going to be a short run this time around for Norman Witty, proprietor
of Omega Books in downtown Northampton.
The comic book and movie poster emporium
will be replaced at the end of July by a new tenant in the storefront
of the three-story building at 213 Main St., owned by Witty, a
downtown fixture in one guise or another since 1972.
We stopped by Wittyís surprisingly orderly,
lightly stocked shop not long ago to talk about the book and poster
business with him, because Witty has a track record with which
many of the newer downtown habitués and entrepreneurs are
Heís mellowed with age, not as curmudgeonly
as I remember him when he first opened Omega used books 30 years
ago; I used to browse his shop, never presuming to engage the
dour-appearing proprietor in conversation.
Even though he has difficulty hearing
and it is necessary to shout questions at him, Wittyís responses
are sharp and funny; itís clear he is extremely knowledgeable
about his fields of endeavor.
As for his store, which is open only four
days a week, Witty says with a grin: "I was looking forward
to it, but as soon as I opened Iím looking forward to getting
out of it."
He says one the reasons he closed his
book and comics store in 1980 was that he finds it difficult to
hew to the retailersí credo that the customer is always right.
He is using the shop, located in the space
vacated by Peaceworks which went out of business recently, to
unburden himself of boxes and boxes of comic books for which he
has no need, and little affection. He also is selling some expensive
movie posters from a collection that he has built up over the
last 35 years.
Letís go back to 1971 when Witty was living
and working in Los Angeles; he had wound up after graduating from
Northwestern University where he studied film and literature.
A native of Bostonís Dorchester section, Witty was born in 1941.
In Los Angeles, among his various jobs
he worked as a researcher for the David Wolper company, a firm
that produced television documentaries. He also spent time working
at a newly-opened used bookstore that is still operating on LAís
Wiltshire Boulevard. Witty began acquiring books for his own collection,
along with comic book and movie memorabilia that fed his personal
tastes and interests.
"I laugh more and more when I think
that they were selling movie posters then for 75 cents. Of his
relentless purchases, he says, "I donít know if I understood
it was a business."
He was not buying for speculation but
he bought what touched his fancy. "In Los Angeles I was paying
15 cents for old comics I liked," and when he would come
back east he found that each of the same comics were selling for
at least $1.
But, he observes either jokingly or with
complete honesty: "The fact is I have exquisite taste and
foresight in all of these things."
By 1971, he decided to return to this
region and, based on an examination of a map of New England picked
out three communities that appealed to him for their size and
proximity to Boston and New York - Northampton, Montpelier, Vt.
and either Brattleboro or Burlington - he says he canít recall.
Not long after, during a cross-country
trip he drove down I-91 late one night, he saw the Northampton
exit and wound up on Pleasant Street where the Globe Theater marquee
was advertising Eric Rohmerís "My Night at Maudís,"
one of Wittyís favorite films. Across the street he peered into
the window of Sheehanís bar. "It looked fabulous," he
recalled. "Ah, this was nice. I like it." Next day he
talked to the Raymonds about real estate, and they said they had
the perfect spot, a building he managed to purchase. "Real
estate prices," he says with a grin, "were fairly reasonable
in those days," reflecting the reality that many Main Street
storefronts were boarded up and the downtown was nearly moribund.
During those early years, he worked long
hours, for a time living in the rear of the shop until he was
able to renovate the upper floor for living and rental space.
This was accomplished by builder "Billy" Turomsha, says
Witty, who in exchange for free rent did most of the renovation
work over a long period of time.
Slowly the book store added more comics
to its stock, and Witty began offering movie posters for sale,
even though there was little market for them in those days.
The only person, he recalls, who ever
bought the movie posters was a high school student who was working
across the street at what is now Thornes Market. That would have
been Ken Reed. At $35 a poster it was a stretch for Reed, Witty
says, "but he never complained about the price." Some
of those posters are worth thousands of dollars today, he says,
such as the Bogart-Bacall poster for the movie "The Big Sleep."
By 1980, Witty concluded that he
like to get out of the used bookstore business. "I got out
early because Ken Reed said he wanted me to help him" get
into business, by renting him the bookstore space for what would
become Main Street Records, a downtown mecca for the young and
not-so-young fans of music and comics scene for 15 years before
it closed in 1996.
With income from a tenant for the storefront,
Witty turned more to peddling his comics and posters at the big
fairs in this country and in Europe, especially in England, France
"I love the movies," he says
showing me around his shop and pointing out some of of his favorites,
especially one illuminated by spotlight at the rear of the store
for the 1953 film, "The Sun Shines Bright."
Stopping in front of poster for the Robert
DeNiro classic film, "Raging Bull," Witty says: "I
have great confidence in what I like," and thus what he buys.
He recalls buying a few of the DeNiro posters for $5 each. When
he found out the seller wanted to unload his entire stock of 200,
Witty bought them for 50 cents apiece.
"I can sell them to a dealer for
$125 each," he says and they sometimes go for as much as
$300 each at auction. A poster from an early Dracula or Frankenstein
horror film might fetch $100,000. "Iíve never owned one,"
Witty laments. Also highly collectible are posters from early
science fiction films.
As with comic books, movie posters and
lobby cards were printed in small numbers originally, which keeps
the resale prices up. Originally, the posters were not made to
be kept and thus fewer were printed, maybe only 5,000 for a first
run movie, he says. Today for movie like "Star Wars,"
the poster run might be in the tens of thousands.
The same was true with comic books, but
in the late 1980s and early 1990s the comic book bubble burst
because of what Witty calls "hype" and greed. The publishers
were cranking out millions of comics for a teen audience that
had the effect of flooding the market. "I was appalled by
what I saw," he says. "I was shocked and horrified."
Which is a factor in why the comics in
the cartons arrayed in his store today are pretty cheap and why
Witty is happy to unload his inventory.
In the areas of his interest, he says
"I try to keep my personal collection tight. Itís bad for
business to be a collector," although one suspects Wittyís
personal collection is not small by any normal measure.
Meanwhile, Witty says he will continue
each year to do about a dozen of the biggest book, comics and
poster shows here and abroad.
Wittyís Omega Books continues its limited
engagement only through July.