Brainiac On Banjo #039: The Great Devon Avenue Comics Hunt

I often wonder how new readers come across comic books. I wonder if new readers come across comic books.

Back in those thrilling days of yesteryear, my main supplier was a drug store about an eighth of a mile from my place. I already was into the stuff due to my sister’s persuasion, but this drug store also was an eighth of a mile from my grammar school and I was there plowing through the racks each and every Thursday by 4:00 PM. There were two other such drug stores within a half mile radius.

Damn near every Saturday my pals and I would bop on down Chicago’s Devon Avenue, hanging out, goofing off, lagging baseball cards, and stopping at seven different comic book racks during our half-mile trek — six independent drug stores and, of all things, a bicycle shop that for some reason (read: enforced inducement) was our major source of Charlton Comics. They received them en masse, in bulk, and infrequently.

Then we would stop at one of the city’s better neighborhood food shacks, the fabled Red Hot Ranch, to pick up our greasy bags of hot dogs wrapped with hand-cut French fries. We concluded our journey at one of our member’s abodes, lying on the bed or a couch or the floor scarfing up our meals while reading our comics, listening to rock’n’roll on top-40 radio and seeing who could be the biggest nuisance.

As we got a bit older, we often moved this journey to the Loop, taking the L and glomming onto the comics racks at our embarking station, our disembarking station, and the dozen or so newsstands that sold us our four-color thrills.

We weren’t seeking comics per se, as their presence was ubiquitous. Seeing that comics only cost a dime (12 cents shortly after school started in 1961; talk about your double whammies) and there weren’t that many superhero comics, our habit was no where as near as costly as it is today.

The Devon Avenue Comics Hunt took us down the main shopping street of Chicago’s largest Ashkenazi-American neighborhood at the time, a crowded, noisy and glorious street. Today, of the seven outlets that sold us our weekly fix, exactly zero exist today… or at any time in the past three decades. Devon evolved and currently is one of the city’s largest Indian-American neighborhoods (that’s “India,” the country Columbus failed to discover back in 1492) and Devon is still crowded, noisy and glorious, but the change in ethnic origin did not chase comic books off the streets. Newsstands in general, and comic books in specific, are high-maintenance, low-profit fare, beneath the notice of the chain stores that by and large replaced the mom’n’pops where everybody knew your name — and where everybody would rat you out to your parents if you did anything untoward.

I don’t know where or how kids stumble across comics today. There are way too few dedicated comic book stores, and many of those that are still around are treading water. There are a lot of reasons for this: publishers went after the fan market, up-priced their product and, for several decades, avoiding publishing material that was accessible to younger readers. All too many comic book stores were told by their distributors (yes, there used to be more than one) not to bother with the neighborhood kids as they didn’t have enough money, would chase away the older readers who did, and they maintained the tradition of confusing the purpose of the spinner rack with the mission of the library.

By this time I was in the comics business, I loudly, obnoxiously and persistently commented “Yeah? Where are your new customers going to come from? Who will be your customer base in ten years?” I was not alone in this soothsaying, not by any means, but we all were ineffective in persuading distributors and most retailers.

Sadly, we said great sooth: lots of comics stores are no longer in business, most comics distributors went blooie, and our entertainment has become more even more expensive. Back during the days of the Great Devon Avenue Comics Hunt, it was not the least bit unusual for individual titles to sell over 200,000 copies, and there were more than a handful of titles that sold over a million copies every month. Today, if you’re selling 20,000 copies you’ve got a comparative hit.

We have digital, and that’s bringing in new eyeballs. We have an astonishing number of trade paperback reprints, and that’s good — particularly for grandparents who read comics as kids as we now have something to give our juvenile relations when we visit. Is it too little, too late? Are the needs of the potential young reader being met by the plethora of television shows and movies? Can kids read comics with thumbs swollen by video game controllers?

I guess time will tell. But I can’t help but feel that time is running out.

One thought on “Brainiac On Banjo #039: The Great Devon Avenue Comics Hunt

  1. My fix was at Morgan’s Drug Store in Georgetown DC, 1960-62, give or take. Thanks for the memory, Mike.