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.

RobertHis 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.

Bell ad headWhile 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:

Bell buck front & back.jpeg

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.

Comic World, 1969

The photo above has many stories in it, and I want to tell a few. The smiling young man is Dick Swan, 15, who was standing outside the comic shop he co-owned. This was Comic World in San Jose, opened in 1969. At that time, San Jose had at least two other stores specializing in comics, while most cities didn’t have any.

Swan, known to friends as “The Big Guy,” would go on to be a manager and then co-owner at Comics & Comix, the Northern California chain, and then owner of The Big Guy’s Comics in Mountain View. Now he is semi-retired near Santa Cruz, putting him near another pioneer of comics retail, Joe Ferrara of Atlantis Fantasyworld. He still sells on eBay as bigguyscomics.

Comic World is important in hindsight because almost everyone involved would go on to be key players in the comics retail landscape that was about to form. This was the only photo I could locate of the store, and it’s a good one.

Several of the partners in Comic World — but not Swan — had been part of a previous comic shop in San Jose called Seven Sons, which opened in March of 1968 and soon was sold to one of the co-owners. I’m not going to declare that any comic specialty shop was the first in the country, because such a designation depends on the squishy definition of “comic shop,” but Seven Sons clearly was one of the first. And, it predated the direct market for selling mainstream comics by five years.

Here is a close look at the photo, with my questions and Swan’s answers, exchanged via email. One note: When he talks about “Bud,” he means Bud Plant, his longtime friend and part of the team behind Seven Sons, Comic World and later Comics & Comix.

Dan Gearino: Who are the couple reflected in the window?

Dick Swan: Those are my grandparents, Cleo and Violet Jones, who were here visiting in the summer of 1969 from Dallas, Texas. I had gone the previous summer to my first comic convention in Dallas with Tom Tallmon (one of the original Seven Son’sreflection partners) and Dennis Cunningham. Dennis published a fanzine called Weirdom, which published some of Richard Corben’s first art. I was waiting in the hotel lobby in Dallas and an old man pulled up in a station wagon filled to the brim with stuff. I asked him if he needed some help bringing stuff in. He did and bought me a Coke in the hotel café. It was SF writer Fritz Leiber who signed one of his books for me. I was fourteen when I went to that first Con. It was called SouthwesternCon and alternated between Dallas and Houston each year.

DG: Is that your bike parked on the right?

DS: Yep, that is my Schwinn. I paid $80 for it and would ride downtown on my bike to the store. I lived about ten miles from downtown San Jose. Address of the shop was 121 S. First St. I think.

DG: Bud told me the previous tenant in the space was Bead World. Did you repurpose the “World” part of the sign?

DS: Actually Bead World was located right next door to us, just to the right of my grandparents. We rented our store from Bead World, sub-leased I guess. We paid $85 a month and I could touch both walls if I held out my arms. Both stores were tiny. Our store was originally a stairwell to the second floor, but was converted. Bead World was just a little bigger. My guess is the store was probably about 9 feet wide by about 30 feet deep, with a back room maybe twenty feet. The Comic World sign was made by our friend Al Davoren, who later helped publish Promethean Enterprises with Bud and Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr. I am still friends with Jim and Al.

DG: How old were you?

DS: I was 15. We opened on June 26, 1969 and I turned 16 a month later on July 28.  The other guys were all 17. We got the stock from the HoustonCon which ran from June 20-22 in 1969. We drove home,  went out and rented a store the same week.

DG: I can see Amazing Fantasy #15, Panic #6, a Tarzan paperback, signs for Zap and Red Eye, and a Batman and Robin decal. Any specific memories about any of those items?


DS: Just trying to show a selection of what we had. San Jose Red Eye was a San Jose hippie newspaper. I know we paid a few bucks for an ad in their paper. The only other place we put an ad was in Rocket’s Blast/Comicollector fanzine. The AF # 15 was probably about $10 at that time. We all Loved ECs. One interesting note is that there were three stores within two blocks of each other in San Jose (Frank Scadina’s Marvel Galaxy which had been Seven Sons, and Bob Sidebottom’s Comicollector Shop), and none of us carried NEW Comics, just old stuff. I remember Milligan, the distributor wouldn’t sell to us because none of us were 18.

DG: Who took the photo?

DS: My dad, Joe B. Swan. My dad was the head of the photo journalism department at San Jose State for 30 years, starting in 1962. He was a great photographer and many of his students went on to win Pulitzer Prizes.

DG: Remind me again of who the initial partners in Comic World were.

Myself, Dick Swan, Jim Buser, Bud Plant, and John Barrett. I met Jim through an ad in Blackhawk #224 in 1966 and he introduced me to John. I met Bud at the flea market in 1966.

DG: How would you describe yourself at the time of the photo? What were you like to hang out with then?

