The ‘Wizard of Park Street’ still sells difficult-to-find comic books

20th Century Books is hidden in plain sight
The ‘Wizard of Park Street’ still sells difficult-to-find comic books
Romulo Ueda

If you want to find Hank Luttrell, you’ll have to work at it.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Luttrell and his wife, Debra, presided over 20th Century Books, a destination for the vintage- and comic-book-loving office workers around Capitol Square. Luttrell vacated his original King Street location in the late ’90s when a new landlord took over the space and rents grew too steep for him to manage.

These days, his shop is on the second floor of a 1,000-square-foot, nondescript building at 1421 S. Park St. There’s no signage whatsoever, and even though he’s open seven days a week, you’d be easily forgiven for thinking the store is permanently closed or even abandoned.

And unless you’re a serious buyer, Luttrell – known as the “Wizard of Park Street” for his lanky frame, frizzy gray locks and spectacles – would prefer you didn’t just swing by.

“I’m not a real social person,” says Luttrell, 70, noting that he gets maybe a dozen visitors a week. “So it’s not the worst. There’s no particular reason for us to try to create a lot of traffic. Customers can be a distraction.”

The in-person ones, he means. Like everyone else in the book business, Luttrell had to pivot to survive the profound technological changes that have claimed booksellers big and small over the last 15 years. These days, Luttrell’s business is almost entirely mail order. He sells difficult-to-find, out-of-print books and comic books on Amazon, Biblio and eBay, focusing on sci-fi, fantasy and less sought after (read: non-superhero) comic books – think “Futurama,” “My Little Pony,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Girl Genius” and “Elfquest.”

“You have to be [an] expert in one area to compete,” he says. “To survive, you have to change, not complain about the current environment.”

He was one of the original founders in 1977 of WisCon, an annual science fiction convention – ”with a feminist/social justice focus,” its website says – held every Memorial Day weekend. Luttrell still visits a handful of local comic cons, but by and large he finds they don’t cater to his tastes. (It’s the superhero thing.)

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Luttrell organized comic book shows at venues like South Towne Mall.
He still raids store clearance bins to find comic books, like “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac,” a precursor to the animated Nickelodeon series “Invader Zim.”

“My punchline is that if they know who I am at the register, they know they should have charged more for whatever I’m buying,” he says.

Now that he’s carved out his online niche, don’t expect Luttrell to hang it up anytime soon. “My retirement plan is dying,” he deadpans. “It’s my bliss. I’m not interested in anything unless it’s in print and bound.”

Aaron R. Conklin is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

Comments

comments