THE KINGS OF NEW YORK: THE COMIC BOOK STORES OF NEW YORK CITY
And no place that I'd rather be
Where else can you do a half a million things
And all at a quarter to three”
---- Huey Lewis and The News
Yeah, I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday. My very first visit to a comic book shop was one of the most powerful and unbelievable experiences of my life. Some of you might not realize how meaningful a role the initiation and adventure of going to get your comics from a specialty shop truly is — it’s amazing how much we take for granted the sweetest things in life — but me, I’ve always looked forward to seeing what wonders await me there. Among a handful of other events, that first visit really fired up my imagination and made such a lasting impression on me as a youngster that I’m positive it is a big part of the reason that I’m still reading and writing about comic books after all these years.
For me, it all began by accident on a cold, late Saturday afternoon in March of 1983, when I was just a young Catholic school boy from Jersey City making his very first trip into New York’s Greenwich Village. I was accompanied by an older cousin with whom I’ve had a strained relationship since birth. After failing to find this silly Garfield novelty candle that made me want to go on this trip in the first place, I was stuck walking with my cousin as we wandered the adjacent streets in the area looking for whatever she was interested in. It was nightfall when I saw the name on a sign that immediately grabbed my curiosity: “Batcave.”
|Here’s an artifact from one of my trips to the Batcave. I miss the days when the Spidey heads were in the UPC box.|
“Hold on,” I told my cousin. It quickly became apparent to me that the sign was intended for a barely noticeable store in the basement of this particular building. As I looked below through their two gated windows, I could see a dazzling oasis in my eyes. I walked down those dirty steps and speedily opened that creaky door, and my eyes widened as a quiet delight overcame me. The grungy-looking place was freezing cold, smelled like old newspapers, and the interior was way too narrow to hold more than eight people, but what I saw there was something I’d never seen before: a true comic book store. I was never more dumbfounded with total bliss.
Upon entering Batcave, you were faced with the sight of all the new releases. I was immediately struck by the cool ferocity on the cover of “Uncanny X-Men” #170 by Paul Smith and the dire predicament of Lando and Luke on Marvel’s “Star Wars” #72; copies of “Blip” and “Defenders” were there, also. When I looked around I could see rows of back-issue bins arranged in alphabetical order. Having no interest in these four-color wonders, my non-believer cousin left me alone in the store for over an hour. I wouldn’t have cared if she had never returned from her shenanigans to get me. I discovered all about the value of back issues, comic bags and boxes, fandom and the direct market that allowed you to buy Marvel titles far earlier than you could at the newsstands, with those cool Spidey head logos in the UPC box. I became convinced that there wasn’t a more beautiful décor than key comic issues covering the walls for all to see. Little did I know that this was merely the first expedition into an entirely new world.
After that first experience, I’d soon return, regularly, accompanied by any willing adult chaperon I could find, like my favorite aunt, my older half-brother (who lived in the nearby NYU dorms), my grandmother, my mom, etc.… I even told all my classmates at St. Ann’s Polish Grammar School about my adventures in New York, and I shared all my “imported” acquisitions for them to read, as well. They were different times back then, as all the guys in my class caught the comic book-reading bug. I was blessed to be in such an environment.
Now, over twenty-five years later, I’m back in the Big Apple with the purpose of revisiting and writing about all my favorite comic shops in New York City. There’s just nothing that lifts my spirits more than looking at comics in Manhattan. Luckily, it is truly a beautiful spring-like day when my brother, on his way to Chinatown, drops me off on the corner of Bleecker and Christopher. In the course of going uptown while visiting these six shops, I’d only really walk somewhere between three to four miles. As I begin the hike I note that one of the things that makes New York incredible is how the ambience changes every couple of blocks. This particular area used to be heavy with interesting music shops where you could find tons of great, rare CDs; high quality bootlegs; and choice vinyl of your favorites, but thanks to the Internet and other legalities these places just aren’t around anymore. Bleecker Street Records is still going strong, though, and have been around for as long as I can remember. I sidetrack momentarily to see what new imports they might have.
