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May 22, 2008

Ben Schwartz On Rory Root's Passing

I read, with great sadness, of the passing of Rory Root on The Comics Reporter yesterday.

I've known Rory since he worked at Best of Two Worlds up on Telegraph Avenue when my family first moved to Berkeley in 1983 and I was still in high school. There were two stores up there at the time, but from the beginning I was more drawn to Rory's style of running a comics shop. It was all over the place. Books to the ceiling, in every conceivable space -- not a mess, just fairly bursting with comics: that is, very Rory. His competitors a few doors down were always what you think of when you hear the word "retailer" -- neat, clean, professional. It's a business-y sounding word, and I don't think of business when I think of Rory. As has been stated in many eulogies for him, Rory was more an enthusiast of comics themselves. I always got the feeling he got into selling comics just to be around comics. Selling them paid the bills so he could read them.

I started out buying superhero comics from him in 1983, and most recently bought Little Lulus. In recent years it was mostly indie stuff and strip reprints -- along with not a little chiding from Rory for being something of "snob" when I blew off an Alex Ross book he liked. I'm still not backing down on it, but that's what was fun about him, he had that big vision of the medium, like when a Martin Scorsese surprises you by loving a John Agar movie or Bob Dylan writes about catching a Frank Sinatra, Jr. show at the Rainbow Room and loving it. You think, "whaaaaaaaaat?" and then realize they mean it. It's fun to see people with that much passion for a medium.

imageRory just liked the whole idea of comics. What is so great about his life's work, Comic Relief, is that no matter what I was into, I could always find it there, with no better advisor/historian on where to start than R. Root himself (I owe him on Schulz, Barks, McManus, Crane, and many others). From superhero to duck comics to 'zines to indies to Eightball #1 and Optic Nerve mini-comics and that ultra-secret Schulz blasphemy You're Short, Bald, and Ugly Charlie Brown!) and HAW! and my Richard Sala-designed Comic Relief store t-shirt to a thousand other in-store fan's Must Have moments -- Comic Relief is that place for me. Even his name, Rory Root, sounds like something out of a Crumb comic, like the guy Flakey Foont bought his comics from.

Rory worked lots with the Berkeley public libraries to integrate comics into their definition of what a book is. He was also an expert to the experts. I remember the time I picked up an Overstreet Guide, only to find a picture of Rory in it wearing a suit as a member of an advisory committee. I called a friend. "Have you seen this?" "I know," said my friend, "I did a double-take, too." We had never seen Rory in a suit. T-shirt, suspenders, his trademark hat, the giant coffee mug -- yes, a thousand times. A suit? I guess you get dressed up for the Overstreet Guide.

I used to own about ten long boxes of comics. When I decided to sell off most of the books I collected from grade school through high school, I brought them to Rory. Comics and record collectors will understand this, but sometimes when you part with stuff you had a passion for, you want to sell it to someone who feels the same way. I sold lots of it to Rory, knowing he'd find a fan for it. What he and former Comic Relief staffer Carson Hall didn't buy, I knew I didn't want to take over to their competitors. Rory suggested I take the comics over to Oakland Children's Hospital, which is where they went. Over the years, I sometimes come across one of those old comics in the bins at Comic Relief. That was another thing I like about CR, it always felt like a book never went out of print there. You can still walk into the store and find 1980s Eclipse books on the racks (will Rory ever sell out of the Eclipse Krazy & Ignatz reprints?) or that one-off Jiggs is Back color reprint collection? When Celtic Press, or whatever they were called, went under -- Rory jumped to buy up the stock on that one. I upgraded mine immediately, from one stained with sticker-glue to a perfect copy, a good decade after it came out. What other store owner thought like that?

I can say, from experience, that despite the love, Rory was indeed a businessman. I had, or should say still have, ten Marvel flicker gumball machine rings from the 1960s. The reason I still have them is that when I brought them into Rory for trade, he went over them with such a fine eye, picking out every minute deficiency, you'd have thought I accidentally stumbled into the diamond district of Manhattan in Marathon Man. The offer came in so low I passed and took them home. Anyway, whenever I see those rings I think of Rory peering over them like he was buying Iron Man merch for the Queen of England and how embarrassed he'd be to show her mine. Yeah, I'm still a little huffy about that one. They're great rings. He wasn't always right, that's all I'll say.

I can fairly trace all my changing interests in comics through his store. I don't think it's any coincidence that when I got down here to LA, I immediately drifted toward Meltdown -- a store that carries on the Comic Relief spirit nicely (visit Meltblog and its tribute to Rory, and you'll see why).

At some point, after I published an essay in the Carl Barks Library I think, Rory deemed me a VIP and gave me a VIP discount card. Even though I live in LA, it's still in my wallet every day. I don't know why, it just is, and it's not going anywhere. Maybe it's because Comic Relief remains the one place on Earth I was ever thought a VIP, and only because I love comics.

So long, pal.
posted 7:00 pm PST | Permalink

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