DS: I was a really straight-laced kid, totally absorbed with Comics and Collectibles. I was selling comics through Rocket’s Blast and Mail order. We would hang out in John’s garage every night almost, playing poker and listening to about ten albums he owned. I remember The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” Cream’s “Disraeli Gears,” and the Mothers of Invention album with Suzy Creamcheese. We played football on Sundays and pretty much grew up together. Within a year or so I was going to a lot of rock ‘n roll concerts, loved and saw the Rolling Stones, The Who, Traffic in San Francisco at Winterland and whatever music groups came to San Jose, We spent the next few summers on the road doing all the comic conventions while I was going to college during the year.


Thank you to Dick Swan. He was one of the key interviews for my book, and I’ll be seeing him on Nov. 4 at a launch event in Concord, California. If you’re in the area, stop by.

Here is a more recent photo of Swan, at his Santa Cruz home in the early 2010s. The fresh-faced kid would go onto have some distinctive sideburns, and a ridiculously amazing comics collection.


Going to California

I’m still putting together a schedule of events to promote Comic Shop. But here is a great one I can share right now: On Saturday, Nov. 4, I will be at Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, California, joined by many of the people I interviewed for the book. The location is a appropriate, considering that the Bay Area is such an important part of the history of comics retail, and that Flying Colors’ owner, Joe Field, was a key interview subject.

Here is what Joe posted on his store website:

Join us for this very special evening at Flying Colors. title

With the release of COMIC SHOP: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture, we’re inviting some of the key players from the early days of comic shops in and around the Bay Area. This is going to be a fun evening of lively conversation and a look behind the history of comic shops, especially in the greater Bay Area.

Guests include: Author Dan Gearino, writer/publisher/business executive/talent agent Mike Friedrich, comics retailing pioneers Bud Plant and Dick “BigGuy” Swan (Comics & Comix), Joe Ferrara (Atlantis Fantasyworld, Santa Cruz), and Brian Hibbs (Comix Experience, San Francisco).

The Geek Speak Video Show will be shooting a live interview with author Dan Gearino and the attending guests.

Beverages and appetizers will be available.

The Flying Colors event will be just a few days after the Diamond Comics Distributors release of the book.

I will post here as I finalize the details of other events this fall, winter and into next spring.

Before I go, here is a photo of Dick Swan, before he grew his formidable mutton chops, standing outside of one of the country’s first comics specialty shops, Comic World in San Jose:


Photo courtesy of Dick Swan

Meet Phil Seuling

In 1977, an unsuspecting television audience got to meet a smiling comics dealer from Brooklyn. Phil Seuling was a guest on The Mike Douglas Show, joined onstage by Jamie Farr of M*A*S*H. At that time, Seuling had a growing business, acting as a middleman between publishers and a burgeoning network of comics specialty shops. In writing my book, I watched this YouTube video dozens of times, trying to get a better sense of this impetuous entrepreneur. He was in many ways the father of comics’ direct market.

The other guests included William Westmoreland, who had commanded the U.S. forces in Vietnam; and Fabian, the singer, actor, and former teen idol. It epitomized the late 1970s almost to the point of parody.

Near the end of his TV appearance, Seuling says he’s brought a special guest, a superhero. Instead of Spider-Man or Batman, this hero is Red Sonja, played by Wendy Pini, who would go on to co-create Elfquest, a self-published comic book that helped to pave the way for other creators who wanted to work outside of the major publishers.

Notice, as the show cuts to commercial, that Farr says this about Pini: “Now that’s a superhero.”

“The audience loved it,” Wendy Pini told me. “But we heard, later on, that Mike Douglas
was quite upset by my racy costume, which didn’t fit in with the tone of his show. C’est la vie.”

Her husband and business partner, Richard Pini, was in the audience, and we can see this video today because decades later he obtained a copy and uploaded it. Richard and Wendy were key players in the development of the direct market, and I am grateful for all the time and help they have given me.

WPRP early 1

Wendy and Richard Pini

Hat tip to the indispensable Mark Evanier wrote about Seuling and the Pinis in 2004, and then re-posted it in 2015 with a link to the video, which is how I found it.

Eisner-winner Comicazi

When I went to Boston last year, I had two stops on my schedule: Comicopia and The Million Year Picnic. At both places, employees spoke highly of another shop in town: Comicazi.

So I made time to visit Comicazi that day, taking the Red Line train to Davis Square in Somerville. The store was new to me, but has a much larger profile today thanks to being selected last month for the Spirit of Retailing prize at the Eisner awards.

Comicazi helped to broaden my understanding of the comics market for my book. The store has a giant selection of games and vintage toys, and it has a fun, welcoming vibe. Its co-owners (Robert Howard was the one I interviewed that day) have developed an audience with in-store clubs and events. But all of those other things rest on a foundation of selling comics and books. I had never seen this mix of products done this way.

