Years before anyone had ever heard of Quentin Tarantino, Blake Shira wrote the book on pulp fiction.
Hooked on paperbacks at an early age by the lurid covers and titles of such long-forgotten gems as Hot Dames on a Cold Slab, Junkie and Twelve Chinks and a Girl, the free-spirited Shira spent more than 30 years tracking down and re-selling torrid tomes from the past. Owner of Lost Dutchman Comics & Baseball Cards on Seventh Street, Shira had for the last 11 years operated a funky storefront housing a vast repository of virtually every title turned out by major (and not so major) pulp publishing companies from 1940 to 1970.
But like a yellowing paperback that disintegrates halfway through a read, Shira's own story ended abruptly on May 7. Reportedly depressed over a variety of personal problems, including the recent breakup of his marriage, the 46-year-old Shira ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"Blake had been battling a lot of problems recently, and when his wife left him, that was it," reveals one friend. "I think that at this point in his life, Blake was disappointed in himself."
Last Saturday afternoon, Shira's friends and family packed a memorial service at the Arid Club, a 12-step hall for recovering alcoholics in central Phoenix. Attended by a mix of local book collectors and friends from the rehab community, the service (remembrances ranged from how to repair a '57 Chevy to a convoluted anecdote involving a French dip sandwich) proved to be every bit as irreverent as the man being memorialized.
Laughing, one friend remembered how Shira had once forced him to look at 20 Mark McGwire baseball cards he'd just acquired -- all of them identical. "He was like, "Look at this one; now look at this one.' They were all the same! I just didn't get it, but that was Blake. He was a man possessed."
Dodging rumors that Shira had left the store to him in the will, store manager James Daley will only say that he'll be running the store "indefinitely." But even if Daley does take over the reins, some longtime customers can't help thinking that Shira's death has forever closed the book on the local collectors' scene.
Echoing the concerns of other customers, Lost Dutchman regular Biff Smith wonders whether the personality-driven shop can survive without Shira's guidance. "Blake was always out on the road, digging up new inventory," says Smith. "To him, that was what made the business fun -- running around, wheeling and dealing and meeting new people."
According to friends, slow walk-in sales (the store reportedly was taking in as little as $15 a day) had in recent years forced Shira to do more business over the Internet, a situation that was anathema to him. "He hated having to do that," says Smith. "He wanted to see who he was dealing with. He was an old hippie like me and that just wasn't his style."
Thanks to Shira's endless zeal, Lost Dutchman was not so much a retail establishment as a clubhouse for middle-aged nostalgia buffs and younger fans trying to capture the thrill of once-racy reading material they originally missed out on.
Ever-present coffee cup and cigarette in hand, Shira would lead customers through his smoky lair, pointing out new finds like a kid showing off his presents on Christmas morning. On any given day, scores might include a politically incorrect relic like Nigger Heaven, a complete 10-year run of Playboy dating back to the late '50s, or a mid-'70s potboiler called 'ludes, notable primarily because of its author, politico turned game-show host Ben Stein.
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Prices were always negotiable -- Shira inevitably sold books for at least 50 percent less than the actual price marked on the cover. Shira occasionally brought in pop-culture figures for in-store autograph parties, like last year's appearance by the retired artist who created "Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Dough Boy." And no visit to the store was complete without playing with Bubbles, a mongrel stray that was Shira's traveling companion and the store mascot. (The 11-year-old Bubbles, who had complete run of the memorial service, has since been adopted by a friend.)
A multiple New Times Best of Phoenix winner, Lost Dutchman is easily the largest store of its kind in the state. The computerized inventory currently includes more than 15,000 paperbacks, in addition to more than 10,000 comic books.
"He had stuff you couldn't find anywhere else in town," reports Stan Roberson, a customer who regularly scoured Shira's inventory for books and old magazines featuring obscure works by Jim Thompson, Jules Feiffer and William Burroughs. "One time I didn't have enough money to pay for something," recalls Roberson. Shira's response? He scribbled over the price and wrote "Free."
"There was nobody in the business like him," says friend Alan Giroux, a rival dealer who owns All About Books and Comics on Central. "He could tell you on the spot the name of the artist who did the cover, whether that particular book was a reprint -- he knew those books left and right. His death is really a loss to the market here."