Sunday, November 20, 2016
Father and Son Taking In Steve Geppi's Wonder Emporium
The opening episode of this season of Comic Book Men triggered it. I'm ashamed for not getting there sooner. I'm a homie and a comic book nerd. This should've been a checked off pilgrimage ages ago. I've passed by it a zillion times going to Baltimore Orioles games. If not for the warehouse flanking Eutaw Street serving as a hypothetical shield, Chris Davis or Mark Trumbo might've served it a few souvenir homer balls.
I'm talking about the Geppi Entertainment Museum in Baltimore. Walt Flanagan summoned his crew at The Stash (i.e. Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash comic shop) for a road trip to open the new season of Comic Book Men and got a bigger deal than most of us ever will--albeit, the staff at the museum are incredibly nice, helpful and eager to talk with you. Flanagan's posse and the AMC cameras were accompanied by the owner of the museum, Mr. Steve Geppi himself on their tour. Better yet, Mr. Geppi pulled out his original copy of Action Comics # 1 (the holy grail of comic books) to not only show the contents, but to allow Flanagan to inhale its pulp-preserved glory. You know that special fragrance an antique comic book bequeaths its recipient. Walt, you lucky S.O.B.
Now I remember as a youngster what a genuinely kind man Mr. Geppi was in his stores, which were, in the 1980s, the mecca of Maryland-based comic shops. I'll always refer to him with a proper designation as "Mister," since the man has done nearly as much for Baltimore as the former mayor William Donald Schaefer, one of the most beloved individuals who ever served our region. If you're a true comic book fan, you know the name of Geppi. He owns Diamond Distributors, the only nationwide comics distributor. Without Diamond, who knows if we'd have a comics industry as we know and attempt to preserve it for future generations. With the print medium dying at-large, what he's done for comics should never be understated.
Mr. Geppi owns Gemstone Publishing, Inc., responsible for the EC Comics reprints and the blue book bible Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. He owns Baltimore magazine, more relevant if you're a local, however, this is an award-winning journal of national prominence. Mr. Geppi is part owner of the Orioles and one its most diehard fans. Of course, he has Diamond International Galleries, which is what makes Geppi Entertainment Museum the treasure house it is.
Geppi's Comics was an institution. It was the Baltimore version of Mile High Comics, a place us east coasters ached to visit since they constantly advertised back issues for sale in comics throughout the Eighties. If you stepped into Geppi's massive location at Security Square Mall, it was the near-equivalent of walking into a Tower Records. While building his empire, Mr. Geppi was frequently manning the register and if there's ever been a friendlier ambassador for the genre other than Smilin' Stan Lee, I can't tell you who that is.
Frequently, Mr. Geppi would compliment your picks when coming up to ring out, in particular if you were a kid. He gave me praise for my selections numerous times and whether it was for show or his sincere opinion, it meant everything. It stoked my passion for comics and befitting of proper customer service, it made me a return visitor, even though I lived on the other side of Baltimore County. If you know the area, you'll understand what it meant to get from Rosedale to Woodlawn and Geppi's Comics. There was also a location inside Harborplace at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and yes, Mr. Geppi could be spotted there too.
My son is following in my footsteps. I love horror movies, so does he. I love Star Wars, so does he. I love Boo Berry cereal. So does he. I love music...you get the picture. After telling my son what it was like when I was kid, waking up on Saturdays and pouring myself Boo Berry and watching Superfriends in the 1970s, he simply had to have the same experience with me. Sure, it's a little different manipulating the event with DVDs, but the intent is the same.
Boyo may not boast the comic collection size of his old man, but he's on his way. His bin has now overflowed and that makes me happy. He's still learning to read fluently, but he wants so much to please me and to share experiences with me that it's a humbling thing I know will likely diminish in his teen years. I've taken the advice of many to savor it all now. As Nolan has amassed a legion of superhero and Star Wars toys (many donated by me), his mouth hung agape when I told him a sabbatical for comic book, toy and nostalgia enthusiasts like Geppi's Entertainment Museum existed and that I was overdue a visit. He was more than happy to tag along.
