THE STARTING LINE
Reseda Blvd. is a long, hot 12-mile stretch of road. It runs straight through the San Fernando Valley, from the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains to the very edge of the Santa Susanas. Its asphalt cuts across some of the most destitute and alternately affluent neighborhoods in California. It also holds two essential place markers in the history of the city where I was born. It is the very street that birthed the epicenter of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, killing scores of human beings and demolishing all buildings in its path.
And it is also the street where I pedaled my Huffy from my father's house to Golden Apple, the first comic-book store I ever frequented on a weekly basis.
Any comic-book fan that's spent time in Los Angeles, from the early '80s to present, knows the name and the cache it wields. In my youth, I heard whispers of the store way over the mountains in glittering Hollywood, where movie stars and comic creators shopped for funny books and rubbed elbows with the common folk. Out in the sticks, where we fried eggs on sidewalks for fun and stole pomegranates from our neighbor's yards, that sort of joint was the stuff of paperback novels.
Didn't we all have our watering holes when we were kids? Can't you vividly recall yours? The new release racks? The spinners? The musty paper?
I discovered the brand-new Golden Apple valley location on the way to my favorite used book store. It was called "The Bookie Joint" and it was broken, battered and altogether wonderful. It had sawdust on the floors, a crusty old man behind the counter and a box of beat-up comics in the back. You could find treasure in there for a dime and even when I knew that box was filled with the same old stuff as last week, I dug deep all the same.
I took a bite of the Apple and was smitten. I was devoted. I put no other before her. I held my breath every week, slogging through school and longing for Saturday. I did my chores at home, got my allowance and headed out on my trusty steed to go and get my fix.
I stayed for hours in that place. It wasn't very large and it was always a bit sticky, but to a young kid who loved nothing but the printed page, it was paradise. I'd get a stack of books together and begin the mathematical equations. How many could I get with my five bucks? How many Marvels? How many DCs? And who the heck was this Nexus guy?
Back then, five dollars got you a healthy stack. "Still only 25 cents!" the comic covers shouted. Didn't matter. No matter how many I had in the bag when I left, it was never enough. The hardest part about Saturdays wasn't leaving the comic-book store and heading home. It was having the strength and fortitude not to stop along the way and read them all before reaching my bedroom.
Many things are said about the place I call my home. Some true. Some false. Some clearly debatable. But there's one thing as certain as the sky is blue. It's hot out here in the valley. H-O-T. Always has been. Always will be.
I rode my bicycle back and forth and back again. Sweating, baking and anxious to reach the end of the trip. And when my brother left the garage door open and some detestable villain stole my beloved Huffy, I put one foot in front of the other and hoofed it. One scorching step at a time.
There was a Thrifty Pharmacy right next to the Apple, with a little ice-cream counter built in. Two scoops for a quarter. Nothing better than ice cream and comic books. Nothing. I'd hold my bag-o-books in one hand, my cone in the other and fight the drip, drip, drip of the cream as it melted.
From the parking lot, there was a clear view of the famous superhero mural painted on the side wall of their building. It had taken many forms and hosted many characters over the years, but Wolverine was the image we all remember. Eventually, the store would move across the street and the best part of their mural would accompany them. You don't mess with an historic landmark.
I recall the day I finally plucked up enough courage to show my father some of the gold I'd been finding at the Apple.
"Look what I got today, dad! It's a number one and it was cover price!"
"How much of your allowance are you spending on this stuff?" my dad asked me.
"All of it!" I gladly replied.
My father looked grim. I knew that look well. "I don't want you spending all of your allowance on these things."
"But it's all I want to buy." I said nervously.
"Why don't you save some of it? Do something fun with your friends?" he said.
I looked at him and quietly replied, "Don't have any."
Dad never really paid close attention.
He paused, unsure where to go next. "If you keep spending all of your money on these things, I'm not going to give you any more allowance."
I was nothing if not my father's son. I dug my feet in and replied, "So don't give me any more allowance. See if I care!"
The next five-dollar bill he left on my bed went untouched for days. I left it in protest, vowing never to take money from him again. It tugged at my feet as I slept and taunted me with the promise of stories delivered. But a battle of wills with a father is something that requires every bit of willpower in your possession. Comics or no, that money stayed right where it was. When he finally took it back, I felt relieved and achingly sad all at the same time.
It didn't stop me from making my forays through the desert to the shimmering oasis. Other than the Mexican restaurant where I could buy cheap bags of tortilla chips and the small arcade whose battered video games gobbled what little change I had, I only ever made one stop along the way. The tracks. Hunched over, I'd balance pennies on the rails, mark their placement and leave them behind. Then I'd stop again on the journey home, hunting through pebbles for copper pancakes, squashed flat by passing trains.
The manager of the valley Apple was a gruff sort of guy. Dark and brooding. Leather bracelets and a bad attitude. His name was DJ, and to me, he was a rock star. I stood at the comic racks week after week and read every issue I could. To this day, I read faster than most other folks I know. When the stakes are high, you build up momentum.
One day, DJ finally noticed me and called out, "You ever gonna buy anything?"
"No." I said, matter of factly. "Don't have any money."
Many would have recited the retail store code of conduct and escorted me to the door. Instead, DJ smiled and said, "you know how to bag and board?"
So was born a retailer. From that day forward, I sat on a crate in the back room every weekend. I bagged and boarded comics until my fingers were cracked and bleeding and I loved every minute of it. When the time came to close up, he'd pull back the curtain and say, "Time's up. Go pick out your books."