Since I’m not too far from the location that used to house the Batcave, I decide to revisit the spot of my “divine enlightenment.” Just off the New York University campus, the location at 120 West 3rd (between 6th Avenue and MacDougal) now appears vacant and neglected, but my memories of it are still quite vivid. When I used to come in on Saturday afternoons, I’d usually find either Roger Wong or Paul Steen behind the counter. Those two guys were incredibly nice and accommodating in answering my questions or helping me find any odd back issue, which for whatever reason I felt I desperately needed to read. It was in this shop that I discovered the works of Neal Adams, John Byrne, Frank Miller, etc.… Here I saw a copy of “Incredible Hulk” #181 on the wall when the $30 price tag seemed liked $1000 to me. It was here I bought that “Hawkeye” #1 that I once lent to Carmina, a grade school crush that I did nothing about, while she introduced me to a thesaurus — I always had a thing for headstrong ladies. During a school week, I’d just think about the titles that I wanted to read and save up as much money as I could from my Sunday job at my dad’s store, the occasional accordion gig, or from the tips that I received as an altar boy at funeral masses. I’ve always had to work to buy my comics. As a kid, I’d imagined that I’d one day go study at New York University and hang out more frequently at Batcave, but sadly neither of those things happened as the store ceased to exist in 1986 when the building was sold to a new owner.
A lot of things have changed around the West Village since my childhood. It isn’t thriving with life like I remembered it being. The big Sam Goody’s store that hosted a lot of big music signings on Sixth Avenue near Eighth Street is no more; I remember The Cranberries coming here at their pop height. The almighty Tower Records on Broadway and Fourth is also long gone. Eighth Street used to brim with foot traffic and stores. Not so much this late Saturday morning, as a lot of store fronts seem closed. On this last street there used to be a comic shop named Sleep Of Reason Comics and the ultimate Beatle music shop, Revolver — both seem to have vanished. As I pass Sullivan Street, I note the location that used to house Village Comics is now a real estate office; I’m later told that Village Comics closed in 2007. It’s a real shame since it was one of the top comic stores in the early 1990s. No less than Art Spiegelman once proclaimed it as his favorite comics specialty store in the pages of “Entertainment Weekly” (of all celebrity rags) back when they were on Bleecker Street. I remember bumping into a discreet “X-Men” writer, Scott Lobdell, twice; stumbling upon unauthorized Mr. Pink garage kits actually signed by actor Steve Buscemi; and even watching porn star Christina Angel do a signing there. Talk about diversity. It’s very sad to see this particular shop disappear, since the owner, Joe, and his sons ran a very fun establishment.
|Welcome to St. Mark’s Comics! Beautiful toys and back issue comics from towards the back of the store. All photographs were taken very quickly by Pop! on October 11, 2008.|
Thankfully, as I walk down Eighth Street, past the ever-hectic Cooper Square, to get to St. Mark’s Comics, things begin to feel much more familiar. I love seeing the very narrow sidewalks packed with all sorts of interesting looking people from the East Village. Just across the street from Mondo Kim’s, between 2nd and 3rd Ave, St. Mark’s Comics is located on 11 St. Mark’s Place and stands as one of the longest running comics stores in lower Manhattan. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only comics shop that Alan Moore ever visited while on one of his rare trips to the States in the mid-Eighties. I vividly recall a memorable “Comics Journal” flipcover by heartthrob Bob Fingerman where he illustrated himself naked in front of the instantly recognizable store. There’s even an episode of “Sex in the City” where Carrie hooks up with an employee of the shop.
St. Mark’s Comics is one of the finest purveyors of comics in NYC. I had heard about it for years, but it’s in a part of town that I didn’t frequent until I went searching for it in the early 1990s after school. One of the store’s biggest advantages is that from Wednesday to Saturday they’re open until 1:00 a.m. When life was more hectic for me and I didn’t have time to buy comics during daywalker hours, a quick drive through the Holland Tunnel would take me there in mere minutes to get the latest books. I’ve always suffered from insomnia and love the fact that St. Mark’s Comics and New York don’t have time to sleep.
