off the market for almost two months, the asking price of the buyer’s house in California had been reduced so far that they no longer would qualify to buy our house. We learned a valuable lesson from this experience and from then on, we would keep marketing our home even if we had a signed contract, just in case the sale fell through.

Within a few days after we relisted our house, we had another full-price offer. The young couple loved the house although it seemed to us that this was an expensive purchase for first-time homebuyers. They hired an inexpensive home inspection company that they found on the Internet to do the inspection. This inspector was unprofessional and lazy and turned in a report with vague comments about the roof, appliances and heating system, stating that these items were seventeen years old, without mentioning that they were all still in very good condition. This made the buyers nervous and they asked to be released from the purchase agreement. We allowed them to cancel the purchase and within a couple of weeks we had another full-price offer.

The next couple had come to look at the house a couple of times and really loved it enough to sign a contract to purchase it. On one of their visits, Mal and I were there while they were looking and we noticed that their four-year old daughter was out of control, running around the house, opening drawers, and paying no attention to her parents’ plea for her to calm down. The mother was a former Olympic-hopeful swimmer, and although both of the parents loved our swimming pool, they were concerned that their kid would fall into the pool while they weren’t looking. We explained that the door from the house had a deadbolt lock, and then the child would need to walk across our large deck, go down a set of stairs, walk across part of the lawn, and go down two sets of stairs before she would be near the pool. It would be very difficult for the daughter to get to the pool area without the parents being aware of it. Despite our efforts to convince them that the daughter would probably be safe, they asked if we would let them cancel their agreement to buy our house, and we let them.

Our real estate agent assured us that she’d keep trying until she got the house sold for us. The real estate market was very strong and there were more buyers than sellers so home prices would continue to escalate making our house an even more attractive investment for someone.

Mal and I found a real estate agent in New Hampshire to show us some houses in the Laconia, New Hampshire area. We looked at cheap ranch-style homes and small “capes” but Mal fell in love with a beautiful reproduction of a farmhouse from 1790. Mal loves antiques and old houses while I like brand-new homes that don’t need constant upkeep. This house had the best of both worlds for us. Since it was only about five years old, everything was in great condition but it looked like the actual antique home that it was copied from. The owners had tried, unsuccessfully, to sell it a year earlier, for a little over $500,000 but the market in this part of New Hampshire was a bit slow at that time so they had just lowered the price to $429,000. This was still too high for me. I believed that I would also have a tough time trying to sell this house if we decided to move somewhere else because buyers who love antique homes aren’t necessarily interested in reproductions and most other buyers are interested in homes with a more modern style with larger kitchens, white walls, and a Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom. Mal reluctantly agreed and we continued our search for a new home.

Our real estate agent in Massachusetts, doing her best to sell our house, asked if she could paint our master bedroom. It was painted a vivid burgundy color that Mal and I liked but it could “turn-off” potential buyers. She painted it with two coats of white paint and the next couple that came to look at the house made us another full-price offer. We nervously waited for the required home inspection and septic system test to be completed. We had been through some emotional ups and downs with the three previous buyers and we were hoping for a mutually satisfying conclusion. Things looked good but we would have to wait for almost sixty days to “close” the deal. In the meantime, our New Hampshire agent took us to see a house in Gilford, New Hampshire.

This house had been custom-built for an executive at a nearby company and the night before he had planned to move in he was “laid off” from the company. Part of his negotiated lay-off package was that the company had to buy the new house from him, so when we were shown the house, it was owned by the company and they were eager to sell it. Mal wasn’t excited about this house but I knew the moment I walked in that I wanted to buy this house. It was a brand-new, two-story colonial style, four bedroom, three-bathroom home with a partially finished basement with more space than we really needed. I liked the clean, white walls, nice white carpeting, and the wood floors in the kitchen, dining room and foyer. Mal just thought the house was boring with no character. I knew it would be easy to resell when it came time to move.

