Dan Gearino

Robert Bell’s comic shop: ‘The most amazing thing we’d ever seen’

One of the moments that pointed Jim Hanley toward a life in comics was a trip to Woodside, Queens in 1968 where he saw something unbelievable: a comic book shop.

“It was the most amazing thing we’d ever seen,” he told me. “We went there in the elevated train to the store, and as we get there, there’s a window, a display window, floor-to-ceiling comics. There was Action Comics 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Superman 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Marvel Mystery 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”

I have a lot to say about Hanley, who would go on to co-own the Jim Hanley’s Universe stores in the New York area, but right now I want to focus on the man who operated that store in Queens.

His name is Robert Bell, and he has an incredible story that I touch upon in my book. He opened the business 1961 when he was 18. It was called Victory Thrift Shop, a reference to the Allies’ victory in World War II.

He sold a mix of paperback books, comics and other used goods. When he started, comics were about 10 percent of sales. The store was about 36 feet wide and 50 feet deep.

“It took off slow, but I wasn’t depending on comic books to make a living. I was depending on books,” Bell told me in an interview last year.

“It would be crazy to just open a comic book store in the early 60s because I don’t think you would make it. You needed to have paperback books, Geographics and hardcover books to make it.”

When he says “Geographics,” he means back issues of National Geographic magazine, a staple for used book stores.

Early on, he could see a shift in his customers’ interests. Some new comics, such as Fantastic Four, were attracting a more devoted fan. Readers were willing to pay a premium for hard-to-find old issues. Also, fans seemed increasingly interested in reducing the wear and tear on old comics.

Here is a page from his mail-order catalog:

Bell’s store gradually shifted to feature comics, which grew to become at least half of his sales. By the mid-1960s, Victory Thrift had transformed into a comic shop that was way ahead of its time, and would be familiar to customers today.

Side note: I sought, and could not find, photos of Victory Thrift to use in my book. Even Bell himself did not have accessible photos. The ones that do exist, such as here, were not available in a form I could get permission to use. If anyone has photos of this store or its owner, let me know.

While Bell’s store has largely been forgotten, he is remembered as a mail-order comics dealer. His ads appeared in the Overstreet price guide, in fanzines and in comics. A Marvel or DC reader from the 1970s and 80s may not remember the Bell name, but the ads’ mascot — a Thor-like tough guy — is hard to forget.

Bell left his Queens store in 1968 and focused exclusively on mail order, first from a warehouse on Long Island and then from Florida. Then, in the mid-80s, he sold his inventory and focused on commercial real estate. (Bell’s mother took over the Victory Thrift retail location, and turned into a general used-goods store, which is how people from Woodside in the 1970s remember it.)

Here is a “Bell Buck,” part of a set of coupons Bell would send to mail order customers, which could be redeemed for discounts:

Before he sold his collection, he had at least one copy of every Marvel comic from 1961 to about 1980.

“If I had that collection today, I bet it would be worth $20 million,” he said. “I had four kids. The kids couldn’t eat comic books. They needed food.”

When I interviewed him last year, he was 73 and semi-retired, living in an oceanfront condominium near Fort Lauderdale. And, his comment about his kids needing food was meant in jest, which doesn’t quite come through in print.

Unlike some of the shop owners that followed, I think Bell was a businessman more than a fan.

I reached out to him this week in anticipation of writing this post, and to see how he was doing following Hurricane Irma. I will update if I hear back.

 

****** UPDATE 9/17/17: I heard back from Robert Bell. He’s doing fine. His land line was knocked out by Hurricane Irma, and his internet access has been spotty, but he is otherwise in good spirits.

When I posted a link to this post on Facebook over the weekend, Jim Hanley responded with a comment about how Bell invented, or at least popularized, the comic bag. Yes, that is one of the many aspects of Bell’s legacy, and that story is in my book. Most of the material on this website is in addition to what’s in the book. One of the few exceptions is the Hanley quote at the top of this post, which was just too good not to use.

Dealers such as Bell are an important aspect of the early history of comics retail, and his time as a shop owner and mail-order dealer was part of the dynamic New York scene that gave us Phil Seuling, Hanley and many others who shaped the business.

Now, if only I could procure a time machine.