Friday, July 13, 2012

"Rare Goods For The Savvy Collector" by Grant Schreiber

It was December 12, 2012, and Brad Binder had had enough.  One too many times he had gone into the Savvy Collector and stared at the back wall of high priced comics in envy and dread.  All those comics he had once owned for their cover price--some only fifteen cents!--and now they were selling for thirty, forty, fifty dollars and more.  It made him sick to his stomach.   One too many times he had mentioned to the morons that worked the counter he had those comics to their utter disinterest, the stupid punks.

Now on that fateful day, 12-12-12,  Brad was filled with the possibility of a wish come true.  While the country was apparently eager to play lotto numbers,  Brad would make a wish.   And to give that wish an extra push, he would make it when his digital watch read 12:12 as well.  And to make sure the wish was pushed into reality,  he would do it twice.  A wish in the morning and again at night.  And he would wish with all his might.

The wish wasn’t for money.  It wasn’t really.  Wishing for money contained its own bad juju that could sour things.  All that Brad wished for was a change of heart in his mother.  He wished that in 1979 his mother changed her mind and didn’t toss out his comics.   He wished for his old comic book collection back into existence.  He wished the grinning jackals at Savvy Collector would pay him the respect he was due for having the luck to be born at a time when picking up the Fantastic Four number 50 for fifteen cents was really just another sign of how awesome and cool and clever Brad really was.

That night,  Brad dreamed about his childhood collection.  He remembered how he had saved his money and bought comics down at the Rexall drug store.   He recalled the twinge of anxiety when comics jumped from fifteen to twenty cents.  And again when comics become twenty-five cents.  But the anxiety faded as he showed off his collection to those goons at Savvy Collector and they looked at him as if worshiping.
Brad woke feeling at peace.  He smiled.  He knew his wish had come true because he could remember his mom at the last moment letting him keep his comics if he could pass math.  And that threat was enough.  He studied harder and passed his math class and kept that wonderful collection.

Brad got out of bed, shaking with excitement.  He got around to bagging and boarding his collection in around 1986, he recalled.  And he kept this collection in his closet.  Of course.  Where else?

Brad stood at his closet for a  moment.  Only five long boxes? Hadn’t it been bigger?  But then when comics hit thirty cents and then thirty-five cents,  he quit collecting.   But that didn’t matter.  Five long boxes of Silver Age gold was waiting to be looked at again.  He pulled the first long box out and placed it on the floor.  Feeling giddy,  Brad opened a box and pulled out a comic at random.

Fantastic Four issue 117.  Nothing really special.  He had forgotten that he wrote his name on the cover for whatever reason.  Maybe because he had taken it to school.  The cover was hardly in great shape, even if he hadn’t scrawled on it.  He slid it back and went through the box more slowly.   There were some good issues in there.  But he hadn’t really recalled how until now that he didn’t treat his comics with the reverence they deserved.   On several of the Fantastic Four issues, he had blackened out the Invisible Girl’s eyes for whatever reason.  He dug on.  None of the comics in his collection were high grade.  The covers were chipped and folded.  He had cut out the Vulture out of a Spider-Man cover and on the big ticket issue of Spider-Man 121, he had given Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson  mustaches.
What had he been thinking? Didn’t he know this was a pivotal issue worth several hundred dollars in mint condition?  But still … it had to be worth something.  He got up uneasily and went to his book case.  Where was the price guide?   His book on collectible toys was there, and ones on stamps and rare coins and cereal boxes and placemats.  Placemats?  What the hell was this?  Brad took the book out and put it back on the shelf numbly.   Something had gone horribly wrong.

Brad looked dumbly at the five long boxes and went to take a cold shower.  It was no dream.   His collection of comics was there.  But of course it was.  Why wouldn't it be?  It just made him sick that he hadn't taken  good care of them.  Still, there had to be some worth.  Carefully he took out each comic book and started an inventory,  taking note of each defect and cursing himself on how many of the flaws were done by his own hand.