The company was asking $329,000 for the house, but sensing some eagerness to sell on their part, I offered $282,300. (Feel free to ask me about how I came to such an uneven price.) They accepted our offer but they insisted that we had to “close” within two weeks. I didn’t have the cash to pay for this house so I needed to get a very quick loan. I went to Laconia Savings Bank, and although I had no account with them and had never done any business with them, I asked them for a loan of $211,000. I explained that I was self-employed and all of my tax records were in storage in Massachusetts, so I couldn’t provide confirmation of my income. I told the loan officer that we owned a home (with no mortgage) in Massachusetts that was under agreement and that within three months it should be sold. I also explained that I’d need the money within a week. Eleven days later, we were moving into our new home. It was pretty amazing that, in that day and age, a bank loan officer would be so accommodating.

I made several trips in our Dodge Caravan with boxes of our fragile and personal things to the new house and hired a friend of a friend in the moving business to bring two twenty-six foot trucks of our stuff from the house in Bolton Massachusetts to our new home in New Hampshire.

Shortly after we moved in, the deal on our house in Massachusetts was finally completed. We used part of the money to pay off our loan on the New Hampshire house so that we were “debt-free” again. The house that we raised our children in was now just a memory but I didn’t have any regrets about selling it. The most difficult thing was realizing that we would now be living so far away from the many friends that we had made during our time in Massachusetts. Even though we were only one hundred miles away, we knew we wouldn’t be able to get together with our old friends very much. I also wouldn’t be visiting my comic book and collectible stores very often anymore. I was confident that the manager knew what he was doing so I wasn’t too worried. That would soon change.

Next chapter: My company manager must go!
Picture: Our new home in Gilford, New Hampshire

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 137

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14

“Producing the musical, “Annie” at Cassy’s school.”

Producing a large-scale musical is a lot of work, but it’s so much easier when there are people willing to volunteer to help. At Laconia Christian School, where Cassy was going for high school, there were several people willing to give up so much to make this play possible for the students. We had a dedicated group of mothers who created all of the costumes including Sally Perrino, Anne Glines, Zee Murphy, Jeanne Sample, Mal Howley, and my sister Sharon. These women worked many hours sewing costumes and scouring local thrift-stores for inexpensive clothes to use. Jane Jepsen volunteered to choreograph the play. My daughter Cassy also helped with the choreography, improving on the choreography she had performed in “Annie” a few years earlier. Cassy’s voice teacher, Carol Gellart, agreed to come and help with some vocal coaching.

Putting on a musical play requires musicians, or at least a solo pianist. Since this was a small school, an orchestra was out of the question. I didn’t even know anyone willing to play the piano! I don’t remember who it was (although I think it was the principal of the school) but someone recommended that I contact Nancy Cross, a member of a local church and a good piano player. After we explained what we’d need from her, Nancy agreed to play the piano for our production. Nancy intended to learn all of the music at home so she’d be ready by the time the rehearsals required the music but she worked full-time and seemed to be overwhelmed. Unfortunately, I think she underestimated the enormous amount of time that this commitment would require!

My daughter, Cassy, was involved in JV Basketball and Varsity Cheerleading at the same time that we were beginning to rehearse the play but she seemed prepared because the “lines” just came right back to her since she had played the title role of “Annie” a few years previous.

Brenda Carney tackled the position of director with energy and eagerly tried to prepare the cast with exercises designed to loosen them up and free them from inhibitions and shyness. It was clear to me, almost from the beginning, that Brenda was far more qualified to direct this play than I was. My job ended up being more of the business end of producing this play. As it turned out, this was a good thing, because I could not have done it all by myself.

Another aspect of putting on a play is the set design and scenery building, and since I barely know which end of a hammer to hold, I was thrilled when two parents stepped forward to volunteer to take over this important part. Belinda Simpson and Lyndel Jackman worked with nineteen students “behind the scenes” to build the sets and gather the necessary props. They also recruited the assistance of Al Jepsen to help out with the sets that needed a talented carpenter’s expertise. Belinda and Lyndel convinced several local businesses to donate the materials that they needed for the sets so it wouldn’t deplete our meager budget.

While the play rehearsals were in full swing, a school board member who was coming to the end of his multi-year term approached me to see if I’d be interested in taking his seat on the board. I thought I might have some skills that I could offer in this capacity so I applied for the position. The school board members reviewed my completed application, interviewed me and, with the condition that I become involved in a local church, allowed me to be a board member.

