Starship Enterprises: This was a comic book store located on the opposite side of 163rd Street from Worldwide News and Books and a block or two east, closer to the railroad tracks. There’s still a comics shop in the same location — Villains Comics and Games, which replaced Starship Enterprises (or possibly yet another comic shop) in 1984. Starship Enterprises was the diametric opposite of Arnold’s. Whereas Arnold shoved his new comics into old wire racks at the front of his store and let other comics fade in the sun that streamed in through his bay window, the owner of Starship Enterprises (a neatnik hippy with a carefully coiffed ponytail) arranged his new comics in a handbuilt, honeycomb-like wooden shrine that took up most of one wall of the long, narrow store. Whereas Arnold’s was stuffed to overflowing with stuff, Starship Enterprises always seemed to have perilously little in stock, apart from their selection of new comics. But what little they did had was carefully selected, artfully arranged, and displayed like an exhibit in a fine handicrafts museum.
I never felt all that comfortable being in Starship Enterprises. I usually felt as though I were trespassing in a private club. However, if you were looking for something in particular, it was much, much easier to find it there than it would be at Arnold’s. When I was eleven and going through a several weeks long infatuation with Jack Kirby’s rendition of the Inhuman’s Medusa (oh, that long red hair; oh, that skintight purple jumpsuit…), I went looking for my back issues of Marvel’s Greatest Comics at Starship Enterprises, not in the various boxes lying all over the floor at Arnold’s.
The store had a tiny selection of used paperbacks, but what they had was choice. Unlike Arnold, who didn’t seem to care what sort of condition the books he bought were in, the small selection of books at Starship Enterprises was invariably mint and handsomely vintage. They always had a nice batch of old Ballantine paperbacks on hand. My best finds were several editions of Frederik Pohl’s pioneering original science fiction anthologies of the 1950s, Star Science Fiction. Still have ’em.
The Walden’s Books at the 163rd Street Shopping Center: If Arnold’s was my main source of used books, this was my primary source of new books. It was where I’d drag my parents every Hanukkah and every birthday to point out the presents I wanted. It also happened to be the place I fell in love for the first time.
Walden’s Books was a terrific source for inexpensive illustrated books of all kinds. My local store’s sale tables (the 163rd Street Shopping Center was only a twelve block bike ride from my house, even closer than Arnold’s) were piled high with publishers’ close-outs on all sorts of subjects beloved by young boys: battleships, submarines, airplanes, tanks, World War 2, the Civil War, dinosaurs, dragons, astrology, muscle cars, trains, horror movies… and science fiction. Oh, they carried some wonderful illustrated tomes on science fiction.
I already mentioned buying The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction at Walden’s, which quickly became my SF bible. They also carried both of David Kyle’s gorgeous volumes on the artwork, writers, and themes of the prior hundred years’ worth of science fiction, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams. Both books were chock full of reproductions of lurid pulp covers, particularly from the Gernsback magazines, Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Air Wonder Stories. Even more fascinating to me were the illustrations from the popular magazines of an even earlier time, the Victorian and Edwarian decades, with their super-battleships, flying battleships, and bizarre, pre-Wright Brothers winged contraptions of all sorts.
As an adult, I got to meet David Kyle at a convention after he presented a slide show taken from his two books. I told him how much the first book had meant to me (I received the first one from my mother as a twelfth birthday present; but the second book I didn’t get around to buying until after talking with David, when I found it on eBay). He told me they had been works of love, and his one regret had been that their cover color schemes and fonts had been so similar to each other that many potential buyers ended up mistaking the second book for the first and never picking up Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams. I may have made the same mistake myself as a young man. One of my favorite features of David’s first book was its division of various decades in the development of science fiction into “ages”: the Iron Age, the Steel Age, the Silver Age, the Golden Age, the Plastic Age, etc. His fun dedications page gave shout-outs to many of my favorite fictional characters, including Lessa from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.
I fell in love with two Anne M’s at that Walden’s Books. The first was Anne McCaffrey. I bought the first five Dragonriders of Pern books there, including The White Dragon in hardback, a splurge. I formed an Anne McCaffrey fan club and sent letters to her in Ireland (she always answered me, and this in the days before email). The second Anne M was named Annie Marsh. She was a sales clerk at the bookstore. I thought she looked like a young Jane Seymour. I was smitten from the first moment I talked with her. Twelve years old, I acted like a big-shot, know-it-all science fiction fan that first afternoon; I tried horning in on recommendations Annie was attempting to give to some teenaged customers in the science fiction and fantasy section, showing her and them how smart and well-read I was.
Annie was a regal nineteen, seven years older than I was. Within a day or two of meeting her, she was all I could think about. I found excuses to make trips to Walden’s Books every opportunity I could. Sometimes she’d let me sit in the stock room and office in the back with her and talk, or I’d just watch her work. When I couldn’t think of an excuse to go inside the store, or if I’d seen her too recently and it might weird her out to go see her again, so soon, I’d pedal my bike to the mall and park myself in a corner near the edge of the store’s display window, where I could watch the sales counter. I’d wait for her to come out of the office and help someone at the counter. I’d just look at her, drink in the sight of her, pray she didn’t spot me standing outside, and estimate the next time it would be kind of socially acceptable to talk with her again.
I carried a torch for Annie all through junior high school, from the time I was twelve to the time I was fourteen. Then she told me she would have to quit her job at the store because she would be attending college out of town. Either she gave me her home phone number or I looked it up, because I remember talking with her parents at least a couple of times after she stopped working at Walden’s Books. The last time I spoke with them, they told me she was engaged to be married. I’d known all along that I didn’t have a chance with her, of course. But my heart still broke, very painfully.
Strange to think she’s fifty-three now, possibly a grandmother.