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February 10, 2009

Uncover Hyde Park’s hidden comic-book lair

[img id="77263" align="alignleft"] Chicago-native James Nurss started selling comics when he was 12; years later, he became a manager at Graham Crackers Comics, one of the largest comic-book store chains in the country. Today, Nurss’s First Aid Comics is the only comic-book store in Hyde Park, which is all the more important in a neighborhood regularly derided for its lack of traditional retail spaces. To get to the store, you have to walk above a smoke shop, pass two hair salons, and cross paths with a psychic reader in the shops’ second-floor space on East 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue.

Though small, First Aid Comics is packed with all the latest weekly releases, compilations, back issues galore, and even a Superman-brand peanut butter container from the 1980s—fortified with iron! Nurss opened up early last weekend to talk with me about Conan the Barbarian, Hyde Park’s historic charm, and Obama’s first mainstream comic appearance.

Michael Lipkin: So I guess my first question is, why set up in Hyde Park?

James Nurss: Well, Hyde Park’s needed a comic shop for a long time. The Erikson Institute used to be over the bank, the Hyde Park Bank right here. So probably around ‘81 they left there, and my mom was a graduate student there, so I’ve been coming down going, “Mom, where the comic shop? There’s a record shop, lots of used-bookstores, but where’s the comic shop?” So I’ve been in comics for a long time, and I knew I wanted to open a shop, and I knew Hyde Park needed one.

ML: Did you buy all of this when the store opened in November in one go?

JN: I had a lot of the old stuff before I opened, but the new stuff—it’s a goofy industry. You order two to three months in advance for the new issues, and whatever you order you keep. There are no returns, like in the book industry. In comics, whatever you order you keep because you own it. That’s why shops run out, like the recent Amazing Spider-Man 583 [an extremely fast-selling comic which featured Spider-Man foiling a plot by the Chameleon to impersonate Obama during his inauguration] with Obama on the cover that was so popular. Shops couldn’t buy whatever they wanted and return whatever they didn’t sell, so people try to guess what they’re going to sell, and they obviously all guessed wrong.

ML: Do you have any left here?

JN: I will have more on Wednesday.

ML: It’s on like the fourth or fifth printing.

JN: Yeah, the fourth comes out on Wednesday the fourth.

ML: That’s kind of ridiculous for something that doesn’t have much action.

JN: But it’s history. And you’re going beyond the normal scope of comic-book people. You’re collecting, obviously, President Obama fans, and then you’ve got political collectors who collect campaign buttons and all the campaign stuff. Then you have the regular comic-book people who want it.

ML: Do you have a copy of it?

JN: I do not. I sold every single one so I could help as many people as I could, because I didn’t want people’s first experiences coming in to my store to be, “Hey, I don’t have it,” or, “Hey, I’ve jacked the price up to $50.” So I sold them all. I call it my stimulus package. It’s been crazy.

ML: So what’s your personal collection look like?

JN: Captain America is my favorite on the superhero side—I have a lot of favorites—but on the superhero side of things it’s Cap. I’ve always bought every issue, so no matter how bad it got, I bought every number...

ML: You mentioned you got into comic retailing at 12. Was that a part time job?

JN: Yes, absolutely. I was the kid that ran and got the hamburger and got a free comic from the store. I’d bag some comics for an hour, that kind of thing. I’ve just been around comics a long time.

ML: What did you mom say about you running errands for the store?

JN: She’s the one who dragged me into a store; she wanted me to read more. This was when I was about 12, so pretty young. She wanted to introduce me to more reading, so she turned me on to comics. And now she says, “Wow, look at what this has become.”

ML: What was your opinion of Hyde Park as a neighborhood when you used to come down here?

JN: I loved it. I loved Harper Court; that’s what I mostly remember. I loved Harper Court... It feels very historical to me; you can just feel the history. When you go to Europe and stuff and you see the old buildings, you can just feel the history. There’s not too many places like that in America that make you feel that way. But this building’s from 1910, and I just think that’s the coolest thing in the world. I love history and the fact that people have been here before.

Actually, Vince and I were talking about this the other day—what do you think they built this building for and how much money do you think it’s made over the years? It’s just cool to think how many things have been in here.

ML: Has the recession played any role in sales?

JN: It’s really hard to draw a trend line, but in the last two major recessions, comics did better because, theoretically, it’s a cheaper form of entertainment. I would hope and guess that people would want to buy comics instead of going to a movie or going on vacation—they’ll buy some comics and spend the weekend at home—

ML: A staycation.

JN: [Sighs] Yes, a staycation.

ML: I can see the headline: “First Aid Comics advocates staycation”

JN: No [laughing], I hate that expression. It sounds so lame.

ML: Do you have any favorite comic-book stores that you’ve tried to emulate?

JN: My favorite comic-book store is probably not the ideal successful comic- book store in this day and age. I like the old, tiny, cramped, little comic-book stores that are dusty, where you may find something in a pile somewhere. I love that. I like that surprise: It’s like a junk shop. I love those little out-of-the-way antique stores, but that’s just not the reality of what’s going to make a store successful anymore.

ML: I notice there are some old cartoons playing on that TV over there. What is that, Superfriends?

JN: I think that’s Fantastic Four from the ’60s. Looking at it now, it’s obviously a little dated, but back then, we all loved that stuff. We loved the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon too. It was awesome! [Pause] No, it was actually really, really, bad. [Laughs]

ML: You mentioned Watchmen earlier as an industry standard. Are you excited for that movie at all?

JN: Absolutely. Whether the movie ends up being good or not is kind of irrelevant in the sense that it’s driven people to buy the original, and if that’s a person’s first introduction to comics, that’s a great introduction because it’s quality material and it makes people go, “Oh, I see comics are much more than what the stereotype would lead one to believe.”