The board was made up of several people I knew, including my sister Sharon, my friend Barbara Foote, Tyler Simpson and Karen Fogg. The chairman of the school board was Jim Morel, the pastor of the Laconia Christian Fellowship, the church that owned the property the school buildings occupied. Also present at the school board meetings were Roger Allen, a volunteer in charge of finances, and David Borchers, the school principal, but these men did not have “voting” privileges. We may not all have been the most “qualified” people but we certainly all took this responsibility very seriously. This school was very important to all of us.

To satisfy my requirement to be involved in a local church, my family began to attend the services of Laconia Christian Fellowship that were held in the school gymnasium. We had “sampled” several other local churches in the area and hadn’t found “just the right place” but since my sister Sharon and her family, and several of our newly made friends attended Laconia Christian Fellowship we decided that this would be our “home church.” Although it wasn’t exactly the kind of church I was accustomed to, we were all welcomed by many in the congregation.

Next chapter: We decide to make our move to New Hampshire a “permanent” thing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 136

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 19
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14


Although Cassy would have preferred to be back in Massachusetts with all of her childhood friends, she agreed to make the best of the situation at the small private school in Laconia, New Hampshire. Cassy joined the girl’s volleyball team during the fall semester of her freshman year of high school. She had come from a school that offered no sports at all so she lacked the experience that most of the other players had. Also, since she was quite small (less than four feet ten inches) she was at a disadvantage. Still, she gave it her all. She attended every practice session and worked hard. Luckily, the girl’s volleyball coach, Laurie Haines, was willing to let every girl play in the actual volleyball games. This established a positive “work-reward” attitude for the players. Cassy knew she was being treated fairly.

Cassy found the course work at this new school to be pretty easy, especially coming from the very strict and serious education at The Imago School. She realized that she had been fully prepared for high school academics. She worked hard enough to get straight “A’s” in all of her classes.

Mal and I were willing, and eager, to volunteer our time at this school. We met with Cassy’s whole class to discuss possibilities for their big senior class trip. Many were surprised that we would want to discuss a trip that was four years away, (a lifetime away for teenagers) but we knew that, historically, students would usually wait until the last minute to decide on a class trip and there wouldn’t be enough time to raise whatever money was needed for it. Camping was always an inexpensive option, but after talking with the class, it was evident that they wanted something different. We suggested taking a Caribbean Cruise and the kids seemed to be excited about the possibility of this so we agreed to help them plan this trip, since we had been on dozens of cruises in the past. This seemed to be a group of fun-loving, well-behaved kids, who were willing to work hard to reach any goal set before them, and Mal and I were willing to help them.

In the meantime, I met with Brenda Carney, the other volunteer who offered her time to put on a play. We discussed the “positives” about producing “Annie.” There were lots of characters so we could allow anyone interested to actually be in the play. The play was “clean” and was acceptable subject matter for a conservative school’s involvement. It was also a play that Cassy had been in a few years before and she had played the title character of “Annie,” so I knew she’d be comfortable doing it again. We wouldn’t have to worry about the lead character and that would take some of the possible stress off of us as first-time directors. I don’t remember if we held auditions for the role of “Annie” but I do know that Cassy was right for this role for several reasons, one of course, was her small size.

The auditions for all of the other roles surprised us. We announced, through the weekly school publication, “The Newsline,” that the play was open for any students grades five through twelve. Brenda and I publicized the upcoming auditions and we personally urged several students to try out for the play, including David and Peter Groleau, Andrew Hare, and (Cassy’s boyfriend at the time) the incredibly shy Bryan Parys. We had been told that the school didn’t have much success when they attempted to produce plays in the past because there just wasn’t much interest there, so we had no idea what to expect this time around. Brenda and I were really surprised when we had nearly 60 kids audition for the play for either character roles or stage-crew! Out of an eligible student population of about 130 kids, almost half of them were interested in being a part of this play!

The auditions were great and it seemed quite simple to assign the parts to the “right” kids. Although some students who wanted the lead roles may have been disappointed that they didn’t get chosen, Brenda and I based the decisions on a combination of abilities displayed during the audition process, and physical appearance. If the kids were really tall, but the part called for a short person, they wouldn’t get that part. We eventually found appropriate parts for every student who wanted an “on-stage” role. Several of the students were satisfied being “back-stage” as stagehands and stage crew.

