Comic books are serious business

2013-06-09T00:00:00Z 2013-06-10T14:20:20Z Comic books are serious businessKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Charlie Harris allows himself just five days off a year. Otherwise, he works. Every day. He logs 80-90 hours a week and doesn't have a single employee.

On a good night, he grabs four hours of shuteye, and he often powers through the day on a single meal, which bugs his wife. Harris shrugs it off.

"I'm fuel-efficient," says the trim 59-year-old. "I'm not much into eating. It's time-consuming."

He scours five newspapers daily, plows through a dozen books a month and prides himself on reading all the comic books that come into his store. He has notebooks stashed at home and work so he can jot down things that inspire him.

"I would love to write novels, comics, songs," he says. "I just never get around to it."

So it drives him absolutely nuts when people waltz into his comics store, telling Harris they "have time to kill."

"There's not enough hours in the day," he says, incredulously. "What do you mean you're killing time?"

Harris is as much a character as any comic-book creation in his shop.

Despite his nearly waist-length hair - which gets donated every four years to Locks of Love and isn't quite gray enough for his tastes - and his usual suit of a T-shirt and jeans, Harris is very much an old-school businessman. The owner of Charlie's Comic Books, 5460 E. Speedway, for 12 years, he believes in knowing his merchandise and his customers. He's painfully honest about both.

If a comic's not good, he tells you. One time, a customer sent him an email, looking for support with a boycott of "The Golden Compass," the book and subsequent movie that stirred up controversy because some viewed them as a slap at Christianity. Harris instead boycotted her, firing back, "You just inspired me to delete you from my friend list."

"He's very up-front," says longtime customer turned buddy Gene Hall. "I like the fact that he doesn't hold anything back. He's not being mean or vindictive, he's just being honest. … Sometimes it rubs people the wrong way."

Honest to his goals

It was Harris' blunt opinions that landed him in the comic book biz in the first place.

He hitchhiked across the United States and into Canada and Central America as a teen, and landed in 1974 in Tucson, the perfect sunny place to sit outside and strum his guitar. His first career was as a musician, and he'd book multiple gigs in a night - to play jazz, reggae, bluegrass - rushing home to change into a suit or cowboy duds in between. He considers his 1948 Gibson acoustic guitar his most prized possession, although arthritis has robbed him of the pleasure of playing it. Still, he occasionally backs his wife, Stephanie Fries, a local radio personality who sings blues and ballads. Harris himself prefers rock. And he's perfectly happy to sing out loud in stores when he knows the song that's playing.

"It drives my wife crazy," he says.

As a kid, Harris enjoyed Superman comics. He rediscovered the superhero - "a role model honest to his goals," he says - as well as the entire genre after being gifted with a graphic novel as an adult. Soon he was writing letters to the editor, complaining about continuity problems in comics. That led to a gig writing reviews for the Comics Buyer's Guide, which folded earlier this year. He became so well known for his rants that some writers actually started seeking out his suggestions, he says.

Harris logged time managing a local comics store before striking out on his own in different spots over the years. He's still getting settled into his new location, which has a bed in a back room for those days when he logs extra, extra long hours.

He moved in January, after spending a few years tucked into a teeny office of a local gaming store. A DC Comics guy - "I just think Marvel sucks" - Harris blames the store's downsizing on Marvel Comics' move to digital. Free downloads took a toll, Harris says. He collapsed into a nearly subscription-only business with very few walk-in customers.

As the economy has started to turn around, so has business. It's better these days. Subscriptions are up; so is traffic.

The new Charlie's is painted in an homage to his still-favorite-after-all-these-years comic book hero: The walls are sunny yellow and the shelves are bold red and blue. Charlie's Comic Books is known for its impressive backstock and Harris' willingness to help local artists, carrying their comics and plastering his walls with their artwork. He's big into benefits, holding fundraisers for nonprofits, and is trying to drum up support for a regular kids' Sunday story hour.

A laid-back place

As Harris puts it, "A comics store is very much a personality."

Charlie's can be summed up in one term: laid-back.

"Sometimes in comic book stores, the staff are kind of distant to the point where they don't even like you touching the comic books," says Hall, a local artist who, by day, oversees the insect museum collection at the University of Arizona's entomology department.

"At some shops, you get the feeling, if you walk up and open (the plastic on a comic), you bought it. Or even if you're just standing there too long, you bought it. That's not the kind of place Charlie's is."

read and enjoy them

Harris doesn't believe in collecting.

"You're not going to put your kids through college with a comic book," he says.

Comic books are meant to be read and enjoyed. Not a surprising opinion, considering what an avid reader Harris is. And he doesn't do it on a Kindle or some other techie device, he relies on old-fashioned library books.

He's never without one, so his current read doubles as a to-do list, with Post-it notes stuck on the back cover serving as reminders. Harris adores Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and will lay out multiple translations of his books, reading them all at the same time, "trying to figure out the genius of his writing."

Harris also reads whatever his and Fries' 15-year-old daughter is into. He enjoyed "The Hunger Games" trilogy but not so much the "Twilight" series. He stalled out on the second book. Just couldn't quite stomach the preachiness, he explains.

He's not much for technology. He left the now-12-year-old computer he uses at work in the box for weeks. He only pulled it out when he discovered he could load his extensive music collection onto it. He also keeps a book log on the PC, rating everything he reads.

But Harris has no interest in the recent spate of comic books morphing into blockbuster movies. He's skipping the latest Superman movie, "Man of Steel." He can't stand how dumbed-down movies and TV are.

"I'd much rather escape in a book," he says. "I'm the director and casting agent, and I'm so much better."

Acts of Kindness

Harris, who never got a driver's license, rides the 2 1/2 miles to work on a Genesis bicycle a customer bought him after his 35-year-old Trek mountain bike died.

People do that kind of thing for him. They also invite his family for Thanksgiving and when he moved his shop on New Year's Day, about 10 people just showed up to help.

"I don't know why people are so nice to me," Harris says, shaking his head. "I don't have any time to spend with my friends - I'm always working."

Hall's got the answer to that.

"He does a lot for other people," Hall says. "He does do a lot of things for the community. … In his own way, he opens up doors for other people. People appreciate that."

Harris does his best to foster a community within the bright yellow walls of his store. He introduces all his customers to one another, which has resulted in quite a few creative collaborations. He offers advice - on everything. He's quick to loan out music CDs, and he's the first person to throw open the doors for a fundraiser or host a signing party for a local writer.

But ask him about the future, and he sounds like a guy who doesn't even have time to dream.

"I'm hoping to make a profit, hire an employee and take some time off."

Superman returns to theaters Friday

This could be the summer of Superman, who turned 75 last month. The latest reimagining of the Superman myth, "Man of Steel," opens Friday. "Superman Unchained" debuts in comic book stores Wednesday, and highlights from a new animated short will screen at San Diego Comic-Con in July.

Superman, who debuted on the cover of Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938, seems ready to compete in this age of superhero blockbusters.

Upcoming events

Local author Eric M. Esquivel will sell and autograph copies of "The In Crowd No. 1," part of a new comic book series. The release party will be 4:30-5:30 p.m. June 19.

A benefit for Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse will be held 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 3. It will feature artists, contests and raffles.

Both events will be held at Charlie's Comic Books, 5460 E. Speedway; charliescomics.com; 320-0279.

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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