|A St. Mark’s Comics customer samples a Mark Texeira illustrated “Vampirella” book. This is my favorite picture of the whole day.|
St. Mark’s manager, Mitch, tells Pop!, “If you have visited New York but have not been to the East Village, you have not visited New York.” He’s quite right. 42nd Street is nice, sugar-coated and touristy, but there’s something more authentic and alive about the diversity and colorfulness of the area in which St. Mark’s Comics can be found smack in the middle of. As you enter the store and check your bag, you’ll find all the new books nicely displayed to your left-hand side, while on the right-hand side and towards the back is one of the very best trade paperback and hardcover collections that I’ve ever seen. Over the years, it has been the store that I’ve gone to for rare import trades from Titan and Knockabout — I picked up my copies of “Zenith” (by Grant Morrison) and “Jeff Hawke” (Syd Jordan) here. The back issue area all the way in the back is the spot in this store where I’ve spent and enjoyed the most time. It looks a little cramped, but you’ve got more than enough room to comfortably spend hours looking for vintage comics among their dozens of long boxes. The customer service has always been top-notch as the usually very young-looking employees do their best to assist you with your needs and questions. Plus, the store is loaded with great toys, t-shirts, and other pop culture goodies that only make it feel more like home. It’s the type of place that does not intimidate non-comic readers because there’s bound to be something here they like. The overall service, quality and spirited fun feel pretty much same as they did the day I first stepped into this store in 1992.
|The front of St. Mark’s Comics. Well displayed new comics to your right; bundled sets, toys, goodies and trades are to your left. The Spring-like weather allowed the front door to be wide open so that you see some of the foot traffic in the area.|
I ask Mitch if the comics industry has changed in the twenty-five years that St. Mark’s has been around. Mitch answers, “It’s a dramatically different business from the one we started in, in many ways, but the core of it is still to provide the best selection out there of everything you can possibly lay your hands on, to treat people with respect, to give them the best possible service, and the best possible hours. There’s very little we won’t do for our customers.”
Having grown up in the New York City comic store environment, I come from the Veruca Salt School in that I want my comics now! I want to know that I can find a new book without looking through an intimidating issue of Diamond’s “Previews” or the hassle of commitment and obligations. Then there are always those moments when I can’t find something I want to read in the weekly releases, but I’m still craving to read something. A store like St. Mark’s allows you to explore the staggering diversity of books for something that suits your appetite. I do know that I’m not the only one that goes through these notions. Mitch says to me, “Many more people know precisely what they’re looking for. Many more people have absolutely no idea what they’re looking for.” Yeah, life’s a conundrum. Thank God St. Mark’s can always be counted on to provide guidance.
|Forbidden Planet New York, 840 Broadway, New York, New York. Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 10AM-10PM; Wednesday 9AM-12AM; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 10AM-Midnight, and Sunday 10AM-11PM.|
My next stop is Forbidden Planet (FB) at 840 Broadway. As I walk to its location near Union Square, I remember the rush I used to get when visiting the original location, only a block down from their present spot. In the spring of 1983, Tommy Santiago, a neighborhood childhood pal, introduced me to New York City’s original Forbidden Planet, which remains the biggest comic book store that I’ve seen with my own eyes. It was like the equivalent of having Disneyland in New York to know there was a comic and fantasy outlet that had two floors loaded with this brand of madness and pure imagination. New comics and sci-fi books were on the top floor, back issues and toys in the basement — seriously, you really needed to see this place on a crowded Saturday to catch the fever.
Forbidden Planet moved to their present address in early 1996. Union Square is a national landmark and a vital intersection with a key central train station that sees more traffic now than ever before. The park, a major movie theatre, Barnes & Nobles, Virgin Megastore and other reputable stores make this a spot that you must soak in. Forbidden Planet wisely benefits from having their doors open and accessible to all that come to visit this booming area. It’s nice to see the tradition that started in 1981 continues to this day.
I was to meet with the manager, Jeff, but one of the guys at the front tells me he isn’t coming in this Saturday. What a pickle. Despite being a little acquainted with one of partners, I don’t know anyone here and I’m hesitant to ask if I can take photos and ask questions inside the very slick-looking store. I merely look around the store to find things look great and that this location has developed a life and identity of its own. Yet, it is a little amazing how this store still has a lot of the vibe of the original. At the center of FB are comics and more comics, nice displays full of fantastic toys and statues, and shelves abundant with science fiction books; all the necessary comic trades and hardcovers are displayed throughout the first floor. I didn’t really notice any back issues, and on this day I don’t make it up to the short second level, but I’m certain that it is devoted to manga and anime.