The principal of the school, Mr. Borchers, located a place for us to perform the play, since we had no auditorium on the school property. The “Christ Life Center” was an old theater that had been converted into a church in the downtown area of Laconia. All of the original theater seats had been removed on the first floor, but the original balcony was intact. The stage was small and there were no real “stage wing” areas to store changes of scenery or waiting performers. It wasn’t exactly perfect, but since it could seat over two hundred and fifty people and was offered to us at no charge, we would make it work.

Once we had secured the location, I needed to fill out the contract with the owners of the play indicating the location of the production, the number of seats, and the proposed ticket price. All of these factors affect the fees that eventually get paid to the owners of the play. The royalty fee could be as high as $1000 for this play. After talking with some of the school’s staff, I got the impression that it we shouldn’t expect more than a hundred people to come to this play. I was further discouraged when I was told that I shouldn’t expect that people would actually pay to see this. It just hadn’t been done this way before. I knew that the school didn’t have any “extra” to spend on a big drama production and the businessman part of me wanted to this to be a money-making event so I strongly urged the school to continue to let me try this my way.

Knowing a little bit about human nature, I planned to get the parents and relatives to commit far in advance to attend this play by selling the tickets on a “first-come-first-served basis.” If they wanted a good seat, they’d have to buy the tickets right away. If the tickets had been given away for free and something else had come up on the night of the performance, or if the ticket-holder arrived home from work too tired, they would just not show up. Even though the tickets were going to be sold at a “bargain” price of only two dollars for students and senior citizens, and four dollars for everyone else, I knew that once the tickets were purchased, the people would come because they’d feel that the money would be wasted if they didn’t go to see the show. For many months before the performance, I carried around a large envelope of tickets and a seating chart for each of the two performances, encouraging and pressuring people to buy tickets while good seats were still available. Three weeks before the show, we were completely sold out! But in the meantime, it was up to Brenda and me to make this play work.

Next chapter: The play and the school board.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 135

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 18
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14


My wife, Mal, and I, brought Adam to college at The Boston Conservatory. We filled our minivan with a large portion of his possessions and helped him set up his dorm room that he shared with three other guys. The college was in the heart of Boston, and although I wouldn’t enjoy living there, Adam loved it. After spending most of his life in a very rural town in Massachusetts, he was excited about the many possibilities in a large city. Surprisingly, I wasn’t upset about Adam going away to college. I knew he could probably take care of himself and we had a close enough relationship that he knew he could come to us if he needed anything. Our only request was that he was to call us, collect if he needed to, at least once a week.

Our daughter, Cassy, was now involved in her freshman year at Laconia Christian School in Laconia, New Hampshire. She missed her friends from Massachusetts and she didn’t enjoy living in our small rented condo. She spent hours crying and almost begging us to let her go back to Massachusetts. We explained to her that we truly believed that this was where we were “meant to be.” We encouraged her to appreciate all that this new school had to offer, including a good after-school sports program for girls that featured volleyball, basketball and cheerleading. Cassy had wanted to be a cheerleader since she was a very young girl and now she had the chance to do it. We all needed to make the best out of this new time in our lives.

We knew Cassy was sad that this school didn’t offer any Drama program, so Mal and I discussed the possibility of volunteering to start such a program. I felt confident that I could direct a school play and I knew that Mal and my sister Sharon could design the costumes. How difficult could this really be?

I met with the principal, Mr. Borchers, and explained that I felt there was a need for a drama program at the school. The school offered several sports programs but there were limited opportunities for students interested in “The Arts.” He told me that it had been tried before and that although the plays were good, not too many students seemed interested enough to continue doing plays. Usually there would only be a handful of girls interested and that made it too difficult to produce quality performances. I knew I had learned quite a bit about producing a play by watching my kids as they participated in plays throughout grade school and their community theatre involvement. I suggested that we produce the play “Annie” because it was a steady “crowd-pleaser” and since Cassy had been in it before, I could count on her help. I urged him to let me try it my way and assured him that I’d keep him informed of things as they developed. By the end of our conversation, I had convinced him to let me try it. Mr. Borchers gave me a phone number of another parent who had also volunteered her time if the school ever decided to produce a play. I called her and this was my first experience with Brenda Carney. Looking back, even though we had help from many parents, we couldn’t have done this play without her!

