What was the first comic shop?

Perhaps to atone for the clickbaity vibe of my headline, I want to make clear from the outset that this post will not tell you the identity of the country’s first comic shop — I think the question is a flawed one.

That said, there is fun to be had in exploring the potential answers.

A few weeks ago, several people sent me links to an article on the Talking Comics website speculating that Bob Sidebottom opened the country’s first comic shop in 1966 in San Jose, California. Here is a tweet from retailer Joe Field:

Here was my reply:

After tweeting this, I cringed a little because I know the “first comic shop” debate can be a tar pit, with strong feelings, regional biases and a strong possibility of devolving into name-calling. I also know that, despite the temptation to have a simple answer, any sort of defensible response would need to come with a stack of caveats. So, I quickly covered my rear end:

But even that response feels inadequate. Here is my attempt to answer, or at least explain a non-answer.

I’ll start with Sidebottom. I know from prior reporting that he was an important early retailer, but his store was not even the first in San Jose, much less the first in the United States. (I don’t mean this as a knock on the Talking Comics story, which is worth a read, and clearly says it is speculating about an elusive subject.)

To confirm this, I turned to some experts: Jim Buser, Michelle Nolan, Bud Plant and Dick Swan. They were friends in the San Jose area in the late-1960s and would go on to be pioneers of comics retail. They were some of the people behind two early comic shops, Seven Sons Comic Shop in 1968, then Comic World in 1969.

They each had some version of this answer about Sidebottom: He was a presence at the San Jose Flea Market in the mid-1960s, selling records and occasionally showing an interest in comics, but did not open his comic shop until late 1968 or early ’69.

Sidebottom’s store opened after Seven Sons and before Comic World. He showed a knack for business that those other shops lacked.

“We probably did not give Bob enough credit, because he turned out to be a pretty savvy guy,” said Plant. “He didn’t know comics like we fanboys did, but he was older and wiser in the ways of the world, and surely impressed customers and suppliers perhaps more than four moonlighting students like us could.”

Buser said Sidebottom was  “primarily a flea market guy with a passion for old records.”

Then I asked a broader question: What was the first comic shop?

I also reached out to a few other people who might have answers. This included Robert Beerbohm, who co-founded Comics & Comix in the Bay Area with Plant and John Barrett, and has written about comics retail history, and Bill Schelly, the Eisner Award-winning author of books about comics history.

Here are some of the shops that got mentioned:

I got this image here, which has some more information on Hollinger.

Pop Hollinger’s store, Concordia, Kansas, circa 1940. Here is what I wrote about Hollinger in my book:

One of the earliest known comics specialty retailers was Harvey T. “Pop” Hollinger in Concordia, Kansas, a small city about a three-hour drive northwest of Topeka. Starting in the late 1930s, he opened a store selling used comics and other items, according to a profile in the 1981 edition of the Overstreet guide. He found that one of the big problems with comics was durability, so he developed modifications that included brown tape and extra staples along the spines. The results, which would horrify collectors seeking “mint” condition, can still be found on the secondary market, often described as Hollinger-rebuilt comics.

The case for this store being the first: It predates all the others by a decade or more. Beerbohm cites this store as the first, and says any arguments for other stores are “someone blowing smoke out their ass.”

The case against: Hollinger’s store sounds more like a junk shop with a specialty in comics than a business that catered to comics collectors. Also, I am uncomfortable that most of the information about Hollinger can be traced back to a single source, the Overstreet guide article. In my research, I verified some basic facts about Hollinger and his store with help from the local county historical society, but still have little sense of the look and feel of the place.

Bob Bell Buck front
A “Bell Buck” coupon from Robert Bell’s mail order comics business.

Victory Thrift Shop, Queens, New York, circa 1960. This was Robert Bell’s store, which sold comics along with a variety of used goods in the early 1960s, and gradually came to specialize in comics. Bell was on the leading edge of selling an organized selection of back issues, and he did it from a storefront while many of his contemporaries were operating mail-order businesses.

