Legendary Harvard Square comic book shop celebrates 45 years of independence
The Million Year Picnic’s storefront is the blink, and you might miss it type. If not for the colorful spread of comics and graphic novels in the street-level, rectangular windows, motioning you to come down and check out the bonanza that awaits you underground.
Inside, its stock is organized in new releases, volumes, and trades; and chaotic, with vintage issues of the Golden, Silver, and Bronze age spilling out of rows of cubes. But no need to feel skittish—this is a place of togetherness and discovery for newcomers as well as longtime enthusiasts of the comic book world’s many universes.
Nicknamed “the Picnic,” the Harvard Square comic book store celebrates 45 years of business in 2019. The milestone has left the staff, a cross between baby boomers and Gen-Xers, thankful and amazed by the feat. As they see it, they’ve somehow outlived the brick and mortar bloodbath of previous decades. It’s a trend that includes the recent shuttering of Crema Cafe, Tealuxe, Crimson Corner (now MilkBar and &pizza), and even Urban Outfitters.
For owner Tony Davis, who first visited the store as a 16-year-old Californian while in town for summer school in 1979, and later Harvard, the Picnic stands as one of the last founding shops to specialize in comics.
“We’re somewhere amongst the 10 oldest in the country,” Davis says. On top of being a comic book store owner of color, he also holds the distinction of carrying an old-school legacy. “We started in 1974, and I would say the explosion of comic book stores [referred to within the industry as the ‘direct market’] really took off in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”
As the stories in comic books and graphic novels continue to thrive as adaptations for TV and film, comic book stores, like traditional bookstores, have experienced years in which sales dramatically see-sawed. Some shops—notably, Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles and New York City’s St. Mark’s Comics by the end of February—succumb to the same fate as Picnic’s neighbors after trudging for as long as they could.
In December, the Picnic, with the effective use of a kitten GIF with wet eyes, publicly acknowledged its own strife when its Twitter page asked customers if they were purchasing comics on Amazon, since holiday sales were down from 2017. Many who saw the post rallied behind the Picnic and promised to stop by. The following weekend, appreciative of the upswing, the shop rewarded customers with a massive 40 percent off discount on everything before New Year’s Day.
“Nowadays, we do rely a bit on being a ‘destination store,’” Davis says. “Talking to other comic book retailers I know, almost everybody who has been doing this for a long time feels similarly. Time, [occasionally] sales, and a now dwindled role in being able to build an audience for artists have rolled us back to that.”
The Picnic is also a vestige of Harvard Square’s former Bohemian spirit and liveliness.
“Like any good college town, the community around it feeds off of that energy and grows into something special,” Davis says. “I feel like bit by bit, Harvard Square has lost a lot of that.” Behind the register, novelist Craig Gardner was listening, nodding, and corroborating with tidbits. He managed the Picnic from 1979 to 1986.
Davis continues, “The restaurants have gotten chichi. The family hangouts and street performers disappeared. There was a daytime life, but nightlife too. Our peak was when Tower Records moved in next door, and they were open till midnight. And WordsWorth and HMV until 10. We would do as much business from six to 10 as during the day.”
The Million Year Picnic opened as a cart selling science fiction and comic books in the Garage down the street. It was named after the 1946 short story by Ray Bradbury, one of co-founder Jerry Weist’s literary heroes. Weist and Chuck Willy moved to the contour of Mount Auburn Street in 1975, and shortly after, E.B. Boatner replaced Willy as co-owner.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, DC Comics was Davis’ first foray into superhero mythology; he was a huge fan of Richie Rich, and Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks, who would later design T-shirts for the Picnic in the years that Davis started shopping there.
“For newer comics, I used to go to this little black-owned bookstore in Crenshaw called Hall’s Bookstore. Mr. Hall was a sweet man. He used to have the ol’ spinner rack. It was my go-to place. And having a bookstore in the black community was a luxury. It was an oasis.”
His memories of comic book shopping at L.A. antiquarian stores and Mr. Hall’s are joyous, but also spun with woes. Mr. Hall was senselessly killed in a robbery—“That stuck with me,” Davis says—but Hall’s compassion continues to inspire him.
“I strive to be as welcoming and kind as he was,” Davis states. “I was lucky. I had him.”
In 1983, after befriending the Picnic team, Davis went from Harvard bathroom-cleaning work-study to a part-time clerk at the comic book store. In the early ’90s, he became a manager and eventually bought the store from Weist and Boatner, who were looking to retire or venture into other parts of the comic book business.
In its inclusive clubhouse, the Picnic prides itself on carrying independent, underground, local books, like Monstress by MIT professor Marjorie Liu, and other titles it feels otherwise wouldn’t get the audience they deserve among the big publishers. Graphic novel takes on children’s lit are trending, as are biographies. Davis is elated that stories with female leads and comics with women at the helm also sell very well.
Moving forward, the owner hopes to “call on some old friends and do some events” for the 45th anniversary. As we’re talking, Ken Toomajian, a Picnic customer since its cart days and now good friend of Davis’, walks in, and Davis chuckles.
“When I got out of school, I thought I’d do this for a year while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life,” he says. “Rich Titus warned me, ‘This place is a trap. Once you get hooked, it’s hard to get out.’
“I thought, Whatever! Thirty-six years later, I’m still here.”