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Penny Lane, You’re in My Heart

When we decided to start our business, we always made community service a part of our business model since we never viewed it as simply local outreach. Comics are a worldwide pop-culture experience. Our belief and hope is that our local activities can inspire others to service their own communities. Like the larger retailing companies in the world (GAP, Apple, The Ford Foundation), there’s no reason why we can’t use our industry strength to bring aid to everyone within walking distance of any comic store in the world.

I can guarantee that your local comic-book store does things on a daily basis for the good of your community that you know nothing about. While it’s a humble choice to keep it to themselves, I hold firm to the belief that my fellow retailers should shout to the rafters all of the extraordinary lengths they go to in order to help others. It enhances the worldview of us as something more than just booksellers.

We work with teachers at local high schools, helping them put comics into the curriculum for their special-education readers. We’ve even connected teachers from all of our local schools, literally giving them phone numbers and email addresses to introduce them to one another. Their communications led them to use similar ideas in all of their individual class work.

We help our local Community Colleges by tying “Kingdom Come” into their classes on mythology and “Midnight Nation” and “Watchmen” into Ethics classes. We give textbook discounts to students who use graphic novels as tools for their class projects. We give thousands of dollars worth of product to our local children’s hospitals, helping sick kids to revitalize themselves through the joy of comics.

A few years ago, I accompanied my wife to the Penny Lane Family Center Youth Foundation. As part of her work with the Gap, she makes sure her stores always commit to some sort of holiday community service every year. Since Gap has always led with the belief that community and world service enriches and enlightens their business, I felt we should adopt the same ideals on a micro-level.

The Penny Lane Foundation provides aid and education to orphans, foster children, homeless and at-risk youth and provides housing for children from six months to twenty-two years old. Since my wife was delivering boxes of clothing to the foundation that year, I put together boxes of t-shirts, action figures, graphic novels and comics to add to the mix.

The administrators were amazed and overwhelmed with the donations we delivered and I watched as one of the women rifled through the boxes, a confused look on her face.

“Do you think the kids will respond to the stuff I brought?” I asked.

She replied, “Oh, it’s wonderful! They’ll go crazy for the t-shirts and the action figures will be a big hit. I just don’t know what we’re going to do with all of these books!”

Dianne Kennedy is a hard working, dedicated woman. She’s been working with kids and transitional young adults for many years. She’s got a huge heart and skin as thick as concrete. You don’t do the kind of work she does and not develop some pretty strong defenses. I’d eventually find out that everyone at Penny Lane possesses that trait. In the circles they run in, it’s an absolute necessity.

“Put them in your library,” I said.

Dianne stared at me, smiling. “Don’t have one.”

“Well, where do the kids go to read?” I said, taken aback.

Dianne replied, “There’s a library they can get to by bus, but it’s a bit of a hike. Many of the kids don’t have the money or the desire to make that kind of trip. And the transitional kids? They’re too busy with their life classes for any other time commitments.”

“Transitional” refers to the young adults who’ve either spent their lives going through the foster care system or come directly from the streets seeking housing and job placement. They’re given a roof over their heads and the tools they need to learn to feed themselves and look for solid employment so they can survive on their own.

“Can’t they take their classes at one of the other facilities and have access to their libraries or reading rooms?” I asked.

Dianne looked at her colleagues. They all had a mighty good chuckle. “Honey, transitional gets barely anything from our organization. They’re lucky if they get a career magazine, much less a library.”

I took a moment to contemplate what she’d said. Penny Lane is sponsored by the Mark Taper Foundation. Its facilities reach all across the state, servicing children and young adults in need. How was it possible that no money was ever allocated for reading rooms? How was it that this wasn’t a priority? Yes, “life classes” were essential, but isn’t reading also essential? What about research? Internet access? What about a place to just decompress and relax?

In that moment, I represented the soul of my company. I thought about everything we had committed ourselves to. About how we were determined to not become just another comicbook store serving the needs of collectors. How we were going to reach further and connect with our county and state to be a vital resource for everyone and use comics and graphic novels as our common thread.

“We’re going to build you a reading room,” I said.

Dianne smirked. She’d heard this before. “Sure you are. Listen, we so very much appreciate all these gifts you brought. You don’t need to make any promises because it’s Christmas.”

“These gifts don’t mean much if you’ve nowhere to put them, do they?” I replied. I was being as impetuous as she was patient. “Books are meant to be taken off a shelf and read in a comfortable chair. Otherwise, they’re going to sit in that box and be forgotten. It’s not right that these kids don’t have a room of their own.”

“It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about money and politics,” she said.

“Dianne, you’ve got huge buildings all over this neighborhood. You’ve got housing facilities and condominiums. Surely, there’s a room somewhere that’s not being used? Doesn’t need to be much. Just enough to fit a bookshelf and a chair. A reading room needn’t be extravagant. It’s just what its name belies. A room. To read in.”
So it began.

