By Peter Erickson
Larry's Comic Book Store smells of old paper. The ceiling paint is peeling in strips, the plaster's falling down, the walls are dirty and cracked. There's a lot of dust too, but complaining about that is like whining about the grease in a mechanic's garage.
Past magazine shelving, past open boxes of comics precariously stacked, past a couple of metal spinner racks, and behind an old, scratched display case sits Larry Charet reading a newspaper.
"Hello," he says, and continues reading.
Charet's in his early 50s, thin, six foot, with a fringe of black hair, glasses, and a mustache. He opened his store here at 1219 W. Devon in 1972, only months after he was discharged from the army. "The year I was in Vietnam I sent my pay home to my parents," he says. "I'm not the type who liked to drink, smoke, or stay up late. I lived in the back of the store for a while. I was not the first store in Chicago to sell old comics. I would have to say the Acme Bookstore in the 400 block of North Clark started cultivating, collecting in the mid-60s. But all through the 1970s there was only me and two other comic book stores."
When he opened, people quickly began to bring in old comic books, some dating back to the golden age of comics, the 40s, when they were new and at the peak of their popularity. "It was much easier to buy back then," he says. "I carried only back issues at the start, because it was thought that new comics would cut into your back-issue sales. What really helped my business was the direct market created by Phil Seuling, a comic fan on the east coast." The direct market gave retailers a higher discount, though they couldn't return unsold copies. "The best thing was that you got the comics two weeks before the newsstands did. It was like printing money. I wish there was something like that around when I was young. Distribution was always erratic. I was the kind of kid who had to read every comic. Sometimes my father had to drive me all over Rogers Park to find the comics I was missing."
As a kid Charet bought comic books from Acme and from the A-1 bookstore in the Loop. "This was a cluttered shop with thousands of magazines piled in the center of the store. It was haphazard. Sort of like my store. Acme was more a rare-book store. A-1 had stacks of old 50s comics. The owners would throw you out and not allow you back in if they found out you'd sold a comic for a profit that you first bought from them. Imagine such a thing. Me and my friends were thrown out, obviously." He laughs. "Kids don't read comics anymore. They come into my store look at a comic and go 'Blah.' Kids know superheroes from television. When I was young I read newspapers. I loved the comic strips. Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant. Kids don't read newspapers today, do they?"
Charet hops off his battered chair and takes a stack of comics from a customer. He has no use for a register or calculator. He quickly looks through the two dozen comics and says, "68.60." The customer pays without question.
Charet says that in the early 80s other people began to become distributors. "Comic stores began to multiply," he says. "In the early 80s I had two people open comic book stores near me. Both had been customers. One guy told me, 'I'm going to put you out of business.' I didn't like that. Both were jerks, and neither stayed in business long."
Meanwhile Charet was doing so well that in 1982 he opened an annex in the storefront next door. "The best single day of business I ever saw, and probably will never see again, was the 'Death of Superman.'" That was in 1992, one of the best years for comic retailers since the 60s. "No one had any idea it would become so big an event. I ordered 300 copies and sold out within two hours. I could have ordered ten times as much and still sold out. Everybody wanted that comic. The phone never stopped ringing that day. I never saw so many non-comic-book readers in my store. It was going to make them rich. A year later no one cared. I ordered some ridiculous amount, 2,000, of the 'Return of Superman.' I sold about 500. The rest went into my annual garage sale.
In the early 70s Charet had visited comic conventions in New York. Impressed, he and two partners started Chicago Comicon in 1976. "Our first show was in the Playboy building," he says. "We lost a lot of money, but my thinking was, you have to put on a great show when you're new or else no one will come back. The next year we moved to the Congress Hotel. We stayed there until '83, then to accommodate all the people who drove in, we moved to the O'Hare Ramada Inn. We stayed there until '92. We had outgrown it. We went to the Rosemont Convention Center next. We were drawing nearly 30,000 people, making us the second largest comic con in the U.S. after San Diego."
Then the bottom fell out for independent comic stores. "Thousands of stores have closed in the last five years," says John Miller of Comic Retailer. "We are now back to our pre-1990 level. For a comic book store to be successful it has to sell more than comics. Comics now only account for 45 percent of sales in most stores. Trading cards, action figures, models pick up the slack." He thinks the current depression in the comic book market is the fault of speculators who've left the market and put their money in toys, action figures, playing cards.
