By Seth Kushner
“Are we there yet?” the boy asks as he watches his Brooklyn neighborhood fly past him.
It’s 1976 and a three year old boy is riding in a white, plastic child’s seat on the back of his father’s bike.
“Almost,” the father says while peddling.
The boy is excited because his father showed him some things “comic books” the night before and he promised he would take the boy to pick one out for himself the next morning.
The boy sees his favorite Pizza place on his right, then the Hot Bagel store on the left and knows the newsstand is just ahead. They pull up under the elevated subway tracks on Sheepshead Bay Road and dismount in front of the newsstand, which is built into the station’s facade. The father holds the boy’s hand as they look at the outdoor wall of magazine racks, finding two vertical rows of comics on the right. The D train rattles overhead, as the boy glances up and down at all the colorful covers and stops on a copy of Justice League of America. He picks it up and knows it’s the one to get, because it has all the superheroes in one comic book. The boy watches his father hand the shopkeeper a quarter and a dime, and then they get back on the bike and ride home where the father will read the comic to the boy.
Between the ages of three and seven, my comics were bought sporadically from newsstands and used bookstores. When my addiction started hitting it’s stride when I was eight, (Star Wars, G.I. Joe and Marvel Tales were among my favorites) I would get my comics from a musty smelling used bookstore, (actually called “Used Books”) located in a shopping center on Nostrand Avenue, about two miles from my house.
The Used Books was a large shop with a counter on the right of the entrance, with older, valuable comics (mostly Silver Age) bagged and boarded and hanging on the wall behind the register. Straight back on the right wall were spinner racks containing the newest comics, and aisles of used books (the kind without pictures) beyond it, which was where my dad browsed while I looked at comics. On the left side were more aisles of old books and one half-length aisle of used comics bins, all selling for a quarter. New comics sold for sixty cents, quite the bargain! I would rummage through the bins searching for treasure, and the best find I ever had was a decent condition Strange Tales #135 (Aug. 1965) which featured the Jack Kirby drawn story of Nick Fury first becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I still have and it’s one of my most prized comics.
There must have been lots of comic books stores around Brooklyn back then, but when you’re a kid your world is small, so I only knew my own neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, a middle-class, mostly white area of South Brooklyn, which is neither urban nor suburban, but something in-between. Luckily, there were several shops in the area, all easily accessible by my bike or my dad’s car. They were my comic stores. Chief among them was Bob’s Book Store on Avenue U.
Bob’s became my main source for comics when I was around nine. Like Used Books on Nostrand, Bob’s Book Store was primarily just that–a bookstore, but also carried both old and new comics. Bob, a middle aged man with a mustache, ran the store with his wife and their twenty-something daughter. They were a friendly family and certainly not your typical comic book store proprietors. The small, cramped shop was mostly filled with used books, but there were several racks of new comics in the front by the register. Bob’s put out their new comics on Saturday mornings, even though other stores had them available a day earlier. They did this because ALL comics in the store were bagged and scotch taped closed, prohibiting flipping or (God forbid) reading. Looking back on it now, the family must have spent their Friday nights obsessively sealing those bags – what a job it must’ve been!
When I started going to Bob’s I was getting pretty serious about my comics, buying several monthlies, and collecting back issues. I began collecting X-Men at #181, for example, but managed to collect back to #120, one back issue at a time. I did this for several of my favorites.
All the back issues at Bob’s were located in long boxes and were shelved in the middle aisle of the store. The problem was there no way to flip through the issues, so Bob’s policy was you had to carry the box to a nearby table in order to peruse the box. This was tough for a kid, who had to strain his small muscles in order to find his missing X-Men issues. It was always a nerve-wracking carrying those boxes back and fourth to the table, and inevitably, my skinny arms gave way one day and dropped the Teen Titans box and all the issues fanned out across the floor. I was horribly embarrassed, but Bob’s wife came down from the plat-formed register and helped me pick them up.
The cool thing about Bob’s was the discount plan. Every time you spent twenty bucks, you got a free comic of their choosing, from a box behind the counter. Truthfully, it was never anything great, but there was excitement in not knowing what you were going to get.
I have warm, hazy sepia-toned memories of my dad driving me over on Saturday mornings to get my new comics. No matter how tough school might have been that week, I always had something great to look forward to for the start of the weekend.
