In the summer of 1994, a comic book shop opened in McHenry, IL, a small suburb of Chicago. This 600 square foot store was the humble beginnings of Al n’ Ann’s Collectibles. Throughout the years, the store continued to grow in size and clientele, eventually moving to a much larger location. For 20 years, Al n’ Ann’s Collectible persevered under the guidance of the one and only Al Armstrong. Granted, I’m pulling most of this information from the “About” page on the shop’s website. I was not there at the beginning. I was five years old in the summer of 1994. My exposure to Al n’ Ann’s doesn’t start until about a year and a half ago…
My girlfriend, and now fiancé, had a yoga class to go to in downtown McHenry, which she needed me to drive her to. I agreed, and dropped her off. Not wanting to drive all the way home, just to come back 40 minutes later, I decided to take a stroll down the main thoroughfare to check out this little comic shop that I had only seen in passing. Walking in, I was greeted by Al Armstrong, the proprietor, who told me where I could find different things. He could obviously tell I had no idea what I was looking for. My exposure to single issues of comics was minimal. I had my fair share of graphic novels and such, and head read plenty of the classics, but buying single issues was a mystery to me. I had no idea where to start. I went digging through the back issues of limited runs. I figured I could start small with a series that wasn’t ongoing, and work my way up. I headed right to the “B” section, to see what kind of Batman books I could find. I found a complete set of Kevin Smith’s Batman run, including both “Cacophony” and “The Widening Gyre.” I had been interested in reading this series for some time, but I had never picked them up, and I though it would be cool to have all of the individual issues. So, I put down the $30 and went back to my car to wait for my girlfriend to finish her class. That night, I read every issue, from cover to cover. I loved the feel of having these individual issues and all of the awesome covers. The seed had been planted.
For some time, a friend of mine had been telling me all about DC’s New 52 re-launch campaign. For the most part, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but I thought this would be a good time to jump into Batman, one of my favorite superheroes. I went back to Al n’ Ann’s and found a complete set of Scott Snyder’s epic Night of the Owls crossover, featuring Batman, Nightwing, Birds of Prey, etc. I put down the $50 and got home as quickly as possible to start reading. I blasted through every issue that night, again relishing all of the covers and different heroes I was being exposed to. This was a whole new world to me, and I loved it.
Over the next few months, I started diving into many more books. I wanted to read everything. I jumped into books from DC, Marvel, Image, Dynamite and Dark Horse. Some of these books were good, some not so much. But I didn’t care. I wanted to read it all. I’m sure I annoyed Al. I was constantly calling and emailing him, trying to get individual issues and figure out release schedules, etc. He probably thought I was a nincompoop, but he put up with me, and he got a lot of money out of me. He was even able to snag me a first printing run of the first six issues of SAGA, one of the most popular comics on the planet, for a hell of a deal. Al and I started talking more and more, and eventually, he was okay with me. He and I would chit-chat almost every time I came in the store and we would talk about everything from comics to movies and other random bullshit. I always had a good time visiting. I was just there a couple of weekends ago, and stuck around for about a half hour after the shop closed, talking to Al about how much he wanted to go to San Diego Comic Con, and I was encouraging him to go ASAP. Now, everything has changed.
This past weekend, on the 20th anniversary of his beloved store opening, Al Armstrong passed away suddenly. I took this extremely hard. He and I weren’t close, but I did consider him a friend, and I already greatly miss talking to him. The store will just not be the same without him.
Al, you got me into comics. You helped me find everything that I was looking for, and were always patient with me, even when I was being a pain in the ass. I now have six boxes filled with all kinds of comics, t-shirts and statues, all bought from you. You were a one-of-a-kind dude, and there will never be another comic book man like you. Wherever you are, I hope you’re reading an issue of Preacher and talking about how dumb most people are. Rest in peace, man.