Image: Golden Apple
There is no official capital of comic retailing, no Washington D.C. (or even a Shangri-La or Gotham City).  But if you were to pick an epicenter for the comics business, you could do a lot worse than choosing Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles.

That’s because Golden Apple is there, and even though it’s been almost 20 years since he passed, it still carries the legacy of a big, big man: Bill Liebowitz.

Liebowitz was big in stature, about 6-foot-5, well over 300 pounds.  He was bigger in energy and presence, with an outgoing personality, an unmistakable booming voice, and a wardrobe that consisted of Hawaiian shirts to about an 80% degree.  Bill Liebowitz was always the life of the party, and he made sure the party was happening at Golden Apple.

Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California first met Liebowitz in 1985.  He was blown away by his accomplishments.

"Bill had this overstuffed promotion binder filled with photos, press clippings and fliers from the events he had done over the last year," Field says.  "And the size of this!  Most other shops would have been happy to have this sized binder over the course of their career, but he did so much, this was just for one year."

And that was just a few years into his run.  Liebowitz founded Golden Apple in 1979, having come off previous gigs as an accountant and a real estate manager for a giant firm that leased space in skyscrapers and shopping malls.

"He had a big-paying job as a VP of Finance for the real estate company with a lot of prestige and a corner office, but he decided one day didn’t want to wear a suit and tie; didn’t want to work for someone else anymore," says Ryan Liebowitz, Bill’s son, and the current operator of Golden Apple.  "My mom could have killed him."

Golden Apple opened at the corner of Fairfax and Melrose in Los Angeles, a particularly prime location.  Moving west down Melrose, the street was filled with upper-crust art galleries, the beautiful people spending way too much on home décor.  Moving east, Melrose was populated by hip clothing boutiques, the twentysomethings creating the new trend.  Liebowitz sat at the confluence of these worlds, and drank in everything that was happening around him, forging Golden Apple into a melting pot of culture.

The location had another strategic advantage.

"Look, he was blocks away from CBS Television City in Hollywood, so it was easy to send a camera crew to the store," Joe Field says.  "And Bill always made the story happen at Golden Apple.  Bill was the king of making things happen."

Image: Golden Apple
Sure enough, when the new Todd McFarlane Spider-Man #1 hit in 1990, Liebowitz rented giant Klieg lights to herald the book’s arrival, making a comic book release look like a Hollywood movie premiere.  When Golden Apple hosted the Image Comics creators for a signing in 1992, Liebowitz arranged for a police motorcade.  Golden Apple was spectacle under Liebowitz’ watch, and all eyes were drawn to it.

But keep in mind: He was also a Certified Public Accountant.  He had that experience as a VP of finance in real estate.  On the surface, Bill Liebowitz was straight party.  But underneath his thinning hair was a finely tuned business mind.

"Bill had that background, wanted this business to be treated like a "real" business as opposed to a hobby," says Steve Geppi, founder of Diamond Comic Distributors.  "Bill brought a real professionalism to the industry.  Bill was a pioneer who helped retailers streamline communication with distributors and publishers."

Sure enough, Liebowitz was one of the founders of DLG, the Direct Line Group.  DLG was a group of about a dozen top retailers that comprised maybe 20% of the industry.  Even though Flying Colors was a smaller account, Liebowitz brought Joe Field in because of his background in radio and communications savvy.

"We were a lobbying group, and because we were outsized accounts, publishers would listen," Field says.  "If we told a publisher they had to be there to listen to us, they were there."

Golden Apple was already doing local TV ads, and under Liebowitz’s leadership, DLG started running full-page ads in Rolling Stone magazine for the entire industry, with co-op funds from publishers.

Beyond that was Liebowitz’ personal touch.

"We were a whole country apart, but we would talk all the time like close friends," Steve Geppi says.  "He wasn’t just a great retailer.  He was a great guy.  Well, unless you were competition. Bill could be annoying because he was so competitive."

