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Requiem for a Comic Book Rack

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Our industry is no stranger to progress and progress is good. It’s led to more attractive shop environments, healthier food choices, automated inventory management, a variety of new ways to accept payments, and a ton of other C-store improvements.

But with progress comes casualties, those items (sometimes people!) that lay strewn on the ground in the wake of advancement, discarded and often forgotten. Zeppelins. Polaroid cameras. Fax machines. Movie rental stores. Phone booths.

comic_book_rack_2Comic book racks in C-stores.

We miss them. They were a fixture when convenience stores emerged en masse on the U.S. retail scene in the late Sixties. As kids, when we dropped by to get a donut or risk brain freeze with a cup of frozen beverage, we always ended up checking out the rack.

It was as if the slogan at the top of the spinning display—“Hey, Kids, Comics!” or “Good Wholesome Fun!”—had a mesmerizing effect on us making it impossible to resist. It didn’t even matter that a comic being picked up and put back by countless small hands could get pretty torn up. Who cared? This was before comic book collecting became big business.

Comic book deliveries were made every Tuesday, so that became a big day for us. Only once in a while did the clerk behind the counter inform us that his place of business wasn’t a library and that we were expected to buy a comic book or two. At 12 cents, it wasn’t too high a price to pay. After all, this was the place where we met our first great love—Marvel superheroes—when they were introduced. You can’t really put a price on love.

c-store_manNothing lasts forever, though, and the comic book industry changed. It contracted pretty severely for a number of reasons we don’t have time to go into now. At one time a popular book could be expected to move over a million copies a month. By the late 1970’s a popular book was lucky to sell a quarter of that.

The distribution model was showing its age, too. For decades books that didn’t sell within a given time frame had to be sent back by the store to the distributor for refunds. In a faster paced world this became an increasingly big hassle for retailers. Toward the bitter end I distinctly remember being told by one particularly gruff owner that “he couldn’t wait to throw all that crap out!” and with diminishing profitability, eventually that’s exactly what the C-stores did, giving way to the dedicated comic book store that kept all unsold inventory instead of sending it back, creating a back issue market that had never before existed and one that fed directly into the collectables market.

You’ll hear couples who are on the verge of ending a relationship say things like, “We’ll always have Paris.” Well, we’ll always have the C-store and its wonderful spinning rack, and that’s enough for us.

As Ben Grimm might say, “Whoda thunk it?”

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