When I was a boy growing up in east Pasadena, CA, buying comics was an adventure.
Comic book distribution in the 1970s was different from what it is today. Comics were displayed on spinner racks in drugstores and convenience stores such as Stop n’ Go, Thrifty’s, Circle K, and 7-Eleven (our local Woolworths never carried them, and that’s why I rarely went there). The Pantry markets carried comics in 3-for-59-cent bags (back in the day when DC comics were 20 cents). Bungalow News and Don’s Paperbacks, the local newsstands, had sections of magazine racks devoted exclusively to comic books. Comics came to the stores twice a week, bundled with magazines, sometimes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sometimes on Wednesdays and Fridays. A bundle would carry at most six different DC books, other times four or five (plus some from Marvel, Archie, Charlton and Gold Key, but I didn’t collect their books). The distribution of a particular title was haphazard. During the summer and autumn of 1972, for example, Superman #254 and 255 arrived at Thrifty’s, Superman #257 and 259 were in separate 3-in-1-bags at separate Pantry markets, Superman #260 never arrived in Pasadena, but I found it out in the Westwood area where my grandparents lived. Justice League of America #100 made it to Thrifty’s, Justice League of America #102 showed up at The Pantry, and two weeks later I discovered the out-of-sync Justice League of America #101 behind three different comics in one slot of a spinner rack at 7-Eleven. This meant my first multi-issue superteam story — guest-starring the Justice Society of America and featuring the return of the Seven Soldiers of Victory — wasn’t even read in its proper order; that’s how befuddled distribution was in those days.
Many afternoons after school I would walk, most of the time on my own, occasionally with a school or neighborhood friend, through Victory Park, up to Stop ‘n Go, further north to The Pantry, across six blocks to 7-Eleven (then sometimes a block further to visit my grandmother), and then back, five or so comics in hand. Once a week I would ride my 3-speed bike in a different direction to Circle K and come back with maybe one or two in my knap sack. On the weekends I’d ride or walk down to the Manor Bookstore, where they only carried the thicker DC 100 Super Spectacular Pages books. Bungalow News ? which my dad introduced me to by car — was the furthest bike ride, two and a half miles from home in the suburbs into downtown Pasadena, but it had the best distribution. Sometimes I’d find up to eight new comics there on a single trip.
I enthusiastically read these four-color treasures alone in my room at home, reading over and over the ones with Green Lantern (for the most part in solo action in the back of The Flash, but occasionally he’d make a guest appearance elsewhere, such as with Superman in Action Comics #444) and the Justice League and Kamandi, counting the panels of each story, ooo-ing and ahh-ing at the in-house ads of upcoming comics. I had no one to share my comic collecting with. Friends would join me for the walks or bike rides, but not to appreciate the comics. It was my own thing, and that was just fine.
Over time, most of the convenience stores, drugstores, and markets stopped selling comics (I didn’t lose girlfriends as a teenager, I lost comic book providers). Thrifty’s was the first to drop them in 1972, followed by Stop n’ Go in 1973. The Pantry stopped carrying them in late 1975, 7-Eleven 1977, Circle K somewhere along that timeline. When I got my driver’s license in 1977 I was able to broaden my comics shopping horizon. In the next door city of Eagle Rock there was a shop devoted exclusively to selling comics, Another World. That was something to behold, a store with nothing but comics. Bungalow News and Don’s Paperbacks carried comics well into the late ’70s, but right around the time of the DC Implosion of 1978 a used bookstore in Pasadena called Book Village started selling all DC and Marvel comics on a biweekly basis.
The other day I was driving around town, shopping for groceries and odds and ends. I drove along or near (because it’s not a good idea to drive a car through Victory Park) the old routes I used to travel as a boy to purchase my comics. The building that once housed Stop n’ Go is now a structural engineers company. What was once The Pantry is a medical dialysis facility. The 7-Eleven is an auto repair shop. Circle K is a Mexican food mart. Don’s Paperbacks is now a video rental store, the Manor Bookstore is a sandwich shop, and Bungalow News remains Bungalow News and still sells a few current comics on a spinner rack. I don’t buy comics from there, though.
On the west end of town is Comic Odyssey, where I’ve been buying comics for almost ten years now. Each Monday they send me an e-mail of all the comics coming out that week. I select the ones I want and send them a list on Tuesday. Wednesday is comic book day, and sometimes I walk there from work on my lunch hour, sometimes I’m dropped off and walk back (the method of travel, for the most part, has not changed). The comics have been pulled and are waiting for me in a colorful stack. The genuine excitement I feel in sifting through a new batch of comics is still the same after thirty years. I get a nice discount and free bags and boards with each purchase. Superman is there every month. There’s also another comics shop, Comics Factory, about five blocks from where I live. Sometimes I pop in there and pick up a graphic novel or two.
It’s not the way it used to be, which sometimes makes me sad; not for me, but for the kids I see on their bikes today that are around the age I was all those years ago. They don’t have the access to comics around their neighborhoods like I once did. But that’s a consistently poor pass of an emotion that is evoked when I look back on my early comic book collecting years. It is, in truth, my own fleeting sadness, veiled by nostalgia. It’s not the kind of adventure today’s kids are missing.
For myself, those adventures ended a long time ago, still vibrant and appreciated in memory. Meanwhile, today, buying comics is a luxury.