The Gift

The season is upon us.  It has arrived, and regardless of your faith, your beliefs, your worldview, there is no escaping the yuletide.  It is all around us, enveloping the streets and stores and online digital marketplaces like an omnipresent universal force, inexorable and all-consuming.  For many, Christmastime is stressful, tragic, depressing.  For others, it is joyful, energizing, the apogee of the calendar year.  And, perhaps for most of us, it is somewhere in between–a little of this, a little of that–some years tilting more toward the negative, other years more toward the positive.


For me, as I wrote last year, this time of the year will forevermore be bittersweet, and it will never, can never, be the same.  However, there are things I can do, memories I can cherish, perspectives I can take that contribute to making the yuletide a special season still and after all.  Be it watching a classic movie, or enjoying the company of family and lifelong friends, or remembering things, little things, that stay with me through the years, there is no shortage of material to work with.


This post is about a memory.

And a gift.


I’ve written many times on here about my love of comic books, how I was introduced to them at a young age, and formed a lifelong friendship with these pictorial tales of wonder.  I’ve also written about some of the various comics shops in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, where I grew up.  And the one that stands out from the pack is, without question, Empire Comics.


Empire Comics was already a Rochester niche phenom by the mid-1980s, when I started going.  It didn’t take me long to see why.  Back then, in the ancient days before the internet, it was the comic book shop where collectors went if they wanted to buy “back issues”–those gems from yesteryear that seemed always to accrue in value exponentially each year.  If you weren’t wealthy, you had to pick your spots, and, for me, often, that meant selecting back issues that were ragged.  Maybe a water stain, a spine roll, a missing staple–maybe all three.  The fact was, the mint-condition issues were usually priced too high, so I needed to dig down, beneath the surface, and appreciate the singular aesthetic nuances of issues with plenty of wear and tear.


By the winter of 1987, Jim, the proprietor of Empire Comics, knew this about me.  I’d been a regular visitor and shopper to his store on the city’s south side for two and a half years by that point.  He also knew that, within a week of Christmas, the previous two years, I came into his shop with my mother to select a special “Christmas back issue”–the sort of issue I usually wouldn’t be able to afford the other eleven months out of the year.  (Okay, so my mother’s the one who actually paid for it, if you want to get technical!)  How do I know Jim knew about this developing Christmastime tradition within my family?  Because of what happened in late December 1987 . . .


We arrived midmorning, four days before Christmas.  It was a Monday; I remember that.  It was sunny, a rarity in western New York in December, the cloudiest month of the year.  Entering the shop, the bell Jim had placed atop the door tinkled, a welcoming sound I always looked forward to.  The store was free of other customers–validating my mother’s prediction.  “Monday morning, no one’ll be there,” she said.  She was right.  She often was.

As we stepped inside, Jim shouted my mother’s name–“Linda!”–as was his custom.  Though I was the collector, it was my mother he usually talked to.  I was busy flipping through the merchandise, and my mother, outgoing to her core, did not choose to simply stand there while I browsed.  So she and Jim had become friends.

This time, though, after calling her name, Jim beckoned for me to join him by the register.  It sat atop a glass display case housing Empire Comics’ most prized back issues–rare jewels from the 1940s and 1950s, so far removed from my price range, they might as well have been for sale on Mars.  That didn’t stop me from peering inside, though.  Looking through the glass was like looking into a realm of pure possibility.  It always made me think of the Gold Rushers from the middle of the 19th century.  Buried treasure.  Items so rare as to be precious.


Someday, I’d think, in awe.  Someday . . .

But that day, that sunny December day, like a sleight-of-hand magician, Jim pulled out a comic from underneath the register and set it atop the display case.  It was a worn copy of Fantastic Four number 20, originally published in November 1963 and featuring the first appearance of the supervillain The Molecule Man.  It was my ambition to own every back issue of the FF, as fans called them.  I was getting closer and closer by the month, but number 20 was one that had alluded me.  Jim knew that, too.