There were two other comic stores in the neighborhood, which I frequented only occasionally. One was Silver Star Comics, a proper comics store selling only comics, and located just a few blocks down Nostrand Avenue from the Used Books. The owner, whose name might have been Rich, was a large balding, blowhard of a man with a moustache, who I’m convinced served as the inspiration for Comic Store Guy on The Simpsons. He would sit on a high stool by the register and preside over his kingdom of underlings, often insulting them and whatever they were reading. It was a long, narrow store with waist high rows of back issue bins running the length of both sides of the store, and a shelf above on the left side displaying the new books.
Silver Star was never my regular store for new comics, but it was a destination for my friends and I to race to on our bikes. It was just far enough away from home to give a ten year old an exciting journey.
The other local store was Comic Book Scene. If there was a place the “cool” kids in the neighborhood shopped for comics – and by “cool” I mean the coolest of the geeks – it was surely this store on Coney Island Avenue and Avenue R. I have no memory of the owner or staff, but I remember a dark store with movie and comics poster hanging on the ceiling. There might have been a few stand-up arcade video games in the back of the store – a staple of the 80’s – but my friend Martin, who grew up down the street from the store, insists this wasn’t the case.
The new comics were on racks against the left wall, and the back issues were in an adjacent room in bins. For some reason, they priced their back issues much more expensively than the other stores in the neighborhood. A three-year old Frank Miller issue of Daredevil might have been priced at seven bucks at Comic Book Scene, when the same issue would have been only two at Bob’s.
Comic Book Scene was located just a block away from the Kingsway movie theater on Kings Highway, so my dad always got me a comic there whenever we went to the movies, as he did the day Return of the Jedi was released in May of 1983. What did I get? The Marvel Comics adaptation of Jedi, of course.
By the 90’s the neighborhood comic stores of my youth were gone. Silver Star Comics remained open until some time in the mid-90’s and Bob’s closed around 1990, and relocated around the corner to a small store, selling just comics. By that time, the business was run by the daughter and her husband, and with the comics explosion of the 90s, they clearly saw comics as their meal ticket, but the store didn’t last very long and although the old Bob’s was my regular store, I rarely shopped at the new one. I do remember popping in to pick up Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1, though that might have been the last time I went there. I guess by that time I was buying my weekly comics at one of the several new shops, which were opening up all over the neighborhood, some even walking distance from my home.
The comic’s boom had new stores popping up like wildfire; their shelves filled with flashy variants, chromium, die-cut, and/or holographic covers depicting sneering superheroes with big shoulder pads, big hair, big boobs, big spikes and big guns. Most of the new crop of shops didn’t stay in business after the comics industry collapse, and the few that did are all gone now. I can’t remember any names other than Bullpen Comics on Coney Island Avenue. There was nothing particularly special about it – small store, heavy-set owner, racks of new comics in the front, action figures and baseball cards in the back – but it had the distinction of being the shop where fellow Brooklynite Jimmy Palmiotti bought his comics every Wednesday. I once asked him why Bullpen was “his” shop, and he told me because it was close to his place and who wants to go all the way into the city to buy comics? That about summed it up.
Today, I no longer live in Sheepshead Bay, but I know from visiting my mom that the neighborhood does not contain a single, solitary comic book store.
By the time I started going to college in Manhattan, I was shopping at either Forbidden Planet, Jim Hanley’s Universe or Cosmic Comics (now Manhattan Comics), which opened right near my school on 23rd Street, so it became my regular store by default. Their discount plan, which gave the customer $20 credit every time he spent $100 was great, though it was somewhat soured by the fact that Cosmic’s proprietor was the grouchiest man in the retail comic’s business. Regardless, I continued to shop there for several years post college before making Forbidden Planet my regular store for most of the rest of my 20’s.
In recent years I have most enjoyed buying my weekly comics at Bergen Street Comics, in Park Slope, which to me is part of the new breed of comic shops—clean, well-designed, and specializing in independent comics. Most importantly, the proprietors, Tom and Amy Adams, along with Tucker Stone and Mike Cavallaro, have created an environment which is women and kid friendly. I can remember back in the 90’s bringing girlfriends to Village Comics on Bleeker Street and seeing them completely turned off by the adolescent boys club atmosphere and prominently displayed quasi-porn mags and scantily clad superheroine statues. Bergen Street has the opposite effect, with it’s dark wood interior, antique furniture and original art displays helping to encourage those who might not normally pick up a comic. Another key part of it’s model is in hosting regular events, signing and art exhibitions, making the store a cultural part of the Brooklyn literary community.
Comic book stores have come a long way from the musty and dank shops of my youth.
I’m thirty-eight now, and I have a two and a half year old son of my own. It won’t be long before I’ll be looking to share my addiction and love of comics with him.
But, which stores will be his comic book shops?