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OPINIONS 101: ebay or not ebay...

February 21, 2003

Let me first point out two facts that will, I hope, establish my impartiality with regard to the following essay:

1. I am not nor have ever been an employee of ebay, nor, as far as I know, are any of my friends or family employees of ebay (I do, however, suspect that my cats may have formerly worked for the on-line auction house during at least one of their nine lives since Jasper—the orange tabby that puts the “me” into “meow”—is often seen “sniping” food from Austin’s bowl late at night.

2. I am not, nor have I ever been, a stockholder in ebay. If I did have the necessary capitol to play the stock market I’d likely invest a few bucks in the 3M Corporation (since so many of those around me seem hell-bent on purchasing plastic and duct tape in these times of global unrest and uncertainty). Thus, when I tell you that the opinions contained herein are being written without any ulterior motives—such as somehow affecting ebay shares a point or two—I trust you will believe me.

Things That Aren’t There Anymore, and Some That Are

Let’s address for a moment the infomercial. You know what I’m talking about—those annoying televised advertisements that air day and night on virtually every cable channel—specifically, the ones that begin “How many times has THIS happened to you?” I kind of feel that way with regard to comic book shops these days.
To elaborate: Without sounding like a scratched vinyl disk, I like Silver-age and Bronze-age comics and comic book memorabilia—a lot. Since I first began collecting in 1978, my interests in comic books have been circular—from Marvel’s X-Men (circa Byrne and Austin) and Daredevil (circa Miller and Jansen) to DC’s New Teen Titans and Watchmen to Eclipse’s Miracleman to Epic’s Moonshadow to Trident’s Saviour to Vertigo’s Sandman and Shade, the Changing Man to Drawn & Quarterly’s Palookaville to Fantagraphics Eightball I’ve finally returned to the past where everything I never read (and much of what I have) is new again. I’m burned out by the “new” school writers and artists so I’ve elected to collect that which once was. Am I living in the past? More than 100 consecutive Lee & Kirby issues of Fantastic Four (not to mention John Byrne’s outstanding 60+ run), the Silver Surfer by Lee & Buscema, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Steranko, X-Men by Thomas and Adams, Micronauts by Mantlo and Golden, Tomb of Dracula by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer, Captain Marvel by Starlin, Ghost Rider by McKenzie and Perlin, and Amazing Spider-man by Len Wein and Ross Andru—you’re goddam right I’m living in the past.

When I first relocated to Philly in 1987 at the tender age of 23, it seemed I couldn’t spit without hitting a comic book store. I was living in a one-bedroom apartment above a podiatrist named Richard Kwasnik, a decent practitioner if ever there was one. There was, and still is, a comic book shop a few blocks away. It may have been called Comics and More though I think it later changed ownership and became Showcase Comics. I remember it fondly as the shop wherein I first purchased items like Stray Toasters, Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown (Anyone else remember the really long delay between issues 3 and 4?), and Ted McKeever’s Plastic Forks. The shop boasted a moderate collection of back issues, and I purchased a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man no. 36 for nine bucks. It’s in beautiful shape and, as one of the final Lee/Ditko issues, is among my favorite comics of the Silver-age, or any age for that matter. The shop is still on South Street and I visit occasionally, though its back stock seems relatively unchanged from years ago.

