Old Downtown Detroit
Big buildings and a big bridge were very much like a pint-sized NYC.
Now, I was a kid who’s life resonated from the architecture of the late-‘20s through the early 1960s. Detroit was a very old city and I was living through numerous last-gasps. I’d been downtown a couple of times as a toddler for Hudson’s Department Store’s Christmas display but on my own was a new thing.
Kind of illicit.
Downtown and my mother has no idea of where I was.
Like I like: being where I wasn’t supposed to be.
Just my fetish.
I should have been a jewel-thief, but I have no interest in stealing.
I’d tell you many stories about being where I wasn’t supposed to be, but I think this book is about what I saw and not so much my transgressions. But, you have to understand that I like investigating. I am a Scorpio and we are the investigators of the Zodiac. Like Aquarius, we love to finish the crossword puzzle. Not satisfied until we have the answer, and finished the puzzle.
SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES crossword-proud.
Or, in the words of Nick Charles “The killer is…”
So, being young and knowing that my mother had no idea what I was doing, I took the bus or biked into the heart of the great city where things looked like they had three or four decades before. Downtown Detroit was the promise of what New York City would be. Big, magnificent old buildings, things which had gone on before my birth, things I’d missed, and things to come.
If you took the 6 Mile bus to Woodward (which boasts the first paved mile in America,) you would get onto the forty-five minute bus ride into downtown.
I’m on a paper mission here.
“Good Lord! Why am I so intent on buying old paper?”
Woodward was very old and more and more, I was liking the old. Blocks passed on the six lane avenue bus in a growingly familiar way. The ancient laundry with the Polar bear painted on the window was the halfway mark. Later, when I was working at Tom Aultshular’s bookstore in Hamtramick, I realized that it was just a cold swipe from a SATURDAY EVENING POST cover published around 1926.
The Woodward bus was my time machine. Everything old was downtown, and my mother didn’t know I was there. Pop was working and expected her to do a better job.
Downtown seemed to have everything.
Big, old buildings with ancient advertisements painted on their sides, with old-fashioned lettering, for companies long out of business.
Never heard of those.
They never advertise on TV.
And, as the bus casually rolled down Woodward the clientele became more progressively Black, eventually my sole White face shining trying to be unobserved.
First stop for me was about three-quarters of a mile from the heart of the city, and very well planned.
Now, an aside, and I’ve won lots of bar bets on this one….
“What major city lies just south of Detroit?”
“Toledo,” is usually the first answer.
“Buy me a beer.
The only point where Canada dips below America. And I’ll write about that city in greater detail later.
First stop, a place I can’t remember the name of. Less deals to be had there, in their enormous once-a-Woolworth’s store. But, they had lots of stuff at slightly higher prices than down the downtown Detroit block. Still, a good place to start, and they even had porn displayed under glass. Rather than going into my youthful loins, we’ll move down the next few blocks.
The Silver Shack Bookstore.
There were a lot of old man smells and old paper smells there. On the second story of the building in the middle of a downtown block, The Silver Shack Paper Palace resided. Good Lord, a business on a second floor? Made me rethink everything I knew at the time.
Silver Shack was much larger than Ron’s Books down-the-street. Straight ahead of the door were always three stacks of comics. The same comics I’d seen for months, years. Coverless Richie Rich, dog-eared TREASURE CHEST, and the twelfth-editions of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED. But, the old coot that ran the place knew his business. He’d salt the piles so you’d have to go through every book to find a gem. Generally, at Silver Shack, I’d peel through them at high speed, more often than not, not even turning up fool’s-gold. And out the door again.
Nothing here. Move along.
I got to know the old guy a little better as time progressed. The chaos of the stacks in the place were always a bone of contention with me. Order please, and mysteries unraveled please. So, finally I asked if I could clean up behind the massive-amounts-of-old-paper counter. He agreed and I found AVENGERS #2-4 stuffed between old newspapers in the near-heart of downtown Detroit, in near mint condition, and behind the counter.
Another place I wasn’t supposed to be yet had wormed my way into.
Ditto a couple of pulps with Adam Link stories contained there-in. Word was that there was a back-room full of pulps but I never got to see them.
“Want me to clean up the back room, too?”
“Naw, I gotta keep an eye on you kid, and I’m not getting up out of my chair for that.”
Ass rooted in a chair from thirty years before and a very natural combination.
Wadda ya gonna do?
Didn’t matter, I got those AVENGERS in near-mint condition and a couple of pulps in the deal.
First robot with human emotions (See AMAZING STORIES if you can get the old guy to let you into the back room.).
And, when called on to do a book report at Redford High School, I acted like a slacker and a scholar in the same heartbeat.
I got the Adam Link author, Otto Binder’s address from Jerry Bails, and had sent him a couple of letters which I prayed had amused him. He answered and I incorporated the text of his letters in my book report.
Turned the paper in and was shocked that I was called upon to read it to aloud in front of the crowd.
Not only had I read the work, I’d contacted the creator and had discourse with him.
Downtown Detroit: The pattern early set, every step, every baby step of my escape.
You can do anything you want, unless you have a frantic mother on your tail, ready to put you on the chain gang again. Not so much in those days. I was in downtown Detroit and my frantic mother didn’t have a clue.
Deeper into downtown was Ron’s Bookstore, about the size of a bedroom. Ron was kind of a Leo Gorcey type: Dark hair slicked back, dimpled chin, and acting like he was the Chief of the gang. I watched him berate his clerks, over and over. Over men not much lesser than himself.
The secret of his success was the master plan every comic counter wants to know: If it’s Marvel, and if it’s three years old, the price is fifteen cents, if it is four years, it is twenty cents, and all of the really old issues are twenty-five cents. The conditions of the books were never so hot and the new price was pencilled over in Ron’s hand in grease pencil. Still, it was the place of the possible Holy Grail and not quite my last stop in Downtown Detroit.
Downtown Detroit was full of sights for a kid to wander around in and see, from old bookstores, to magic-trick shops, to last-gasp Burlesque clubs. I knew where most of them were because I like to investigate, and the pictures of the featured strippers in the BQ club windows of these old places….well, I promised not to talk about my young loins. Locked out, yet wanted to be into the place where my young, White ass was not supposed to be.
Locked out, yet wanted to be into the place where my young, White ass was not supposed to be..
Even without the sex angle, Detroit brimmed with new experience. Angry Black people, old buildings, and the loot of the ages for the picking if you had the change, no meat coolers in sight.
“What did you do today?” Mom asked, as I dragged my young White ass in the back door at sunset, bag in hand.
“Looked for Comics,” was the cryptic answer.
She probably knew what I was up to, and worse, expected her child to roam far away from home in his pursuit of Comics in the place I wasn’t supposed to be.
“That’s my boy. Seems to have it in him”