Today, comic shops are the at the de facto place to buy comic books. They represent the only brick-and-mortar locations that people can browse and buy books from both mainstream and smaller publishers. Because of the niche market, the modern comic shop is often the only place people can go to, outside of the internet, to find rare and vintage comics as well. But it wasn’t always that way. The comic shop as we know it today is a relatively recent creation in the history of the industry. So where did people go to get their comic fix 30, 40, 50 even 60 years ago?
Back in the 1930s comics were entering what would come to be known as the Golden Age. Action Comics #1 first hit the stands in 1938, introducing the world to Superman and was sold for a whopping 10 cents. At the time, comics were less of a niche entertainment industry and were considered popular entertainment for kids. So popular, that retailers of the day saw the chance to make some serious money and stocked their stores with this relatively new form of entertainment.
Back in the early 1940s before coffee shops became the go-to hangout spot, soda parlors were the most popular places to be. These shops served burgers and milkshakes, had a jukebox with the most popular songs and, of course, sold comic books. These were popular hangouts for people of all ages, but kids especially loved the sweet and sugary ice cream and sodas that were served here. It because a tradition in small towns all across America for kids to get their allowance and then head to the soda parlor to get a root beer float and pick up the latest edition of their favorite comics. Drug stores were another place that comics were often sold and, though it may sound unlikely today, many 40s era drug stores actually doubles as soda parlors. The phosphates used in mixing sodas were also used in a number of remedies and it wasn’t until much later that these two businesses would get the distinction they have today.
There was something about these soda parlors that would affect how we buy comics forever, even to this day. While there was plenty of seating and ambiance in these soda parlors, they didn’t have any shelf space for retail. So when they purchased comics to sell the biggest problem they had was figuring out to display them for sale. Enter the iconic magazine spinner rack. While these racks were not built or invented for comic books, they soon became synonymous with the medium. Even today, with modern comic shops custom-building their floorspace to accommodate entire volumes of comics, they still use these spinner racks because of their place in comics history. Many people attribute this to the tactile nature of the spinning rack as it is simply more fun and engaging to spin a comics rack then to rifle through a shelf of books.
The other place that people could buy comics is on magazine stands along with newspapers and other publications. These were scattered mainly throughout large cities and other urban areas. They were great resources for both their number and convenience, but they couldn’t match soda parlors on their selection. Additionally, magazine stands by their nature didn’t have any seating so kids would need to take their reading material elsewhere if they wanted to crack it open right after they bought it.
This business model was going great for both publishers and soda parlor owners until two thing changed. The first blow to the sale of comics was the rise of the fast food restaurant. While the first drive-thru first opened in 1947, by the mid 1950s they were becoming more and more commonplace. With diners able to get their meal and go, fewer and fewer people were coming inside to eat, much less spend hours hanging out in the parlor with their friends. This severely impacted the revenue of the soda parlors moved them from cultural centerpieces over to the sidelines.
The other problem was that during this time there was a large migration by American to move out of the cities and into the suburbs. The appeal of “Leave It To Beaver” and shows like it encouraged people to abandon the hustle and bustle of the cities in favor of a quiet idyllic life on a cul-de-sac. This again hurt the business of the soda parlors, but the real impact was felt for the aforementioned magazine stands. While the soda parlors were destinations, the stands relied entirely on foot traffic and the dwindling population of the cities was difficult to cope with.
While comics didn’t disappear from store racks entirely, this lead to publishers having to change how they approached the business. Direct-mail ordering was big in the 60s, with kids and adults alike ordering all kinds of things from the back pages of newspapers and magazines. This hybrid purchasing model would be the norm until the very first comic book shop opened in 1973. From there, once it was clear there was a demand for dedicated comic book stores, the industry continued to grow to what we see it as today.