At first, the ladies at Penny Lane were skeptical. They’d answer the phone when I called, but they didn’t take me seriously. There were no funds for anything at all, much less shelving and chairs. Frankly, I didn’t care. There was something important that needed doing.

As with everything in this world, there are hurdles. In this case, ours were bureaucracy and money. There wasn’t a nickel for a bookshelf or a penny for a chair.

“If you can come up with a little something, I’m sure we can find a room to fit this in. I have some ideas if you’re serious about moving forward,” Dianne said.

Time for a sale! We rallied the troops, advertised our campaign and put a can on the counter at checkout. Donate your loose change for the Penny Lane Reading Room! As usual, our customers were happy to be a part of our crusade and were generous with their wallets. In one day, we raised over $300 dollars. We matched that with $200 of our own.

I immediately set up a meeting at Dianne’s office. By God, they were going to take notice! I set down a check on her desk and declared, “What can we buy with this?”

However sad it is to say, money sets wheels in motion. That $500 was the foundation for all that was to come and if not for our stellar customers feeling as strongly about their community as we do, nothing would have ever come of this whole project.

A week went by until I heard from Dianne. “Great news!” she declared. “We found a small room we think would be perfect. I just need to go run it by my boss. If she approves it, we’re good to go!”

And so, a meeting was set with me, Dianne and Ingrid Hines, director of the entire transitional housing facility. Ingrid is bold, energetic and fiery. She commands respect and carries authority on her shoulders. When she talks, people listen. When she listens, things get done.

“Needs to be bigger!” Ingrid said. “If we’re going to do something like this, let’s do it right. A broom closet doesn’t work for me. We’ll find something better.”

I was thrilled. Finally, I had two very important women in my corner. I’d never worked so hard to try to give something away! This was really going to happen!

Three months passed.

Things go at a snail’s pace in large organizations like Penny Lane. I filled out forms. Forms got lost and had to be filled out again. I wrote proposals. I rewrote proposals. I showed up at the facility so much, the receptionist knew me by name.

“What now?” I’d ask Dianne. “Now we wait,” she’d reply.

A month passed.

Dianne called me. At this point, I spoke to Dianne more than my own friends and family. My staff knew her voice, and her phone number was most definitely saved in my phone.

“We found a room!” she said, enthusiastically. It’s much larger and we think it’s suitable for this project. It’s a garage, but we can convert it and make it secure for the kids. Come to my office. I have more people for you to meet.”

Another meeting. Derek Stevenson was introduced. Program Manager. About as tough and intelligent as it gets. The youth at the facility don’t mess around with him because he stays one step ahead. He makes sure to have his hands in every pie, if only to make sure everyone gets the piece they deserve.

Great meeting! Smiles and handshakes all around! Let’s get cracking!

Another month.

“Well, we can’t use the garage. The administrators don’t feel we can make it secure enough to use as a reading room,” Dianne informed me. “We’re going to have to go in another direction.”

“Let me guess,” I replied. “Another meeting?”

Into the offices we went. Ingrid sat behind her desk and declared, “I’ve got an idea. We’ve been planning something pretty big with a building across the street. This might be something we can work into those plans. I’m going to have to go to my superiors and see if we can’t rustle the trees and find some funds. If the funds are there, I’ll find them.”

Back at my store, I was dejected. I didn’t believe this would ever happen. All I wanted to do was give them a room to read in! It looked like it just wasn’t in the cards. And then, Harlan Ellison walked in.

Harlan strode to the glass counter, staring at the Silver and Golden age books inside. He spied an old EC horror comic and pointed at it.

“I think I’ve got a story in there!” He said. “Let me see that book.”

As I slid the book across the counter, I said, “Thanks for stopping into my store, Mr. Ellison. It’s a great honor to have you here.”

We chatted a bit. Here was one of the best science fiction/fantasy writers in the world, hanging out with me, the local comic book guy. Out of the blue, a question jumped from my mouth.

“What was the first piece of work you were ever paid for?”

“It was a short story for a boys magazine,” He replied. “I was a teenager and they paid me with two tickets to see the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Still the best paycheck I ever got.”

A light bulb went off in my head and it quickly turned into a roaring fire.

“Harlan, let me tell you about this project I’ve been working on for a local youth center…”

I’m suspect I may not live much longer if Harlan reads this column. He swore me to secrecy about this and here I am, revealing it in a public forum. Ready?

Harlan Ellison is a kind man. He cares about kids and their well-being. He came from the streets and believes they deserve every chance they can get. He’s got a big, soft heart and would rather shake your hand than get in the ring with you. Just don’t piss him off.