Next chapter: The audition process.

Pictures: Adam's first day at The Boston Conservatory.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 134


I began reading comic books when I was about five years old. I enjoyed the fantastic adventure stories and the colorful artwork, although I really couldn’t tell the difference between most artists’ styles. The artists working at the “Big Two” publishers in the 1950’s and early 1960’s had talent but were not very distinctive to my young eyes. In fact, I wasn’t really aware that “real” people drew the comic books until I bought a copy of DC Comics “Flash Annual” #1 from 1963. There was a feature in this issue titled, “How I Draw The Flash” by Carmine Infantino that actually explained how he drew the character. From that moment on, I paid more attention to the artists. After a while, it became pretty easy to determine which artist drew the stories even though many comic books failed to “credit” them. Dynamic artists and artists with their “own” style of illustrating were few and far between but some did make an impression on me as a young reader and collector. Jack Kirby (The Fantastic Four), Steve Ditko (The Amazing Spider-Man), and Carmine Infantino (The Flash), were some of my favorites. Kirby was dynamic. Ditko was strange. Infantino was sleek. But there was one artist whose work was so different that it really impressed me. He was the only artist who could draw “movement.” He experimented with oddly shaped panels with characters swinging in and out of sight. He blurred the image and used heavy shadowing to convince the reader that this was a super-hero of action. This artist was dynamic, strange, and sleek, all in one package. This was Gene Colan!

Gene Colan had been working as a comic book artist for many years before I became aware of him. He was under contract with another company when he began to do some work at Marvel Comics in the 1960’s under the pseudonym of “Adam Austin.” I can’t believe that this false name really helped because his style is so distinctive. After a few months, he began to use his real name. Within a few years, Gene Colan had illustrated Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Submariner, and Daredevil. Many comic book fans consider Gene’s version of these popular characters to be the best versions. In the 1990’s he was considered to be one of the top artists of the “silver-age” of comics. So, imagine my excitement when Gene Colan agreed to be a guest at my comic book store in Worcester, Massachusetts!

We had hosted many artists, writers, and celebrities at our stores over the years but the biggest thrill for me was to host people whose work I loved. We had my childhood favorite, Davy Jones of The Monkees back in 1993, and now we were having one of my favorite comic book artists! This happened because of the hard work and dedication of Ken Carson, one of our part-time employees. Here, Ken relates how this appearance came about:

“I saw that Gene was soliciting commission drawings in the national trade journal for the comic book business, “The Comics Buyers Guide.” There was only a fax number listed, so I decided to contact him about making an appearance, and quickly typed something up without much expectation of success. But just a few minutes after the invitation went out, a return fax came in, accepting. I remember you being shocked when I came down from the office to tell you Gene and his wife Adrienne were coming to the store, because it came completely out of the blue.

Two days a week at That’s Entertainment was my schedule at the time, but I worked from home on the event. It meant a lot of contact with the Colans in the weeks leading up to the big day.

From our press release, “The Worcester Phoenix” (a local newspaper) set up a nice interview. We asked Kevin Hall, a huge Daredevil fan and a long-time customer, if he’d do a special interview with Gene, just for our website.

When I called one day to firm up details, Gene asked me if I thought anyone would come to see him; he had appeared at a store in New Hampshire or Vermont and just a few people attended. I assured him our clientele would turn out to meet him, and that we would promote it right. We had already received inquiries from fans from New York and Canada about the appearance.

Before the event, Adrienne mentioned that she was working on an idea to raffle Gene’s remaining original art, and that was when I mentioned Internet auctions. I also offered to try to sell some of his original art on our website.

Then, the day before the event, Adrienne called to say Gene was having a vision problem. They wouldn’t stay in Worcester the night before as planned, but would come straight from a Boston hospital to the store. She told me not to worry, that everything would work out.