The task took hours.  Three times he had to stop, almost sobbing over his own stupidity.   Hadn't his mom warned him about being careless with his possessions  over and over again?  Why didn't he listen?   Nonetheless,  he had catalogued all two thousand comic books,  his hand stiff with pain,  his body shot through with exhaustion and the day totally blown.   But come tomorrow, with his list in hand, he would see who ruled and who drooled at the Savvy Collector.

It was a terrible night's sleep his hand felt cramped and legs were sore and in his dreams his feet hurt as if being squeezed in too tight shoes.   He woke up feeling blurry and beaten.   But his pain was proof of his labors and five long boxes of slightly damaged, but still valuable, comics were there waiting for rediscovery.
The Savvy Collector was a long walk or a short bus ride, depending on weather and luck with the buses,  but Brad needed the walk to prepare his speech when he showed those guys behind the counter his list of  comics.  The Savvy Collector looked odd to Brad as he walked towards it.  The window display was just weirdness.  He didn't know what to think, so he ignored it and walked on in.
Brad looked around confused.   There were those two guys behind the counter as usual.  There was that weird stain on the floor that looked a little like a cartoon version of Henry Kissinger and that same old paper and mold smell.  But the store was totally different.  All the  comic books were gone.

Brad moved forward, his legs stiff  and barely responding to what his mind was telling him.

Placemats from diners were on the wall behind the counter.   They were arranged more or less in alphabetical order and went from standard rectangles to ovals.  Placemats from all sorts of cheap roadside restaurants seemed to be the main selling point to Savvy Collector.  What had happened?

"Comic books?"  Brad croaked out.  "What happened to the comic books?"

The guys behind the counter exchanged a glance.  "There's not really a market for comic books," one said.  "No one really cares."

Brad felt himself redden.  "That's not true.  Action Comics number one sold for over a million dollars."  He was trying to think of another big priced comic book but couldn't.

"Action Comics number one might get you a hundred dollars, if it's in mint," said one of the guys behind the counter.  "It had a huge print run.  They aren't that hard to find."

"Yeah, we have three or four copies here," said the other guy behind the counter.  "I think they're priced  around fifty, maybe less.  Did you want one?"
Brad stood his ground.  "But comic books are worth a lot of money.  They're rare."

One of the guys behind the counter couldn't suppress a laugh.  The other one said, "I'd hardly call them rare.  The readership has declined from the 1950s, but that doesn't make them rare.  I bet every mother on the planet saved her kids' comic books for whatever reason.  There's a couple comics with historic low print runs, but you can pretty much find every single comic book that's ever been made if you really wanted to."

Brad stood in mute horror.  Of course, of course of course.  Mom saved everything.  He was the one who was going to throw out his comic books in some stupid teenage rage, but she stopped him and later on went out and bought the very long boxes that now stored them.  Mom still had the baseball cars and Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids and all that crap.  She never tossed anything out.  No one had a mom who ever did.  Everything was a childhood keepsake.  Every goddamn thing.

"The real items worth looking for are paper placemats," the guy behind the counter continued.  "There's actually a fair amount of art and thought in these things, and restaurants would get them special just for their location."
"An Atlanta Georgia Stuckey's placemat from 1946 with the World Series word search recently sold for a million dollars.  One of the very first word searches published, and everybody tossed those out."

"Rarity is what makes a thing a collectable. Comic books have always been a mass produced, common thing that no one really collects those at all.  They might save them,  like National Geographic and Life magazines,  but there's really no market for them."

"There's Reader's Digest," the other guy behind the counter suggested.

"Oh, yeah, Reader's Digest, nobody saved those.  Who knew?"
Brad wasn't really paying attention anymore.  His worthless comics and his worthless list just made him wish that his mom had let him take those placemats on those horrible summer vacation drives across country.   While he wouldn't have had the 1946 Stuckey's World Series placemat,  he was pretty sure he could have had a decent collection of Big Boy placements from the '60s if only his mom hadn't been such a packrat and kept all that other garbage.

This story was originally published in Judas Goat Quarterly 54.  Grant Schreiber publishes one of the best zines in America.  Subscribe for a year's worth of issues (four) for $10 by writing him at 4422 N. Racine Ave., #3S, Chicago, IL 60640 USA.    

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