There are a few quintessential Americana institutions—baseball. apple pie and comic books.
Initially, in the early 1930's, comic books, in the format as we know them today,were just re-printed comic strips collected into one book.
Eventually publishers figured they could profit more money by creating their own characters rather than paying rights for reprints.
In 1938 the first Superman comic was printed in Action Comics #1. The following year Batman appears in Detective #27 igniting a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero fuse that still burns strong today.
Superman became a popular radio show, later to have serialized movies in the 40's. Batman and Captain America also had serials produced at the time. Much like today's current superhero craze, this entertained a lot of people that normally wouldn't purchase a comic book and turned them into superhero fans.
Post-WWII superhero comics fell out of favor with the general public, after all, who's Capt. America going to fight with Hitler dead?
Kids gravitated more to westerns and Disney comics. The underbelly of that era was horror and crime comics, particularly one's published by EC.
Over the top violent plots and graphics threw parents into a tizzy which brought us a comic code to sanitize the product, much like movie ratings today.
Fortunately, the industry survived with the help of 50's TV classic George Reeve's Adventures of Superman. This brought us the Silver Age of comics in 1956 with Showcase #4 which started the return of DC comics' Golden Age heroes from the 40's.
Marvel came into it's own in 1961 with Fantastic Four and the following year with Amazing Spiderman. Both having a boost in comic sales during the 60's with Saturday morning cartoons.
Of course DC had it's own TV hero too...
The 70's brought us Superfriends cartoons, Hulk and Wonder Woman TV shows and the return of Superman to the big screen.
But comic book sales were still somewhat stagnate and it wasn't until 1986 when Frank Miller's four issue comic "Dark Knight Returns" that started turning comic shops from small dimly lit collectible huts to full blown stores with thousands of square feet. The big boost for Dark Knight was an article appearing in Rolling Stone magazine about the resurrection of comics and baby boomers latching on to their childhood.
From then on and still today comics and it's related culture have grown faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Many don't realize that much of current era pop entertainment were initially comic books—Road to Perdition, Matrix, Constantine, Crow, 300, Tank Girl, Howard the Duck and the biggest, Walking Dead.
Plus much comic fan based entertainment may not exist without comic books - Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Files, Xena, Indiana Jones, Battlestar Galactica etc.
As a boy growing up in the 60's it was pretty much impossible not to be a Batman fan because of the TV series. I would pick up Batman comics at the Book Emporium either downtown or Sheridan Village. The store downtown was next door to Grant's dime store, (now downtown ICC) it was long and narrow with comics in back of the store.
Comics were thoughtfully divided by Classic Illustrated, cartoon characters, super heroes, etc. even a healthy selection of monster magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Eerie.
I often gravitated to more "kids" comics like Archie, Disney and Bugs Bunny. I really enjoyed Casper comics until I figured out it was a comic book of a dead little boy.
After a while I grew weary of super hero books mainly because it seemed a never ending saga. Instead having Joker escape Gotham jail numerous times let's just whack the nutcase and be done with him?
I still would flip through comics at newsstands buying a few here and there. I bought Mad magazine religiously, Peanuts paperback books, Grimm Ghost Stories or just about anything that would scare you or make you laugh.
The first actual comic shop I remember Peoria having was Cosmic Comics on Main Street in around 1977, a couple doors down from the current Costume Trunk. I didn't know a lot about comics but it had a good feel to it and I started picking up a few books here and there.
About a year later they were renamed Fantasy World and moved to the corner of Main and University where One World is today. At that time the corner spot was a former drug store and the main dining area of One World was Bushwhacker's sporting goods. Fantasy World had cool inventory of things like Frank Frazetta posters, HP Lovecraft hardcover books, and a massive inventory of old comics.
Unbeknownst to me the establishment allegedly had another business running out of the basement. Supposedly cocaine was being dealt there and one of the partners got killed in a bad drug deal. I have heard this story from a few people who were customers at Fantasy World. I haven't been able to find any evidence if it is a true story.
True or not, I just knew there wasn't a comic shop in Peoria.
About a year later, around 1981, the legendary Ron Erbe opened a store across the corner, now the site of Avanti's. I don't remember the name of the store but he also stocked tons of movie posters, non-sport trading cards, and of course comics. Erbe had earlier presented comic and baseball card conventions at the Ramada Inn which were madhouse events. He was one of the first people to publish card price guides and had an extensive inventory of vintage cards.
He seemed like he was the king of collectibles until he just suddenly closed his shop. Maybe he wasn't that successful after all.
Fortunately, the Westlake Book Emporium was pretty well stocked with comic books during lulls of no shops. The bookstores were owned by the Seidler family who also owned the magazine distribution rights in the area, Illinois News Service. Alan Morton, who continues promoting comic conventions in Peoria, was the go-to-guy for the company.
About 1983 Erbe re-opened his store naming it Lotsa Memories in Westlake Shopping center directly across from the movie theaters. Great location but failed. It was bought out by Jim Reising, renaming the store World's of If. It lasted a while until Metropolis opened around 1985 in the exact same spot as Fantasy World on Main and University.
Metroplis was owned by Dave Scott from Pekin. He mainly opened the store as revenge against Ron Erbe for selling him on an over priced comic deal that went bad. Dave had two partners that quickly departed, with Metropolis soon moving the store two doors down Main Street next to Lagron-Miller.