A few blocks up the street, at 13th and Walnut, was a terrific shop—Green Onions. Across the street from Green Onions was Reedmor Books, whose second story window sign proclaimed “Back date magazines on file” (more on Reedmor in a bit). Green Onions was a store that sold comics old and new, as well as new and used CDs and vinyl. They’d been in Philadelphia for many, many years. It was run by a helluva nice guy named Bob (and Bob, if you are reading this, I’m sorry but time has weathered away my memory of your sir name). For my money, Green Onions was among the finest comics shops a fanboy could ask for. The back-stock was exceptional, and Bob was always running sales—good sales, like 50% off the sticker price of back issues and wall books. I cannot tell you all of the great comics I purchased during the years I shopped at Green Onions, but I will mention a few: a beautiful copy of Fantastic Four 49—about 25 or 30 bucks; the entire Kree-Skrull war issues of The Avengers—dirt cheap; a copy of Captain America 100—$37; the Watchmen slipcased hardcover—$50. Bob’s store was long and narrow; scads of comic book long-boxes adorned the left side of the store and records/CDs were shelved on the right side. Toward the back of the store were long boxes of .25 cent comics, and there were terrific finds in these boxes, not the countless copies of Turok that would later adorn discount boxes like unwanted Christmas presents. The front of the shop contained additional long boxes with $1 and $2 comics—Bronze and Silver stuff like Captain Marvel and Fantastic Four. At the time, I worked at 7th and Walnut Streets, so Green Onions was a mere six-block stroll. I’d shop during my lunch hour at least once or twice a week and still have time to snag a sandwich and soda. Alas, Bob closed up shop a few years back. I remember when he began the “going out of business” sale. To me, this wasn’t an opportunity to purchase comics for super-low prices and capitalize on another person’s misfortune; it was an end. And forgive me if this reads like melodrama, but there is something undeniably sad about watching the demise of a great retail shop. The site that was Green Onions became a jazz CD shop; it later became (and remains) a cellular phone store, wherein hand-held telephones are purchased by kids trying to grow up too soon.

Adjacent to Green Onions was Reedmor. Until recently Reedmor was the place to go for old paper. It was located on the second story of an old three-story brick walk-up in Center City; the shop was only accessible by climbing a long, narrow staircase that never seemed to get sufficient lighting. The main area of the store was small, no larger, perhaps, then a large living room. There were bookshelves all along the walls, each was filled with older, gently used books of all subjects, price, and variety. One wall contained a collection of Time magazines that predated World War II. As for comics, there were seemingly but a few long boxes. The key word, however, is seemingly.
Perhaps you’ve had this dream; maybe it’s a dream that every rabid collector has whether the item being collected is comics, baseball cards, magazines, toys, Beatles memorabilia, etc. Anyway, if you’ve ever had a dream wherein you find the gold mine of stores, the one store that has everything and anything, then you’ll have an idea of what Reedmor’s was about. For there were two doors that extended beyond the main area of the establishment. Across the first door hung a small metal sign—Employees Only. Not long ago I was granted access behind the door. This is how it happened:
I’d been searching for a particular issue of Amazing Stories (specifically, a 1969 issue that features a short story by Harlan Ellison entitled “Dogfight on 101” [also published as “Along the Scenic Route”]). It is a fantastic tale that ranks among my favorite of Ellison’s short stories and I’ve lost count as to the number of times I’ve read it. Typically, I don’t collect pulps. However, a few years ago I happened upon a dozen or so issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at a used bookstore; these pulps ranged in publication date from the late 1950s thru the early 1970s and I got them all for a buck apiece. Thus I began unofficially collecting pulps—specifically, those with Ellison stories.
I soon began searching ebay for a copy of the September 1969 issue of Amazing Stories in which “Dogfight on 101” was published (accompanied, no less, with an original graphic by none other than Steranko). On a whim, I decided to call Reedmor on the off chance that they might have it.
They did.
That afternoon I went to store and began talking with an older gentleman. He may have been the owner though I cannot recall. I was gushing on about the fantastic cover illustrations that once graced the pulps. Before I knew it was happening, he’d led me thru the “Employees Only” door and into a huge room that contained the most massive collection of pulps I’d ever seen. To give this a bit of perspective, picture a section of your local library. Now picture those shelves lined top to bottom with vintage pulps that looked like they’d just come off the presses. Yeah, the newsprint had faded from age but the covers were still shiny new, the spines were still tight and straight. There were individual issues as well as bound hardcover volumes. I felt kind of overwhelmed and insignificant at purchasing a mere pulp for $10.00 while surrounded by dozens of issues of Weird Tales, Fantastic Adventures, Flying Aces and dozens—hundreds—more. Mostly, I felt kind of empty. I felt that others should be here with me, seeing what I was seeing. Here was an astounding collection that, in a city of several million people, was being shown to me alone. But this is supposed to be about comic books, isn’t it, and I see my sentimentality toward the past has further derailed me from that track.
I mentioned earlier there were two doors at Reedmor that were not readily open to the public. The treasures behind the first door I’ve just described. The second door, well…it’ll put us back on track a bit.
Years before I thought to search for Ellison’s “Dogfight” I’d been working on completing a run of Silver-age Fantastic Four. It happened that I was browsing the long boxes in the main section of Reedmor on an otherwise nondescript spring afternoon. When told, “If you don’t see what you want there, we’ve more in the back,” I turned my head like a dog that had just been called to dinner.More in the back??? I said I was looking for Fantastic Four 72 (which Marvellites will remember is part of the Lee/Kirby Silver Surfer/Galactus Microworld saga of the late ‘60s).
“This way,” a voice said.
I followed and was led into a room containing a Silver- and Bronze-age collection of monstrous proportions. The books were on metal shelves and they were stacked. They were not in long boxes. They were not in plastic bags. They were just stacked the way one might stack a deck of playing cards. Stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks in a room that was the size of a warehouse. Hand-written paper tags rested along the shelves and I soon realized the books were arranged in a quasi-alphabetical order. The walls were bare, the hardwood floors dirty and unpolished. I felt as if I’d stepped into the attic where all comic book collections thrown away by moms when their kids go off to college end up. A moment later, I was handed a huge stack of Silver-age FFs ranging from issue 60 thru 90. There were two to five copies of each issue, and they all looked the same—clean, shiny, and untouched by time. I found the copy I wanted, and a few others as well, in virtually no time. I was told I could walk around and take my time. So I did, not so much to shop, but mainly, just to look and to enjoy.
You probably already know where this story is going. Not long ago Reedmor closed its doors for the last time. What became of the massive collection of comics and pulps I cannot say. The store sign is still affixed to the outer wall of the building. The placard that reads “Back date magazines on file” can still be seen from the second story window. I see it five days a week as I ride the evening bus out of Center City, and I keep thinking one day the store will reopen. But I’m a silly dreamer.

