The History of the Comic College Store

Hi, I’m Ralph Gregory Johnson. If you are a member of a very small club, you may remember me as a family member or K through 12th grade student Greg Johnson, who spent the lion’s share of my formative years in Mankato, MN. Upon entering college, my new friends wanted to call me Ralph, and I didn’t fight it, for whatever reason. After graduating from St. John’s (MN), I was one of many owners of the famed Comic City, which started in 1974 at 3151 Hennepin Av, and went through a long succession of owners and partners, but I owned my part the longest, from 1980 to 1986!

You’re thinking, “How did that happen, Mr. Ralph?” Well, after having bombed at my first attempt at comic book retailing, I was the only employee working at Downtown Comics, a satellite of Comic City, then owned by Jay T. Henderson and a another partner. I got wind that he was trying to sell Comic City, and since we shared new comics with them, I had gotten to know Chris Budel from “the City”. The short version is that Chris and I ended up with the storied, but heavily indebted, Comic City for a pittance, and Jay kept the Downtown Comics, which quickly went under.

On a convention trip to California in 1982, I called Chris to tell him I had decided to move to California (for the first time) and take a job with the big comic distributor Capital City.  Lucky for me, he was drunk at the time. And most of the time, back then. In spite of being assisted by Joel Thingvall, or because of it, he eventually tired and sold his interest to Gary S. So Gary ran things while I had a real job out in the Bay Area. In 1986, I expressed a desire to return to the U of M, and my nice employers at Capital City offered to open up a St Paul branch just for me, which I ran part-time while taking Computer Science classes.

Meanwhile, I had arranged move into the house behind Comic City , with the idea of having a short commute. I quickly saw that Gary and I were incompatible, and I made deal with him to buy me out.  Still friends with Chris, despite my quick exit back in ’82, he and I began planning to open our second comic business together in the Fall of 1987. He came up with the name Comicopolis and we incorporated, with Darryn K., and then continued our plan. We always intended a national mail-order business, so the fact that there was already a Comicopolis somewhere else made us search again, and we began d-b-a The College of Comic Book Knowledge. We’re pretty sure he borrowed the cadence from an old novelty music act called the College of Musical Knowledge, but he was always foggy about that.

A sudden vacancy occurred in my front yard! Gary had moved Comic City! We called our friends and cleaned up the damage and opened in April of 1988, the 16th, my birthday, to be exact. I told you it was complicated, and I’ve only started.

Because of signage and print concerns, we also used the shorter name “Comic Book College” a lot, and even “Comic College” if space was really tight. Chris’s friend David Steinlicht did a LOT of beautiful design work for us over the years, and Bill Fugate did a LOT of beautiful cartoons, illustrations, bag designs, ads, and other work. After 5 years and MANY differences of opinion, Chris and I followed Solomon’s advice and cut the baby in half in 1993, and he took the name Nostalgia Zone, which we had already tried at a satellite toy store for a year or two. We also split the real estate and co-habited the same store, half and half, the old (Chris) and the new (me). I immediately started a new company with a new partner, and we opened up two mall stores that year, one just blocks away in  nearby Calhoun Square, and one at the outrageous Mall of America, in Bloomington by the airport. Actually, it was a series of closets, with padlocks, built into the front wall of an as yet un-rented space, on the third floor near the corner that had the Cinnabon store. The new stores made it a year and half, with national chains moving into the MOA from above, stores opening around Uptown by the several, and the Great Comic Book Crash of 1994 and beyond threatening to wash everyone away from below. 1993 was also coincidently the year I got married and we bought a house.

In later years, on my own, I relied on Pete Krause for some nice commercial work for the store, but I mostly cut and recycled old Fugate and Steinlicht work myself. Dave helped me on one project I hope to find and share with you someday, the How to Make Your Own Mini-Comic Mini-Comic, which comes in one sheet and contains instructions on how to make it into a Mini-Comic, which you can then read and start to make your own Mini-Comic one sheet, and cut and fold in like manner to make it into a Mini-Comic! I also have to give props and/or blame to Mike Rosen, our faithful accountant from the beginning (even Comic City, 1980), for keeping the doors open and the Feds at bay, and still my accountant today, in spite of the distance.

I was a fairly early adopter of the internet, with and my ebay business both commencing in 1998, and Paul Fricke helped me out with art on the first version. I spent some time going back to school AGAIN to learn bookkeeping (it was about time I knew what Profit and especially Loss meant), work some temp jobs, including at Target HQ, and a non-profit called the Jefferson Center, while my able managers, Don and Clarence kept the College humming. Anyway, the business got old and I got older and sales kept dropping, and competing stores kept opening up in spite of the crash and by 1998, I was ready to call it quits.  We sold the house in 1999 for a nice profit, and I spent it all keeping the College afloat, and got divorced the next year. In 2003, I finally did call it quits! Tim Lohn was a convention dealer who was buying new comics through my store and helping break open new shipments every Wednesday, and one day, I offered him the store. So he still has that store under the Comic Book College name at 3151 Hennepin Av S, and I took the website to California, where I planned to sell my own stuff (a truckload I moved out there from Minnesota) along with merchandise from a friend’s huge, dusty warehouse and make a go of it online in the Golden State. That lasted a few months, and I had to get a job, as a tour guide, it turned out. It takes a LOT of time, and the business began to shrink from disuse. The last time site was changed was when the Curse of the Were-Rabbit came out in 2005!

I quit the tour company in September of 2010 and started typing and snapping photos like a maniac, going back to my friend’s warehouse to do it again. Now, in the spring of 2011, is finally being resurrected, along with the College of Comic Book Knowledge, which you now hold in your field of vision. I have several other blogs in my network, and more in the works. The NEW Online Store will, or IS, open and ready for business. Read and buy!

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