Ahh, the “dirt mall”! Mike Jamison’s comic book collecting journey takes us to, perhaps, one of the more underrated locales for nerds and hobbyists.
Brodie: “Come on, this is the dirt mall. Cops don’t come here.”
T.S. Quint: “Neither does any self-respecting consumer.” –Mallrats, 1995
I’m old. I like to say when speaking or writing about myself that I’m of a certain vintage, but to be totally transparent, I’m just old.
Being old, I can remember a time when the internet didn’t exist, or at least, was not readily accessible to a comics-hungry kid longing to feed his addiction. Before I could drive, the only way I could get comics was to have a kind relative gift them to me, be it an aunt or grandmother buying me a few for my birthday or my Mom grabbing a random issue from the supermarket.
As I related in previous installments, there was always the local 7-11 and Sears catalog as a way to get my hands on comics out in the wild. But like any addict, once you get a hit, you start coming back for more. And once you start to feel the thrill of buying the comics you like, well, it makes you want to get not only the new issues but the back issues as well. And therein lies the rub.
A wayback playback
In the early to mid-eighties, there were no accessible comic book stores in my little corner of the universe. That being the case, comic book stores took on an aura of Mecca in my 12-year-old brain. Holy and mysterious places that were difficult to find yet held treasures beyond my wildest dreams. The reality couldn’t be further from the fantasy.
I’m sure almost everyone reading this had a fairly big, fairly modern mall that they grew up near. Some of you probably even spent your middle and high school years hanging out at said local mall. Eating at the food court. Checking out the latest CD releases from Sam Goody. Looking for a cool lava lamp or perhaps a poster at Hot Topic. A normal mall offered all of those amenities and more. The dirt mall…did not.
What’s a dirt mall you ask? Just as most communities have a mall nearby, they likely have a dirt mall as well. The dirt mall is a shadowy reflection of the normal mall, all cheap oil paintings, costume jewelry, used records…but also comics! Yes, comics! But unlike the everyday comics that I found at 7-11 (that my family members gave to me), here was a veritable vault of oddities and wonders I had never encountered before.
The Bazaar of All Nations
Our local dirt mall was the Bazaar of All Nations. Opened in 1960, the Bazaar was located on Baltimore Pike in Upper Darby township, a suburb about 25 minutes from my Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. The Bazaar was funky and fabulous, a place where hippies sold bootleg Bob Dylan albums alongside elderly immigrants repairing Keds and blue-haired old ladies giving haircuts. The dirt mall was the place you went to when you wanted something hard to find, something unique, something cheap. Need Christmas lights? A goldfish? A soft pretzel and a chandelier? The Bazaar had it all. Me? Comics are what I needed.
I can’t remember the first time I ever visited the Bazaar. I’m sure I was there with my parents for some reason or another. To be honest, I can’t remember discovering that there was someone there who sold comics. I just remember knowing that this was a place that sold back issues, sold weird, independent publishers. I just remember obsessing about getting to the Bazaar whenever and however I could.
God bless my Dad. Being around 11 or 12, the dirt mall was too far away for me to walk or ride my bike to. So my father was nice enough, after much hinting and begging, to take my brother and me to the Bazaar to hunt for comic treasures. As I described earlier, the Bazaar wasn’t laid out like a typical shopping center. A large square stone building, the inside was set up as a classic marketplace, a single wall separating each store, some with signs or storefronts, some with just a piece of cardboard or poster announcing the business.
A comic collector’s dream
I can’t recall what the comic store was called or who ran it. All I can remember were a few rows of nondescript long boxes, partitioned into a semblance of categories. But what it lacked in professionalism, it made up for in variety. Back issues of Spider-Man, Batman, and the Justice League, along with current issues as well. The latest MAD and Cracked magazines. This was a dream come true for any geeky adolescent.
Digging deeper, figuratively and literally, I began to uncover strange and interesting finds, with weird titles such as Boris the Bear, Ralph Snart, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was the first time I became aware that comics could be more than capes and spandex. My love for comics, and for collecting comics, was cemented at the dirt mall.
The Bazaar closed down in 1993. Acme and Home Depot now occupy the spot that opened up the world of possibilities that comics can achieve. By then, I could drive and had moved on to comic book stores. They may have been cleaner, more organized, and safer, but they’d never match the wonder of discovery that the dirt mall had imprinted on me. Honestly, comic book stores always felt like a step-down. Because I’ve been chasing that feeling I got at the dirt mall ever since.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about the wonderful, weird world of the Bazaar of All Nations, there is a documentary available on DVD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aozC2a2qaUY