And I am, of course, about as far off course from the point of this essay as is humanly possible. I would reminisce about Comic Insanity, another great Philly shop that’s long-since closed its doors. I would tell you about my pal Jim Parker who ran the shop and whose love of comics probably far exceeds my own. But that would take us even further from the point; besides, Jim’s passion for comics is worthy of a column of itself and someday I’ll share a little history—someday, but not today.

I ask, however, that you allow me these final digressions before I set sail toward the “topic” of this week’s column. Fat Jack’s Comicrypt is probably Philly’s most well-known comic book shop (actually, Ontario Street Comics may be more famous, as the store was featured a few years back in M. Night Shyam-a-lan-a-ding-dong's Unbreakable, though most nonresidents have probably never heard of the Ontario shop). Fat Jacks is a sort of institution among comic book shops. It’s a fine store and it carries virtually everything, even locally produced mini-comics and hard-to-find imports. The atmosphere at Fat Jack’s has changed a bit over the years. When I first started frequenting the store, it was more like being at a party than being at a comics shop. The store was always crammed full of customers and employees. There were employees working the register, employees working the floor, and someone was always stacking the back-issue bins with books from newly acquired collections. I purchased a copy of Silver Surfer 4 (which features the classic Thor vs. Surfer cover and story) for nine bucks! It was one of those right-place-right-time niceties that so seldom occur in life. I happened to be there as it was being put on the wall and told the guy not to bother putting it up. When you went into Fat Jacks you didn’t feel like a geek or an outcast involved in a fringe hobby; it’s difficult to explain in words. It was akin to being in a coffee shop when being in a coffee shop was cool.
But time changes all things. Reedmor is gone. Green Onions is no more. Comic Insanity has closed. And Fat Jack’s ain’t much fun these days. Don’t get me wrong. The store looks better than ever—they even moved into more spacious quarters a few years ago—and if you are looking for a new comic, or even older comics, you could do a lot worse. But the overall experience of shopping there has changed. Like a lot of the shops I’ve been to lately, it’s become an almost sterile, antiseptic experience.

