Tom Marcone wasn't able to leap tall buildings or run faster than a speeding bullet, but he definitely had the talent for creating a successful business. Since starting Bailey's Comics in Lindenhurst in 1988, he's turned the store into a neighborhood mainstay with a loyal multigenerational customer base.
"I like to tell people I got into the business because I got fired from one too many corporate jobs. At the time I bought the store, I was down to my last $5,000 and comics were getting hot," says Marcone, of St. James. Though never a comic book nerd, Marcone says he was a fan who grew up on superheroes, including his DC Comics favorite, The Atom.
Bailey's is among the oldest of about 20 comic book retailers in Nassau and Suffolk, and Marcone is friendly with several of his competitors, including the owners of Fourth World Comics in Smithtown and Cosmic Comics & Books in Oceanside. For the nearly three decades he has owned Bailey's, Marcone has seen comic books skyrocket in popularity, especially with the proliferation of superheroes movies like the current "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and numerous television series. It hardly seems the time to say goodbye to the store he's built, but come June 30, Marcone plans to retire.
"I own the building and I had an offer on it and it was just time," Marcone says. "I never thought I was going to retire. I'm 69 and I never even started collecting Social Security."
The business, he says, will be left in more than capable hands. The new owner is Marcone's boy wonder, Trung Nguyen, who started working at Bailey's 24 years ago when he was 16. Nguyen remembers Bailey's as his favorite haunt when his family moved to Lindenhurst from Amityville. "I would buy comics and hang out at the store. One day Tom said he needed help and so I helped, and that's how it happened," says Nguyen, who lives in West Babylon.
On June 3, Bailey's will open at a new location a bit north of its current space on Wellwood Avenue. (The old store will remain open until June 30.) Since the new place will be about one-third the size of the present shop, Nguyen plans to refocus the business, carrying fewer toys and more comic books. But he'll continue to practice the most important lesson he learned from Marcone: getting to know the customers.
Comic book beginnings
Marcone grew up in Forest Hills and was never a comic book fanatic, but he always enjoyed reading them as a youngster. "My first job was in a stationery store picking up newspapers five nights a week in Forest Hills," he says. "While I was waiting around, I could read all the comics that I wanted."
Since then, comic story lines have gotten darker and more complex, says Marcone, who cites "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Watchmen" series as some of his recent favorites. Comics, he says, are more than just entertainment: "They get kids to read and opens their imaginations."
Still, he never thought he'd end up selling comics. After a stint in the Army in the 1960s, he earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management at New York City College of Technology. He and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 40 years and have no children. "I like to tell people I don't share my toys well," Marcone says.
Throughout the 1970s and most of the '80s he toiled at several jobs in the restaurant industry. But in all that time, Marcone realized he wasn't suited to working for others. "When you work for a corporation, you're structured," Marcone says. "If someone got rude to one of the waitresses, I wouldn't tolerate it. And in the restaurant business you have to tolerate everything."
Equally unappealing were the long hours and low pay. Marcone says he knew he was never going to have enough money to open his own restaurant, "so I had to do something."
That's when the shop that would become Bailey's beckoned. Marcone's early work experience included running some greeting card stores that also sold comics. The timing for the Lindenhurst store was also right, he says, as the comic book market went from being a newsstand-driven arena to a direct market where you could buy comics wholesale at a better discount.
But the real draw for Marcone was that independence. "You're your own boss and that appealed to me," he says.
Over the years, Marcone expanded the business to include graphic novels, superhero figurines, even sci-fi paraphernalia from "Star Wars."
Every once in a while, when he's purchased comics from either collectors or their families, he's come across a few valuable items. "A couple of times we sold "The Hulk" 181 [issue] which was the first appearance of Wolverine, and it always goes for $1,000," he says. "That's nothing compared to what other dealers do." That collector's issue can sell for thousands more, depending on the condition.
Marcone says he has always tried to keep pricing reasonable, even for top items like that rare Hulk issue. The reason, he jokes: "I'm cheap."
One of Marcone's most successful business principles has been getting to know his customers and their preferences. As new shipments of comics arrive each Wednesday, Marcone will pull out issues that his regulars might ask for and store them in a box for them to pick up at their convenience.
"Even if you don't come in for two months, he's got the comics ready for you," says customer Peter Zoeller, 29, of West Babylon. "A buddy of mine went away to school in Binghamton and Tom used to ship them up to him."
The comic book store has developed its own fans. "I like the people and I like the selection," says patron Patrick McKeon, 56, of Babylon. "If they know you read a particular genre or character, they'll say 'I think you'll be interested in this.' "
For Marcone, one of his real pleasures of running Bailey's has been observing the layers of generations coming to the store. "People we had from the very beginning are bringing their kids in, and even along the line, we're getting grandkids in," he says.
Attracting new blood is also evident among the staff at Bailey's. In addition to Nguyen, another of Marcone's employees is Aidan Mohan, 16, of Lindenhurst. Mohan, who was nicknamed "Skates" because he'd always show up at the store on Rollerblades, has worked at the store on weekends for the past three years. Marcone dismisses the idea that he's served as a mentor, but Mohan disagrees.
"One of Tom's favorite sayings is 'You never learn this in a business class,' " Mohan says. "He's taught me a lot of common sense applications. If you buy 400 comics from somebody, you're not just getting the comics, you're getting the boxes they come in, too. So what can you do with the cardboard? How are you going to prepare them? Are you just going to throw them out? He's a very good businessman."
Knowing and appreciating the appeal of comic books has also been a Bailey's trademark. "It's the combination of story lines, art and fantasy. Comics takes you to places you wouldn't think about," Marcone says.
Nguyen agrees: "Comics are like soap operas for guys," he says. "There's an ongoing story and you need characters that everyone can relate to."
During Marcone's last month in business, Bailey's will operate at the two locations. Fresh shipments of comic books will be sold from the new store, while the old location will be used for liquidating as much of the current inventory as possible.
Nguyen also hopes to get well-known cartoonists to make personal appearances at the new store as part of his vision to make it more comic book-centric.
As for Marcone, he says he has no idea what he'll do once the shop closes. "I'm going to miss getting up and having someplace to go."
For the month of June, Baileyas Comics will operate from two locations. The new store will have the latest comics. The current space will be liquidating inventory.
CURRENT ADDRESS (through June 30)
237 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
NEW LOCATION (opening June 3)
282 N. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst