Steve Spatucci When I think back upon my formative comic book buying years, between early elementary school (when most of my comics came from the newsstand), and later teenagedom (conventions and comic stores), there was a long stretch in the middle when I got my comics almost exclusively from a flea market.
For New Jersey residents, it was the Columbus Farmer's Market. Don't let the name fool you, though--farming equipment had left the market by the 1950s, but the name remained. Columbus was and is a sprawling indoor/outdoor marketplace where items like CDs and DVDs, hardware, fresh produce, clothing and accessories, electronic gadgets and computer gear--practically anything you were looking for--could be procured for low, negotiable prices.
Though the Farmer's Market was only opened on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, my father and I would head there on Sunday mornings. Thursday was a school day, of course, and if my memory is correct, the vendors on Saturdays were only allowed to sell "new" merchandise--meaning, t-shirts, luggage, sunglasses, but not the typical yard sale-style random articles people had either owned, purchased, or found specifically to sell.
Those types of items ruled Sundays, though, and my father loved the thrill of the hunt--especially for old cameras and photography gear--so Sunday was our day.
While my father was off doing his searching, he would give me five dollars, and I was allowed to strike out on my own expeditions. Though I was always searching for cool toys, games, or a dirt cheap drum set (never happened), the one stop I always made--and the place where I spent a good 80% of my time--was at one particular vendor's comic stand.
A few people on this blog have already discussed their first experiences discovering the existence of back issues--this was mine. There were two or three big comic vendors on any given week, and plenty of tables with makeshift boxes or stacks of unorganized comics to be quickly shuffled through. But shortly after my first outing to the Farmer's Market, I became a regular of one vendor in particular.
I can't believe I remember his name more than twenty-five years later, but I do--he was Bruce. I think it sticks with me because he didn't look at all like a "Bruce"--Wayne or otherwise. He was slightly pudgy, usually unshaven (hey--it was Sunday), always in colorful, loungy clothes and his signature floppy beach hat--and, typical of the early 80's--insanely large sunglasses. He looked a lot like Bill Murray--goofy and affable, and a perfect comic book salesperson.
Bruce was a friendly guy--chatty in the way that truly good salespeople are. Standing at his tables (all covered by a series of canopy tops, thus providing protective shade to his back stock), he made you feel zero pressure to buy anything. He was happy just to talk about comics to anyone standing around.
Bruce would let you browse or even open a bagged comic and read it (people are putting comics in bags, and sticking thin white cardboard behind them?!). This was probably a large factor in my choice to patronize his business--I could hang there as long as I liked, just looking through back issues. It didn't take me long before I'd made a point to save my money until I got to Bruce's stand, even if I did take a few minutes to peruse his competition first.
The day I most remember came early on in my visits to Bruce's stand. On this day, as I was digging through the Marvel boxes, I came across a copy of Special Edition X-Men #1--reprinting, of course, Giant-Size X-Men #1 from 1975. However, being young and naive (translate that to "a moron"), I wasn't aware of the concept of reprints.
In my mind, I had somehow lucked upon an actual copy of the first issue of this blockbuster comic that had enraptured me for the past couple years--and for only few dollars! Unbelievable! I suppose the fact that that the cover stated "The VERY FIRST Adventure of the New X-Men!" could have thrown me off, but I really should have used some whatever rudimentary critical thinking skills I had at the time. I remember the feeling of desire rushing over me like a wave of pure comic book lust.
I don't think I had visions of ever selling the book (perish the thought--sell a comic book?), but I knew the first issue was quite valuable, and the idea of merely owning this artifact from half a decade earlier was absolutely thrilling. I wanted this comic in my possession as quickly as possible, before the any pricing error could be discovered.
I put the book in my pile, along with a couple other new releases (I guess I was hoping to throw Bruce off) and handed them over for him to ring up. I remember what he said next very clearly. I didn't fully appreciate his words at the time--nor did I absorb the deft way in which he delivered them. However, after a couple years had passed it struck me just how perceptive Bruce was, and how much sensitivity he had used in handling the situation.
Bruce took my comics and started to hand-write a receipt. As he was going through my short stack, he must have noticed me bubbling with glee. He said, in a totally off-the-cuff tone, "You know, this reprint of the first issue of X-Men really is a great buy, since the original is so darn expensive and hard to find now. I always make sure to point it out to my customers when they're buying a reprint, just so they don't think they're getting something that's worth more than they think. It really is a good buy, though--anyway, I'm sure you knew that. So, do you still want everything here?"
I was dejected, but tried to maintain my composure. Thinking quickly--sure, I still wanted to actually read the story in the issue--I said "yes," in a pseudo-confident tone. Nope, there was no doubt that I knew I was buying a nearly-valueless reprint--I knew it all along...
What stayed with me, and what I appreciated more over the years, was the way Bruce made such an effort to say, "I always make sure to point it out my customers when they're buying a reprint..."--like, "Hey--this is just standard policy--something I do for everyone whether they need the information or not."
He wasn't condescending--I mean, really--I was a worldly eleven-year-old--certainly I didn't need the benefit of his knowledge, but you know a ten-year-old might have...And he even gave me a chance to back out of the purchase the reprint while still saving face. He was one cool dude.
For a long time, whenever I'd re-read that issue, I'd think about that moment, and how embarrassing and disappointing it would have been had Bruce not been so honest and respectful with his young customer. It would have been easy for him to just ring up the sale, and just as easy for him to have pointed out the fact that I was buying a reprint in a loud, crude way that would have made me feel like a fool, especially in front of the older teenage customers surrounding me. Instead, he handled the situation with grace. I haven't forgotten it.
Eventually--inevitably--one Sunday my father and I went to the Farmer's Market and Bruce's stand wasn't there. He'd missed a couple weeks from time to time over the years, but this time he never came back. So, Bruce the Columbus Farmer's Market Comic Guy from the 80's, if you're out there--you did good. And--thank you.