I have many vague memories of my first regular comic book shop. They are vague in the way that most memories tend to get after two decades. But they are good memories, happy memories.
I don’t remember when I first starting buying comics, one of my earliest memories of comics being around was in kindergarten and I was 5 then, and they were around my apartment before that, so it’s been a lot of years. When I hit age 10 and went to junior high school my comic book reading friends (primarily Gavan, Patrick, Clark and Noah) and I had a lot of options around our neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
There was Comics For Sale on 75th and Columbus, and it was only two blocks from our school so we hit that one a lot once the bell rang. Sometimes the guy let us pay for books with tokens as both comics and the subway cost $1.00 at the time. And then, oddly, they both went to $1.25 at the same time.
Big Apple Comics was on 89th and Broadway and that was a last resort stop mostly because in the late 1980s/early 1990s that was a sketchy section of Broadway, but also because it was one of those dingy, on the second floor, crap everywhere stores that I hated even as a kid. Good poster selection, though.
Another option to buy comics was the newsstand on 79th and Broadway, which was just two blocks from my apartment, and a good place to hit up in an emergency. I remember running there to buy the New York Daily News when I heard they had a picture of Robin’s new costume. I read the article right there at the newsstand and saw in the article that that issue of Batman with the new costume was on newsstands now and looking up to see it on the rack and buying that too. I still have that comic and that article.
But my first shop, the place I look back on with the fondest memories was West Side Comics. Located on 86th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, it was my first real comics home. My friend Patrick lived one block over on 87th Street so we ended up there together a lot. West Side Comics was my regular shop throughout junior high and part of high school until my family moved to Queens and I suddenly had a store right around the corner from our new place. Here are some things I remember about West Side Comics.
I remember… the store was small, even to a kid. When you walked in the new comics were on shelves all along the left side and the cash register was immediately to your right. The counter next to the register lead seamlessly into a two tiered back issue unit that ran all the way to the back of the public part of the store, which wasn’t that far. At least half their space was cut off to the public. I remember it seeming walled off, but it was probably because I was just a kid and couldn’t see over into the back. I know they had a bunch of file cabinets in the back that held people’s books. Behind the cash register were more shelves which held the “high-end” books.
I remember… going to the store with my dad and being given five dollars to buy anything I wanted. It was our thing that we did whenever I could convince him to take me. I would immediately tunnel into the lower tier of the back issues, diving into the back where they kept their Batman books. I imagine that all one could see of me were my little legs dangling out the front of the back issue unit as I balanced on top of a few long boxes. My dad would always try to get me to buy five new ones instead of one back issue, but I would have none of that. “No, dad,” I would say with ten year old condescension, “these are older.” And by my reckoning that meant they were better.
I remember… that the store was owned by two guys. I think they both had glasses. I know that one had long hair and a beard and the other guy had short hair and a beard. I don’t remember their names, and if I had to draw them you’d get two heads with glasses, hair and beards and no other distinguishing features, but I do remember that they were two really nice guys who were incredibly patient with the gaggle of kids from the neighborhood that were always in and out of there.
I remember… that the early 1990s was the height of the foil cover craze and I didn’t own any foil covers and I was feeling incredibly inadequate. One of the big ones at the time was Silver Surfer #50 and they kept it behind the counter with a whopping price tag of $50.00. I saved and saved and saved and finally when I had the money I walked in there and said “I’ll take that Silver Surfer, please,” and plopped down my money and I don’t know that I had ever been more proud of a purchase in my entire life up until that point. Silver Surfer #50 now lists for $0.99 on eBay.
I remember… the day that Patrick and I finally took the plunge and opened up a folder. What that meant was that we got a big list of all of the on-going books and we checked off which ones we wanted held for us each week. It wasn’t like preordering – though I assume this made it easier for the owners to order their books – because we didn’t lay out any money or buy anything in advance. We just checked a box that meant “Every time Justice League comes out hold us one… no, two copies.” And we could take a book off our list at any time. Patrick and I opened the folder jointly and decided to start small and only pick five books each. We were young then and didn’t quite grasp the concept because the very next week we went back to the store and they pulled out our folder and we dutifully looked over what was in it and said something to the effect of “It appears to all be in order,” and had them put the books back in the file cabinet. We thought you had to wait until all of your books were in before you were supposed to buy them. We quickly caught on and our folder grew to an incredibly large size. Patrick and I didn’t always go in together so it was always interesting to see what he was buying before weeding out his books to have them put back. Man, he bought a lot of X-books. After a short period of time the guys would recognize you and have your folder out and waiting for you before you even got up to the counter and as a 12 year old kid there was nothing cooler than that.
I remember… that Flash #50 was probably the one book most responsible for getting me to the store every week for new comic book day (which back then was Friday). We didn’t want to miss that one – It was issue 50! He was getting a new costume! – and the thrill of getting all your comics new on the day they came out as opposed to every few weeks was too much. It was a powerful narcotic. I’ve only missed a handful of new comics days since that week, certainly less than 10. Once I was home sick from school with a 100 degree fever, but it was new comics day! I walked the six shorts blocks and one long avenue block up, and then back again in a fever induced haze to get my new comics. I remember being asked about it by my parents and not remembering getting to the comic store and back – that’s not entirely true now that I think about it, I can still remember leaving the building and the first block or so, but after that? Nada. – but I had a stack of new books to prove it happened.
I remember… going from my apartment to West Side Comics and back at least five times in one day to pick up various editions of the special DC Who’s Who that was made to fit in a three ringed binder. They were shrink-wrapped so you didn’t know which artist was put with which character until you got it home and tore off the shrink-wrap, and the excitement of seeing all these amazing pin-ups had me scrounging for change around the apartment and going back to the store again and again thinking things like “I can’t wait to see who drew J’onn J’onzz!” It was Adam Hughes. I’ve still got the binder right here next to my desk.
West Side Comics is gone now; it closed just like all of the other stores mentioned in this article. Only the newsstand remains. I think a travel agency called Liberty Travel was the first thing to move in after West Side Comics left. I don’t know what’s in there now because now that I live and work in Brooklyn I don’t make it to the Upper West Side much anymore. But whenever I’m in the neighborhood I like to walk by and check out the store front. If I squint my eyes I can still see the inside of the store with the local kids sitting on the floor reading comics. And if I listen hard enough I can hear the owner answering the phone with his trademark “West Side,” like it wasn’t just a comic book shop but an entire neighborhood.
And for a lot of us kids, that’s exactly what it was.