“Take it,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was the only thing I could think of.

“It’s yours, free of charge.  A gift.”  He spread his arms and smiled.  A few feet away, I saw my mother giving him the side eye.  Sure, he was a nice guy and sure, he’d become something of a friend.  But who ever heard of a shopkeeper giving away his merchandise?  While the issue before me was beat up–heavily creased with a slight mouse chew ripped out of the top right corner–it still likely garnered a $15 or $20 price tag (far higher today; if you’re looking for a strong “stock,” you can’t go wrong with old comics!).

“I got a bunch of ’em in the shop right now, and I know it’s one you need,” he said.  “So, take it.  On me.”

We talked for a while, my mother joining in.  It didn’t take long to see Jim was serious.  He was giving me a $20 comic book.

What was I to do?  Refuse the gift?

I took it.  I still have it to this day.


When I think of all this now, it strikes me as remarkably old-fashioned.  So 20th-century.  Almost like something you’d discover in a time capsule.  The fact it feels that way at all, however, is a warning, a signpost up ahead, if you will, telling us as a society to take a breath and slow down for a moment.


We live in an age that is so far removed from 1987 technologically, the distance ought to be measured in eons, not decades.  In the ’80s, we had landlines, the postal service, VHS tapes (video stores!).  Newspapers and the nightly news were still the media most people used to digest their information.  Even fax machines did not become widely used until late in the decade.  If you went to an office, you did your work on a typewriter, and a personal computer was a Commodore 64.  And smartphones?  Social media?  WordPress?  All the accoutrements that so monopolize daily life on the precipice of 2020?  These existed only in the pages of science fiction.  To a 21st-century native, the 1980s and the Mesozoic era are, no doubt, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.


Today we can buy literally anything we want, no matter how obscure, on a device we carry with us wherever we go.  We can look up information anytime, anywhere.  We can watch movies while we walk, find Babe Ruth’s 1929 batting average in ten seconds flat, interact digitally with people all over the world, any time of day or night.  In a way, we can do anything.


And yet . . . for all the value in finding that deeply discounted item on Amazon, or that comic book on eBay, there is something to be said for the human connection, for a store owner to know his customers well enough to plan ahead, prepare a holiday surprise for a middle-school kid who frequented his shop, month after month, year after year–and to be able to do it not because a software application told him to, but because he remembered, personally, all on his own, due to a genuine and real rapport that had been earned and nurtured through person-to-person interaction.

Honestly?  I don’t even remember what I purchased that day at Empire Comics.  Whatever it was has been blurred, swept away in the mists of thirty-two years.  All I remember is the gift.

“Merry Christmas,” Jim hollered as my mother and I exited the shop.

And a joyful and blessed holiday to all of you, in 2019.


Thanks so much for reading!


47 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. foodinbooks
    Dec 23, 2019 @ 18:11:41

    What a wonderful story!! Jim sounds like he truly knew and understood the spirit of Christmas. I know this year is bittersweet for you, my friend. Cherish yourself and use this time to make new and happy memories and create holiday traditions of your own. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, and looking forward to more of your great posts in 2020.


    Dec 23, 2019 @ 18:38:45

    Frohe Weihnachten wünschen wir. Wolfgang


  3. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Dec 23, 2019 @ 19:14:38

    What a heartfelt and everlasting memory. Your posts are delightful to read, Michael. I’m in the “in between” category when it comes to the holidays, but to get by, I reflect on what used to be, a time long gone with loved ones who are no longer here. In case you need a hug this time of year, here’s a big one–HUGS. Merry Christmas to you and your family.


  4. laurelwolfelives
    Dec 23, 2019 @ 20:12:20

    Beautiful post. 🎄


  5. magarisa
    Dec 23, 2019 @ 21:26:21

    Such a special memory!
    Happy Holidays to you too.