We've had a rough year as a family. Like Peter Parker, the Van Horn luck has been "in," and though I've been humbled numerous times by the generosity of others to ease the burdens 2016 has presented us, it's been a difficult challenge. For a young boy who deserves more fun than he's been provided due to a succession of hardships, I felt this trip to Geppi's Entertainment Museum needed a special touch.
Instead of driving downtown, I thought Nolan might enjoy his first ride on the light rail train, which drops you off right at Camden Yards, where the Orioles play and Geppi's wonder emporium co-inhabits. I had no idea what was in store for our travel plans, but at least until the North Avenue stop, my son forgot all about electronic gizmos and Five Nights at Freddy's, taking in the world as only a train can provide. I was silently congratulating myself as he marveled at everything, including the microcosm inside the train, which can often present its own form of amusement.
Well, I had no clue there would be no service on the light rail between North Avenue and Camden Yards. Perhaps a quick check at the MTA's website would've enlightened me properly, but then, we might've missed out on a trip that became more memorable than the magic we beheld at Geppi's Entertainment Museum.
The MTA shuttled us by bus from North Avenue to Camden Yards, which is gracious of them, I'll admit. Neither one of us thought about much else other than seeing Action Comics # 1 and Detective Comics # 27 (the births of two icons who stupidly fought for nothing on film this year) live. Any inconvenience was long to our backs once we were in proximity of these masterworks. I felt my gut drop in that wonderful way it gets when you're in the presence of something incredible. It was the same feeling when I interviewed Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford.
The comics room at the museum alone is worth the price of admission. Action Comics # 1 is the reason for the season, yes. We all rejoiced as a city of comic dweebs when the news broke Mr. Geppi had procured an original copy. In a way, the comic belonged to all of us, since Mr. Geppi was one of us, and being the righteous man he is, he was sharing it with everyone. That being said, I felt the same gooey sensation when I spotted the collection of original EC books, i.e. Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Two-Fisted Tales, Haunt of Fear, etc. I own but one original Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror each, and to behold so many pristine copies that had survived the nefarious book burnings in the paranoid age of McCarthyism in the 1950s...it was humbling, as a fan and as a lover of history.
For the comics buff, this really is a mandatory crash zone. Mr. Geppi has on display the first appearance issues of everyone from Batgirl to Black Panther to Iron Man to Doctor Strange to The Incredible Hulk. Of course, there's an original Amazing Fantasy # 15, which any rudimentary comics aficionado will recognize as Spider-Man's official debut. There are the throwback war, cowboy and romance comics, Nancy and Sluggo, Archie... Truly astonishing, however, is how many vintage Atlas Comics are housed here. You have to really be into this stuff to know the old Atlas imprint from the Fabulous Fifties. In case you're a newbie to the name, you'll know it better by its future moniker, Marvel Comics.
Now, I got ten times more out of this visit than most Gen X'ers, much less kids my son's age. I was raised on pop culture from the 1920s through the 1960s, so I knew the relevance of Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy, two of the old-time western heroes who are showcased prominently around the museum. I knew the marionette Howdy Doody and his clown sidekick, Clarabelle, which can be spotted in a stellar 1950s room--here you can squint at relic tube televisions with screens barely bigger than a cell phone.
Captain Midnight, Captain Video, Sky King, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger...these were what our parents and grandparents were watching on Saturday mornings as I myself watched Superfriends, The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Show, Fat Albert, Tarzan/Batman Hour, Jason of Star Command, Isis, Shazam and Spiderman and His Amazing Friends. Sidebar, the art of Saturday morning entertainment has been forever lost. Though most kids today would hardly care in the age of instant gratification via home video and YouTube, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Batman: The Animated Series, Superman (the 1990s series), Max Steel and Transformers: Beast Machines represent the final threshold of Saturday morning escapism. I miss it greatly.
