was originally published in the October 2002 issue of Comics & Games Retailer
magazine, published by Krause Publications.)
I grew up in Moraga, California, a small town suburb about 20 miles east of San Francisco. When my parents bought their home there in late 1956, the population consisted of more cows than people. By the time I was 12 in 1968, Moraga had grown to a community of more than 10,000 as the livestock ranches gave way to the steady building of new housing developments.
I had two favorite places to hang out in old Moraga. The first was Charles' Drug Store, an old-time place where the lab-coated Charles got to know everyone in town as he doled out prescriptions. In the late '50s, Charles' shop featured a soda fountain that was converted to a cosmetic counter by about 1963.
Charles decorated his store with the taxidermy of big game heads like bison, elk, gazelle and a rhino. Scared the heck out of me, to be honest. He only tolerated us kids hanging around his store because, as the only pharmacist in town, Charles knew our parents would have to spend money with him. He was friendly enough, I suppose, but only when there were adults present. If just kids were in his store, he'd stare, scowl and try to scoot us along. I often imagined if I wasn't polite enough in his store, I'd wind up like the poor gazelle on his wall. If it wasn't for the steady arrival of new comics every Tuesday and Thursday, there's no way Charles would have ever seen me. As it was, the comics made Charles Drug Store my second favorite place to hang out. By about 1973, the comic spinner racks were replaced by pantyhose spinners, and soon after, Charles closed the store and retired.
Then there was Rheem Valley Billiards, my favorite place to visit. Those in the know called it "Ma and Len's Place" or simply "The Pool Hall." The proprietors, Aileen ('Ma') and Leonard Porter, operated a bright, fun business that ran counter to the stereotypical 'there's trouble right here in River City' kind of pool hall. I didn't play pool much at all, but I was one of the best pinball players in town, so much so that other kids often paid me to play and win for them.
The Pool Hall became a second home for many, a place to belong comfortably and a place to leave the rest of the world behind. A strictly enforced code of conduct was in place, but more, there was camaraderie. Not only were the pinball games a fun challenge, not only was the candy and soda counter well stocked, but Ma and Len's was the only place that had something very special: Ma and Len.
Ma and Len's became my Fortress of Solitude in the late '60s. It was a place of escape and solace, a place where everyone knew and accepted everyone else, a place where new visitors were warmly welcomed into the pool hall family. Ma was small and feisty, protective and nurturing, funny and cute. Len was not a big man, but he cut an imposing presence. He wasn't chatty, but what he said always spoke volumes. Also important to me was that both of them were good listeners. I always knew that they cared for me, not just as a regular customer, but as a member of their extended family.
Nearly 35 years after first meeting them, I still feel their impact on me. Len passed away a few years ago after a brave fight against cancer. Ma continues to be a part of my family, well into her retirement, as she stays in touch with many of those she first met during her Rheem Valley Billiards' tenure.
I've tried to honor what I learned from the Porters in how I deal with my customers at Flying Colors. I'm reminded of Ma and Len every time my customers share a part of their lives with me, including marriages, births and yes, even deaths of loved ones. I believe our stores are more than just places for product and we are more than mere peddlers. It takes a lot to steer a business to profitability and keep it there. There's a daily set of challenges that all have effects on the bottom line. But in our field, very few of us made the choice to open our stores because there was some great pot of gold awaiting us. It's not always about money because we love what we do.
Mercenaries measure success in business strictly by profits, but it's something more--- something deeper and nearly missionary--- that helps to make our stores special. I believe an important part of our retailing success is how we integrate our businesses into the fabric of our communities and how we treat those with whom we come into contact, especially our customers. Our field is uncommon in that many come to us looking for escape and solace along with their bags of entertainment. Finally, I hope we can strive to make a positive impact in our stores by showering everyone we meet with honesty, good humor, respect and kindness.
"From what we get, we can make a living. What we give, however, makes a life."
(Joe and Libby Field are trying to carry on the Ma and Len Porter tradition at Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, 2980 Treat Blvd, Concord CA 94518. E-mail is joe@FlyingColorsComics.com.)