|Time Machine, 207 West 14th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, New York. Telephone: Hours: Monday & Thursday: 12PM-7PM; Wednesday, Friday & Saturday: 11AM-7:30PM; Sunday 1PM-6PM; Tuesday: Closed.|
Four New York City blocks from Forbidden Planet is Time Machine (TM) at 207 West 14th Street. One of my old hangouts, Time Machine is owned by Roger, one of my favorite people on this earth and a fellow frustrated Mets fan. In late 1985, my “Mosquito Coast” period, my dad moved the family overseas for five years (which seemed liked twenty-five years to me). Away from Jersey and civilization as I knew it, teenage depression inevitably ensued. But during two joyous summers, I was allowed to spend my school vacations back in the States with my aunt and grandmother, respectively. Although I had some pocket change and was staying in Jersey City, I needed a reason to go into New York and make some cash for comics, so I got my first real job as a month-long Burger King grunt on the corner of 14th and 6th Avenue, just as Roger was nearby opening his comic book store at his original location above Second Hand Rose Music in July of 1987. Rog is one of those guys who is more than nice and he does everything he can to ensure you obtain the vintage comics you desperately crave. His attitude and friendliness have kept me coming back for over twenty years.
“By and large,” Roger says, “I think our clientele is a little older than your average store. I think our median age here would be thirties, late thirties — mostly either serious comic collectors or people who are really into it and spend a decent amount of money on new books every week. It’s still a lot of neighborhood people, but we get a lot of people who travel to come here, and go out of their way to come here. So I guess it’s our wonderful dispositions and gorgeous appearance.”
|Pardon the glare, once inside Time Machine I find Roger tidying up the new book shelves. I’ve known Rog since the summer of 1987.|
While a lot of comic book retailers these days depend less on vintage books as a major source of revenue, the old comics are such a staple of Time Machine that people come from all over the world to see the store’s inventory. Over the years his reputation has grown.
Roger says, “Carrying vintage books requires somebody who knows the vintage book market, knows how to grade very well, and knows how to deal with customers who are looking for vintage books to be in the store all the time, whereas if you mostly carry newer material and current material, pretty much all it takes is somebody who can add properly, and who knows the new book market. So we have a balance here. I’ll be here. I don’t know the new book market as well as Carlos [a longtime Time Machine employee] does. Carlos knows the new book market and isn’t quite as strong on vintage books, but it makes a nice balance. Vintage books, it’s more about the buying than the selling. It’s more about acquiring collections, and that’s the important part. We don’t have to push this stuff. We don’t hard-sell anybody. It’s just, people come in and want things, and we try to give them the best price we can, and conduct our business as reputably as possible. That’s what keeps people coming back.”
Rog adds, “By and large, for vintage books and back issues, other than changes in certain titles being more desirable than they were and vice-versa, I don’t think it’s changed a lot. The new book market has changed a lot. It’s a much more stable market in terms of knowing what kind of business you’re going to do in a given week based on what your invoicing looks like. So, in the sense of you won’t have one boffo week and then one terrible week. It might differ by 20%, 30% either way, but back in the Eighties and early Nineties, you’d have weeks where you’d be swimming in piles of money, and then the following week it would be horrible. And now it’s very steady, very stable.”
Time Machine also carries vintage entertainment photographs, magazines, toys, old “Playboy” and other men’s magazines, and fantastic vintage theatrical posters. All are encouraged to look about the merchandise in case they find what they didn’t know they were looking for, and you’re bound to find something that’ll take you back to a favorite memory at Rog’s Time Machine. For years I thought that the best thing I ever got from this place was a beautiful 1962 “Brave and the Bold” #44, but the finest thing I ever got out of Roger’s store was his friendship. Often witnessing how happy people get when they speak with him, I can see that I’m not alone in that sentiment.
If I ever met a clerk who was exactly like Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons,” it was at the now defunct Manhattan Comics (228 West 23rd) around Chelsea. I used to come here sometimes because I had a real cranky art teacher in the area, and I’d check out their decent inventory after class. With his usual attire of black t-shirt and jeans, the lone clerk was a man who barely spoke, with the exception of ringing up your total. This overweight operator of few words had a look that could pierce right through you if you tried any small talk or bothered to ask him a question. It took a lot of balls just to ask him to look for something. In 2005, I met the former owner at the recently closed It’s Another Hit (on 33rd Street) and was told that the bearded clerk had died a few years back. I was really sad to hear that, because despite the fact he wasn’t exactly a big burst of sunshine, I’ll miss him and the store.