I geeked over the Flash Gordon serial era collection and my son and I both giggled at the old Superman exercise kit that kids from way back could use to get fit before you could buy into those goading bodybuilding ads shamelessly plugged into comics for eons. If you don't want to be picked on for loving comics (or consuming heavy metal music, for that matter), do as I've done over the years, and pump iron! I found myself taking pics for my stepfather, who grew up on the old cowboy shows and who will pine and ache at nearly every corner of the museum once I get him there, since it's tailored to affect all generations. Get along, Hoppy!!!
Of course, I fell into the wonderful trap of Batman and Star Wars memorabilia aside from a hundred other things from the 1970s and '80s which I either owned or still have: I nearly choked seeing my old Close Encounters of the Third Kind lunchbox as I did the Bat phone and bookcase-opening bust from the Adam West Batman series. I said hello to my old crushes Catherine Bach, Farrah Fawcett and Barbara Eden. Nearly every Star Wars toy there was in my grasp way back when and Nolan perfectly understood the significance of it. We all like to say he's an old soul, and he's learned not to rush his elders along as kids tend to do. He gets it when you explain why something presented affects someone. I'm just thrilled to have a kid who squeals with delight spotting a Creature from the Black Lagoon head, much less one who points out every Archie item in the place.
I can't harp enough how courteous the museum staff was. They embody Mr. Geppi's welcoming spirit and I told them the very story I outlined here, how he made his customers feel special and wanting to be a part of something once considered subculture but has grown into a mainstream phenomenon. The response I got from one of the employees was this: "I hear these stories a lot from Mr. Geppi's old customers. It's all of you people who supported his stores that made this place possible. Thank you." Who does that anymore?
Now, the glowing glee Nolan and I felt coming out of Geppi's Entertainment Museum was dashed by the suddenly frigid and windy temperatures outside. The afternoon weather had been uncharacteristically balmy for fall, hot even. I'd left our hoodies in the car back on the other end of the light rail line, and keep in mind, the MTA had shut down the Camden Yards stop and those leading back up to North Avenue. The shuttle bus they were providing pulled away just as we got close to it.
So I parked us under the cubicle at the adjacent bus stop, trying not to laugh at the guy pulling on a joint and suddenly embarrassed to have a father and son in his midst. The dude whirled into the corner and made it disappear probably faster than he wanted to. For his shame and courtesy, I gave him a short nod and didn't bust him. Luckily, Nolan has no clue what pot smells like yet. The downturn was the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped an easy twenty degrees. I'm in shorts and a t-shirt, Nolan in pants and long-sleeve.
The poor child was shivering up a storm as I bear hugged him to keep him warm, in wait of the next shuttle. Well, that didn't happen for quite some time and I had no choice but to take him into Subway and warm him up with some food. Vigilantly we sat at the front window, scouting for the next shuttle. It was comical, actually, seeing us scour each bus that came in preparation of darting for it. By the time next shuttle did arrive, we bolted out trying to make it. I had to do this properly so I didn't put my son into harm's way, but we ended up chasing that damned bus for three blocks and not once did it stop, even with all my yelling.
Going as far as I dared with a young boy, knowing the upcoming block was less than appealing, I doubled back and the angry bear father in me escorted his cub straight to the convention center two blocks back, figuring we could snag a cab there. My gambit paid off and my son got introduced to the blazing speed of a cabbie. He loved it. I acted like I was indifferent, but inside I was screaming, don't you dare get my kid hurt!
Having finally settled ourselves on a train at North Avenue, I felt exasperated but proud of myself--more so of Nolan. I was screaming inside the entire time we couldn't get a bus back, but he bucked up and supported me by being such a strong child. I showed him no fear and he reciprocated. The highlight of that entire part of trip came when I said, "Alright, forget the daggone bus, I'm getting us home right now!" and he said in return, "I'll allow you to cuss Dad, I'm doing it inside my head."
With rain now a part of the mix, the light rail yet again snookered us by dumping us out four stops to the end, but a new train collected us fairly quick as we made friends with a woman who laughed at our war story. The peaceful part for me as a father came when Nolan asked to start reading the comics we'd bought at the gift shop and as you can see above, he fell into a state of content that took my momentary angst away.
I'd like to hope Mr. Geppi might take some pride by his indirect handiwork...