Monday, September 28, 2015


Variety Comics, the oldest  comic book shop in Chicago, is closing.

Why does this matter? After all, there are other shops. Comics are sold mail-order and online. There's the digital market and trade paperbacks can be found in every bookstore. There are quite a few alternatives. Who needs a dingy old place like this? 

The world was a much different place when Variety first opened it's doors in 1974. There was not much in the city of Chicago for a kid growing up in that era. Downtown was basically Skid Row. The toy market was populated with Fisher-Price toys and plastic army figures. Star Wars had come out in 1977 and it took awhile before summer movies became blockbusters. Comic books were sold in super markets and 7-11.  If you missed an issue, chances were you would never find it. My family would drive through the city and the best, most exciting thing I saw was a gigantic Paul Bunyan statue at a used car dealer.
Me and the Paul Bunyan statue at the OK used
car dealer on Irving Park Road Chicago circa 1978
He didn't even have an axe.
Near where my Aunt Julie lived, in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, was a store with gigantic paintings of Spider-Man and Captain America on the store front. This was the home of Variety Comics. The store itself was shrouded in mystery. My brother Erik had been in there a couple of times and said that it was run by "a mean old man".  I was unable to judge for myself because for some reason it was always closed whenever I was around. All I knew for sure is that I was that I was a little afraid to go in alone.

My brother Erik and I outside of the perpetually closed
Variety Comics circa. 1977.

Variety was not the first comic book shop in Chicago. Opening in 1974, it was 2 years behind Larry's Comic Books (1972-2002). Any discussion about old time Chicago comic shops has to include Larry's, the first and most interesting. Unlike Variety, Larry's wasn't run by a "mean old man". It was run by a mean young man who hated children. To be fair to Larry, he wasn't the only one who was like that. Virtually every memorabilia shop and toy store had owners who didn't like their pint-sized customers. (Don't believe me? Look up Cut-Rate-Toys. ) Looking back it makes no sense to me. If you run a store that has a gigantic picture of a super hero outside, at a time when adults looked down their noses at such things, who do you think you're going to attract?

Larry's Comic Books circa 1985 courtesy of YouTube. See
those boxes in the background? They were EVERYWHERE!
But boy, could you find deals at Larry's. He had comic books stacked up all over the place. Piles and piles. The most amazing thing is he knew exactly where everything was. All you had to do was ask. "Do you have a copy of Detective Comics #400?" Larry heads over to a gigantic pile of comics (the title you're looking for with the oldest issue on top), reaches into it  at a random spot, without knocking it over, and pulls out Detective #400. It was AMAZING! Not only that, but you were guaranteed to find the lowest price there. He had everything and it was cheap! Well worth dealing with the personality.

What a typical stack of comics at Larry's looked like
(not an actual picture from the store - BUT IT COULD BE!)

 Before I go back to Variety, I want to put things in perspective. There were 3 shops in the '80's I could go to. There was Larry's which had all the comics at the cheapest prices and the only cost was a grouchy store owner and a mess everywhere, which, quite frankly, was part of the charm. There was Variety, who's owner ( I'm getting to him) was more personable and had reasonable (but not fantastic) prices on back issues. The shop  was cleaner, with some things in plastic bags and smaller piles of unbagged books then the above mentioned competitor. Lastly, there was a shop called Comics For Heroes. Everything there was pristine, wrapped in plastic, and expensive. However, the owner, Linda, was one of the nicest people I had ever met. Talkative, friendly, and helpful. Linda didn't quite trust her young customers either, although when her trust was earned she became your best friend.

In January of 1983. when I was 12, I ventured over to Variety on my own for the first time. It was  Christmas vacation and I  walked ( we sort of lived in the neighborhood) over on a Monday afternoon. Miraculously the store was open. Nervously I went inside. Apparently the store had changed hands at some point because what I found was not what I expected. The fellow behind the counter wasn't old at all and seemed pleasant enough. He waited patiently while I walked around the store for what seemed like hours looking at comics. He had comics on the wall. He had old comics in plastic in boxes ( as a kid I realized that comics in plastic bags = expensive) and he had small stacks of comics on tables in the middle of the store ( these were the more recent back issues). Along the wall he had the new comics on shelves. When I made my selection he reminded me that the back issues I took didn't really cost the 10 cent cover price ( as if I needed to be told that) I paid him and I left. 

