Friday Nights At Centaur

The first literature I read seriously, and voluminously (aside from Little Golden Books), were comic books (nothing against the Poky Little Puppy or Scuffy the Tugboat).  While my mother was busy with her stories (Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knot’s Landing), I had mine (Thor, Hawkman, Captain America).  While it can be argued that comics are soap operas for a certain discerning segment of the reading population, I ask you, what, in life, is not a soap opera?  Comic books have more superpowered pizzazz.

My peak years for comic book consumption were, probably, the ages 9 to 18.  I wandered from devoted readership, but never really left.  I bought a stray issue here and there, the occasional graphic novel or collection, to see what Dr. Strange was doing and to make sure the Spectre continued to punish the wicked.  Today I still read comic books, thanks to DC Universe and Marvel Unlimited.  But those peak years, the salad days, ended, not coincidentally I believe, when Centaur closed.

Centaur Books and Comics was a comic shop in my old stomping grounds of Tullahoma, Tennessee.   My hometown was down the road, but Tullahoma offered a smidge more variety so that’s where my family did all their shopping.  I’d see the sign for Centaur whenever my mother passed it on North Jackson Street and it called to me like a siren to a sailor.  This siren, however, caused less damage (maybe).

After passing the comic shop innumerable times, and after an excessive amount of begging, my mother finally stopped at Centaur.

I was not disappointed.

It was paradise.

I was accustomed to the wire racks of bent comics at the drug store, the corner market, the Kroger.  At Centaur, every issue on the shelves was pristine.  Even the back issues, bagged and boxed at the rear of the store, were in near mint condition.  Here I found not only the usual titles I was familiar with, but I discovered comics and characters I never knew existed or had only read about in Wizard magazine.  Centaur delivered the entirety of the comic book world to little ol’ innocent me.

It became customary for me to visit Centaur on Friday nights.  What better to do after a long week of slugging it out with algebra and dangling participles than immerse yourself into Wolverine’s hunt for his true origin or join Ghost Rider on that badass motorcycle to cruise the mean streets?  Also, Friday was the night my mother usually did her grocery shopping.

When I first visited Centaur it was owned and operated by a gentleman named, if my research is correct, R.T. Gault.  It wasn’t long after I began going there that ownership was transferred to a guy named Dale.  Dale, I think that was his name, was the coolest.  And he and his friends were the reason Friday nights were the night to visit Centaur.

At the back of the shop was a room.  It was part of the storage room, I guess, but on Friday nights Dale and his friends played a Star Trek role-playing game in that room.  They left the door open to watch the shop, and every word they said could be heard.  They argued a lot, so the conversations were crystal clear.

I didn’t understand half of it.  I understood most of the words, just not the sentences they were used to construct.  They discussed and debated game rules and the minutiae of the Star Trek universe and a lot of other stuff which flew over my head back then.  I’m sure if I could remember it all, it would still fly over my head.

But that was the place to go on Friday nights.  My brother even liked to go, and he didn’t read anything (still doesn’t), he liked hearing Dale and his friends in the back room– he was certain at any moment a fight would break out.  I enjoyed browsing the comics, finding my favorites and considering new titles, while listening to Dale and the others discussing (sometimes vociferously) otherworldly strategies and fascinating ephemera.

For all its strangeness (to us), that little group did instill in my brother and I (and our cousins) the desire to try a tabletop RPG.  It was Marvel Super Heroes, naturally.  My memories of it are forever interlocked and tied to Centaur.

Like all good things, Centaur came to an end.  Dale eventually sold the store and the new guy had it only briefly before closing the doors for good.

I miss it.  I think of it often when I drive by the little corner space it used to occupy.  I miss it for the comics, the people, and those heated arguments from the back room.  I miss it for how Dale, and everyone there, made me and hundreds of others feel as if they’d found the one place they belonged.

Tullahoma has been absent Centaur Books and Comics for about twenty years or more now.  I think I’ve been looking for something to do on Friday nights ever since.