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Monday, August 12, 2013

Shadow Comics and Shmay Dray

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

After the A&P supermarket moved to the mall on the outskirts of town in the 1970s, its original downtown building was re-used for many businesses over the years- including a bus depot, bingo hall, arcade and taxi office. The more durable enterprises at this address consisted of a pharmacy later in that same decade (as a temporary location while the permanent address had fire damage repairs), and as a T-shirt printing factory in the 1990s (after all those years, still retaining the old supermarket's separate entrance and exit doors).

For a relative blip in the life of that structure, one day per week in the spring of 1983, it was the Simcoe Sales Barn, a bazaar featuring two aisles full of at least two dozen different vendors at the tables. In the height of the recession, this proved a popular place for discount retail, where one could find good deals on shoes, dry goods, various household items, and gifts (there was even a deli counter in the back). For a few assorted teenaged nerds, however, it also provided the closest thing that Birdtown ever had resembling a comic book shop… if only for three months.

Specialty shops are always great for having back issues of titles. In the 80s, they became even more beneficial for two reasons. As the decade began, some publishers released titles only for the direct market (even Marvel had some titles under this strategy), meaning via subscription or for sale in comic book shops. This avoided the usual newsstand routine where unsold magazines would be returned to the companies once the new issues came out, thus causing greater loss and overhead. 1983 was especially a game changing year, as an unprecedented number of independent labels began publishing, thus competing with such juggernauts as Marvel and DC for consumers' hard earned allowance money. Rarely, if ever, did any of these titles make it to regular circulation. To be part of these new trends, one had to live in an urban centre large enough to accommodate a comic book shop. The Birdtown contingent of comic book fans were among the many towns or rural areas who were out of luck to peruse anything less mainstream than Archie, Captain America or Batman. Therefore, for us, the Simcoe Sales Barn was a welcome reprieve.

It was great to access a lot of titles that were hidden from our small town's circulation, and just as importantly, to find a lot of old comics, some dating back to the 1960s. (Otherwise, one could only find back issues at garage sales or flea markets.) I first became aware of the place through a friend during March Break, and promptly went downtown to check it out once I finished my catalogue route. In my first visit, I had picked up two of Mike Kaluta's series of The Shadow (especially elating for this long-time fan of the durable pulp character), and mint copies of the first three issues of Captain Canuck (published in the mid-70s by Richard Comely, who after a hiatus resumed the series with issue number four in 1979, when I began reading it). Afterwards I had informed some like-minded friends about the stand, and before long, everyone I knew (and them some) who collected comics were weekly customers. Simcoe Sales Barn was first open on Wednesdays, then halfway through its lifespan, shifted to Fridays so it could legally stay open later. (Even today, few businesses downtown stay open midweek past 6 PM.) Some friends of mine would go shopping during their school lunch period so that they could get dibs on the new stock, but I preferred to go after the 3:05 bell, so I could hang out longer- especially when the barn switched to Fridays.

The two men responsible for bringing us these weekly treasures were Leo and Peter, business partners from far away Toronto who jointly ran a store in the city's north end, entitled The Shmay Dray Shoppe. The two entrepreneurs and their wares were as colourful as their namesake. Their tables were also full of socks and other knick knacks for sale, but unquestionably their money was made from the comic book nerds (myself included) hungrily raiding their numerous white long boxes. There was an odd, surrogate fraternity among the people who rubbed shoulders at their stand every week and would occasionally fill the air with "Hey, look what I found!" At least for me, there was also a surrogate friendship that evolved with the men who ran the stand. Leo was the more personable of the two: a comical, portly man whose white moustache and wavy hair to match suggested that he was older than his trusty companion Peter, a lantern-jawed, dark-haired, bespectacled gravelly-voiced man, who was nice but often solemn. One cool part of their business was that you could request certain issues of titles for them to bring down next time if they had them. In addition to a list of direct sales titles that eluded us, I would also ask for any more old Shadow-related books they had in the archives.