Charet had started diversifying before the downswing. He now carries new magazines, James Bond and Doctor Who items, and material related to newspaper comic strips, pulps, TV, monster flicks, martial-arts movies, pinup models. He has a Web site and will ship orders anywhere. Yet his business is still down 50 percent since 1993, even though competitors have been closing all over. In 1997 he and his partners sold Chicago Comicon. "The overhead got too big," he says. "We began to lose money." In January 1998 he closed the annex.
Two ten-year-old boys come into the store. Charet stands up to watch them. One looks at the new comics, the other stands on a stool and begins to pull back issues out of a box. "How much is this?" the boy asks, holding up a comic printed a decade before he was born.
"The price is on the back in pencil." Charet starts fidgeting.
"It doesn't have a price."
"Let me see." Charet looks at the comic and says, "It's the cover price."
The boy drops the comic back in the box, takes out another, drops it back in. He does this a couple more times, and Charet steps out from behind the counter. In an annoyed tone he says, "Keep the comics in order." The boy backs away, and Charet starts to refile them.
The two boys get together, speak in low voices, and walk out.
"I'm a lot nicer than I used to be," Charet says with a shrug. "I don't get so upset when people mess up the comics. I've been selling comics longer than most comic readers have been alive. That's a fact."
The phone rings. "Hello....Yes....You do?...How old?...What's real old?...That's not old....You have anything else?...No....No." He hangs up. "I hate it when people call and tell me they have this valuable book. It's 'rare.' There is no such thing as a rare comic book, except maybe comics from the 40s. I mean, everybody has his own definition of rare."
He starts cleaning his fingernails with a letter opener. "When I tell someone what their comic is worth they get all upset, like I'm trying to rip them off. Nowadays everybody has a price guide, but few know how to use it or grade a comic."
Ray, a red-haired guy in his 60s, comes in. He and Charet met decades ago at comic book fan-club meetings, and he worked at Charet's annex from when it opened until it closed. Then he tried Florida. He'd been there less than a year when everyone was ordered to leave all their belongings and evacuate the coast ahead of a hurricane. Ray put his cat and all his valuable things in his car and moved all the way back to Chicago.
Ray, who now has a small mail-order business, has been dealing golden-age comics, the comics of his youth, since the 60s. He can tell at a glance whether a comic book was drawn by Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Jack Cole, Mac Raboy, or any of a couple dozen other artists. He says he always preferred to deal in high-grade old comics, ones that look as if they'd been printed yesterday, but he's been priced out of the market. He now sells movie-music sheets to supplement his social security checks.
"Remember those comics Joe bought in the 70s?" Ray says. "Boy, were they nice. I haven't seen better copies of Timelys or Fawcetts. And MLJs too. Who would have thought that Archies would be getting the kind of money they're getting now?"
"Getting?" says Charet.
"Well, asking then." Ray laughs. "The covers of those comics were bright. How did they get those colors back then?" He sighs. "If I still had some of my old comics I'd be set."
The two ten-year-old boys return. This time they go through the comic boxes carefully and stop after accumulating a small pile. Charet totals the sale and takes the boys' money. On the way out one of them says to the other, "I have over 75 comics now."
Near closing time a well-dressed man walks in and says hello to Charet. Charet nods.
"That Avengers four," says the man, looking at several bagged comics taped to the wall behind Charet, "is that significant?"
"Of course," says Charet in a tone that says, what planet are you from? "It's the first silver-age Captain America."
"Can I see it?"
Charet takes the comic off the wall, pulling a small piece of paint off with it. He slides the comic out of its plastic bag and hands it to the man, who gingerly inspects it for tears, creases, flaking, browning. He flips the pages delicately. "Nice. Let me look around. Don't put it back."
The man takes a couple of comics from boxes and returns. He looks long at the price on the first comic. "Can you give me a discount?"
"How about 20 percent off?" Charet says. Later he explains that most dealers price a little high in case customers want to bargain.
"Great. Can I put some of my bill on my debit card and some on my credit card?"
Charet holds out his hand for the cards.
After the man leaves, Charet says, "I don't read comic books anymore. They don't interest me. The average reader is in his middle 20s. Last year this kid said to me, 'You have some nice comics, but you should doll them up, put them in bags with boards.' Doll them up. Now I've heard everything."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.