Phill Hall used to be a comics retailer and the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline – then abandoning comics altogether. But now he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.
It would be easy for me to list a bunch of my old customers, with their quirks, peculiarities, and above all else their ability to be outcasts without really trying. Or in other words I could quite easily sit here and take the piss out of these guys (and I might do that), but they also represent the diversity of the comics fan and that's really the reason for the next couple of entries, to show you the kind of dedicated fan you can get. [Names have been changed to protect the innocent.]
Jack 1 (or J1): it was quite weird to discover that three of my best customers all had the same Christian name. All three of them played valuable parts in the life of my comics shop by doing what a retailer wants his customers to do the most – spending money. J1 was actually one of the first paying customers I had. I had opened quietly and unobtrusively on Saturday 18th October and took about £200. J1 walked in at about 5pm on the Monday night. I was getting ready to pack up and go home, I'd had a pretty shitty day and had seen four customers in 8 hours. My wife turned up at 5.25 expecting to see me finished and it was clear from her mood she wasn't enamoured by the fact I still had someone in the shop. I tried to make conversation with J1 but he was a little shy and not very forthcoming, so I hung back and left him to it.
By the time he left, at a little after 5.45pm (fifteen minutes after I was supposed to shut), he'd spent over £100 on stacks of what essentially was shit. For the next 5 days he came in every day and spent between £30 and £100. I took over £400 from him in one week and that represented almost half of my overall first full week's take.
J1's buying slowed down but he was still spending about £400 a month on comics – his standing order increased to be worth almost £100 a week. What did he do for a living? Well, he arrived every night shortly after 5pm, which eventually prompted me to keep the shop open till 6pm and open half an hour later in the morning [There's more to that but you can read about that next time]. He always wore the same blue overalls and eventually after six months I started to converse with him – he worked at a commercial launderette. He lived at home with his parents, had a very pleasant (and far more talkative) girlfriend, who he hoped to marry one day and he lived for comics and she didn't seem to care. A match made in heaven?
You could bump into this guy anywhere in the world and just believe he was a mild-mannered, quietly spoken young man. He had no visible signs of nerdiness. He didn't spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the finer points of Spider-Man's costume, nor was he particularly interested in how Iron Man's armour worked, or why the Green Lantern from the 1940s is not to be confused with the Green Lanterns who appeared in later decades. J1 was interested in reading as much as he could for as little as he had to spend, and while that sounds weird considering the amount of money he spent, I realised a couple of years after I shut up shop that he probably would have spent more money had I actually had all the missing pieces from the countless number of mini-collections he was nurturing. But essentially J1 reminds me of me when I was younger. He was interested in quantity over quality because quality really is in the eye of the beholder and what most people regarded as throwaway crap, J1 saw them as bonuses. If every comic in the shop had been £1 or under, he would have bought everything and anything he didn't have.
I was invited to J1's wedding and was slightly sad to see that outside of family and neighbours he had very few people he called friends. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable do, either. As vegetarians we know that we're awkward, but after several phone calls to check that we were definitely vegetarian and didn't eat fish, chicken or maybe even pork (!?) we ended up with ham salads. We fortunately had another wedding reception to go to that evening so we hurriedly made our excuses and went somewhere that was equally as drab and dull as this wedding.
J1 probably still reads comics when he can buy them. But he's not the sort of collector who will go out of his way to find them. He's a valuable asset to any comics shop owner because he doesn't discriminate where he spends his money or what on as long as he gets enjoyment.
Jack 2 was something of a different kettle of fish. Where J1 looked like your average workingman, J2 was the son of a local MP, spoke with an accent that would have put the Queen to shame and struggled with an inner turmoil that was apparent to many people.
Impeccably dressed, J2 was exponentially wealthier than any other person who walked through my doors, but he was also a man of much pride and humility. Despite his silver spoon upbringing, he was intent on making his own business succeed – he was (and I still find this hard to believe) a self-employed Driving Instructor – and he restricted himself to excess. He was, frankly, not a party animal. He also wasn't like your stereotypical Hooray Henry that you hear about or see on the TV. In fact, J2 liked nothing better than sitting down with a stack of good comics and a cup of tea and escaping.
I think my shop did J2 enormous favours in terms of introducing him to the human race. I also think it improved his communication skills and allowed him to meet people he probably thought were either made up by the left-wing press or the chavvy people depicted in the Daily Mail. When he first ventured into my shop he reminded me of J1 in that it was very difficult to talk to him. Then I discovered why, he stammered when he was nervous and we, the staff, and me especially, made him nervous. By the time I went out of business J2 had got himself his first ever girlfriend (and was having sex regularly), had all but lost the stammer and had virtually given up comics. Comics helped him discover who he was and when he didn't need them any more he moved on. So there's an example of the good they do, right there.
