This is the second part of my mini-memoir of buying books as a kid in the 1970s in North Miami and North Miami Beach (to go to part one, click here). With the immanent closure of 400 Borders Books stores, which will change the book buying habits of tens of thousands of readers around the country, I felt like a little memory journey to the bookstores and newsstands of my childhood might be in order.
In yesterday’s post, I described the motley collection of places I bought some of my earliest science fiction books and books about science fiction — a Burdine’s Department Store, a cigar shop, a newsstand, and an independent bookstore. In today’s post, I’ll talk about a place where I went hog wild, where I spent the bulk of my weekly allowance, and where I blew goodly chunks of my bar mitvah gift money. What follows are the places where I went from being a reader of science fiction to a science fiction fan — as in fanatic.
A&M Comics and Books: If there was a geographical center to my childhood (apart from my bedroom), this was it. I probably made more trips to A&M, or Arnold’s, as I called it (that’s what the A stood for, the owner’s first name; the M stood for the name of his wife, I believe) than I did to all my other bookstores and comic shops combined. The place opened in 1974, when I was nine, at the corner of South Dixie Highway and 12th Avenue, about a thirteen block bike ride from my house. It’s still in business (although relocated to Bird Road in Miami and now run by a guy named Jorge, who hired on with Arnold around the time I graduated high school in 1982) and claims to be the second oldest continuously operating comic book store in America. Arnold, a retiree from New Jersey, was the owner-operator, a crusty, irritable, Sam Moskowitz-kind of guy who decided to run a comics shop and used bookstore as a second career. The comics were displayed on freestanding wire racks at the front of the store. The other four-fifths of the place were taken up by a barely organized menage of used books, a good portion of them science fiction paperbacks. Arnold wasn’t into neat, nor was he into mint; his stock was stacked haphazardly on shelves, the tops of chairs, in boxes, on stools, and on the floor, and many of his books were on the ratty side. On the other hand, he made up for those possible foibles with quantity. Arnold always had a lot of books, and he bought more all the time. Finding something good within that huge mess was a good part of the fun. You could never search for something specific; you had to stumble across your treasure. And you generally did.
I can’t recall whether my father found Arnold’s first or whether I did. In either case, we soon fell into the habit of stopping by there on Sundays so I could spend my allowance. As a nine year-old, I received one dollar a week allowance. That year, Marvel comics (unless they were Annuals) retailed for twenty cents. Thus, I could theoretically buy five comics a week, assuming I could scrape up four extra pennies for tax. Usually my father would spot me the extra four cents, saying it was an advance on next week’s allowance. But he always forgot by the time the next week rolled around. So five comics a week it was, and what a treat. Marvel had started publishing lots of books with horror heroes, like Tomb of Dracula, Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night (I had a subscription to that one), and Ghost Rider. I bought them all, plus my favorite superhero books, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man, and Marvel Triple Action (the early adventures of the Avengers, reprinted). Every week, my father would ask me the same question: “Andy, are you sure you want to spend your entire allowance on comic books?” And every week, I’d reply with a polite version of, “Hell, yeah!”
At first, I never ventured beyond the comics racks, especially not when my father was with me (he wanted me to make my selections fast so we could get out of the dusty, overly warm, and poorly ventilated store). But I soon started visiting Arnold’s on my own, either on Saturdays or after school, riding my bike down 12th Avenue. On those more leisurely visits, I began exploring the other four-fifths of the place. And I quickly discovered that some of those old paperbacks were really cool. So I gradually transitioned from spending my entire weekly allowance on comics to spending most of it on comics and some on books, to splitting it fifty-fifty, and then to spending the majority of it on used paperbacks. The turning point came shortly after my bar mitzvah, when I used some of my Walden’s gift certificates for a copy of the new reference book, The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by Brian Ash. (That I bought at the Walden’s Books in the 163rd Street Shopping Center, a store I’ll have to save for tomorrow’s installment.) This was the book that forever changed me from being a casual reader of science fiction to a determined, driven, systematic reader of science fiction. The book that made me a fan.
The Visual Encyclopedia, quite simply, blew my mind. It was the Internet before there was an Internet. It featured an illustrated chronology of all the seminal stories and books in science fiction, chapters on enduring themes in the literature, and highly detailed archival articles on subjects like the Hugo Awards and fandom and the history of the magazines. It had a fabulous index that let you track mentions of your favorite writers or books from themed chapter to themed chapter. I spent hours and hours pouring through that book. I could read the chapters and articles dozens of times, getting something different out of them each time. Of course, I began compiling my dream reading list, drawn from forty-five years’ worth of magazines and novels and anthologies.
I found a good portion of my dream reading list on the shelves or in the piles at Arnold’s. Every visit became a treasure hunt. I found A. E. van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Edmund Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. G. Ballard, Barry N. Malzberg, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Anne McCaffrey. I stumbled on names and books I’d never heard of, which I’d then look up in the Visual Encyclopedia as soon as I’d pedaled home. So long as the Encyclopedia gave its seal of approval, I went back the next day or the day after and bought the book.
I became more than just a regular at Arnold’s. I was virtually a resident. Arnold and I developed a sort of love-hate relationship, or at least he developed one with me. I’m sure he didn’t mind that I was spending a good bit of money in his store, but he never seemed to enjoy my company. Maybe he didn’t enjoy anybody’s company. I don’t remember any of our conversations, but I’m sure at least some went like this:
Arnold: Don’t you have any other place you need to be?
Me: Not really. . .
Arnold: I mean, don’t you have after-school activities, or something?
Me: I ride my bike over here. It’s exercise.
Arnold: Don’t you have any friends?
Me: I see them at school.
Arnold: How come you’re always in here?
Me: I like it in here.
Arnold: Don’t you have any other place you need to be?
That place imprinted itself on me. If I could print out a map of my mind, it would look a lot like the interior of Arnold’s. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable in a home unless I have some clutter around me. Preferably clutter with books mixed in.
Arnold, you old, balding curmudgeon, rest in peace in that Big Used Bookstore in the Sky.
Yipes! I’ve already posted almost 1400 words, just on A&M Comics and Books. Looks like I won’t get around to Starship Enterprises and Walden’s Books and my first, unrequited love in this post. I’ll save them for part three (which can be found by clicking here).