In front of Madison Square Park, down 23rd Street, on the edge of Midtown and Gramercy Park, is arguably the classiest looking comic book store that I’ve ever been in this country: Cosmic Comics. This shop first came to my attention when I was a Marvel Intern Zombie in the fall of 1995. It didn’t seem like a lot of the senior editors were regular purchasers of new comics on Wednesday, but I’d often hear one of the assistant editors mention this place, so being what I am I went looking for it when it was at its original location. In its more spacious and current location at 10 East 23rd St., 2nd Floor, everything is basically the same from the original store, just much better. The usual soothing jazz tunes over the speakers exude much of the same class that the owner, Mark, carries with him, with his quiet sense of humor and his beautifully laid out store. Often the highlight of my day as an intern at 387 Park Avenue was looking through Cosmic’s bins and trade selves in search of books by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Brian Bolland or just looking at the staff picks from the week’s shipment. The store has a generous rebate system that rewards customers with $20 in store credit for every $100 spent, which has been in place since before Midtown Comics existed. The philosophy that has served Mark well: “We’re friendly and honest. We’ll tell people if books suck. And we know everybody by name.” [BTW, I was actually impressed that Mark remembered me from my internship days since the guys I actually interned for barely did. So he speaks the truth.]
For sixteen years, Cosmic Comics has been king in this part of town. “We have better music,” Mark tells Pop! about the difference between Cosmic and the others, “and the other guys don’t even have music. Not all of them; some of them do. I won’t say anything bad about other stores. I’m friendly with most of the owners of the other stores. Some of them are bigger than mine. We specialize mostly in new books and back issues, not so much in toys and extraneous stuff.”
When I ask Mark how the business has changed over the years, Mark responds, “More trade paperbacks. Graphic novels and trades are a significant portion of our business now. I’m not keeping tabs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 20% of our gross. That’s the big difference. When we opened up, licensing was not, again, a part of comics. Toys were just starting to make it. Cards were actually bigger than toys. Now, licensing is everything. If it weren’t for licensing, there wouldn’t be comic book companies. Movies and toys are what this business is about… I mean, there’s still idealistic creators who enjoy comics and are writing it, but generally this is a business, and the comics industry is about licensing. That’s where they make all their money.”
Experience has shown Cosmic Comics how to keep in stock the kinds of books their customers expect to find. The consumers of today are a smarter and more demanding bunch that wants value and substance in the books they purchase. “They have to be,” said Mark. “In the Nineties, when we opened, the average comic was a buck and a buck-and-a-quarter. The average comic now is three or four dollars. They really have to make decisions now.”
|Jim Hanley’s Universe, 4 West 33rd (opposite the legendary Empire State Building), New York City. Telephone: 212-268-7088. The store’s schedule: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday are 9AM-11PM, Wednesday 8:30AM-11PM, Sunday 10AM-9PM.|
Jim Hanley’s Universe is a place that I’ve been going to since 1990 when they were located in the A & S Plaza (the perpetual renovating Manhattan Mall) and later at a 32nd Street location. Today, right beside the Empire State Building, is the comics store that is the crossroad “where art and literature meet.” Jim Hanley’s Universe has been at its present address, 4 West 33rd Street, for over a decade and has hosted many major creator signings in their Manhattan location; there’s also a sister store in Staten Island. From filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to ingénue Jessica Alba, from maestro Jim Lee to icon Joe Kubert, they and many other well-known comics creators and film celebrities have visited the store. But above all else, the store provides a comfortable setting that allows customers a place to become acquainted with comics. On any given day, one can walk into the NYC location and see people in their aisles browsing through this inviting environment.
Since 2001, the talented comics writer Vito Delsante has worked at Hanley’s as one of the store’s managers. Delsante tells Pop!, “I think we have a certain reputation amongst comics buyers and people that come to New York and are looking for comics as the store that has one of everything, or has a little bit of everything. I think when you compare us to other stores in the city, some stores don’t carry t-shirts, but some do. Some stores don’t carry toys, but some do. Some don’t carry adult material, but we do. Like I said, we carry everything. So I think that’s our reputation. I think that’s our claim to fame. Everybody carries something that we have, but I think we have the most complete selection that there is.”
