Comic Shop Focus: Sunset Blvd. Edition

Categories:  Features

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I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t, at some point in the past, harbored some strange prejudice against Southern California—Los Angeles in particular. Part of it no doubt stems from a childhood growing up north, in the San Francisco Bay Area. There’s an on-going stigma up there about the whole of the So Cal experience, some deserved, no doubt, but much of it likely just negativity for negativity’s sake.

The rest almost certainly is a result of frequent trips to see extended family in Encino and Tarzana, upscale suburbs in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles proper. For those New Yorkers out there (for everyone else, please forgive what will no doubt be a frequent defaulting to Big Apple comparisons), judging Los Angeles by such areas is roughly the equivalent of visiting Long Island and saying you’ve been to New York City.

In more recent years, I’ve explored the City of Angels with decidedly more freedom, most of my visits to the area the result of business obligations. Without family matters to attend to, I’ve found much more to appreciate about the city, and while part of me will always shudder at the prospect of picking up and moving to LA, I now know that, should such an even ever come to pass, the city holds plenty for a person of my very specific tastes.

My first love on Sunset Blvd., after I became too old to find any manner of vicarious excitement in the iconography of Hollywood and Vine and the shiny celebrity sidewalk stars which grow out from that forever-infamous intersection, was Amoeba records, a newer sister store to the Haight-Ashbury and Telegraph (San Francisco and Berkeley) institutions of the same name. Like its counterparts, the store is most appropriately compared to a Costco, only Amoeba is jam-packed with second spun CDS, rather than bulk packs of toilet paper and chocolate muffins the diameter of a medium-sized dog’s head.

Until last week, however (most likely due to my constant reliance on friends for post-work transportation), I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting Hollywood’s finest comic shops. I was in town for my day job—visiting the convention center in downtown Los Angeles for E3, the country’s largest annual gaming show. The show took up the vast majority of my time in the city, of course, but this time out, I made visits to Secret Headquarters and Meltdown non-work priorities—well, as soon as I was finished at Amoeba.

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Secret Headquarters was the first stop. The store is small and dark—not so much dark in the classic dank basement comic shop sense, but rather in a far more calculated manner, the sort one finds in the manner of hardwood-floored independent bookstores one finds in all major American cities. The store exudes the warm, indie vibe exuded by spiritual brethren like Quimby’s in Chicago and Rocketship in Brooklyn. Secret Headquarter’s selection is rather like the latter, a well-curated mixture of alternative and mainstream titles, with a decided focus on smaller publishers.

Like Quimby’s, the store aesthetic is steeped somewhat in the past. A stuffed raccoon sites atop one of the bookshelfs. There are even some older, used books scattered throughout the store. I was downright giddy to discover an old collection of Jay Lynch’s underground classic anthology, Bijou Funnies for $25. The store’s co-owner, David, meanwhile, sits behind the counter, complimenting you on your taste, should he approve of your choice.

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Secret Headquarters is an fantastic little shop, with remarkably well curated selection that more than makes up for any special constraints and places it amongst high up amongst this country’s best independent comic shops. Randomly running into Dark Horse’s Jeremy Atkins in a comic shop in a city that neither of us live in didn’t hurt, either.

A quick ride down Sunset away (nobody walks in LA, right?), Meltdown Comics subscribes to an entirely different model of comics selling. The store is a good deal larger and better lit than Secret Headquaters—in fact, carrying over that earlier analogy, if Secret Headquarters is akin to Rocketship, then Meltdown is really LA’s version of Jim Hanley’s Manhattan storefront, a large, neon-lit shop, carrying as many books as possible, with, perhaps, a bit more focus on the mainstream—certainly more so than Secret Headquarters.

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Though it should certainly be commended for a small bookshelf and spinner rack of minis—the latter of which carries some non-local folks, like Liz Baillie—as well as the giant Charles Burns shark poster that lines the back wall. The store also stocks single issues from smaller presses—I picked up the latest Hate Annual for myself and a random issue of Jason Lutes’s Berlin for Sara, my comics-curious tour guide with a certain appreciation for all things pre-war Germany.

The store also stocks the requisite back issues from the likes of Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse, as well as a selection of comics-centric t-shirts on the wall and toys stored behind locked glass doors.

Most intriguing is the un-renovated back room, which has been converted into an art gallery. Sara stumbled upon it, in search of a restroom, walking right into the middle of a small art opening featuring a number of paintings of dogs. Someone stood behind a makeshift bar, passing out drinks. Two patrons had brought their well-behaved pit bulls to the gallery on leashes—four-legged art lovers, no doubt.

I haven’t been following the development of Los Angeles close enough to say definitively whether the city has gotten cooler, or whether my tastes have simply changed since those early trips to its outlying areas—I suspect the real answer lies in a combination of the two. Either way, the next time I get off of the plane at LAX, I may have to make a pitstop on the way to the hotel.

–Brian Heater

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