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    Comic Book Street Vendors

    By Laura Hudson

    STREET WARE
    They said there was a man selling comics on the street at 43rd and Broadway, not far from the subway. For days I seemed to go at the wrong times, or in the wrong weather, until one night I found him right where they said he’d be, next to the Hard Rock Cafe, beneath the seizure-inducing lights of Times Square.

    His name is Rich the Comic Book Guy — or at least, that’s the only name he’ll give me. He’s been selling comics for a long time — “too long,” he says, declining to specify. It all started years ago, when he decided to sell some of his comics for cash. “I went to the store, but I couldn’t get what I wanted for them. Then I saw people selling comics on the street and thought I’d try it.” When they sold well, he invested in more comics, sold them at a profit, and began making his hobby into his trade.

    Although he used to buy new issues through a wholesaler, these days he gets his books through a combination of traditional stores, customers, and other vendors. His new titles now are limited to “stuff that’s hot,” like Civil War or 52, and “stuff I like,” which for Rich means X-Men titles and Vertigo books. He buys back issues from collections and prices them mostly from memory. “I don’t always keep up with Wizard,” he says. “I don’t particularly care for it too much.”

    Many vendors, it seems, simply buy and sell off of each other when they need — or need to get rid of — comics. Often, says Rich, he’ll pick up a stack from another retailer looking to make more room on his table. Usually, he doesn’t need to seek out for people selling their books. “I don’t need to find them; they find me.” Customers, some of whom are regulars, often bring him their collections. I ask him why people come to his stand, rather than a large comic store, like Midtown Comics just three blocks away. “I dunno,” he grins, “They must like nice deals, or they like me.”

    As an outdoor retailer, Rich is at the mercy of the elements, and a patch of bad weather can easily ruin sales. “Rain,” says Rich grimly, “is bad.” Winter is particularly hard on street vendors. While everyone else scurries from warm building to warm building, their jobs keep them stationary on the streets in the bitter cold. Last winter Rich had a day job, and only sold comics on the weekends, limiting his time outside. Since he was laid off in February, though, selling comics has been his primary source of income, and he grimaces when I ask him about the coming winter. “My goal,” says Rich, “is to be working inside again by then. I can make money in the winter, but it’s not as much fun.”

    It has to be fun that motivates most of the vendors, because it’s not the lucrative sales. Shuaib Mewborn-Odin, a book vendor on Waverly and 6th who sometimes adds comics to his wares, certainly isn’t in it for the money. An avid comic fan sporting a T-shirt with a fiery Superman logo, Mewborn-Odin sells his own new comics back to customers for less than what he spends on them. “I just want some people to get entertainment out of what I already read,” he said. “And… I wanna get some of my money back. ”

    Ron Johnson, a vendor at RJO Books on 8th Street and 6th Avenue, seems to do a little better with the comics he adds to his more traditional spread of paperback novels, though that’s not saying much. Like Mewborn-Odin, the comics he sells are only supplements to the novels, his bread and butter. “[Comics] are just nice to have. It’s hit or miss. Maybe I make a dollar here and there.”

    When I first meet Johnson on 6th Avenue, I ask him if he’s seen anyone selling comics on the street in the area. He tells me that he, in fact, has some comics to show me, and goes digging beneath his tables through the plastic crates that hold his overstock. “I know they’re in here somewhere,” he mutters. I ask him how they sell, whether they make much money. He laughs. “If they were hot sellers, I’d be able to find them.”

    It wasn’t always like this, says Johnson. “There was a time when all this used to be a comic book strip,” he says, motioning down 6th Avenue, “maybe six or seven years ago. Then it faded out.” When I ask him why, he merely shrugs, and says that things change.

    Six or seven years ago, incidentally, is around the time when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani began his “quality of life” initiative, which included a fierce crackdown on street vendors that nearly banned them from most of Manhattan. It was also not long after the ‘90s comics bubble burst, and the subsequent plummet in sales devastated retailers and put a tragically large number of comic book stores out of business. One can only imagine that being a comic book street vendor around that time was something of an unfortunate double whammy.

    Times are tougher now for retailers both large and small, and Rich faces some of the same problems that haunt even larger stores. “I look through Previews sometimes and think ‘this’ll be good, and this’ll be good,” but then I just end up getting stuck with all this stuff.” Unlike large retailers, however, Rich doesn’t have any room to take chances and absorb losses, and his selection of new books has become a fraction of what it used to be.

    “I remember when there were a lot of comics being sold down in the Village, but now…” he trails off. Here in Times Square, Rich says, there used to be two or three other comic book sellers on his block alone. When asked whether there was much rivalry between them, he shakes his head. “We were friendly. And anyway, now there’s nobody here but me.”

    Rich glances at the handbag vendor next to him, whose table is crowded with customers, while Rich’s remains relatively empty. “I wish my stuff sold like that,” he says, motioning to the adjoining table. “Handbags are like drugs!” He pauses for a moment, and then laughs. “Comic books are like drugs, too. But it looks like there are no fiends around here. I guess I’m the only fiend left.”

    Posted by Tim Leong on September 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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