Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Life in Four Colors (Part Fourteen)

Part of moving is "learning the territory." Every kid who's ever moved knows what I'm talking about--learning the short cuts, the friendly dogs, the kind neighbors, the "get off my lawn" guys, the hiding places, the deeper parts of the creek where tadpoles can be found... and the best stores for comic books.

Oh, sure--stores sell lots of stuff. But are you at all surprised that my evaluation of store quality involved comics?

The summer of 1962 was the time when I really got to explore my new neighborhood. According the land plats, we had moved to Paris Heights... an odd name for houses built at the low end of Paris Drive, but apparently someone thought it sounded much better than Paris Flats. We were only about a quarter mile away from Shorter Avenue, the main traffic artery in West Rome; at the corner of Paris Drive and Shorter Avenue was a Dairy Queen, which sounded pretty good. But the real treats were found a hundred yards further east, right next to the West Rome Post Office. That's where Candler's Drugs and Couch's Grocery were located.

Candler's Drugs was a narrow, deep store with an L-shaped pharmacy area in the back and along a portion of the left wall as one entered from the front; the front area of the store was stocked with the various sundries that were carried at most drugstores in the early 1960s, and the comics spinner was along the right wall, about halfway back. Just past that was a soda fountain with chrome-and-vinyl spinning stools, a sparklingly clean formica countertop, and a wonderful array of ice cream. In addition, they offered milkshakes, sundaes, and banana splits--and all at affordable prices. A single dip ice cream cone was a nickel; a two-dip square-bottomed cone was a dime; a milkshake or a sundae was a quarter, and a banana split was thirty-five cents. My allowance was still fifteen cents a day, so that meant that I could buy two comics and one single-dip ice cream cone every other day... if I paid for the comics first (12 cents each plus a penny tax, a total of a quarter) and then paid for the nickel ice cream cone separately.

The owner was Bob Candler, a soft-spoken, kind, fastidious man who wanted everyone to have the experience of enjoying a nickel ice cream cone. He never seemed to lose patience with kids like me who came in there, bought ice cream, and then sat at the rack reading through several comics in order to decide which one to buy. He'd even make me a special coconut milkshake when I had extra money--"special" in that he put twice as much coconut flavoring in the milkshake, then added more ice cream and less milk, making it the sweetest, thickest, most coconutty concoction imaginable.

Candler's only got new comics every other week--but that wasn't all bad, because it meant that if I saw comics I wanted but couldn't afford, I could count on them being there for a while. As it turned out, they were often there even longer than that; whoever serviced the comics rack at Candler's didn't pay much attention to the color stripes on the top of each book (the stripes indicated when books should be pulled), so some books stayed on the racks for weeks longer than they should. Even better, the anonymous rack-jobber never seemed to notice my system for ensuring that a book I wanted didn't get pulled anytime soon: I'd stick it in the rack upside down and backwards, so that the spine was on the proper side but the color-stripe top edge was on the bottom of the spinner pocket, so there was no telltale color stripe to indicate it was time to take the book off-sale. Ice cream and comics... how could I resist? (And this explains why so many of my comics from the early 1960's have small stains on them caused by ice cream drips...

Next door was Couch's Grocery, a family-owned grocery of the type that doesn't exist today. It was a full-service grocery with an excellent butcher shop in the back, shelves of groceries that included numerous brands found nowhere else --and a huge wooden magazine rack that had two shelves packed full of comics. They wooden rack was a three-level five-foot tall rack with nine shelves arranged in three stairstep tiers. The comics were on the backmost shelves of the bottom tier, so they were at the perfect height for kids like me. The shelf design meant that only the top half of each comic was visible--and the rack was then packed so full that a couple of inches of each title could be read. That made a search through Couch's racks seem like a treasure hunt; you could tell that there were going to be great things to be found, but you had no idea what or why until you started digging through the books.

The rack was also perfect for hiding comics; if I wanted to be sure that the books you wanted didn't get pulled by the rack jobber who serviced Couch's every week (I never did figure out why, if he went in the grocery store every week, he only went in the adjacent drug store every other week), I simply dropped them behind the wooden comics rack. Then, a few days later, I'd go to the Coca-Cola rack that backed up to the magazine rack, move a few cartons of 10 ounce cokes, and there was my secret horde of comics, waiting for me. I'm sure that, when Couch's finally closed and took that rack out, they probably found a dozen or two old comics under the wooden base...

The store was run by Mr. and Mrs. Couch, a married couple who worked together without driving one another insane. Both of the Couches looked older than they were, I suspect; they seemed old when I started shopping there in 1962, and they looked just as old when I quit going there in the 1970s. Mrs. Couch was petite and small framed, with a curly cloud of gray-white hair, a lined face, and a beaming smile. Mr. Couch was tall and gaunt, with a shock of white hair, a face grooved by age, and an expression of surliness that was deceptive; he was really a nice, helpful man. The one thing about him that put me off, though, was his incessant smoking; I remember him with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth almost every time I went in the store (this was a time when it was common for smokers to light up in grocery stores--both customers and staff); even then, I didn't like the stench of cigarette smoke, which meant that I kept my dealing with him relatively brief. Mrs. Couch, though, was chatty and personable, and she came to know me and my family from our frequent visits; I would speak with her often, and she tolerated my frequent visits and occasional comics reading with good grace.

Across busy Shorter Avenue was Hill's grocery, an old-style grocery store, complete with a floor that was unfinished wood in one area, sawdust in the other, a meager selection of groceries that few people ever bought, an assortment of oddities like pickled pig's feet, pickled eggs, beef jerky (at a time when jerky was less mainstream than it is today), and boiled peanuts--and a rack of comics that were priced a penny below cover price for a twelve cent comic, two pennies less for annuals. To make sure that no one missed the discount, he stamped the price in purple ink prominently on the front cover of every book. Bad store, wrong side of the street--but discount comics meant that I'd still scramble across four lanes of traffic (in spite of my mom's instructions not to do so) to check out those comics occasionally. I didn't have to go often, though, because Hill's only got new comics every month to six weeks; even the rack jobbers knew the store didn't do much business, so I suspect they only went by there to drop off old titles they had pulled from other stores.

A further hike, through the back roads of my new neighborhood would take me to Enloe's Drugs--the same store where I bought Fantastic Four #1. However, their selection was less impressive than Couch's and the walk was much further, so I made that hike only occasionally. Once I got my bike, the trip became much eaiser and they would be a part of my weekly comics route--as would Conn's Grocery, which was a mile or so away in the other direction.

Couch's was the store where I first discovered Peter Parker's alter-ego in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15... and Candler's is the place where I ate a butter pecan ice cream cone while I read that same book. And to this day, I associate the taste of butter pecan ice cream with that book...

1 comment:

Taphophile said...

Hey Cliff, I just found your blog through a link from "Drumbeat." Speaking of Conn's Grocery, how about their bakery!!! Krispy Kreme ain't got nothin' on Conn's when it comes to glazed doughnuts. BTW, I'm a 1975 Chieftain.

Barry E. Smith