Sunday, November 02, 2008

My life in comic-book stores

Earlier this week, I learned that the comic-book store I'd been frequenting for over a decade, Dreamwell Comics here in Las Vegas, would be closing immediately, and under tragic circumstances (which unfortunately I can't really go into here). Any dedicated comic-book fan knows that it's pretty much inevitable to form friendships with the people behind the counter at your local comics shop; there aren't any national chain comic-book stores, and almost all shops across the country are small operations run by their owners. In Dreamwell's case, those owners were Don and Tim Karter, brothers who owned and ran the shop for nearly 21 years (it was the oldest comics shop in Vegas before closing). The Karters were great friends and helpful retailers, always happy to order me whatever comics I was looking for, and giving me fair trades on individual issues for collected editions. They were big movie fans, and every week we'd talk about the new releases. I'll miss chatting with them as much as I'll miss buying comics from them.

This rather traumatic experience got me thinking about my history with comic-book stores, and how probably most lifelong comics devotees can chart the stages of their lives by the store they frequented at the time. I've been a regular patron of seven comic-book stores (two of which were branches of the same store) since I started collecting at around age 12. The first was Heroes & Legends, in Agoura Hills, California, where I was living at the time. I remember a clerk there who I believe was named Paul, who was always happy to find me whatever stupid foil-cover monstrosity I was looking for, since that was how I based my purchasing choices back then (remember, I was 12, and it was the speculation-happy '90s). I remember him going in the back and getting me a copy of Silver Surfer #75 that was on hold, and that made me feel very special (of course, I can't remember a single thing about what was actually in that issue).

I think Heroes & Legends must have closed, although I don't remember for sure, but I do know that I then started going to Pee Wee Comics, also in Agoura Hills, which apparently closed in 2004 and is now only online. Pee Wee was a bigger store, with two or three locations at the time, and I don't remember getting to know any of the clerks particularly well, but I did feel a sense of belonging by going there, since it was a nexus for all the local comics geeks. In 1994, I bought a Pee Wee Comics 10th Anniversary T-shirt, which advertised a fake "world tour" on the back, with stops including the cities where they had stores as well as fictional locations like Metropolis, Gotham City and the Savage Land. Like many T-shirts I bought in my teens, it's still part of my wardrobe; a year or two ago I was wearing it at some car place waiting for my tires to get replaced, and the clerk started talking to me about how he used to go to Pee Wee Comics when he lived in California. Comic-book stores can create bonding experiences like that.

In 1995, when I was 15, we moved to Las Vegas, and I started going to the comic-book store that was closest to my house, a place called The Outer Limits. In retrospect, I probably should have realized something was off about this place, since their model for the common subscription service (or pull list, in nerd parlance) was to have customers go through Previews (Diamond's ordering catalog), fill out a list of what they wanted each month, and pay for it in advance, either half or in full. Then each week you would get the books you'd ordered and not have to pay. First of all, many comics come out late, so it's got to be hard to keep track of what you've paid for and when it's coming out; something might even get cancelled after being solicited. More worrisome was the fact that nearly every week I would come in, they would hand me my books, and I would scan the shelves and notice something else I had ordered and have to ask for it. And they'd go look it up, and give it to me, but if I hadn't remembered to ask I wouldn't have gotten it. Other than that they were very friendly; I remember they were big on collectible card games, and once gave me a free Magic starter pack to try to get me into it. It didn't work, but I appreciated the gesture.

Then one day I showed up to get my comics and the place was closed, with just a note on the door saying they had shut down. I think there was a number to call, but it was either disconnected or a voicemail with no one to call me back. I don't even know how much of my money they made off with for comics that hadn't come in yet, or how much they got from other customers. Again, it seems naive in retrospect, and I probably should have tried to take them to small-claims court or something, but I had no record of what I had spent. I was working at the B. Dalton bookstore in a local mall, and one day the former Outer Limits owner came in. I stopped him and told him that he owed me money, and he acted all apologetic and said they were trying to pay back all the old customers. He asked me to write down my number so he could call me. Once again very naively, I gave him my number but didn't take his, and of course never heard from him again.

After that experience, I decided to be more careful, so I looked in the phone book for comic-book stores and drove around to several that were near my house. Dreamwell ended up seeming like the best; they were friendly and welcoming, and when I told them about my Outer Limits experience, they told me about how those guys had opened up several stores and done the same thing, that it was some ongoing scam. This somehow made me feel better about myself, that I wasn't the only one who got duped. So I started going to Dreamwell regularly, and over time became friends with the Karters. When I went away to college, I always came back to Dreamwell during breaks, and they were happy to start my pull list back up for me when I was home for a few weeks or a few months.

When I travelled around looking at various colleges, one of the things I invariably asked during the interview process when they ask if you have any questions for them was whether there was a comic-book store nearby (I think this appalled my dad, who took me on the trip and has never really understood the appeal of comics). I eventually ended up going to Amherst College, which had a comic-book store conveniently located right in the town of Amherst, within walking distance of my dorm. I don't remember the exact name, but it was a branch of the store just down the highway in the Hampshire Mall in South Hadley, which according to the mall's website carries the generic name of Collectibles & Cards. The store in Amherst probably had a similar name, and it didn't last very long; sometime around my sophomore year, they shut it down to focus on the store in South Hadley. So I would take the bus once a week to the mall, no matter what the weather, and eventually I was able to drive there when I brought my car out to school with me. One of the clerks at the store was Robert Grover (whom everyone called Grover), a UMass grad student who was also at the time the deputy director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, where I spent one school year as an intern (it was located in Northampton, also on the bus line). The CBLDF moved to New York City, and Grover no longer works there; I'm not sure what he's up to these days.

The summers after my freshman and junior years, I was back in Vegas and back at Dreamwell, but the summer after sophomore year, I lived with my dad in California, working as an intern at Paramount, and thus went back to Pee Wee Comics. They didn't remember me, and I was too shy to try to remind them and engage in some cheap nostalgia, but it still felt like a homecoming. The first week I was back, I noticed that they had a help-wanted sign, and since I was only working two days a week at Paramount, I considered applying. In the end, I decided not to bother, but that would have probably been the culmination of my deep connection with comic-book stores.

When I moved back to Las Vegas after college, I never even considered going anywhere but Dreamwell. They started my pull list right back up for me. The place was decidedly old-school; they had just started to accept credit cards a few weeks before being forced to close, and the subscription service was based on sheets of paper covered in sticky notes for additions to people's lists. The store had never seen a computer. Even when I moved to a different part of town, and Dreamwell was a bit of a trek, I kept going there out of loyalty and because it was simply a great store.

Now I've just set up my new pull list at Maximum Comics, which is right near my current residence and comes recommended by the Karters at Dreamwell. It seems like a friendly, inviting place, and I hope that over time it'll have the same value to me that those other places have. Somehow it feels like a new chapter starting in my life.

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