Comicazi dukes

Dukes of Hazzard action figures exist. For reasons unclear to me, Uncle Jesse is more expensive than the rest.

local art

A bookcase for comics by local artists is right next to those by major publishers.

the ladies.jpg

This display is near the front door, with some titles marked to be noticed by women shoppers. And yes, “The ladies of Comicazi” is a weird turn of phrase.

Completely compleat: a visit to DreamHaven Books

I’ve been traveling and made a visit to to DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis, one of my favorite comic shops. Greg Ketter, the store’s owner, was one of the key sources for my book. His store has had several names and addresses, and even was closed for a while, but is very much alive today.compleat

I could spend days in a store like DreamHaven, with stacks upon stacks of great and sometimes random stuff.

I took many photos, including one of an ad from the early 1980s when the store was called the Compleat Enchanter.

Underneath the flier, you can see part of the cover for one of my purchases from that day, an old issue of the Jonny Quest series from Comico, which a cover and interior by Doug Wildey. Doug Wildey!

DreamHaven’s current address is 2301 E. 38th St., Minneapolis. And Greg is there behind the counter most days.

Greg Ketter.JPG

Greg Ketter

I have an abundance of nostalgia for the DreamHaven location that used to be in the Dinkytown neighborhood. When I was in college in the late-1990s, I would go there to stock up on all the things that weren’t available at my main shop. That is where I bought my first issues of Palookaville, Eightball and Acme Novelty Gallery.

DreamHaven was, and remains, a shop that has reason to be pretentious but is utterly unpretentious.

A few more images from my visit:

Great Red Dragon

The Great Red Dragon from Bone.

Great Gifts

Everything about this picture is great.


In my travels, I have learned that this Tintin book display is a sign of a store that has a well-stocked children’s section, and impeccable taste.

Announcing COMIC SHOP: THE RETAIL MAVERICKS WHO GAVE US A NEW GEEK CULTURE; Coming in October from Swallow Press/Ohio University Press

Award-winning journalist Dan Gearino takes a revealing look at comics’ direct market in COMIC SHOP: THE RETAIL MAVERICKS WHO GAVE US A NEW GEEK CULTURE, coming in October from Swallow Press, the trade imprint of Ohio University Press. The foreword is by Tom Spurgeon, editor of and an Eisner Award winner.

Phil Seuling

Phil Seuling photo by Mike Zeck

COMIC SHOP is based on more than one hundred interviews, including innovative retailers such as Peter Birkemoe at The Beguiling in Toronto; Diamond Comic Distributors’ founder and owner Steve Geppi; and comics creators such as Richard and Wendy Pini, Mike Zeck, Jeff Smith and Bryan Lee O’Malley.

The tale begins in the 1960s, with a nascent fan culture that led to the opening of comic book specialty shops. From this start, a high school English teacher from Brooklyn named Phil Seuling came up with a new way to supply the shops with comics. His innovation in 1973 was a business model that has come to be called the direct market and survives to this day, despite long odds, booms and busts.


“There is no other business quite like a comic shop, with a nausea-inducing degree of difficulty and an array of colorful characters,” said Gearino. “The origin of the direct market is a story of creative people who turned passion into a business.”

Gearino, a business reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, shows how the comic shop business model turned out to be a boon for many cartoonists, helping up-and-coming creators find their audiences.

Laughing Ogre

The crew at The Laughing Ogre includes Lauren McCallister and Gib Bickel.

The book explores the present-day landscape by spending a year with some of the best comic shops in the United States and Canada, with a spotlight on The Laughing Ogre in Columbus. The year turns out to be a rough one, covering parts of 2015 and 2016, when major publishers Marvel and DC went into a sales swoon, only for DC to recover with its “Rebirth” event. While big publishers lost ground in many shops, the gap largely was filled by new readers and smaller companies, with women and younger readers rising in visibility.

Challengers small

Challengers Comics and Conversation in Chicago

Also included are profiles of 40 notable shops in the United States and Canada, showing the many flavors of an iconoclastic business.


“Dan Gearino captures the genie in the bottle. He’s gathered together the players and the circumstances to reveal how a generation of entrepreneurs saved an entire industry and changed the very way people discover, buy, read, collect, and even think about comic books.” —Bud Plant

“If America’s castle on a hill rests on a foundation of how we buy and sell things, Dan Gearino shows us what’s in the basement.” —Tom Spurgeon, from his foreword

COMIC SHOP is ~264 pages hardcover with 75 illustrations. Retail price: $26.95
For more information, please contact Samara Rafert,

Samara Rafert, promotions and exhibits manager

(740) 593-1160