  6. joannerambling
    Dec 23, 2019 @ 21:28:33

    This will be my first Christmas without my Dad and already the heartache is setting in


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 25, 2019 @ 12:31:39

      So sorry to hear that, Joanne. It is very hard. I guess all we can really do is remember and hold on tight. Bittersweet, but hopefully more sweet than bitter . . .


    • Lyn
      Dec 27, 2019 @ 00:42:20

      So sorry to hear this Joanne, I remember my first Christmas without my dad…I was fourteen. I know it was harder on my mum though. Hope your Christmas had some joy in it just the same. ❤


  7. cindy knoke
    Dec 23, 2019 @ 23:55:22


  8. ellie894
    Dec 24, 2019 @ 12:22:13

    You always have a way of helping me to pause and think quietly with your writing. Here on your site, your beautifully crafted books, and even in the face of loss. I still recall the first time I read about your Christmas being changed forever. It brought tears to my eyes and still does. It is similar to something in my own life. And Jim’s gift…that is truly keeping Christmas in your heart. May you find peace and joy in unexpected moments Mike. Take care, suzanne 🌷


  9. ritaroberts
    Dec 24, 2019 @ 18:03:07

    Such a wonderful and heartfelt post, Thank you so much for sharing. Wishing you and your family a Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy ,healthy and prosperous New Year


  10. A. Guanlao
    Dec 25, 2019 @ 08:11:16

    I enjoy your Christmas posts. I am glad there was someone like Jim in your life to brighten your holiday. To me, it seems like the human connection is missing in many stores these days. I think with dread how so many things are locked up in anti-theft glass cases at the local “big box” store I go to, including men’s underwear! You have to push a button and wait for an employee to open the case. 😦

    Like you, this time of year is bittersweet for me because my mother had a heart attack the day after Christmas. Your happy memories help me remember the happy memories I had with my mom and my family before this sad event occurred. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Mike.


  11. Teagan R. Geneviene
    Dec 25, 2019 @ 15:36:32

    Merry Christmas, Michael. Hugs!


  12. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Dec 25, 2019 @ 18:33:04

    Merry Christmas, Mike. And all the bestest in the coming New Year ❤


  13. K E Garland
    Dec 25, 2019 @ 22:01:32

    Merry Christmas to you, too, Mike! It seems that nothing can really trump human connection.


  14. stormy1812
    Dec 26, 2019 @ 22:55:17

    Funny, I currently work for Amazon…it’s a bit of an adventure in a way. There is this total removal of working with customers though working for them in a manner of speaking. It’s definitely much different than my past retail experiences – some of which I’ll admit to liking ha! Some of which is peculiar and honestly I think to myself…why didn’t you just go to the store for this? It is truly a phenomenon I can’t fully wrap my brain around. That said – I too think back on when there was that personal touch given by good customer service and how sorely that’s missed; how that was given up for the sake of convenience. Crazy. Thanks for sharing your memory! I hope you had a Merry Christmas! 🙂


  15. Inese Poga artist, writer and life sciences specialist
    Dec 28, 2019 @ 02:07:30

    Happy New Year! Enjoy the holidays!


  16. The Eye-Dancers
    Dec 28, 2019 @ 13:37:55

    Thank you! Happy New Year to you, as well!


  17. denise421win
    Dec 28, 2019 @ 18:50:51

    nice post, so sorry the season doesn’t stay longer


  18. Lara/Trace
    Dec 29, 2019 @ 01:32:10

    Happy New Year to you and this story was the prefect reminder, kindness matters.


  19. Anna Waldherr
    Dec 29, 2019 @ 17:48:24

    Thank you for sharing this lovely memory. Have a Happy New Year!


  20. Carol Balawyder
    Jan 01, 2020 @ 19:45:47

    A beautiful story with a beautiful nostalgic message. May 2020 be a happy one for you and may your FF collection increase in value. 🙂


  21. candidkay
    Jan 15, 2020 @ 19:32:57

    Love this walk down memory lane . . . beautifully done.


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