Anyone who knows me knows that comics are really my zen. I’ve got other things that I like/want to do (writing, art, reading), but comics have kept me grounded since I started collecting way back when and it’s really the only hobby that doesn’t ‘come and go’ as the years pass. I am always collecting/reading comics regardless of whether I am currently in a creative phase or doing something else or even nothing at all.
So my buddy Dave manages my favorite independent bookstore in Arizona, Peregrine Books in Prescott. He’s been selling comics to me for almost as long as I’ve been back in the state (2018) and we’ve talked a lot of comics over that time. I approached Dave with the idea of doing a sort of simple comic-related zine for the store and he basically gave the go-ahead right there without asking many questions.
With the pandemic going on, things are still not working like they once did (though thankfully it has started feeling a bit more normal…but I’m afraid the current Covid-19 numbers are looking pretty bad) so I can’t just pop in for lengthy discussions about comic zines or anything else for that matter. I have known most of the folks that worked there for years except for one guy (Aaron) who never seemed to be there much when I was. But I knew he was a comic guy from his Instagram posts for the store, so thought he might be interested in participating (in thankless work that pays nothing and confirms your status as a comic nerd). Turns out that he was and he has already written about ten times the content for the zine that I have, thus the blatherings you are reading here.
It was Dave’s idea (and a brilliant one) to write a story and he mentioned ‘The Glory of the Spinner Rack’ as a possible title before heading back to run the store. So here I am talking comics instead of writing or drawing or painting. Yes, I realize that I am ‘writing’ in the strictest sense, but these words write themselves, so I’m never sure if that really counts. Anyway, the article below is planned for the zine. Stay tuned.
The Glory of the Spinner Rack
My first comic book was not purchased by me, but by my father off of the spinner rack at Buttrey’s (now Albertson’s, last time I checked). The first book I got was Amazing Spider-Man 200. It was a double size issue and since I was given my choice, I naturally chose the fattest comic on the rack. Back then comics were typically initially stocked about two months prior to the date on the cover (Jan 1980) so while the date I got it could range between around Nov 1st of 1979 through the end of Feb or Mar 1980 depending on the store policy for comics, issues 198 and 199 were still on the rack behind this one so it’s likely that it had recently come out, meaning I got this prior to Christmas of 1979.
If you were a kid, there was a lot going on in the half dozen years preceding and following 1979. The original Star Wars trilogy, ET, Close Encounters, KISS (the original band) slapped their name on everything and there was even a plethora of notebooks available in the remote corner of Montana I grew up in with Ace Frehley on the cover. KISS was even in a magazine sized comic put out by Marvel (each member purportedly put a vial of their own blood in the ink and they made a big publicity event out of it, in big KISS fashion. I can trace a good ten years of my life by comic spinner rack release dates between 1979 and about 1990 or so, I can date events and remember where I was when I purchased a particular comic. I’ll relate a couple of those stories below only because otherwise I’d be typing out a ten year chronology of my life between the 5th grade and college. I’ve always used comics as a sort of ‘memory palace’, and it all began with that four sided rack at Buttrey’s.
Origins are important and they can also be kind of funny, as I believe this case to be.
As previously mentioned, I grew up in Montana from the age of 2 until I moved out of state in 1992 to begin my career in retail management. A friend of mine had somehow discovered Advanced Dungeons and Dragons sometime in 1979 and it quickly caught on with my friends at school and it was only natural progression that I catch up with the Joneses as quickly as humanly possible. A great plan except for one fly in the ointment: Dad.
Mom was usually pretty easy to wear down, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. AD&D had gotten some bad rep in the press and I think he just thought it was another fad thing to waste money on before moving to the next ‘in’ thing. So he did what any good parent would do and resorted to bribery, hauling me down the the drug store and giving me the pick of the comic rack, thinking that getting me to read anything would be better than wasting money on some game. He was successful in part, getting me hooked on the comics. He also got me hooked on Doc Savage and the Hardy Boys, but I did end up getting AD&D a short time later ended up playing the hell out of it for a couple of years. I still have all of my gaming materials from those days, so Dad’s fears of wasting money were alleviated (even if he hasn’t ever admitted to that).
When I was ten (1979), Montana was a bit of a wasteland in pretty much all areas except for wildlife. If you were a football fan, then you either got the Broncos or Seahawks. There was no Internet, no satellite TV, no digital books or digital comics. If you were a comic fan, you were not only at the mercy of local distributors handing out enough copies, but also local retailers to distribute their stock to the racks in a timely manner…and perhaps most importantly of all, you had to get to the rack first because relying on a grocery retailer to hold your comics for you would have been a preposterous suggestion and there was a decent amount of competition out there for the available copies.
Yes, there was back order by mail if you missed something but there was always cost to think about and there were always comics on the shelves to buy too. So it wasn’t uncommon back then to miss pieces of story line because a particular store didn’t get a copy (or any stores in town, for that matter) and there wasn’t a store in Missoula that could even remotely be considered a comic shop until the Book Exchange started getting new direct distribution books like The Dark Knight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles around 1983ish.
Even though we had a kinda-sorta comic book shop during my high school years, the ladies running it were probably in their 40’s and comics always seemed like a sort of chore for them (they were a bookstore, after all). They reminded me of librarians that would scold you if you spoke up, so that meant (you guessed it), making the spinner rack rounds to fill holes in the collection.
The Bicycle Days (1979-1984)
I had it a bit rough when it came to comics during this time period, but I made do the best a young man can when all he’s got is a generic bicycle with a banana seat and lives ten miles from the closest spinner rack at the 7-11 on West Broadway (three miles of those ten were pot hole and rock filled country road up in the mountains). So while biking ten miles into town was not ruled out, and I did it a few times, that was not the primary method of securing loot from a spinner rack before they let me touch a car.
The primary method was, you guessed it, mom and dad. I was of an age where it was not out of the question to go wandering off on my own while my folks were in town doing a fair amount of adulting, and I did that each time we piled in the car for a trip to town. I knew where each and every spinner rack in town was (convenience stores, drug stores, or, when I got really lucky, the news shop downtown. We didn’t go down there much, but when we did (and then later in college), I hit the jackpot because they stocked EVERYthing.
In the early days, the convenience stores were my go-to and in all cases except one (an IGA on the edge of town we’d hit on the way back from my grandparents), they had the old metal four-sided spinners, usually like the one pictured here. The IGA didn’t have room for a spinner rack, so just had one side of one propped up against the counter.
Somewhere in this time-frame (specifically when the Overstreet Price Guide #11 was released in 1981) I learned of the robust comic marketplace and of alternate places to find comic book news (like the Comics Buyers Guide, which was, believe it or not, a weekly newspaper containing about a hundred pages devoted to nothing but comics). Armed with that knowledge (again, pre-Internet), I knew what to expect and even better…when to expect it. Up until then, new series often weren’t announced so if you got early warning, you know what the bird gets.
The V8 Days (1984-1992)
Even with a (sort-of) comic shop in town, the spinner racks provided a powerful advantage to the reader/collector: there were no filters between the distributors and the books as they were stocked in the spinners. Over at the comic shop, the ladies had gotten a little wiser. They knew what to look for in terms of possible hot issues or keys and they’d cherry pick them, ensuring they got their best price and also ensuring they got pick of the litter. They had a monopoly being the only comic shop in town, so I could do nothing but despair at the copy of the first issue of Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in the collectible case window immediately marked up to $10.00. I was a senior in high school at the time and had a decent job, but there was no way I was going to get caught paying three times retail for a book that just came out. To this day I do not have a copy of that book, though I suppose that would be rectified easily enough.
Spinner racks didn’t have that interference at all. Once the books were received by the local magazine distributor hub, they shipped out to all the stores, usually on the same day. Depending on the retailer in question, either the distributor stocked the books or they did, but time was of the essence when displaying disposable periodicals like magazines and comics back in those days, because they were returned for credit if they didn’t sell, and there is no profit in returning unsold comics.
It was later in this time-frame that the spinner racks began to lose their luster and power in the retail marketplace. Big companies made big moves, resulting in the still extant direct marketplace for comics and what amounted to the death of the spinner rack as we knew it then. Non-returnable product meant you had better pay attention because retailers tend to order more carefully since they carry the entire weight of each weekly shipment that they get. With the advent of the direct market, after a period of time typically the only spinners you’d see were the big bulky plastic monstrosities at places like Barnes & Noble or Waldenbooks. These things were awful to look at, the books nearly always were bent in half, and in Waldenbooks case, they stuck upc stickers on the covers of the comics so that their inventory system could read them, instantly devaluing any future price increases for the books in question. Definitely not the same.
Spinner Racks Today (Uh…today)
While spinner racks are pretty rare out in the wild these days, you to happen upon them from time to time in various locations, usually antique or book/comic stores like the one pictured below at Peregrine Books (Prescott, AZ) holding Marvel’s ‘True Believer’ line of books. These are reprints of classic Marvel issues, many of which originally appeared on spinner racks back in the glory days, so they look great here at a price right around what you paid for a new issue back in those days.
(Insert picture of Peregrine’s rack here)
Some Spinner Racks I Hit
Buttery’s Foods (Trempers), Missoula, MT (Amazing Spider-Man 198-200 – 01/’80, Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, 01/’83)
Buttery’s Foods (Eastgate), Missoula, MT (Defenders 100 – 10/’81)
Bonner, MT IGA (Uncanny X-Men 155 – 03/’82, Avengers 221 – 07/’82)
Random 7-11 in North Tucson, AZ (Marvel Superhero Contest of Champions 1 – 06/’82)
Small convenience store, Lincoln, MT (Wolverine 1 (Sep ’82), MTIO Annual 7 (1982), Thor 337 (Nov ’83))
Literally every Spinner Rack in town, Missoula, MT (Batman Legends of the Dark Knight 1 – Sep ’89, Ghost Rider 1 – Mar ’90)