Sure enough, if a new store would open too close to Golden Apple to try to draft off of Liebowitz’ success, Bill would show up himself, standing on the sidewalk outside the competitor’s store, handing out coupons for Golden Apple.

Liebowitz protected his territory, and loved talking to people on what he called "the veranda."  It was about $20 worth of cheap plastic patio furniture he parked on the sidewalk in front of Golden Apple.  It played a highly strategic role in Golden Apple’s success.

"That was his perch; he’d observe the street, the trends, who was walking by, and why," Ryan Liebowitz says.  "He kept his finger on the pulse of every pop culture trend."

And Bill would share his info with friends such as Joe Field.

Image: Golden Apple
"I’d have a conversation with Bill, and almost inevitably, customers would start asking me about whatever we were talking about shortly after," Field says.  "There was one Christmas, maybe 2000, I think, when the comics business was in a trench.  But Bill said, ‘Let me put you in touch with my guy who does yo-yos.  This stuff is happening right now.’  The window for that was maybe a six-month deal, but Bill was always six months ahead of the curve.  Sure enough… we sold thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of yo-yos.  Bill saved our bacon that Christmas."

The booming voice got a tad raspy in 2004. Liebowitz developed a cough, was feeling rundown.  "Just a cold, but I can’t really shake it," he said. It was more than a cold.  Liebowitz, unbeknownst to himself or his doctors, was retaining too much fluid in his body.  His heart had to work overtime to keep blood pumping. He died of congestive heart failure in October 2004 (see "In Memoriam: Bill Liebowitz," "Beau Smith on Bill Liebowitz," and "Dave Scroggy on Bill Liebowitz").

"I was devastated when I heard it.  It was tragic," says Steve Geppi.  "And it rippled.  I think subliminally, comic retailers knew they lost one of their leaders."

A memorial was held at Golden Apple.  Hundreds of people showed up.  The cash registers were ringing.

And they still ring today, to a tune that’s largely the same.  Ryan Liebowitz, like so many sons, says he spent his younger years "…trying desperately to get out of my dad’s shadow.  But I also remember everything he taught me."  The same flair ran through the younger Liebowitz.  He was one of the organizers of WonderCon, the major comic convention, and later operated AIDS Walk events with 50,000 people, and worked on massive events for the Las Vegas Hilton and Convention Center.

"When the call came in that my dad had passed…, I didn’t hesitate one second," Ryan says.  "I knew exactly what I needed to do, which was to go home and run the business for as long as I could.  I had not figured out at that point if that meant I’d eventually close the business, sell the business, whatever."

Ryan Liebowitz found his own suit-and-tie moment.

"I ran a company, but I didn’t own it," he says.  "This was it, my chance to own my own business, and do things my way, and also continue my family’s legacy.  I felt like I’d be letting my dad down if I let it go.  So I held on, but also decided I had to put my own stamp on it.  We moved down Melrose.  Big grand re-opening. Stan Lee doing a ribbon-cutting ceremony and all.  I just went for it, said, ‘I can do this.’"

And it’s still doing today, just on a different corner on Melrose, now at La Brea Ave.  And 371 miles North, Joe Field is happy to see the beat go on.

"I am appreciative of the Liebowitz family carrying on Bill’s legacy," he says.  He also has a gift for Ryan.  It’s a gift that was once Bill’s, since transferred to Field: Back in 1991, DC Comics commissioned Kevin Maguire to do a specialty Batman-Superman-Wonder Woman piece for Liebowitz in honor of Bill’s 50th birthday.  When Field tuned 50 in 2006, Sharon, Bill’s wife, and Ryan sent it to Joe, adding a word balloon that said, "And Joe in 2006."

It's been hanging on Field’s office wall for 17 years.  But Ryan Liebowitz just turned 50, and Field is sending it now to Ryan.

"It’s a really sweet thing, but also shows you how different the comic business used to be," Field says.  "We all need a touch of Bill in our business."

Click Gallery below for Golden Apple store and event pics!

This article is part of ICv2’s year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Direct Market.  For more, see "Comics Direct Market 50th Anniversary."