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Profiting From a Lifetime of Comic Genius

October 09, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bikers--all leather and spikes--roared up to Nick Scotto's comic book store and invaded en masse. "This is it," Scotto thought, bracing for the worst.

Then one of the bikers sauntered up to the counter, peeled off a black glove, looked Scotto in the eye and asked, "Do you have any Little Lulus?"

Scotto understands. He was a comic book collector himself once. And for 40 years he's been proprietor of the Comic Vendor in Torrance, which he's almost sure is the world's oldest comic book store. At least, no one's come forth to challenge his claim.

"It started with mowing lawns," he explains. When he was 8, his mother "did what all mothers do, which was to carefully eliminate my comic book collection." He figured other mothers were eager to do the same, so he initiated an alternative payment plan for each lawn mowed: 75 cents or 75 comic books. "Most of the time I got 75 comic books."

Soon he was selling comic books out of his parents' garage. When he was 11, he persuaded his parents to take out a business license and he opened his first store, which closed during school hours.

One day, he recalls, "Like lightning hitting me in the head, I suddenly realized I could sell an old 10-cent comic book for more than 10 cents." So in 1958 he issued his first catalogue, offering dime books for a quarter.

Today, Scotto has an inventory of 4 million comics, about 50,000 of them--both current and back issues--on display at the Comic Vendor in a strip mall in Torrance. The locale, to which the shop moved four years ago, is its 14th. He explains: "Most landlords didn't want to rent to a comic book store. I'd always get a year's lease if I was lucky." Landlords wanted a real store.

Behind the counter is Nick's wife, Pamela, 43. Before Proposition 13 eliminated her job, she was a county reference librarian. Today, she's an authority on super-heroes.

As a child, she wasn't allowed to read comics (it was the '50s, she says, and they were suspected of being subversive). But she bought, and stashed away, the first Superman annual. Coming across it 25 years ago, she took it to the Comic Vendor to have it appraised.

Recalls Nick: "I tried to buy it from her. . . . I even locked the door." That day, she purchased her first collectible, a Lois Lane (her heroine).

Today, Pamela has "a formidable collection" of 25,000 comics. And, 18 years ago, she married her dealer. "I had to. It was getting too expensive."

Now she runs the store while he handles the wholesale trade and mail orders out of a nearby warehouse. It's been a while since a dime bought a comic book; today the average price for a current comic is $2.50. And those collectibles?

Well, Nick wants $100,000 for his Detective Comics No. 38, the pre-World War II issue in which Robin the Boy Wonder first appeared. In 1972, he sold a mint condition 1939 book in which Superman debuted for $70,000. About 100 are thought to exist and one recently sold for $160,000. "These are icons," he says reverently.

Some might call these treasures trash, but to Pamela they're "the purist form of escapism. You become that super-hero bursting through the wall." No, she doesn't condone violence--"I've been called the handmaiden of the devil"--nor does she believe in censorship.

Is there any comic she wouldn't sell? Oh, yes, Pamela says. "Anything that looked like Nick wrote it and I drew it."

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