The day of the event, there was of course, a huge crowd lined up, and the Colans arrived as promised. Gene immediately started doing sketches for people—really beautiful, detailed drawings—and while this was underway I found a few minutes to introduce Adrienne to the Internet. Seeing eBay, as well as some comic art sites, quickly convinced her that Web would be the way to go.

Afterwards, it became clear to me that they really needed someone with the time and experience to work up a website—someone completely trustworthy—so I put Adrienne back in touch with Kevin Hall. Soon, www.genecolan.com was up and running. Through that, Gene found out that the world was full of admirers who recognized his talent and appreciated the care he always put into his work. Adrienne told me years later that she and Gene thought it was strange that such a big turning point in his career should follow from a random event—our invitation. I told her it wasn’t completely random, because the reason I contacted him was that he had made a connection to me years ago through his art. Even as a kid, I could see he was putting more into it than most artists. Through that small contact, the success of the event, the adoration he then tapped into through the website, Gene had actually made it happen through the quality of his work.”

Over the years, Gene Colan has made two more appearances at our store and each time he was an outstanding, courteous and gracious guest, thrilling his fans with stories of the comic book business and impressing us all with his dedication to his craft. He is truly one of the “Masters” of comic book art.

Next chapter: We suggest a drama program at Cassy’s school.

Pictures: A sample of Gene Colan's dynamic artwork
A Gene Colan Insect Man drawing!
Me and Gene Colan

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 133

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 18
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14


In the late summer of 1998, my wife Mal and my daughter Cassy moved up to the rented condo in Laconia, New Hampshire to get ready for Cassy’s freshman year of school at Laconia Christian School. Adam and I stayed at our home in Bolton, Massachusetts, as he needed to work full-time right up until the beginning of his first day of college so he’d have enough spending money for his first semester. While Adam worked, I went to work at my comic book store in Worcester, Massachusetts to finalize my plans to end my involvement in day-to-day activities of the business. I’d be living about 110 miles away but would be available by telephone to help Chris deal with some problems if he needed me.

My staff seemed able to handle the responsibilities pretty well and I was comfortable that Chris, my company manager, would be a good motivator and leader. Business was great and sales were still rising.

Our move to New Hampshire was pretty easy because the condo we were renting was fully furnished. All we needed to move up there was our clothes and a few personal effects. We settled in quickly.

A few weeks before Cassy’s school year began, we got a call from the Massachusetts high school that had put Cassy on the “waiting list” for admission informing us that a spot had opened up for her. It was too late for us to change our decision so we declined. We were confident that we were making the right decision.

Shortly before the New Hampshire school classes started, the school organized a family “work day.” It was expected that the entire family of the school’s students would volunteer some time to help maintain the school property and buildings. This was our first real involvement with the school and Cassy and I met and worked with Steve and Dan Forbes. Dan was a classmate of Cassy’s so it was nice for her to get to know him before school actually started. Although Cassy’s cousins, Jesse and Jacob, attended the school too, they were not in the same grade. Cassy was a “new kid” at this school and that can be awkward for a young teenager. Luckily, there were a few other “new kids” coming to the school for the first time including Nichole Behan, Seamus O’Brien, and Andrew Hare. We had met some other local families when we had gone to church services held in the gymnasium of the school including the Verhoeks and the Foote families. The Verhoeks had a daughter, Emily who was several years ahead of Cassy and the Foote family had Bryan, who was several years ahead of Cassy, and Caleb, who was in Cassy’s class. Before I actually met Caleb, I had heard that he was a serious comic book fan and his favorite was Spider-Man. I found out that he was missing one part of a multi-part storyline and on one of my trips to my comic book store, I was able to get a copy for him. I got directions to his home and put it into his mailbox. When we finally met after church, we discussed comic books for quite a while. I found Caleb actually knew much more about the current series of Spider-Man than I did!

We became friends with the Foote family pretty quickly. Barbara Foote (the Mom) had lost her husband Al to cancer and found herself alone with three young children: Allison, Bryan, and Caleb Parys. In time, she married Jim Foote, a kind and patient man who helped raise Barb’s children as his own, with love and understanding.

