Comic Book Heaven

If I had to pinpoint what fueled my childhood addiction to comics and cartoons, much of the credit would go to the ready supply of comic books available from the local used book store run by a portly old guy named Victor. Half a century ago, the empty store  in the photo above was, for me, comic book heaven.

Victor, always in a rumpled dark blue suit, always with a cigar in his mouth, held court at his cluttered desk, his back to the storefront window.  The store was long and narrow with a main display area smack in the middle running lengthwise, separating the store in half, creating two aisles. The aisle to the left was exclusively for books, the aisle to the right was dedicated to books and comic books. I’ve no idea what Victor charged for books, but comic books were three for ten cents — a real deal.

Unlike well-lit modern comic book stores, with their wares sitting upright for easy browsing, Victor’s store was dimly lit; his comic books were stacked at least two feet high. The comic book stacks began with Disney titles and petered out with Classics Illustrated.  In between were Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, etc. — each character occupied their own stack.

Every once in awhile Victor would come out from behind his desk and navigate this way through the crowded books aisle to fetch a book, then slowly make his way back to his desk.  He never interrupted my browsing, never spoke other than to say, “Whatcha got here,”  as I placed my three comic books before him. I’d hand him a dime and say, “Thanks,” as I headed out the door.  The perfect conversation between a seven year old buyer and an elderly seller.

Ross & Tilley

I’m not sure if Harold Ross ever made the cover of any magazine other than this August 1948  issue of The American Mercury (the twelve page in-house New Yorker parody, dated November 6, 1926, with Ross in silhouette as Eustace Tilley, is an exception).  The Mercury’s nine page cover story by Allen Churchill is a quick and fun read.  Dale Kramer’s 1951 biography, Ross and The New Yorker, is a step-up from Churchill’s article.  Thomas Kunkel’s Ross biography, Genius in Disguise is the final word.

Book Store on a Dirt Road

Sundays usually make me think of books – don’t know why, can’t explain it, but that’s the way it’s been for a long long time. It’s the day I traditionally set out for my favorite bookstore in upstate New York.

Twenty some years ago a friend suggested the store to my wife and I, saying it was a bit of a drive but worth it.  We followed his van ( between the friend’s family and ours there were too many kids and parents to fit in one car) up the Taconic Parkway, then off onto back roads, past broken down farms, and ancient cemeteries, and finally onto a rutty dirt road where we stopped at a low barn with a few cars parked out front.  I admit I didn’t expect much — after years of haunting used bookstores, I thought I could judge a used bookstore by its cover.  I’d been to too many barn bookstores filled with battered books at high prices.

Walking into this place, it took only a few seconds for things to go very right.  Inside, and just to the left was the humor section; before I had time to scan the room my eyes fell on an Otto Soglow collection that had been on my “want list” for years (this was before the days of the internet when used book searching was door-to-door, and not site-to-site).

The visit was already a success, and even better:  the store was a delight in every way, from the wood stove heating up a kettle filled with a concoction of spice and water,  to the organization of each jam-packed room, to the proprietor, whose friendly but low-key manner is key to the store’s charm.

There were a number of used book stores in our area back then; Main Street Books, up in Germantown, was another favorite, but sadly, it has closed its doors. Only this one, on the dirt road, has survived.

Note:  The New Yorker’s blog, “The Book Bench,”  posted a piece about The Book Barn back in July of 2010.  You can read it here

(Photo: courtesy of Gretchen Maslin)