At that time I was working at the newly re-opened Co-op Records which occupied the former Bushwhacker who recently moved to Metro Center. Jim Reising from the former Worlds of If store was Dave's manager. Jim and I hit it off quickly with mutual likes in music, bizarre movies, art and of course comics, especially undergrounds.
Dave and Jim lured me to work for Metropolis in 1988. I was hesitant at first, with just rudimentary knowledge of comic books, there was no way I could digest decades of comic book folklore. Fortunately for me, after many beers at Mr Chips sandwich shop they convinced me to leave the record business and sell comics.
I figured having sold toys, baseball cards, records and various collectibles I should be able to figure out the comic book game.
During this time Ron Erbe opened his third and final store in Peoria on Prospect. It lasted only a few weeks and was auctioned off by the bank. No one heard of Erbe again, be it card or comic worlds. He had numerous stores in central Illinois and Iowa, most not lasting much more than a year. When I would set up at midwest conventions when dealers heard I was from Peoria they always asked what happened to Ron Erbe.
I would occasionally Google his name and find nothing but his price guide for sale on Amazon. When doing this article I discovered that he died last December in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he had lived the past few decades.
I did national conventions for a couple years, eventually leaving Metropolis which had moved to Loucks near University in 1989.
It was temporarily closed due to tax problems but was reopened by Bob Sprague. He moved the shop to Sterling Plaza near Kroger's in 1992.
Also, Dr. Dan Hoffman opened Outer Limits a comic book/role playing game store which lasted a couple years in Lake of the Woods Plaza
Growing weary of road travel I made the big move to open my own store in June of 1991. Comic sales were booming and it made perfect sense to open shop. But where to open? Of course! The same location as numerous other shops, Main and University.
Co-op Records had just moved to the newly built Campustown Shopping Center across the street but was still stuck with three years left on their lease. Since I still had my record store connections I took over the remaining time on their lease helping out both of us. Unfortunately the neighborhood was deteriorating rapidly. By 1993 shoplifters, uncontrolled kids and just plain weird Main Street people were becoming more regular than comic buyers.
In 1994 One World opened their corner spot and was anxious to expand to a full restaurant. One World owner, Bob Eid, was hoping for me to move as much as I wanted to move. In June of that year I moved to the corner of University and Glen, sight of the current Subway.
Within 3 months my sales doubled and One World moved to my former spot, eventually purchasing the building and becoming a much deserved cafe/catering powerhouse in Peoria. When I run into Bob today I rib him he wouldn't be anywhere without me!
In 1995 Dave Scott bought back Metropolis from it's current owner. In March of 1996 when I was on my honeymoon I receive a phone call that Metropolis was closing in two weeks leaving me as the only comic store in Peoria. By far the best wedding gift we got. Oddly, no other store has opened since then in Peoria.
I stayed four years at the corner location eventually moving to my current spot at 2218 W. Glen, the former Elmore Music, in 1998.
Many stores immediately outside of Peoria have come and gone. Notably Loch Ness in Pekin on Derby and C & D in Creve Couer. A few shops sprung up in Washington, Morton and even another Acme in East Peoria during the boom years of early 90's. Scott Au, another former Metropolis employee, operates The Zone in Creve Couer dealing mostly in Magic cards, gaming and comic book back issues.
I've estimated having sold over 500,000 comics for over 27 years, more than a third of the time in history of comics starting in 1938. I've always strived to keep a mix of pop culture items mixed in with comics. Since I'm dealing with the disposable entertainment income of my customers, why not mix in Nintendo video games, dvd's, record Lp's, old toys etc.? That strategy kept the doors open during the doldrums of the mid-90's lagging comic sales.
Plus putting familiar comic characters like Star Wars, Sonic the Hedgehog, Star Trek towards the front of the store it makes the "non-initiated" comic customer more comfortable entering the store.
Customers and friends have often contributed my store success to me not being a hardcore superhero comic fan. Many shops let their own tastes dictate what is carried in the store, often not always the best seller. By not having a long nostalgic reminiscence of comics I can pretty easily keep a cold eye to pre-orders and easily sell older comics without a wince of remorse. Records, toys and cards I have a tougher time having collected those more in my youth.
The industry has changed dramatically since I started in 1988. It seems everyone has a favorite character, San Diego Comic Con is an international media event and nearly every clothing store at the mall has superhero clothing for sale.
Print sales have rebounded for comics with downloads still a potential threat. Comics are an odd commodity because you don't throw them away. Polling my faithful customers none of them want downloads, they already own 1000's of comics already what's a few more? It's a great feeling reading an actual comic or book than a digital screen plus the perks.
But overall my customers say the one thing they would miss the most in a download-only comic world would be not having my employee, Randy Witte, or myself to talk comics and pop culture. I've seen kids grow up and have kids of their own who now shop in the store, pretty daunting but cool.
I'm fortunate to have a job that doesn't suck. Dress how I want, listen to music or watch a movie in the background while working, friends can stop and say hello. All walks of life regularly visit the shop—doctors, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, Caterpillar engineers, to people just scraping by trying to sell collectibles to ten bucks in their gas tank.
It's often been remarked that Acme is like the Cheers bar, where everyone knows your name and you can talk about music, life, work, girlfriends, family issues and COMICS!