A recent photo of the inside of Variety (2015) In the '80's the center
of the room had tables with stacks of comics on them.
The books adorning the walls and the fake wood paneling was always
A couple of issues of Detective I bought on my first trip to Variety

That first trip became many more over the next few years. Variety became the place n which I bought my first Amazing Spider-Man issue, which grew into the complete collection. I discovered the Fantastic Four, The Flash, The Marvel Universe, and many others. I caught up with Batman and Star Wars and no longer had to rely on finding books at the supermarket. They were all there waiting for me.

The owner of Variety was Rick Vitone (1953-2009) and the best way I know how to describe him is to say he had a definite personality. He was very helpful when it came to finding or getting things you wanted. He was not always the nicest guy. There were times I liked him and times I didn't. Rick started a monthly pull list in 1984 in which  customers received 10% off their books. He was very interactive (for both good and bad)  I can not think about that place and not see him as the central figure.

Rick Vitone photographed in 2008 from the Chicago Tribune
Rick used to write  a newsletter for the store. In it he gave us customers useful information like what comics would be part of the massive Secret Wars 2 crossover. He also wrote the complete death list for Crisis On Infinite Earths. My personal favorite, though, was the newsletter that told of how John Byrne was taking over Superman. At that time, Byrne had been writing and drawing the Fantastic Four and the Hulk for Marvel. Byrne was doing complete revamp of Superman ( DC Comics had started a company wide revamp of their entire line about a year or so before he started working for them, starting with Crisis On Infinite Earths). "Nothing happened unless I say it did! I'm not bringing Ma and Pa Kent back ( from the dead) They never died!" Rick wrote describing Byrne's new Superman. Modern comics fans are used to retcons of this nature by now but at the time it was out of the ordinary. Rick railed against Byrne writing that he had to rent a "big truck for his (Byrne's) ego" Looking back, I think Rick's reaction to the retcon was more entertaining then the new Superman was.

The best part of this story is that when the book (Man Of Steel) came out it had a (what I believe is the first) variant cover. To celebrate, Rick sold issues for a dime on the day they came out. If you brought a pre-1963 dime you received 2 copies of the book. I still have mine...both of them!

John Byrne's Man Of Steel #1

The following are some of the more memorable comics I purchased from Variety:

I bought the last copy of this off the shelf .
It was expensive and Rick would not put it aside for me because of the high demand for it.
 I bought it less then a week before my
mother died in 1986

Who doesn't love a good B/W cover?
I remember opening this issue up
for the first time in late 1984

The only hardcover I ever bought from Variety
in January 1991 during the first days of the
Gulf War.

Spider-man's black costume was a big deal
this issue told how he got it (1984)

I was so excited that this was coming out that
I went to Variety on Thursday instead of Friday.
Rick hadn't stocked the shelves yet when I got there
and I had to wait for a half hour before he put it out
for sale. I suspect he made me wait on purpose.

This was the first Marvel price increase I had
experienced and wondered how I was going to afford
that extra 5 cents.

One of the classic back issues I bought.

The first issue of Spider-man I ever bought
April 1984. I now own the entire run of

The last comic I bought from Rick, January
1993. I hadn't been in the store for a couple
of years and was shocked by how much
he had expanded it.
This was during the "Death Of Superman"
comic boom. He actually had people working for him at the shop!

I recently moved back into my old neighborhood and contemplated stopping by Variety. Then the news came out that the store would be closing for good on Halloween 2015. It had been over 20 years since I had shopped there. Rick Vitone had passed away 6 years before. The people running the store now seem really nice. I like them a lot, which saddens me even more that they are going out of business. They have preserved it to almost exactly the way I remembered it, saving even the old phone on the wall. I think that is both a benefit and detriment to the store. I decided that I would buy only the things I bought when I used to shop there as a kid.

Variety Comics 2015

My 21st Century Variety purchase looked a lot like my 20th Century purchases

One of the books I purchased back in 1985

Looking back I realize how special these old shops were. It is sad to see them go. I like the new clean places with all the shiny trade paperbacks and action figures. They are a pleasure to shop at. The young, friendly folks behind the counter keep me coming back week after week and I love them. But in the back of my mind I know that in the deep dark shops of my past, amongst piles of paper and cranky store clerks, through comic books 20 and 30 years old, cracked and yellowing, I discovered a world I didn't know existed. It is in places like Variety Comics that heroes came alive!