The staff has always been friendly with a ready and willing to please attitude. They’re ready to talk comics and even provide recommendations. I’m certain that the interaction and comfort of the store continue to be a big factor to Hanley’s success. Delsante adds, “Jim Hanley comes from supermarket retailing from when he was a kid, so we have that kind of customer service tack of walking up and down aisles and stuff like that. So I think we have a friendlier staff. That’s what we get complimented on, more often than not. We have a friendlier staff than most of the stores in the city. I’ve never come into any problems with anybody else’s staff, but if you look online at any kind of review of the store, we usually get, ‘They were so nice, they knew exactly what I was looking for, they could help me find it.’ So we’re well-versed and we’re very nice.”
With all “Watchmen” movie hubabaloo, I couldn’t help asking Vito if the film’s buzz has impacted sales and increased traffic. He answers, “Well, we were talking about it before, but the trailer already gave us a boost in that book’s sales. We’re trying to merchandise ‘Watchmen’ with other Alan Moore books so that way people can read more Alan Moore stuff. Once you’re reading Alan Moore stuff, then you jump into Neil Gaiman, or Grant Morrison, and then we can kind of hand-sell everything from there. But I think it’s like when ‘Spider-Man: The Movie’ came out, everybody was looking for the ‘Spider-Man: The Movie’ book, the adaptation or something, and they weren’t really willing to try all the other stuff. We’ve never not been able to sell ‘Watchmen,’ but I think, at the same time, it’s getting a little bit tougher to sell ‘Tom Strong’ or ‘Top Ten,’ whereas, because ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ was a movie, people are like, ‘Oh, this guy did another movie,’ not realizing Alan Moore had nothing to do with the movie.”
If a current book ever becomes “elusive” or “hot,” your best bet is to visit Hanley’s. From experience, I don’t ever remember a time when something I was looking for wasn’t there. That’s a pretty incredible notion because there isn’t a week in Jersey when I’m not told something is sold out. In fact, when “Ultimate Spider-Man” #1 was already selling for $40 a copy, Hanley still had many first printings at cover price. They’ve always hammered in me the idea that the real value in comics lies in the reading; it’s why people keep coming back. The vanguard and essentials (“Watchmen,” “Maus,” “Love & Rockets,” “Dark Knight Returns” and other classics) are all present and accounted for, and always five copies deep, with more in overstock. If something sells out, they’re quick to reorder. The inviting nature of the store draws in all (the initiated, the uninitiated, and the tourists) to enjoy the comics medium together here.
|Midtown Comics, 200 West 40th Street (corner of 7th Avenue), New York City. Schedule: Monday-Saturday 11AM-9PM, Sunday 12PM- Telephone: (212) 302-8192. The store occupies two floors (2nd and 3rd of this location).|
As I make my way to the last stop, Midtown Comics at 200 West 40th Street, I’m feeling better about myself than I’ve felt in a long time, not the least bit tired. The first time I saw Midtown was just as they were opening in 1997, when I was nearby getting my eyes examined at the Cohen’s Optical on 1450 Broadway. Like Ishmael, I felt I had spotted something important. From day one, this has been a really impressive store, even back when it was basically one floor. I still own my first purchase from Midtown: “Supreme” #55. And since 1997, I’ve regularly patronized the store which has grown tall in Times Square, in what now feels like the busiest area of NYC. They’ve even added another location, Midtown Comics Grand Central, at 459 Lexington. I’d never have imagined that they’d grow up to be such a mighty force so quickly.
It’s hard to believe now, but in the early Nineties the area around 42nd Street and the Port Authority Station were still in disarray as homelessness, neglected properties, exotic clubs and adult movie theatres, and other eyesores painted a negative impression to locals, commuters and tourists. By the late 1990s, the area was transformed into an eye-catching tourist attraction where families from all over the world can now come together and partake in a Broadway show, fine dining, and shop from the many quality stores in the area — and should these people need comics, Midtown is right there in the thick of it.
Gahl, Midtown’s longtime manager and buyer, says, “Every store operates a little differently. For each one, that’s what works best for that store. Not knocking any particular system now, we just found that generally we operate the way that’s good for us. But, at the end of the day, most of the shops in the city, there’s some basic elements that are all there. It’s just a matter of presentation. The character, you have to give it some kind of character. Our strong suit is our store is very nice and open and spacious, with a lot of merchandise in it. So, especially with the graphic novels, we try to give it a book store feel with the way we shelve graphic novels.”
