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Comic Book Heaven
The Mother Lode
Scaling The Heights
At the age of twelve, I recall walking up the sun-baked sidewalk of Brand Blvd. in Glendale, California (which was then the main drag for a wide variety of small retail outlets). My mother discovered a new used book store and decided to go in, as she was an avid reader of detective and mystery novels.
In the sixties you could find a perfectly fine paperback for half its original publication price (not marked up as they do today).
The store manager (and possible owner) was a pale, middle-aged man who wore an Ozzie Nelson type, cardigan sweater. As my mother started perusing the mystery novels, I began wondering around.
The store contained a strong smell of old newsprint, as it did (in fact) contain an enormous quantity of dated newspapers as well as magazines of all types. I noticed stacks of Playboy magazines, and hurried past them because I knew they would spell nothing but trouble for me.
It was at that point I noticed the store's mother lode of old comics, stacked like leaning skyscrapers atop a huge piece of furniture, similar to a desk with drawers, but probably three times as long and twice as wide. I think my heart stopped beating for a few seconds.
I was already collecting old comics (or trading them) with local barber shops, which used to keep a modest stack of highly worn comics on hand for the kids to read while waiting to get their buzz cuts. The barber shops were a good place to trade in the non-super-hero stuff -- the Archie comics or Disney books. The condition of the books I took in exchange were often in worse shape, but it didn't seem to matter in those days when comics had almost no value whatsoever. Some of the more stingy barbers would only trade on a two-for-one basis. I traded in my Sgt. Rock, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Blackhawk books for well-worn Batman and Superman titles, as well as the still budding Marvel Comic book line-up.
Imprinted in my mind (as exacting as the most powerful super-computer) was the cover to every comic I owned, so discovering a new issue was effortless. Each stack of comics sitting above me was roughly four-feet high, with the issues in a wide range of conditions. The manager used a black crayon directly atop the covers to indicate the marked-down price -- something I considered a travesty at the time but decades later learned from comic book pricing professionals -- did not subtract a comic's value -- given this practice was so common among used book store owners.
The comics were mostly ten and twelve cent era prints. The manager marked the books down to between three cents to seven cents depending on the condition. I was the twelve-year old equivalent of a rancher who finds crude oil in his pasture, or a gambler who wins big at the roulette table or a horse race, the explorer who finds pirate treasure on the ocean bed. For a brief period of time I was in some transcendent state of awe and bliss.
Walking into this treasure trove literally caused me to shake. My face probably turned a bright pink from excitement.
Since I was small for my age, the manager provided me with a small, fold-out ladder, so I could better reach the tops of the piles. His only warning to me was to keep things neatly stacked. This was an unnecessary reminder since I treated each copy as if it were the Bill of Rights.
The shear volume of comics laid out before me was daunting, staggering. I found comics that were prestine, comics I already had (but in better condition), titles to comics for which I had a marginal interest, comics that looked brand new, comics that looked liked they had spent time in an attic or garage, comics missing covers entirely. I sorted them into distinct piles.
I'm sure I must have been trembling. My face may have been blanched or pink or purple.
All too soon my mother had her handful of mystery paperbacks, and I climbed down with my first nugets from the mother lode.
The days of waiting for my allowance (compensation for chores performed inside and outside the house), were brutal, tormenting. But, each week I'd return to the used book store and continue with my excavation. The process was accomanied with great anxiety because I was afraid that other kids would discover the store and plunder "my" discovery. Thus, I would spend hours methodically shifting four-foot high pillars of wobbly comics until I sneezed nearly continuously and my hands resembled those of a man who sculpted clay pots.
The manager came to know me quite well and was happy to see me return, as I transformed his shoddy, uneven stacks into impeccably vertical columns that rivaled the New York City skyline.
That summer was a stressful but fruitful one. I'm not sure but I don't think anything since has quite measured up to the pure sense of euphoria I experienced. For a period of time, I felt like a lucky kid, and I wasn't accustomed to that feeling.