J2 spent about the same as J1. But their tastes were different. Where J1 was happy to buy anything that took his fancy, J2 had a definite list of what he wanted and he really was a pleasure to buy stuff for and I even got embroiled in discussions about comics stories with him. J2 also didn't take comics home, so to speak. His place for talking about comics was the comic shop – the new J2 as was emerging, was going to the pub and out with friends – he wasn't going to tell a pretty young thing that his favourite moment in the last week was reading that Ant-Man and the Wasp are getting remarried! Or the excellently drawn fight between Spider-Man and Doc Octopus! J2 had a real enthusiasm for the comics universe that was both naïve, but exciting to imagine, but he also knew where to park it when the real world intruded.
He was very much into trading, despite having a lot of hidden wealth. J2 was the kind of customer who would buy a huge run of comics on a recommendation and would, six months later, bring them back, to trade them against other back issues – we never traded back issues for new stock – it was suicide. When, several years after the shop closed, he decided he didn't want to collect any more, he put about 300 in a box and stuck them in his loft – interestingly these weren't a box of his most valuable comics, but the ones that had most sentimental value. The rest he tried to sell to me. All I could recommend he do was either wait to see if he changed his mind or take the plunge and try to sell them himself, because trying to sell them to a comic dealer wouldn't get a third of their true value.
It's difficult to tell you exactly what he brought with him to the comics shop or to comics in general but I often think back and hope that he's as happy now as he was in 1993. I think he might return to comics one day, he might be back now, and he'll be a devoted fan, but he'll understand that he has a life as well.
Comics Lesson 9:
I forgot to mention that a lot of comics dealers and shop owners who buy old collections will normally offer between 10% and 35% of the comics resale value. This might sound like a pretty good deal for the dealer and a piss poor one for the collector, but in reality a collection of 1000 comics will have guaranteed sales of about 6% and how much that 6% amounts to should cover the cost you paid for the collection. So being offered between 10 and 35% is actually a bloody good deal.
Later we'll talk about Price Guides and you will, I'll guarantee, get even more confused.
Jack 3 has been a close personal friend for the last 22 years, he knows I'm going to write about him and he shrugged when I told him. J3 sums up a lot of what's wrong about some comics fans. J3 is a nerd, and he's probably the first person to admit it! However, he will quantify it and I'd have to say he's not your average nerd. Once I've talked about J3, we'll investigate his type of fan. J3 was lucky, he got a girlfriend who liked his hobby and would have sex with him, therefore he became part of the average human race.
I suppose I can say more about J3 because unlike the others he's remained a constant in my life since 1989.
He walked into my shop with his mates about three weeks after I opened. I think he expected something different from the owner, especially as I was talking to his mates about anything but comics and had left J3 in the capable hands of my then assistant manager, the deliriously eccentric Matthew DeMonti. 'Monty' was in charge of running the standing orders and controlling the till, as well as most other things – he was my dog's body and I paid him pathetic money, but he liked it and liked being Assistant Manager, especially at the tender age of 18. J3 and Monty got on like a house on fire, they both had similar tastes and that suited me, I really didn't like talking about comics unless I had to. Besides some of J3's mates were very interesting – all a bit geeky in their own way, but worth spending time talking to.
I can see this is going to get confusing on its own, so before we really examine J3, let's flip backwards slightly and look at what life was really like at 'The Midland Road Community Centre' or my comics shop…
I was never going to be a millionaire and the shop probably wasn't ever going to be anything other than this dodgy looking brightly-coloured hovel with a Head Shop above and a Dungeons and Dragons shop out back; plus, for a while, a film memorabilia shop on the split level at the back of the first floor of the monstrous old building I'd stupidly rented because it was the only one I could afford.
Looking back, I really didn't have much of a clue. My area was comics not shop fitting or tills or decoration. So subsequently as the opening day grew closer none of the really important things had been organised. This general disorganised air about me was to continue through my entire period as a shop owner. I was a great salesman (now that I had somewhere I felt comfortable selling from and a product I believed in) but I couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery and should never have been given £20,000 of anyone's money, let alone my own.
[It should be pointed out that while I refer to the shop as the 'community centre' and a social club quite frequently; I never actually thought of it as that way until many years after I shut.] So the 'Midland Road Community Centre' was born. It became the place to 'hang'.
It was the cool place for the uncool guy!!
The 'Community Centre' had been largely anonymous; I watched people walk past it without even noticing it was there; it was amazing the number of people you'd meet who never knew it existed, but knew the Golden Dragon Chinese takeaway (on my right) and Perfect Pizza (on my left). I liked to think of the place as slowly slipping out of average reality and existing in a place where every one is happy. It certainly felt that way at times, but I'm beginning to sound like a Disney cartoon, so…
I had my regular customers, many of whom I could set my watch by, and I had staff. It should have been my brother-in-law, Neil, but he lived too far from the shop and was too young still to be of any serious help. Instead, a couple of days after I opened, a guy walked in, the aforementioned Matt DeMonti, he was a boy genius and post-modern teenage geek rolled into one!
