One of the joys of a comic shop is looking through the boxes of cheapie comics, the ones that won’t sell for full price because they are beat up or just not popular.
The last thing I need to buy in addition to my weekly fix of new comics is a stack of old books I already own, tucked away somewhere among the many boxes secreted around my house and garage.
I was in Comics Are Go the other day when I spotted a book I had not seen in years, an obscure 1979 issue about a time-traveling cowboy called The Rook. I bought it for a couple bucks and reveled in the story of a scientist who invents a machine that can pick up “time fragments” that transport him somewhere into the past for very brief periods of time.
Like any comic reader worth his salt, I’ve fantasized about owning such a device. Setting aside practical uses of a time machine, like killing baby Hitler or buying Microsoft stock at $35, I would go back to a place where I spent much of my youth: Catagnus’s Joke and Trick Shop, a store in the Norristown suburb of Philadelphia that sold old comics.
Old comics were rare and precious commodities in the early 1960s, before comic shops existed. I was forever looking for 1950s issues of Superman and Batman, Marvel’s pre-superhero books and, the Holy Grail, All Star Comics featuring the Justice Society of America. Spoiler alert, I have never succeeded in owning a single issue of All Star Comics.
The shop was filled with goofy stuff like trick cards, fake ice cubes with flies inside and dribble glasses. In all the years I went there, I never saw anyone actually buy any of the tricks. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing any customers in the store besides us kids.
The comics were stacked on the floor, piles of them. There were a lot of romance comics, as well as Archie and Sad Sack comics, which we quickly ignored. The true gems were the superhero books. They were only five to ten years old, but to us they were real treasures. Old Batman books—with wonderfully goofy covers depicting Batman being turned into a toddler, a negative image, a genie, or a giant—were like gold.
And they sold for the exorbitant price of six for a quarter.
My friends and I would hit the shop at least once a week, a half-hour bike ride away. I would call the poor shop owner every day to see if anyone had brought in old comics to sell. The response was usually “nothing new,” but every once in a while it would be, “Yeah, we got a stack.”
And the race would be on.
The shop was pretty much out of business by the time I got my driver’s license. That’s when I expanded my search to flea markets and antique stores.
But I still dream of walking into that dusty shop.
When I picked up The Rook last week it occurred to me how little things have changed. Here I bought a 1979 book for little more than the $1.75 original cover price, a book that was 40 years old. With inflation, that’s probably as cheap as getting six 10 cent comics for a quarter.
Today’s collectors can peruse the dollar bins and come up with a handful of 30 and 40 year-old books on the cheap. I never found a book more than 10 years old when I was a kid.
And they won’t have to peddle their bikes miles across town to a novelty shop. In the snow. Up hill, both ways.
Hmm, maybe these are the good old days.