If you’ve ever wanted to see how busy a comic store could get on a Wednesday, you might want to take a look at Midtown — if you can get through the door. It’s strangely exciting to see so many people together and pumped up with anxiety to get the latest releases. The first floor has the new books, new magazines, some vintage books and graphic novels; the second floor has back issues, statues, toys, adult publications, posters and other goodies. Key to Midtown’s success is a rebate system that rewards customers with $20 in store credit once they’ve spent $100. They’ve also hosted many major signings (Frank Miller, Alex Ross, Dave Gibbons, etc.) and exclusive variant covers. A recent press release indicated Midtown has over 20,000 trades in their inventory for their Black Friday online event. Their ads in “Wizard” magazine, comics from the Big Two and other avenues have helped to reinforce the message to New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike that they are welcome to shop at both of their two locations.
Gahl states, “We try to have everything that’s at least within the comics realm, and very small forays into other non-essential areas that are only tangentially related to what we’re doing. But it can be pretty daunting sometimes, and sometimes just unpredictable things happen, and you go, ‘Oops, we should have had more.’ But every store has that situation, unfortunately, but you live, you learn, and hopefully you make your mistakes as you go along… It’s a full-time job just sitting down and ordering to the point that I just relocated to a warehouse location just so I can sit down, not get distracted by anything, and just sit down and start doing ordering. It’s a pretty big job.”
“How can New York City host so many excellent comic book shops?” I ask him. Gahl answers, “Yeah, I think it’s a very uniquely New York thing. I mean, maybe you could do it in Boston, maybe you could do it in Chicago, and the cities that have a very strong commuter traffic that is not necessarily reliant on owning a car. But, again, there was a survey done a couple of years ago by one of the restaurant chains that they could put a chain every two blocks and every business was going to be fine, that’s just the way New York is. People don’t want to walk very far. I mean, we have our loyal customers that go out of their way, as well, and I’m sure every store does.”
Around 6:00 p.m., I finish my visit at Midtown and head to Penn Station to get home on the 7:00 NJ Transit train bound for Trenton. And there are still more comic shops in upper Manhattan, but I’ve never gravitated towards them with any great regularity. I went to Gotham City Comics on Lexington once and shopped several times at recently closed Collector’s Universe when I worked at 280 Park Avenue for a few years. I’ve heard that Alex’s MVP Cards on 89th is a nice comics spot that focuses more on baseball cards; there’s also Chameleon downtown, but I’ve not visited that area since 9/11. My good friend, Mark McKenzie, always recommends Kinokuniya for the latest manga and Japanese art books. I never realized that my shopping habits depended so much on where I was working or hanging about. At one time or another, all of these stores have provided solace to me when I just needed some remedy from whatever blues I might have had from school, work, family or lack of inspiration.
If you grew up in my hometown, Jersey City, you’d know that to make something of yourself, you’d certainly need to go to New York City, where you can find anything your heart desires. Being in the shadow of the Big Apple, I was raised and educated to believe that success in life comes from getting a white collar job and riding on a train into the streets of NYC every day for the rest of your existence. Now for some reason that didn’t work with me, but I’ve been fortunate to instead find something a lot better in all of these comic book stores and the kindred people I’ve met in them. These are the places that really spoke to me, the places that I’ve always looked forward to visiting, places that at one time or another lifted my spirits and made me feel unstoppable. Comics and these stores don’t owe me a single thing, because I’ll always be indebted to them. I’m sure that I’m not alone in that sentiment. I guess some things just love you back no matter what.
There isn’t a single thing more fitting in life than having the city that gave birth to the comic book medium be the home to the finest comic book stores in the world. You will never witness comics become more alive than you will in these places. All are welcomed and encouraged to browse through the shelves and find wonderment, my superfriends. So do yourself a favor, the next time you’re in the Big Apple, go to these places, be ready to have fun, spend a little money and be prepared for enlightenment and bewitchment. You’re all invited. And on any given day, you’ll find me right there, no doubt engrossed in great books.
[Special thanks to Eric Nolen-Weathington for his invaluable help and advice.]