Long Agos and Worlds Apart
May 10, 2010

I’ll warn you all right now, before we get started. This is going to be one of those posts that make me sound like an old man, that’s gonna go down Memory Lanes and take lefts at Nostalgic Avenues. So if that sort of thing isn’t of interest, you might want to turn away now. (To be honest, I might even turn away myself, in preparation of my already stated senior sounding status). If you stick around you might be rewarded and reminded of times and places in your lives that are similar, and you never know what sort of memories might get jostled free by the end.

 

Last week, I went back home to Minnesota for a visit. My girlfriend Dianne went with me, and we had a wonderful time. We saw family, old friends, the weather was gorgeous (anyone out there thinking of a visit, I urge you to go from late April-late May, and/or mid September-late October. Simply some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll get to enjoy in this country). Because I hadn’t been back in over two years, I also wanted to make sure we hit all the old haunts and ate all the food that I can’t get anymore here in my 15 years (!!!) as a Los Angeleno. Consequently, there was a lot of “Oh! That’s where I went to junior high! One time, I got in trouble…etc, etc.” along the way, but Dianne was a trouper, and listened patiently to all the old tales. And, both being exhausted at times (man, I can TALK), we rewarded ourselves by eating our way through the state.

Besides seeing where I grew up and went to school and such things, I really wanted to hit some of the places I used to frequent. And two of them I hadn’t stepped foot in in over ten years. The first is called Midway Books. It’s in St. Paul, at the corner of  Snelling and University Avenues. I remember buying my first ever issue of Famous Monsters with my own money there, way back in 1979, and then Doctor Who Monthly in 1982 or so. It was the first place I ever saw it, and remember asking my dad to drive me there about once a month to stock up. They also carried all the monster and sci-fi magazines, loads of paperbacks, and hardcovers from the UK. In other words, I spent a lot of bread there as a pre-teen. As I walked in, it was like literally stepping into the past, as the interior hadn’t changed very much at all. The layout was the same, the shelves were the same, hell, the smell was the same. And then I saw the owner, Tom Stransky, and I got a chill. The man hadn’t seemed to age at all, and wore the same glass frames and headband he always wore. I stopped him and asked if he had any old issues of Famous Monsters , and he headed into the back for me. When he returned, I told him I used to come into the place a lot in the early 80’s, and shockingly, he said “Yeah, I thought you looked familiar. Used to come in with your dad, right?." At which point I nearly fell over. “Yeah, that’s right, used to get all your Doctor Who books and magazines." I then spent the next few minutes going through the FM box, and grabbed an issue from ’72, with ‘Scream and Scream Again’ on the cover, and then decided to go a little further down memory lane. “Hey Tom, do you have any Starlogs?”, I asked. I found a few from the late 70s/early 80s, and started to head to the counter. Dianne, diamond that she is, snapped up my winnings and said “Let me get these for ya, I know how special this place was for you” and headed for the register.

We were about to leave, so I told Tom how much the place meant to me. “I work out in LA in television now, and started my own toy company, and this place is in a small way partly responsible for my love of all things sci-fi and Horror, so I’m really happy to see you still standing”.  “Well, thanks man, that’s really cool to hear," he replied. “But we might not be here much longer, if the city has its way." He then went on to tell me how the city is going to build the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Project, which would move commuters back and forth between St. Paul and Minneapolis, thus blocking parking on his side of the street for up to six months. One of the things that’s always been in his favor as a small business owner has been the abundant street parking, and Tom thinks this construction will signal the end for Midway Books. Along with several other watchdog groups, he’s been fighting the construction for 15 years, to no avail. It’s gonna happen, and all he can do is wait. “Well”, I said, “this place has probably been through worse times, and you’re still here. I think it’ll take more than that to kill Midway Books”. But in my gut, I fear the worst for him, as I do for many small businesses these days.

The other spot is in Minneapolis, and it’s called Dreamhaven Books (www.dreamhavenbooks.com). Owner Greg Ketter has been doing his thing there for upwards of 30 years now, and he’s moved locations several times already, with the customers following him every time. My first ever visit to Dreamhaven was in the mid 80s, when I was in high school. They carried much of the same stuff as Midway, but were located in the DinkyTown area of the U of M campus, which was infinitely cooler to me. One day in ’86, he had Douglas Adams in for a book signing, for the first ‘Dirk Gently’ book. I skipped the second half of school that day to get there, and still have the picture of Adams and me to prove it!

Dreamhaven is more than just a book store, though. Oh man, they have comics (old and new), toys, monster stuff, old books, tee shirts, first editions, and since he’s a friend, loads of signed books by Neil Gaiman. Once again, I picked up a basketful of goodies ( I paid this time, so keep it down) and had a nice chat with Greg. While he didn’t remember me specifically, more importantly, he knew of Bif Bang Pow! He walked me over to a spot in the store, and there, staring back at me, were our Invader and Talky Tina bobble heads from our ‘Twilight Zone’ line. I can’t tell you how bloody cool it was to think of this place, a place I frequented so many times in my youth, being connected to me through our toys. The world gets very small when that happens, and your head swells just a little bit more with pride.