Monty as he became known as, much to his chagrin (and believe me that's the kind of word he'd use), was a bit of a star. He did so much for so little and I don't know if he realises just how grateful I was. He was a comics nerd who had all the enthusiasm about all-things-comics that I lacked. But he was also someone I could identify with. He ran his own fanzine called Pandemonium and he'd taken that over from someone else (Monty also incidentally published my only scripted comic strip!) He was so unbelievably professional about everything, he made J2 look sloppy, but he was also a really funny lad and very few people disliked him, even if he disliked them! He was stroppy, in a Kevin the teenager kind of way, and was prone to sulks; he was also far too molly coddled by his folks, he was almost unhealthily anally-retentive, but generally he was the one thing you want more than anything else when you run your own business – some one you could really trust.
Monty was joined, about four weeks after I opened, by the Incredible Bulk – Scott Goodman. He was a friend of J3's and wasn't really into comics, he was into Doctor Who – which, I'm sure you'll understand is a subject for its very own book. Scott is a monster of a man, standing well over 6 feet 6 inches and built like a shit-house rat; yet you couldn't wish to meet a more mild-mannered and affable bloke, if you could get over the initial fear of being towered over by a ginger headed murderous looking Teddy boy.
I was out the back in the stock room one Saturday when Monty wandered in with one of those sly smiles on his face, the sort sported so well by David Hyde Pierce's character Niles in Frasier – it was also the kind of look that said "I'm not fucking dealing with this, you don't pay me enough!" So I wandered out onto the shop floor and was confronted by two very ancient looking small people. Neither was over 5 foot tall and both had to be at least 2000 years old. "Are you the manager?" asked the woman in a voice straight out of an old Carry On film. I smiled and said I was. "Good. Would you like my grandson's Dalek in your shop window?" How do you answer something like that, especially when you get the impression if you breathed too hard on these old folk they'd crumble into dust?
"I'd really need to see it." I said, hoping they'd go away.
"We'll get him to bring it in next week." And they were gone. I forgot all about their grandson's Dalek and went about my life.
The following Saturday arrived. Already after just 4 weeks I was beginning to dread Saturdays, because not only were we becoming the in-place to hang for comics dudes, they brought all their Dungeons & Dragons and LARP (Live Action Role Playing) friends, who in turn brought their weird friends who had no allegiance to anything nerdy, and were just weird for weird's sake.
At around 10.30, I had disappeared into the stock room (again) and was busy making me a cup of tea when Monty appeared again – he had the look of horror on his face that I grew to appreciate. I went out front and saw this great hulk of a man standing by the counter with a Dalek tucked under his arm in a glass case. The Dalek was a quarter of the original size and this man held it like the Jolly Green Giant held cobs of corn. "Hi, I'm Scott," he said crushing my right hand in an all-encompassing handshake.
"What you got there then?" I asked and immediately switched off as Scotty went into telling not just what it was, but the history of the specific Dalek from the Doctor Who films rather than the BBC series. What I can remember about that conversation was he preferred the Daleks in the Peter Cushing films than he did the cheap ones the BBC used. There was a difference?!? I never knew…
I explained to Scott that while I certainly wouldn't mind putting it in my window, the direct sunlight would bleach it within weeks. I thought I'd just about convinced him that a far better thing to do would be to take it home and put it in a presentation case in his room when Monty piped up and suggested we used one of the little plinth type shelves we had near the till. I smiled at Monty and he smiled back one of those "don't fuck with me" smiles and mentally I noted that he was going to pay for that with his life.
So the Dalek stayed and shortly after that Scott and his grandparents left; every one breathed a collective sigh of relief.
I really didn't expect Scott to reappear at 9.30am the next Saturday. However, when he was still there at gone 4pm and had offered to do everything from make the tea and go and fetch everyone's lunches, I started to wonder what the fuck was going on. But by the third week of Scott turning up, Monty and I decided he wanted to be the self-appointed guardian of the Dalek at weekends. He was quite useful even if he scared the younger children, and frankly because that amused me no end, I viewed it as a bonus.
By week four I took him to one side and said that I couldn't really afford to pay him for coming in – I was trying to find out in a roundabout fashion why he was haunting me – he said he didn't want payment, he just liked coming in and helping out. It felt, to me, a bit like the troll who used to demand money with menaces from people crossing his bridge having a change of heart and instead helps everyone over the bridge, while carrying their bags and offering them bus fare. The thing was Monty liked him and with the exception of the Star Trek fans, most of the customers thought he was great – especially now the kids who quickly changed their minds about the Big Man.
Scott stayed with me from that point until I went out of business. He even offered to take a second mortgage out on his house to finance the shop staying open, but by that time I'd seemingly 'robbed' too many people, I wasn't about to start on good friends.
Monty stayed with me until the autumn of my second year when he went off to college, a year later than planned because he flunked his 'A' levels first time around – something I felt was my fault, but he didn't. He left something of a void and it was difficult to fill. By this time, I'd expanded my horizons and had the extra shops in the building in place, which were bringing me in some form of revenue, helping me pay my rent and meet my bills. This meant I 'needed' another assistant manager, or at very least a good assistant who would do all the work and wouldn't expect to be paid much. Little did I realise that the perfect answer was already lodging with the wife and I.
But before we talk about the one who would become forever known as 'Mammary Lass' we need to digress a little further, but don't worry I know where I'm going…
Next time: A summertime Squonk!! special and then after that: my business partners!