I’m not writing these words to degrade comic book shops. There are great comic book shops, and there are not-so-great comic book shops, and there are comic book shops that suck. The same comparisons may be made with regard to restaurants, clothing stores, films, etc. I’m not here to tell you how to think or how to shop. I’m merely relating my own personal experiences and memories in the hopes of explaining why and how my collecting habits have changed in recent years.
How they have changed is largely a result of the Internet and ebay. I’ve been a registered ebay user since March 20, 1999. During that time I’ve made over 550 purchases. And during that same period of time, I’ve shopped at local comic book shops but a fraction of that number (prior to becoming an ebay user I frequented local shops at least weekly). Why have I changed the way I shop for comics?
The first reason is probably obvious—the number of specialty shops has declined in the last 10 to 15 years. Stores like Green Onions, that might have carried the books on my always-evolving want list, are no longer around. Newer comic book shops, I’ve found, seem to carry less and less back stock. The very definition of “back stock” is changing, with some shops’ back stock dating only to the early-to-mid 1990s.
The second reason I'm going to ebay more often is because of selection and availability. I’ve found items on ebay that simply are not available at comic book shops and are rarely available at conventions. For example, I’m looking for issue 36 of Fantastic Four. (the classic issue that featured the first appearance of the Frightful Four). None of the local shops I've checked recently have this issue. However, this week there are six sellers on ebay offering it, at prices ranging from $9.99 up. And while I do want to add this book to my collection, I don’t feel an immediate need to purchase it any time soon. Why? I know it will be on ebay next week, and the week after, and the week after. Thus, the immediacy I once had when visiting a comic book shop to purchase a back issue has been removed from the equation—I know that it’ll be there when I decide to purchase it.

Arks of the Covenant

I recently began collecting FOOM magazine. For those who are unfamiliar with it, FOOM was Marvel’s official fan club circa 1970s—it was a successor to the Merry Marvel Marching Society. Steranko edited the first few issues of FOOM which was chock full of puzzles, games, and news about the goings on at the Marvel bullpen during the turbulent ‘70s. Marvel produced 22 of these gems before pulling FOOM's plug. These mags were largely distributed via mail order to subscribers so were not readily available to comic shops. If you visit the Mile High Comics web site, these fanzines are listed in the $20 to $80 per issue price range. I’ve never seen FOOM mags at my local comic book shops, aside from one suburban shop that had a few—the condition of the mags were less than desirable (though the asking price seemed not to reflect the flaws). Through ebay I’ve found 20 of the 22 issues, and have paid on average been 6 and 12 bucks a mag. In one of the auctions, the seller included a free “Make Mine Marvel” button (circa 1967) in pristine condition. Another seller sent me a wonderful 1962 fanzine at no charge.

Snipe Hunt

Sniping and being sniped is a fact of life on ebay. It’s the online equivalent of placing an auction bid when the auctioneer has cried “…going, going, gon—” I used to become extremely agitated upon being sniped. But as I mentioned earlier, I realize that that no matter how rare or unusual an item might be, there’s a 99.99% chance that sooner or later someone, somewhere, is going to auction it on ebay. The comic book shop is a separate beast, with limitations and restraints not applicable to the online auction giant. With the exception of a conglomerate such as Mile High Comics, that has the resources to actively purchase collections of all sizes, most shops aren’t going to have multiple copies of older comics from which to choose. “Picking and choosing” at a comic book store is often not applicable, because chances are, if you see a key issue of a comic and don't snag it, it’ll be gone the following week. So why are fewer and fewer stores maintaining a well-stocked back issue collection?

Secret Wars, Anyone?

As one retailer noted, the caliber of products being brought in for purchase has fallen considerably: “Almost every week someone comes in and wants me to purchase an ‘80s collection. I really don’t need any more copies of Secret Wars.”
In addition, retailers work from a fixed budget, and most retailers I spoke with said the money is in selling new comics and trade paperbacks. And with many store owners struggling to meet their monthly bills, there simply isn’t any money to invest in large, esoteric collections.
There is an unfortunate flip side to this and I’ve seen it time and again. Some retailers will purchase collections at a fraction of their “guide value” from individuals looking to cash in their comics. They will then carefully price the books, again by guide value, and watch and wait as the books fail to sell. I'm not referring to key issues like the highly coveted Hulk 181, but rather, other gems from the same era that are not "break out" comics. The problem with doing this is that the values listed in price guides are arbitrary, and the inconsistencies in “value” between Overstreet, The Standard Catalog, and laughable guides like Wizard are staggering. A retailer in a city such as Philadelphia may have little difficulty selling a copy of Fantastic Four 1 because there are a considerable number of collectors in the city willing to purchase this comic at guide price. The same retailer in a smaller city, with a smaller customer base (or different economic climate) may find it difficult or impossible to sell to his or her local clientale. Which is, perhaps, why more and more retailers now sell on ebay. It is a means for retailers to offer their product to a world-wide customer base.

Buying, Selling, and Life in General

As a consumer, it is, of course, helpful to know with whom you are dealing. Comic book grading is a highly subjective process. One individual’s “near mint” may be another’s “fine” or “very fine.” There are a few pointers that I find helpful when bidding on auctioned comics, particularly those from the Silver- and Bronze-ages.
As anyone who’s browsed ebay knows, the standard jpg image is far too small to provide a would-be buyer an accurate assessment of what he or she is viewing. Seller descriptions vary—some sellers provide detailed descriptions whereas others do not. I’ve been disappointed in the quality of the products I’ve purchased on ebay only a handful of times, but to have won, paid for, and received auction goods in the mail only to find them below expectations is indeed disappointing. Thus I’ve been increasingly using ebay’s “ask the seller a question” feature. I generally ask to see a larger scan and also ask the seller to rate the book on a Likert-type scale of 1 (worn) to 5 (like new). I find this type of grading to be more accurate than the broad descriptors of “fine” or “very good.” I also ask if there are any tears, missing pages or cut coupons, tape, or writing on the book. Most sellers are happy to provide details—they want their books to sell.
I find it important and helpful to view a seller’s feedback. Often, feedback responses are strong indicators as to the seller’s reliability and accuracy of grading. I do not bid on items from sellers with more than a few negative feedback comments without first reading the comments. Most sellers want their customers to be satisfied with their purchases.
However, I’ve had a few bad experiences. One occurred quite recently when I purchased a copy of Fantastic Four Annual 11 from a seller in Canada who described the book as “very fine.” There was considerable damage to the book including a small corner chunk missing and a split spine. The book was definitely not “very fine” and I wrote the seller. My purchase price was quickly refunded (less shipping) and the seller told me to keep the comic. The book will suffice until a somewhat nicer copy can be found (I mainly wanted to read the thing anyway). In another transaction, I purchased a copy of Marvel Collector’s Item Classics 15. The book was as gorgeous as the seller had described it. Glossy cover. White pages. Exceptionally high quality. Except…two pages were missing from the comic. I returned the book and was sent a refund that was about twice what I’d paid. One seller charged me 5 bucks to ship a comic that cost him $1.42 to mail. I wrote to ask why. Never heard from him again, so I won’t be doing business with him any longer.
I guess if there is a point to this rambling it’s this: Of the nearly 600 ebay transactions I’ve had as (primarily) a buyer, I’ve been satisfied with virtually all of them. The winning bids of nearly all of the items I've won through auction have been considerably less than the suggested Overstreet values.
These facts don't entirely surprise me.
What does surprise me is the number of purchases I’ve made since first logging onto ebay nearly 4 years ago. It is, for me anyway, a “dream” comic book shop: open 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, with a stock that changes every hour (and my ears are not subjected to loudspeaker rap or heavy metal while I shop). I don’t know whether I’m alone in these observations, but for me at least, ebay has rekindled my enthusiasm toward this obsessive hobby, and given me lots of great reading in the process.

But let’s never forget—it’s just paper, and sooner or later we all die.

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