The case for it: Victory Thrift felt like a comic shop in a way that would be familiar to a current reader, according to Jim Hanley, who shopped at the store as a kid and would go on to become a retailer himself.

The case against: Bell sold just about as many paperback books as comics, especially in the early days.

clusc_8_1_00326267a cropped.jpg
This is a detail shot from the photo at the top of this post, from Cherokee Book Shop in 1965. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

Cherokee Book Shop, Hollywood, California, circa 1960. This Hollywood Boulevard store was a wonderland of books, comics and other printed material. Its comic book selection grew over the years, with that part of the store looking a lot like a comic shop. Early comics fans, especially those from California, have warm memories of this place, which helped to inspire other businesses that had more of a focus on comics.

The case for it: To start here is the original caption for the photo: “COMIC BOOK HEAVEN-Rick Durell, El Segundo, left, operator of a gasoline station, and Burt Blum, manager of Cherokee Book Shop, 6607 Hollywood Blvd., look over comic books in store, largest center for them in the country.” The photo, which I got from the UCLA photo archive, shows that Cherokee Books looked like a comic shop, and an amazing one at that.

The case against: Much like Bell’s store, this was a used-book store that devoted some of its space to comics, and not a comics specialty shop.

Seven Sons 2
A promotional flier for Seven Sons, courtesy of Jim Buser.

Seven Sons Comic Shop, San Jose, California, 1968. A bunch of friends pooled their money and comics collections and became retailers. Some of them were still in high school.

The case for it: If a comic shop is defined as a business that just sells comics and caters almost exclusively to comics fans and collectors, then this is the earliest example that I have found. Nolan, one of the co-owners of Seven Sons, says, “I staunchly maintain nobody beat Seven Sons Comic Shop, opening March 1, 1968, for comics and nothing but comics. … Until I see proof otherwise, I think that’s it. Nobody I know relied entirely on comics for profits and to pay the rent!” The March 1 date comes from Plant’s journals, and is corroborated by others.

The case against: Here’s where we get nit-picky. Seven Sons didn’t sell new comics, nor did several of the stores already listed here. Can a business be the first comic shop if it didn’t sell new comics?

Gary Arlington
Gary Arlington in his store. Based on his relative lack of scruffiness, I would say this was early in his run, but I don’t have a date for the photo. Photo by Clay Geerdes.

San Francisco Comic Book Co., San Francisco, California, 1968. Gary Arlington opened this store shortly after Seven Sons had started in San Jose. He sold new and old comics.

The case for it: Arlington had a full-line shop, and a deep collection, and his store felt more like a comic shop that many of its predecessors.

The case against: You need to bend over backwards to come up with a definition of “comic shop” that is narrow enough to put Arlington’s store first and exclude all the others.

So what’s the answer?

I found the response from Bill Schelly to be the most convincing. Here’s what he said, lightly edited:

“Comic shop” is a term that has almost no meaning before the beginning of direct market sales in the 1970s. Before that, old/used comics had been sold in used book and magazine stores as a subset of magazines. As families disposed of old magazines, there were also comic books that went along with them, and those that survived the World War II paper drives went into such used book stores. So it’s impossible to know the first book store that began carrying some old comic books for sale.

Comic books alone have rarely if ever been the sole stock of ANY store at ANY time. (There have always been posters, calendars, Big Little Books, and other ancillary products.) So, for me, the only meaningful starting point for a “true comic shop” has to be when stores carried direct comics at the same time as newsstands. I don’t think that could ever be whittled down to the “first” one — do you?

Now, it’s like anything else, such as arguing when the Golden Age ended, or the Silver Age ended, it’s really just an excuse for a bull session over a few beers with friends. Nothing wrong with that. But there’s no ultimate answer! There’s no way to empirically bestow the title “the first comics shop.” Or so I believe.

With due respect to all the other responses, and all the other stores that could claim to be the first comic shop, I think the answer to my initial question is that there is no clear answer.

I will update this post with any corrections, clarifications or additions, so check back.