What It was Like to be a
Over the past several months in this column, I have been relating my experiences as a comics dealer during the summer of 1974. Part of my motivation in passing on these tales has been simply personal, as it has been very comforting to recall all the travails and experiences that I went through 30 years ago that ultimately resulted in my abandoning my full scholarship to college, and deciding to instead devote my life to the world of comics. At the same time as this literary exercise has been personally rewarding, however, my second goal has been to provide all of you with at least a little bit of a taste of what it was like to be a comics retailer during the early 1970's. This column will continue to explore that theme, with my personal experiences continuing to act as a background to the events of that time.
The first Mile High Comics retail store opened on September 30th, 1974. Our first location was in the back room of Lois Newman Books, a wonderful science fiction books specialty store that was opened in a newly remodeled old four-story bank building downtown Boulder. Lois had rented her store on the "garden level" of the building, which meant that she was in the basement. The good news is that the owners of the building had made the two basement retail stores visible from the sidewalk by rebuilding the front wall twenty feet back from it's original location. This meant that there was a railing where the front wall used to be, and if you looked downward you could see the glass front of Lois's store sitting back about 20 feet from the railing. Her store sign was right at ground level, so the spot was actually pretty darn good for retailing. She never lacked for foot traffic, even though potential customers had to walk down a flight of stairs to get to her store.
The first problem I ran into with my store was that I was totally dependent upon Lois's store being open. The only outside entrance to my portion of the store was through the emergency stairwell that led upwards into the alley. That simply was not viable as a retail entrance. So when Lois decided not to open, our store was closed, too. That was only a minor problem, however, once Lois quickly abandoned her romantic notions of being able to close her store every Wednesday to go hiking or skiing. From that point forward she was open seven days a week, and the large number of customers she brought to Boulder via her aggressive advertising in the Denver newspapers frequently were just as willing to purchase comics as her science fiction books. Her advertising gave us just that little bit of additional traffic that we needed in order to survive.
Survival in those early days was far from a given. I opened that first store with my convention inventory (about 20 chicken boxes filled with prime back issues) and the $800 in cash that I had managed to squirrel away after exhibiting at the four comics shows that I attended during the summer of 1974. As I mentioned in last month's column, that first store was incredibly primitive, with a single light bulb providing the only illumination for about 1,200 square feet. In order to get the store fit for retail, I had to first spend $400 (half of my entire working capital!) on installing enough fluorescent fixtures to provide bright illumination in that cavernous space. Then I cut a deal with a store going out of business near by to purchase from them a wonderful front counter built of beautifully varnished wood for $100 ($50 down, the rest in a month). For fixtures I purchased 20 card tables at $2 apiece, and then went to Goodwill and found some used sheets. I tried to dye the sheets red in the bathtub of the old Victorian rooming house where I lived at the time, but ended up instead with a particularly obnoxious pink. Since I was out of money for dye, they had to do. For creating my comics displays, I went down the alley to yet another downtown building that was being remodeled, and climbed into their dumpster. The interior of that building had been made of plaster and lathe. I found that the lathing strips were perfectly usable for creating a wall of comics above my card tables when they were nailed between the massive oak pillars in the middle of my store space that held up the ground floor. I attached the plastic bags of my display comics to the lathing strips with carpet tacks, thus creating a beautiful 50-foot long by 4 feet high "wall" of comics for practically nothing.
The hardest part about putting together that first store was the floor. Not only was it covered in tons of construction materials, which needed to be moved, but it was also made of unfinished concrete coated in a deep layer of dust, which had been filtering down through the bare beams above for nearly 100 years. After having several violent coughing fits while moving construction materials I came to realize that there was no way I could ask customers to endure that kind of environment. So I used the very last of my money to purchase several gallons of concrete sealer. With no other option available to me, I applied that sealer (two coats!) with only a roller and pan. As anyone who has ever dealt with that kind of sealer can easily verify, it is toxic in enclosed spaces. Lois didn't want me applying it during the day, so I spent the two nights before the store opened desperately applying sealer, while hoping that I wouldn't pass out during the process. The alley door provided some fresh air, but mostly I painted for an hour, and then spent half an hour in the alley trying to clear my lungs and head. I'm probably lucky I didn't pass out and die.
In the end, I opened the store only nine days after the original deal was struck. The floor was still wet in places, and I still had to have the alley door open for ventilation, but my dream of the previous five years to open my very own comics shop had finally come to fruition. I was only 19 years old, but by golly, I was now an official retailer! I sold slightly over $100 in comics and portfolios on that first day, which I considered to be an amazing success. Our total sales during October of 1974 were about $1,600, November came in at $1,450, and December rose to $2,650. Not huge numbers by any means, but since I was paying so little rent, and my first manager, Steve Swink, was willing to work for $1 in cash and $1 an hour in trade, we just barely managed to get by.
As an aside, I took nothing from the store for living expenses for myself, as I had (belatedly) been informed by my parents that I was eligible for schooling benefits (including enough for living expenses) as a result of my stepfather having qualified for Social Security at age 65. It turned out that I actually could have started drawing these benefits six months before I opened the store, but my parents intentionally concealed my eligibility from me as they were trying to financially coerce me into staying in the Army as a career (see last month's column about my battles with the Army). Earning that financial assistance did, however, require my attending classes full time, so Steve Swink's efforts were what kept that store rolling during its first year.
While what I've told you about my opening that first store is very personal, it does also give you a sense of the comics industry at that time. The first thing that you should have noticed is that you had to be at least a little bit crazy to want to participate in the world of comics in 1974. My decision to abandon a "safe" career in the Army (was there ever a greater oxymoron?), to instead earn less than minimum wage selling comics, seemed absolutely idiotic at the time. I was far from alone in being inexorably drawn to a life in comics retailing, however, as numerous early comics dealers such as Bud Plant, John Barrett, Bob Beerbohm, Buddy Saunders, Steve and Bill Shanes, Phil Seuling, Steve Geppi, Ron Van Leeuwen, Bruce Hamilton, Russ Cochran and dozens of others somehow came of the notion that they should give up their straight jobs for a life in comics that paid far less. Frankly, given the rewards were being offered back then, we were all vastly more passionate than sensible. I'd like to explore that thought a bit more, but I'm simply out of room this month. I will try, however, to give you a sense in next month's column of what we were up against in trying to build viable comics businesses in 1974. I think that history has some very direct current applicability given today's treacherous and difficult comics retailing environment.
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