I'd walk the racks, pick up my "pay" and head on home. It was the most gratifying feeling I'd ever experienced. No matter how many satisfying work days I have as a retailer store owner, nothing ever comes close to that feeling. It was my first real job and I discovered what it was to feel independent. Empowered.
Of course, my father thought I was just a common thief. "I've got a job!" I screamed at him when he questioned me about where all these books were coming from. He called the store, insistent on proving me a liar.
"Best worker I ever had!" DJ told him. He was the only human being I ever knew who succeeded in making my father stutter. Rock. Star.
Adding to his God-like status, DJ had a female visitor who stopped by now and again. If she were just a large-breasted, cut-off jeans wearing, dusty-voiced woman, she'd have been the source of deep lust for any kid my age. That she was Sybil Danning, B-Movie queen, made her the stuff of legend. For you unfortunate fellas who don't know who she is, for Goodness sake, stop reading now and google her!
I daydreamed about her ferociously. What's more, she knew it. She batted her eyelashes and threw me a few winks now and again. I snuck peeks at her through the back curtain, committing the sights to memory and bringing them giddily home with me.
At the end of the day on Saturdays, DJ would lock the gate, turn the music up to ear-bleeding levels and break out the Super-Balls. Imagine what it was like to be a teenage boy, dancing around a comic-book store, throwing Super-Balls, mouth agape as Sybil Danning leaped through the air, her cut-off shirt revealing just enough secrets to last a lifetime.
Eventually, I moved back to New York to live with my mother. It happened fast and I never got to say goodbye to DJ and the gang. I'd gone to visit mom for the summer and just never came back. My father felt so betrayed, he opened up my room to the kids in the neighborhood and let them take whatever they liked. Of course, he kept the boxes of my comics hidden in his closet. Even he knew there were limits to a parent's anger and things a child can't ever forgive.
I made my home in many places after that. I worked in many comic-book stores as I fooled myself into believing there were other professions I'd rather devote my life to. But it was my first summer job that kept me rooted in not just my love for reading comic books, but my love for selling them.
I visited Golden Apple every time I came back to visit. DJ disappeared, but the Liebowitz family was the owner and they were the true heart of the company. Managers can be great, but owners must strive to be greater.
Bill Liebowitz was the larger-than-life company patriarch. He single-handedly changed the comic-book retail industry, leading it out of the dark and dedicating himself to making the outside world take notice of our existence. I recall him only once ever looking at me directly when I was a boy. He pulled back the curtain as I was feverishly bagging some comics on my battered throne and called out to DJ, "who's the kid on the crate?"
"Best worker I ever had!" shouted DJ.
When my partner and I opened our store in Sherman Oaks, I was proud to have reestablished a connection with the Liebowitz family. To become close friends with Bill's son, Ryan, who'd taken over the family business after the sudden and tragic loss of his father. He, his wife Kendra and Bill's wife Sharon had kept the business strong in his absence and kept the dream alive.
When Ryan and I discovered our families lived literally a block from one another, it solidified a relationship of mutual respect. Not friendly competition, but retail solidarity.
We spent time talking about the challenges we faced in a difficult business. Most think "Boy, it sure would be fun to open a comic-book store!" but few ever really get to experience the rocky terrain that comes with it. Don't get me wrong; to me, there's no better way to make a living. Doing what you love and loving what you do. But it's a business, and you have to remain forever diligent. As with any family business, the work continues twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Ryan and I confided in one another about our struggles. He and Kendra had been challenged by manning two stores and being separated from one another. They have a little girl they needed to spend more time with. Sharon always enjoyed working in the stores, but after three decades of devotion, no one deserved a few days off more than she did!
The family was thinking of simplifying their business. Of selling their Valley location and continuing to build up their successful Hollywood store. Of giving themselves more time with one another and less time in traffic. They just needed to find that perfect someone. The perfect person who felt it wasn't just a sound business to buy, but felt an emotional attachment to the store's history. Someone whose goal wasn't just to sell books, but to service their loyal customers who'd shopped their store for so many years.
If only that someone were close by. If only that someone were, say, right around the corner...
Last month, my partner Carr and I purchased the Northridge Golden Apple location. My childhood comic-book store. My first ever job. The place I learned what it was to feel lust. The place I learned what it was to work hard at something and get something in return. The place where the definition of who I am as a person began and where my dream took root.
We were joined in our partnership by Geoff Johns, one of the best writers in the comic-book business. Another raging fan whose dream it was to be a part of the retail experience. So many retailers long to be comic-book writers. This was a comic book writer longing to be a retailer! The perfect triangle was complete.
The evening that the keys exchanged hands, I stood alone in the valley store. You have to feel the energy of a building before you can start to make it your own. This one seemed to have been waiting for me. Soon, it would be another Earth-2 Comics, now the only comic-book chain store in Los Angeles.
The very same gate from my boyhood covered the front windows. I attached my iPod to the speakers, reached into my pocket and pulled out a Super-Ball. I cranked up the music as loud as I could and took a moment to let the memories wash over me. My father, my Huffy, ice-cream cones, roaring trains, sunburns, DJ and, of course, Sybil.
I drew my hand back and threw that ball as hard as I could, celebrating where I'd began and feeling the buzz of what was to come. The ball ricocheted from wall to wall. From floor to ceiling. Sometimes, those darn things get trapped in corners. Sometimes, you chase them and they always stay just out of reach. But sometimes? Sometimes, they come back.
Jud Meyers is the co-founder and co-proprietor of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: http://www.earth2comics.com