“We’re going to do a reading,” he announced, after hearing the saga of Penny Lane and the red tape of doom. “I’m going to read right here in the store. We’re going to charge for tickets and give every penny to your reading room project.”

Harlan was true to his word. We made a big show of it, advertising wherever we could. We sold gobs of tickets and received donations from folks who didn’t even attend. Harlan gave an absolutely jaw-dropping reading that shocked, amused and awed all in attendance.

In the front row sat Ingrid, Dianne and a young man from transitional housing. They saw our commitment to their facility. They saw our customers and how much they cared. They saw a famous, award-winning writer step up to the plate for them.

We got cash. We got checks. Harlan sold books from his own shelf and gave half the proceeds to the cause. We got an envelope filled with money and I gave it all to Dianne.

This was an unmitigated success of epic proportions.

“Ready when you are,” I said.

And they were.

A year later.

All of the money was added to the fund and the fund was doubled. The fund was tripled. The fund was quadrupled. The small little broom closet known as the Penny Lane Reading Room had become part of a much bigger project. A new wing of an entire building. Built by construction workers with blueprints, cranes, bulldozers, hammers and two-by-fours. A building!

When the wing was finished, Derek invited me over. It was a huge, beautiful room. Air conditioning, bathroom, phone lines. New and freshly constructed.

He handed me a key, told me to do whatever I’d like to design and build the room itself and let me know that we had absolutely no money left to do it. Sweet!

Six months passed.

I spent many days plotting and planning in that building. I parked on dangerous streets and got quite a few dark looks from the locals as I ran up and down those staircases. But the residents got to know who I was. They knew I was doing something for their neighborhood and waved hello when I passed. The children poked their heads in and giggled at the funny man on his hands and knees, trying to fix a broken outlet. This feared area of our city was filled with good people and hard-working families. Sure, there were shady characters, looking out only for themselves. But perhaps that’s because no one’s ever given them anything to hold onto, only taken things from them day after day.

We donated our own fixtures. Our customers donated their own bookshelves. We poured in our own comic books and graphic novels. Someone from Gap donated a brand new, unused couch.

I approached Steve Rotterdam at DC Comics, Jonathan Quesenberry at Dark Horse, Chris Ryall at IDW and Filip Sablik at Top Cow. All of these incredibly kind men donated boxes of brand new trade paperbacks and sponsored their own shelves.

And then came Nydia Barakat, Director of Development. A consummate professional and caring mother-figure. She helped me get high-speed Internet installed. Got me another couch, a big-screen TV for the Playstation my wife and I donated, a coffee table and computer desks. She convinced Brian in the IT Department to put in three brand new computer towers and monitors. She threw Carlos and Lucio my way, who provided me ladders and tools and expert handywork.

She spearheaded the search for an administrator to watch over the room and care for it like a true librarian and found another Brian. Brian, who’s passionate about comics and secretly plays in Magic tournaments! She created a section for the younger children and brought in children’s books and games. She was the sprinter at the end of the relay and boy, did she run fast!

Finally, we had an open house for the first-ever Penny Lane Resource Room.

Two years and two months, almost to the day.

The kids, the residents and the transitional young adults finally got a place to read, to learn, to play, to sit and find some time to be with their friends and family or to just be left alone with their own imaginations.

It was a long road to accomplish this and not without tolls taken. I spent countless hours outside my business, essentially working two jobs at once. One to pay the mortgage and keep our store afloat and another to satisfy my spiritual need to give of myself to others. A need for my business to be more than just a store.

Taking stock of this journey, I truly believe my business is more successful for having gone on it. As retailers, we have a responsibility not just to our customers, but to the community around us who desperately want to be a part of what we get to experience every day. We take for granted the joy we get from the books that surround us and forget that there are people outside our doors who would do anything to catch just a glimpse.

If we sit idly by and expect the world to come to us, we’ll wind up wondering why our aisles are empty, why the register is silent, why our children can’t read and why the needy have no way to learn.

I encourage you all to go into your local comic-book store and ask some questions. Ask what they’ve been doing for their community. Get to know how important it is to them that they spend their days doing business, but also, doing good. Ask them if they’re doing anything special right now and ask them if you can be a part of it.

To my fellow retailers who’ve gone on the same journey we have, I commend you! To those who have the desire, but not the strength or motivation, I encourage you to take a moment to look at your bookshelves. Imagine them empty. Imagine believing it will always be that way and no reason to think any different.

There are youth centers, children’s hospitals, orphanages, schools and libraries all around you. Look for them. Stop in and say hello. Bring a gift or two and have a look around. I guarantee there are some children there, hungry for books. Starving for stories. Aching for someone to build a shelf and fill it up.

Fill it for them. Fill it to bursting. Give them something they never dreamed they’d have. Give them something to reach for.

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