It never occurred to me to ask how on Earth two men from Toronto found out about this out-of-the-way venue, but perhaps Birdtown wasn't so off the mark for these well-travelled entrepreneurs. Through the week, in addition to running the store, they would also "go to market" (an ambiguous term I interpreted to mean going to wholesalers to stock up on their goods), and would also do business in other venues similar to ours. It was a hell of a way to make a living, no question, with the long hours (and money) spent on traveling, but there was something adventuresome about it that appealed to my teenaged mind. I was fascinated by the life of the drifter, romanticized not only in the western novels I loved, but also the good ole boy movies in vogue at the time. (After spending some time on the road last decade touring my fanzine, I can attest that it is a gruelling but exciting vocation.)

What also made this weekly venture fun, was that Leo and Peter were characters. There was Peter always bugging Leo to get him coffee or make him a sandwich, and then there was Leo the born showman, God bless him, wearing socks on his ears while smoking a cigarette in order to attract sales. They fit right in with the rest of the Sales Barn's quirky charm. The Mexican family that ran the deli counter would play guitars and sing during downtime: once I offered to bring in my harmonica and join them; they seemed delighted at this idea, and sadly, I never followed up. Indeed, the vendors were as offbeat as a lot of the merchandise for sale. I had bought other things at the Sales Barn than just comics, yet the only one that remains in my mind thirty years on is this souvenir tabloid that reprinted the original 1922 newspaper clippings pertaining to the discovery of King Tut's tomb. (Regretfully, that went away in a yard sale many moons ago.)

To puritanical eyes, the Simcoe Sales Barn was nothing but a junk store. My mother especially was less than thrilled with my weekly jaunts there, and would use my hobby as an excuse for my poor grades. (This was false- I studied and did my homework, albeit without passion, since I considered school useless in preparing me for my probable future of working in a cannery.) She even told me once that she had gone by the place with some of her friends, and said aloud, disparagingly, "I know where my kid is!" This statement I think revealed more about her than me, but that is another story.

She may have seen this as yet another way for me to fritter away my allowance on comic books, but there was much more to it than that. This place was magic! There was an ambiance here that I really dug. After a few weeks, an interesting little community evolved, as vendors and customers became familiar to one another. A kinship was felt among the people before and behind the booths, and it was far less superficial than merely the vendors putting the touch on people to part with their money. There was an unspoken solidarity- all of us were just trying to get by! Being there gave one the confidence to take on those economic hard times with a fortuitous joy of life, where we didn't have much, but rejoiced in what we did.

As the weeks went on, Leo and I especially became close, as Peter became increasingly absent from the venue, attending to other parts of their business. Leo would invite me to sit down, and we'd shoot the breeze or tell off-colour jokes (Leo never laughed out loud- he'd always just smirk and shake his head while holding a cigarette in the air). We had even discussed my working for him, as the summer months loomed, and that Peter likely wouldn't be around.

And then, it ended.

Without any warning or reason, our routine Friday trek was met with the shocking discovery that the barn was empty, locked up and in darkness. This sudden departure was abrupt even to me, who hates long goodbyes. Some time in the fall, Simcoe Sales Barn reopened in the same location, but things just weren't the same. Only half the space was filled, and this time a lot of it really was junk. (If memory serves, the King Tut books were still for sale.) Few of the original vendors returned - an East Indian gentleman and I nodded recognition to one another.  No Leo. No Peter. Consequently, the traffic was practically non-existent. In short order, this place closed with as little fanfare as its predecessor.

In hindsight, this microcosm reveals itself as the first of several times in my life where I've been blessed to be part of a wonderful world where the unique ambiance and friendships evolve out of just the right coalescence of things that happened to be in the air at the time. Those moments end just as quickly when just one of the ingredients is subtracted, and any attempts to recreate that magic with other parts results in disappointment. In many ways, this place was a life lesson to a young man; even today, it isn't hard to remember that euphoric feeling which lived there. I hope some of my anonymous fellow travelers can recall it too.

1 comment:

  1. Great stories. If this goes to (traditional) print, I'll be your first customer.

    Keep them coming!