Within a very short time, Cassy began dating Bryan even though he was two years older. Technically, we didn’t want Cassy to actually go on a date until she was sixteen so although we liked Bryan quite a lot, we were still “freaked out” when he gave her a diamond ring after only knowing her for a few months! He insisted that it was just a “friendship” ring so both families allowed it.

Next chapter: We invite one of my childhood favorite artists to our store: Gene Colan, a true master of comic book art!

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 132

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 44
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 18
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 14

“The big family move!”

During the summer of 1998, my family got ready for some really big changes. Adam worked full-time to save money for his college expenses. He was heading off to The Boston Conservatory in the fall and he would need enough money to enjoy himself for his first semester. We had an agreement that we’d pay for half of his tuition and room and board (we’d pay a higher percentage if he got good grades) but he would be responsible for his own “fun” money. If he wanted money for pizza and other entertainment, he’d need to save during the summer while he was working because the Conservatory warned us that, as a theatre major, he’d have no time available to work during the school year. His schedule was going to be very intense and loaded with both “core” academic classes and acting, dance, and voice lessons. His school day could go from early in the morning until late into the evening. He was going to a very busy guy.

In addition to working his full-time job, Adam had decided to continue his involvement in local community theatre by co-directing “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” This would involve lots of days when he’d have to go directly from his job to the play practice but this was made more enjoyable for him since his girlfriend, Meridith, had the lead role of Lucy.

Our daughter, Cassy, had graduated from eighth grade at The Imago School and she was now accepted to Laconia Christian School in Laconia, New Hampshire for the fall semester for high school. Cassy got the lead role of “Kim” in a local community theatre production of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” so she was going to be very busy all summer.

This summer was also going to be a busy time for Mal and me. We needed to make all of the arrangements to move from our home in Bolton, Massachusetts to Laconia, New Hampshire. We had decided to keep our house in Massachusetts, just in case the situation in New Hampshire didn’t work out so we spent some time looking for a place to rent near my sister Sharon and her family since we enjoyed their company. We had a few decent options and chose a condo rental which was down the street from Sharon and a reasonable fifteen-minute drive away from the high school. This was a fully furnished, two-bedroom, two bath, unit on the second floor of a former apartment building that had been turned into condominiums. The monthly rent was $650 so even with the full school tuition and rent combined we were still paying much less than just the tuition cost at “Lexington Christian Academy” in Massachusetts. Mal and I were eager to begin this new adventure in New Hampshire but Cassy really wanted to stay in Massachusetts with her friends, especially her best friend, Bethany Tobia.

Cassy and Bethany were the kind of friends who shared all of their innermost secrets with each other. When they were together, which was most of the time, they were usually laughing or giggling. In fact, in August, as an eighth grade graduation gift, we treated Cassy and Bethany to a cruise to Bermuda and they laughed (and flirted with boys) through the whole week. Both of these girls were trustworthy, responsible and very well behaved. Cassy was an especially good girl. The only exception was one time that is now known as “The Great Burrito Licking Affair.”

One winter, while Cassy was attending the Imago School for eighth grade, a few of the “mature and responsible” older students were asked to help prepare some Mexican food for the whole school during a week-long event known as “Winter Carnival.” Cassy and her classmate, Marta, were two of the students asked to help. While they were preparing the burritos Cassy thought it would be “funny” if she actually licked each burrito! Cassy and Marta were laughing at the thought of watching their schoolmates eat the burritos after the shells had been licked. Cassy really thought it was hysterically funny. She assumed it would be safe because the burritos were going to be cooked after she licked them so she thought that no one would get sick. The girls made two mistakes though. First of all, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place, and second, they shouldn’t have told other kids about it. One of the students, Pete McNamara, thought it was very funny too, but he told his mother and she didn’t get the humor. She reported it to the school principal who then felt obligated to take disciplinary action against Cassy and Marta. The two girls were suspended from school for a short time and they weren’t allowed to participate in the very popular “Winter Carnival” events. This was the only actual “trouble” that Cassy got into during her time at the Imago School.

Although Cassy was reluctant and sad to leave her friends from Massachusetts, she realized she had no choice. The public high school was not an acceptable option for her and there was no opening at the private school that Adam had attended. Mal and I were convinced that New Hampshire is where we all needed to be. Besides, it was a new adventure!

Next chapter: The move.