Time Machine

Welcome to the 50th edition of Pop! Back when I started this column I promised myself that I would try to do something different with each installment, to make them spontaneous and keep the readers guessing and, hopefully, coming back for more. In terms of comics experiences, I've been around the block for the exception of one single regret that's lingered in my head for decades...

Allow me to digress for a moment: I've interned for Marvel, the company that I loved as a school boy, and done some freelance work for them for next to nothing. I can remember twice being close but not close enough to getting a decent position at DC Comics when it seemed like the best career move in the world. I know the sting of losing an Eisner Award. I've felt the crushing loss of a couple of grand (and creative confidence) trying to do my first comic fresh out of college. I know what it feels like to have your pitch rejected and get the silent treatment from editors and publishers. I've also learned that mentioning you're into comics to the ladies isn't exactly an icebreaker in New Jersey. As a "comics journalist," I've been turned down too many times by some of my favorite creators -- but I've also been extremely fortunate to interview many of the people whose works have enlightened me, and written about those very things that I truly cherished. And I've been blessed that with comics I've been given some of the best friends and readers, such as you, that anyone could ever ask for. I've taken none of it for granted and I'm humbled by all of it (that's why when I write, all those old wounds sometimes open up again).

During January of this year, I went up to New York City from Mercer County to humbly pitch my favorite comic book dealer an idea I had, not only for this column, but a boyhood ambition I could linger on no more. I asked if he would allow me to work one full day in his comics store -- I didn't want any money, I just wanted the experience of working at my favorite comics shop. Yeah, I know it isn't exactly climbing Everest. Some of you might not find the notion very exciting and some of you have probably worked at one of these establishments. But I never had the pleasure or the chance. To me, comics stores are the closet thing I'll ever experience to dipping my feet in the Fountain of Youth. My soul just feels alive when I go to these places. Without hesitation, my comic book dealer friend said yes.

After weeks of going back and forth about the date, I finally get the okay to go to Time Machine and "pretend I work at a comic book store." The next day, Saturday, July 9th, after a one-and-a-half-hour train ride, I'm in Manhattan, walking my way down from Penn Station to 14th Street, and getting that old familiar rush of anticipation, that sense of childlike wonder. When I was growing up, Saturday was comic book day. That was the day there was no school, no music lessons, no others obligations. Just traveling to Manhattan comic book stores, buying new and vintage comics, and reading them surrounded by my favorites treats (Root Beer and Charleston Chews, preferably) while watching a poorly dubbed (but kick-ass) kung-fu flick in my living room: pure bliss.

The store is called Time Machine and it sits at 207 West 14 Street, New York City. I arrive at the store at ten past eleven, ten minutes after opening time. Inside I meet Roger, the owner of the establishment, who I've known since 1987 -- he's one of only a handful of people I've known for that long. The Time Machine is a rare breed of comic book store these days because their primary focus is selling back issues (the older the better), plus it moves current comics and other fine collectibles like magazines, photographs, film posters, toys, etc. Roger (Rog) is also the friendliest comic book dealer I've ever encountered and among the best retailers I've seen at putting his customers at ease and making sure they get the books they want. That's why I keep coming back, no matter the distance.

The first "customer" who walks in is isn't exactly a client, but an older comics fan with a scent of alcohol coming from his breath who's come more to talk about his collection and the times he met with [Frank] Frazetta, [Roy] Krenkel and [Al] Williamson. After about fifteen minutes of banter that feel more like an hour, he's gone without buying a single thing. Rog, who has the patience of a saint, puts up with all of it. Welcome to the exciting world of retail, friends! Something I neglected to mention was that I was the son of a grocery store owner and that by the time I could make change, in the fourth grade, I was put behind a cash register. I'm well aware these types of things and more are a part of the price one pays in facing the public.

At about 11:30 a.m., Artie (Arthur), Roger's employee, arrives and the day really begins. Earlier Roger and I had run through a stack of recently acquired vintage books (pre-1970s) and placed the higher valued ones in mylars and the lowers ones in your standard bag and board. With Artie there, Rog decides that it would be best if he and I placed all of the incoming acquisitions of these vintage comics into his inventory, boxes upon boxes -- he has more old comics than I'd expected. After an hour or two of that, I spend the rest of my time putting more books back into their proper locations; I also price a few things and magazines. Because I'm not being paid, Rog feels guilty about having me do anything too strenuous -- but I'm up for anything because I want the experience to feel true. There is a point where Rog kids with me about cleaning the bathroom, but I just chuckle and wait to see if he will mention it again (from my teenage days at Pizza Hut, I learned that's one detail you don't volunteer for). The rest of the day pretty much goes without any incidents or accidents.

Although the business day starts slow, Saturday has a nice and steady flow of customers, which goes a long way to making the hours fly by faster. The average Time Machine customer spends about a half-hour to an hour browsing for books and chit-chatting about comics and stuff. The atmosphere is very casual and homey. There's no telling who will to show up and what they'll be looking for. For example, there is an odd request from an out-of-towner from Chicago seeking issues from the long forgotten Tekno Comix line -- so forgotten that the books aren't even on the main floor because there's no demand for them. After Rog himself lugs out a large box full of Tekno books from the back room, the customer finds the one single issue that was missing in his collection. In this day and age, despite all that work for a one dollar book, a sale is a sale and the client seems pretty stoked about his pick-up.

As we get close to 7:30 p.m., I realize that in all my excitement I have not eaten all day, and I've been on my feet for about seven plus hours. For Rog and Artie, this day is just another typical day because it is hard work and Time Machine is open six days a week. Five minutes before closing -- typical in retail -- a regular arrives to buy the latest issue of "Fear Itself" and a few other related Marvel titles. Knowing that it's late and the staff is tired, this customer is so cool and genuine a comics reader that he promises to be quick -- he's just really enthusiastic about getting his comics. Unless I physically go to a comic store, I sometimes forget that pure infectious rush that real comic book readers get. This last note seems liked the perfect way to close the day. After a quick goodbye, Rog, Artie and I part ways in the city that never sleeps.

Having never spent an entire day at a comic book store, I learned that retail is basically the same everywhere you go. Yet with the selling and buying of comics, there comes an uplifting understanding: that anyone walking into that shop is a kindred soul of the medium. Dealing comics does require some customer service skills, patience and comfortability. If you want your customers to keep coming back, you need to make them feel that they belong there and that you will do anything, within reason, to ensure they keep coming back. It isn't a skill that's acquired overnight; Rog has been doing this for twenty-five years. With every visit, I'm amazed at the amount of old customers I bump into and surprised as to how the reputation he's cemented attracts new customers and international tourists hunting for comics and pop culture artifacts because they've heard his shop is a literal time machine.

That Saturday also reminded me that there's so much life, inherent goodness, and untapped potential for comics to be a greater medium. The people who come to this store come because these books give them wonderment and a very real experience. Some are collectors seeking completion. The rest are readers craving entertainment. Both groups are essential to the comics industry. Whenever anyone would walk through the store's front door, it was always apparent that the sight of all those comics put them at ease and, often, put a slight smile on their face.

They say that day of digital comics being the norm is coming. They say that this industry is dead and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The people that say these things don't get out of the house enough. To me, comics have always been a visceral and very real experience. It's about the entire package: the sight, smell and touch of a comic book; the sounds of endless discussions with friends and fellow readers; the reliable and personable comic book dealers; the amazing artwork and the wonderful stories; and the exciting potential that the next comic could be the greatest thing you've ever read. I believe very much in the unbelievable experience, don't you?

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