Rogofsky and Bell: the Dealers SpeakA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
I love collecting old fanzines. One of my favorite slick old zines is Comic Book Marketplace. I've slowly been completing my collection of CBM, and just recently picked up two issues that contain interviews that I thought were very interesting.
CBM #18 and #36 feature interviews with two legendary figures whose names appeared in more Marvels and DCs over the years than did the names Jack Kirby or Julius Schwartz, but who will never be featured in the Grand Comics Database. I would guess that nearly any comics fan over a certain age is quite familiar with these mens' work, and yet neither is creative in the most formal sense. The men are Howard Rogofsky and Robert Bell, and they were two of comics' most prominent dealers throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
It's a treat when reading these interviews to see the comics industry from the viewpoint of two men who ran saw the medium as a way to run a small family business. Bell and Rogofsky supported their families by selling old comics and back issues other magazines such as TV Guide and Playboy. The interviews present men who are as interesting, human and fallible as any comics creators. Both men are entrepreneurs from an era when entrepreneurship in old comics meant hustling to make deals on old comics, when treasures seemed to always be around the nearest corner.
Howard Rogofsky is interviewed in CBM #18. Rogofsky is a particular favorite of longtime certain old comics readers since they would often mock Rogofsky as "Howard Ripoffsky" due to his high retail prices. But what emerges from the interview conducted by Gary Carter, Mike Dalessandro and Susan Cicconi, is the portrait of a man who knew his market well and used that knowledge to make good money for his family.
One thing that surprised me about Rogofsky is that he started earning a good income from comics at quite a young age. Rogofsky reports in the interview that at the age of 18, "I grossed about $15,000 that year. The following year I grossed $60,000. And we're talking 1960s prices too!" Indeed, according to the online Inflation Calculator, $60,000 in 1966 dollars is the equivalent of nearly $400,000 today. That's an eyepopping amount of money for a 19-year-old to be making fresh out of high school, selling funny books!
I was astonished to discover that an 18-year-old had the wherewithal to buy ads in Marvel and DC comics, but Rogofsky declares that he was buying and selling comics even before he was old enough to legally marry: "One of the earliest large buys was when I was 16 years old. I traveled all the way from Ohio [from Queens, New York] to buy some comics. I paid for them with my father's post dated checks (of $100 each). Every ten days a check was cashed, and I'd give my father the money to cover it from comic sales. I was lucky (unlike some other teenagers I'd talked with) in that I never had any problems with my parents saying, 'You shouldn't be bothered with comic books.' They were always very supportive." Of course, how could any parents not be supportive when their son was bringing that kind of money into the house!
Rogofsky was perhaps the first full-time dealer in comics: "When I started, everyone else had a regular job. I was a student who went into business." He reports that "I was, at one time, the largest dealer around until comics shops started opening up."
By the time of this interview, in 1992, Rogofsky had branched his business out, selling memorabilia from TV's Avengers, Dark Shadows and Man from U.N.C.L.E. as well as items from a 10,000 copy Playboy collection and old TV Guides, along with other related material. He reports that had been grossing over $100,000 per year from his business at that time – quite a nice living in any era.
Rogofsky's pet peeve seems kind of cutely dated these days: dealers who won't reply if purchasers send them self-addressed stamped envelopes: "I once met a prominent ring dealer in Chicago, and I was forced to shake his hand. I didn't want to, for the simple reason that when you write someone letters over the years, and you enclose a return envelope, they should at least respond. They didn't even once. I'd as soon not shake their hand, but was put in an awkward position by another dealer, so I had to. I figured anybody you send a SASE to should respond, even to say they don't have what you want. It seems like common courtesy to me."
And finally, to respond to the complaint that Rogofsky represented the worst kind of dealer, the dealer himself offers this rebuttal: "I know there have been a few people over the years that didn't care for me. Maybe it was because I was making exceptional money off of comic books. I would always tell them that if it wasn't for dealers turning up stuff and making a profit there wouldn't be so much great material offered to collectors over the years. "
CBM #36 offers an interview with Robert Bell, another longtime comics dealer whose ads were fixtures of the Silver and Bronze Ages. Conducted by Louis Forro in 1996, the interview gives readers a portrait of Bell that humanizes the man who invented the comic bag.
Like Rogofsky, Bell also got into the business of selling comics as a teenager, but his route was different from Rogofsky. Bell's parents owned a used book store in Queens that would sell old comic books for 3¢ each or 4 for 10¢. Bell's father in the late '50s "would buy them from distributors in bundles of 1200 and he would pay like a penny each and have to buy 100 of each number." Bell reports.
The comics would accumulate in the basement of the store until there were 10 to 20,000 old comics there. The word eventually got out about this amazing cache of old comic books: "One day somebody came into the shop and said they were looking for a particular issue of EC Comics ad that they were willing to pay 25¢ each instead of 3¢ each. I thought 'they were willing to pay a crazy price of 25¢ each… wow, this is unbelievable.' That was in the late '50s, early '60s. This guy and I spent half a day looking through all these books looking to find any ECs at a quarter each! Then more came in to buy comics. Another guy wanted old Disney comics and he was willing to pay 15¢ apiece! We thought they were nuts!"
When Bell's father retired in 1961, Bell opened his own shop at the age of 18, selling used paperbacks as well as comics and Playboys. Eventually he branched into mail order, and Bell's business really took off.
Bell and Rogofsky even would do business together on occasion: "Howard Rogofsky used to come into my shop all the time and he would have a want list with the amounts people would be willing to pay for certain issues. I would have a whole wall full of books, many on his list. He would just come in and say, 'I'll take that, and that, and that, and that.' If my price was $3 to $5, Howard could double his money when he sold them."
As for how he got started selling comics bags, Bell reports that he simply worked hard to build a better mousetrap: "I did invent the comic book bag. I remember one time Howard Rogofsky was visiting and asked me if I wanted to sell some comic bags. That's when I started selling the comic bags. It all started when I would put more expensive issues in shirt bags or whatever kind of plastic bag I could find. I would fold it over three times, tape it up, and put the comic book in it. It protected the book pretty well. So then I thought, 'Hey you know maybe I can find a bag that would fit a comic book.' I went to a manufacturer and asked how much it would cost to manufacture bags. He gave me a price and the rest is history."
Bell left the comics business in the mid-1980s, selling out to well-respected dealer Gary Dolgoff. At the time of the interview, Bell was earning a living as a real estate developer in Florida.
It's interesting to read the perspective of these dealers. It's obvious that their passions weren't in the comics themselves as much as it was in the pleasure that comics brought others. Neither Rogofsky nor Bell seems to have a great passion for comics as a creative artform; their passion for comics clearly is reflected in the steady income that comics brought them. In a way it's refreshing to read men discuss comics from such a direct perspective. While it's wonderful to think of comics as a great artform, it's also wonderful to reflect that the artform helped many people have steady incomes for many years. They may not have been fans, but Rogofsky and Bell still loved comics.
As a bonus, you can hear audio of the Robert Bell interview here!