These places are still special to me, and I hope they never go away. In an age when we can download books in seven seconds to our Kindle (ok, even I have one, and I’m a technophobe of the highest order), when you can find everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to a bride on ebay, and when even the monsters like Borders, Virgin Megastore and The Wherehouse are dropping like flies, it’s really gratifying to see Midway and Dreamhaven still thriving. These were the headquarters, the spots where I’d get my magazine and book fix, and subsequently got all the news that was fit to print. Starlog, FM and Fangoria were the information bibles back in the day, when doing research entailed going to the library and using the Dewey Decimal System, not hitting ‘return’ on Wikipedia. OK, OK, sounding like an old man yet? Yes, I know, but I’m not hating on (see? I know how the kids talk) technology and the interweb, far from it. I’ve sadly become one of the people that can’t fathom how we got along with out cell phones and IMDB, so much so that I only have two or three phone numbers actually memorized. Sad, I know.

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Jason "Plastic Soul" Lenzi
A successful television producer and voice-over artist, pop culture fanatic Jason Lenzi established Bif Bang Pow! in 2005, channeling his boundless enthusiasm as a fan and collector into the creation of the company’s highly-desired toy lines. His enthusiasm has proven contagious, earning BBP! unanimous praise from the toy community and leading to creative partnerships with the likes of comics giant Alex Ross and rock icon Scott Ian. BBP! has so far released action figures and bobble heads for 'Flash Gordon', 'The Big Lebowski', 'The Twilight Zone', 'Dexter', 'LOST', HBO's 'Eastbound and Down' and 'The Venture Brothers'. When he's not chasing down new licenses, producing and narrating various TV series, or reading every music magazine on the shelves, he's obsessively playing Beatles: Rock Band until he gets every song right.
Read other articles by Jason "Plastic Soul" Lenzi.

 

 

 

9 Comments »

  • demoncat says:

    nice story. can not believe that the shop owners remembered you still. not to mention getting douglas adams autograph talk about a score.and must have been a surprise to see an old haunt have the stuff you make it it the twilight zone bobble heads. shows that some memories never fade.

  • JuliusMarx says:

    Great blog Jason! I know exactly how you feel. I had a similar experience the past Christmas going back to Oklahoma and visiting my old local comic book shop in Tulsa ‘The Comic Empire.’ It was like it was frozen in time. Now I think I might have to put together a similar blog about my experience.

    Thanks for sharing these memories with us. And God bless Diane for being such a trooper! You’ve got a good one there!

  • Newton says:

    Love it. My old comic shop closed up a while back when I went home and it was sad. No idea what happened to it.

  • ChipCataldo Chip Cataldo says:

    Another great blog, Jason. It made me sad, since there’s no way I can re-create that experience. The store I grew up with had moved 4 times and I’m not sure even exists now. The stores in each of my college towns have all closed down, and the one store (remotely) here now I’ve not even been to because it’s a “gaming shop that sells comics.”
    I’ll live vicariously through you on this, and given this blog…well, that’s a great replacement. :-)

  • Shellhead says:

    My first comic book store was Queen City Bookstore in Buffalo, and it seems to have a lot in common with your stores. I haven’t been in there in at least 10 years, so maybe I’ll check it out again when I go back home this summer. I know its still there, but I don’t know if it still has the same ownership.

  • Lt. Clutch says:

    Wonderful stories, Jason. Long live the hang-outs of our youth! My first comic store was The Comic Castle in Fullerton, CA. As I kept moving around during my younger years, I stacked up a bunch of book, music, comic, and toy stores in places like Miami and Chicago which I’d love to see again someday. Hope they’re still around like the two you visited.

  • Russ says:

    well there is another reason why walk-in stores are going under, and mail-order is now running the day: store contracting fees.

    I, myself, wanted to open an actual store, and I was advised against it due to how expensive the contracting fees alone would’ve been.

    Most of the money you make for years on end goes to repaying bank loans and whatnot that it took to open these stores in the first place.

    As for the human contact…I guess you’ve just had better experience in dealing with people face-to-face than I have…

  • David Salchow says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane Jason!

    Nothing with stop the light rail line and I really beleive it’s for the greater good. It’s virtually impervious to our MN weather and will be a lifeline between the two downtowns. If Midway can survive the horrendous contruction which will probably last a year, the train line will drive customer’s right to their doorstep. There will be a train station at Snelling and University. I, for example, worked Dwtn Minneapolis but live east of St. Paul. Instead of the express bus, I could take the train, stop by Midway books, and catch the next train to continue the commute home.

    I hope Midway Books can survive the construction period, because afterward, the train line could be a bonanza for business.

  • Brenda says:

    Hello, old friend! Glad to read this and so happy to see that you’re making your way in the world – I always knew you’d go out in life and do great things. Glad your trip home was a memorable one – did you swing by the old house on Jessie St. or the old restaurant? I think of those places often – good memories.

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