Monday, December 11, 2017

Family-run online collectibles business adds a Tampa storefront, Culture & Thrills


A new box of vintage movie magazines has arrived, one of 11 coming from a seller in Louisiana. • Inside is Joan Crawford. • Tampa collector David T. Alexander and his son Tyler savor the image, recognizing the technique of illustrator Rolf Armstrong. Then Alexander thumbs through a 1914 issue of the weekly Moving Picture World, pointing out photos of old theaters, before digging in the box for more. • "A collector is like a narcotics abuser," said Alexander, 68, whose hunger for comic books, magazines, pulp fiction, movie and sports memorabilia knows few limits. "You can't wait for the next box."

Alexander and his family trade in a wide array of mostly paper collectibles, selling hundreds of items a week over a website. They've kept a warehouse in the Carrollwood area for more than a decade. And last month, they opened Culture & Thrills Collectibles Gallery at 5205 N Florida Ave. in Old Seminole Heights.

The new space cleared congestion at the two-story, 4,500-square-foot warehouse, packed floor to ceiling with shelves and boxes of comics, magazines, fanzines, books, movie stills, sports photos, posters and programs.

Codes correspond to a computerized inventory of 118,000 articles catalogued online. Hundreds of thousands of collected items have not yet been listed.

Alexander had another reason for opening the store: He wanted a place to meet people who might have something to sell.

"You don't ever get enough."

• • •

The website offers a sense of his priorities, along with photos and descriptions of the items for sale.

Comics: Golden Age (7,445 items), Silver Age (9,122), Bronze Age to present (3,898). There are underground comics (1,191), comic posters (101), and books of comics (927).

Pulp magazines (4,389). Pulp memorabilia (988).

Men's adventure magazines (2,073).

Example: The first published issue of Man's Life, from 1952, with an aviator on the cover lighting up a smoke amid the words, "I Bombed the Kremlin" and articles inside on Ty Cobb, heroin and stock car auto racing. It's offered for $150.

Women's interest (35 items).

Example: The first published issue, from 1956, of Your Hairdo magazine, $45.

Alexander grants that collecting is a male-dominated hobby. He sells action figures, not dolls.

"All of this stuff has violent undertones," he said. "It's prone to be of interest to males."

Best illustrated by eyeball injury comics.

"Some people collect only injury-to-the eye comics," said son Tyler, 33, who spends most of his days running the new store while his father expands the collection.

Women do seem to buy posters, Alexander said.

The scarcest are vintage movie posters. Originally, they were not intended for mass distribution. In the old days, he said, posters traveled from one theater to the next, secured by deposits and reused as films hit new towns.

There's one, priced at $1,500, for the 1926 silent film The Flying Ace, advertising "an all-colored cast."

It leads Alexander into a discussion of Norman Studios, founded in 1920 Jacksonville, among the first in the nation to portray African-Americans in nonstereotypical roles.

His mind is filled with fiction and trivia but also hard facts.

Around the comic books, he talks about superheroes fighting Nazis during World War II. He mourns the comics squandered to war-era paper recycling and the creativity suppressed when, under the shadow of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the industry was forced to self-censor.

The comic books are typically displayed in clear sleeves with cardboard backing. Heavier packages are reserved for higher-end comics graded on a 10-point scale by third-party companies.

For instance, Wonder Woman Vol. 1, No. 146, "War of the Underwater Giants," wears the grade 9.6, showing how well time has treated her since 1964. The price tag: $795.

Alexander has sold comics for much more, including, he says, a copy of the first Captain America for $358,000. His collection includes the first appearances of Spider-Man and Thor. He puts a value of nearly $200,000 on his copy of Detective Comics No. 33. It includes the origin of Batman.

• • •

People ask if he has a private collection. Only his kids, he jokes. Of course, it's pretty much all his. He spends more time buying than selling.

The kids, ranging in age from 20 to 33, help flesh out a staff of 12. Three of the four work for the family business, as does Alexander's wife, Debbie. A daughter who studied film production escaped the creeping fog of pop culture at home, only to be hired by Universal Studios.

Son Tyler, who taught English for a while in Germany, returned in 2010 to step into a key role. He's redesigning the website and runs the store. He takes orders and emails the warehouse.

He shares his father's enthusiasm for vintage publications.

Lately, Tyler has been caught up researching movie stars, but his interests bounce around.

"We'll get a load of horror comics in, and I'll be obsessed with that," he said.

Still, the elder Alexander wishes he could transfer a lifetime of obscure detail from his brain to Tyler's.

What would he seek to preserve?

Well, for instance, 42 years ago, Marvel Comics did a cross-promotion with the National Football League, producing a souvenir program that contained illustrations of superheroes posing as football stars.

That's doubly special: a plum for sports collectors but also for comics collectors.

"I can't tell him every little thing," Alexander said. "There are details I'll never be able to share."

He didn't know everything in the beginning, either.

His obsession began when he was a boy growing up in Tampa, the son of a car-dealing, stamp-collecting father and a mother who taught at Hillsborough High, his alma mater.

He used to tear the covers off comic books and tack them to his bedroom walls.

He has spent his life making it up to them.

• • •

In some ways, his is a collection of discarded paper and ink, left behind by a digital world. In others, it's a study of history.

"I've got a library that's unlike any other library in the country when you get down to it," he mused.

The old movie magazines, and their stories, bear witness to films long since destroyed. The old sports programs preserve legends large and small.

Paper tells secrets. Reading habits. Tastes.

"When you see an original collection, it's fabulous," he said. "You can see the guy's whole life."

Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

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