It all started with little bars of soap.
When Steven Kahn was 5, his traveling salesman father would often greet his son with small gift upon returning from a trip. On one of those occasions, he had a few bars of hotel soap in his pocket. Young Steve was fascinated by them, and his father sensed that.
“So every Friday, he would bring me more, and I developed a collection of bars of soap — different sizes, different colors, different odors,” he said. “As I got older, I collected baseball cards and comic books.”
Some 66 years later, the soaps are gone. But the comic books stuck. And the collection has gotten pretty big.
By his estimate, Kahn, the owner of Inner Child Comics and Collectibles, 5921 Sixth Ave. A, has upward of 200,000 comics. On top of that, he has toys and other collectibles of “close to five figures,” he estimated.
But Kahn is more than just a collector who buys and sells comics, toys and other paraphernalia in his shop. He is a lover of the art, the craftsmanship and the joy that the comics and other items bring.
When it comes to the business of collecting, all some see are dollars signs. Kahn can go on at length about the cut-throat tactics, underhanded dealings and nefarious means some will go to to obtain a prized collection unearthed in a basement or attic.
“Most of these big-time dealers, when they get a collection within their grasp they do not let go,” he said. “They’re calling five, six, seven times a day, and they will go behind (the seller’s) back and get to his friends. ... If the dollar signs are great enough, nothing will stop these guys.”
But Kahn is different, and he has developed a national reputation for his ability to grade comics, offer advice and assess collections.
Kahn is so well-respected that he is a contributor to the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, which for decades has been the bible for comic book collectors. (The latest edition, released this week to coincide with Comic-Con in San Diego, features an extensive column by Kahn.)
He has appeared in television shows as a comics expert and regularly gets calls from across the country when it comes to recent finds or assessing collections.
He was called to Chicago in 2015 where a treasure trove of comics from the “Golden Age” — typically comics from the 1930s and 1940s — was found in paper bags.
“These books were amazing,” he said, noting there was “Batman” No. 1, “Captain America” No. 1 and others. One book sold for $200,000; another — “All-Star Comics” No. 8, the first appearance of Wonder Woman — sold for $932,000. It was graded at 9.4, making it the highest-ever graded Golden Age book, he said.
Kahn helped the man get the most for his collection and ward off the sharks that typically take a high percentage of sales for their fee.
“He was being hounded by these auction houses, literally harassing him, trying to get around the back door. I found a person and hooked him up. He was able to sell them all. He struck gold.”
And what was Kahn’s take? Nothing.
“I did it as a favor. I was happy to do that,” he said.
In late June, he was called to St. Louis where a man who had worked his entire life for U.S. Steel was now faced with selling his comic collection in order to be able to live comfortably in retirement, because the company left him high and dry.
“He just touched my heart,” Kahn said. “This is all he’s got, so I’m going to do all I can to help him. I’m going to coach him through this and help him sell them, and I’m not going to take anything for it.”
These are just two of many stories Kahn can tell of working with sellers and collectors who are nothing more than targets for big dealers. And it all comes back to what got him interested in comics in the first place — the art form, not the dollar signs.
“That’s what draws me to all of this. It’s the beauty of the comic book cover, the action figure, the package of the box of the Nintendo game. To me, it’s not the game or the internal stories, it’s the art.
“Thank God I don’t have to do this to put bread on the table,” he said, noting that his one-man operation barely breaks even. “If I make money, that’s great, if not, I can still be here. I have the luxury of being able to do that.”
Former oral surgeon
Kahn, 71, hasn’t always been a comics shop owner. He was an oral surgeon in downtown Chicago, but gave it up due to the stress.
And true to his nature, he didn’t sell the practice; instead he closed the doors and gave away all the equipment.
He then went back to his love of comics, moving to Kenosha to open Inner Child seven years ago.
“Now when I come to work I’m happy,” he said.
The name of the shop comes from his personal connection to comics and what many people feel when they come in the shop — reconnecting with the child within all of us.
“Calling this Inner Child is what it’s all about. ... All of the healing in your life comes from within your inner child. I’m just using this to revisit my inner child, who I left too early, I guess.”
The shop is not for the claustrophobic. It is packed with merchandise in display cases, on shelves, on the floor, on the walls.
But a journey through the shop is like a treasure hunt; while some like items are grouped together logically, others aren’t, and Kahn knows that.
He likes people to wander the aisles and discover the hidden gems that may be hiding in a corner.
“Is this a good business model? Absolutely not,” he said. “I want it to be a discovery; I want people to have fun.”
Turn to the right and you’ll find “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” action figures. Look in that display case and you’ll see a collection of models of the classic Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman.
On the wall are key issues of old comics, including “The Incredible Hulk” No. 181 — the first appearance of Wolverine — and “Ms. Marvel” No. 1, primed to take off as the Marvel character next up for the big movie treatment.
There’s an area reserved for old video games, and a couple of comfy chairs to sit and play.
You’ll find plenty of animatronic toys that move and/or produce audio when touched.
“It’s an eclectic display. ... There’s a lot of mish-mosh,” he says, pointing to a “Welcome Back, Kotter” figurine and a Dorothy Hammill statue.
He views the shop as part retail establishment and part museum; some items on display are not for sale as they are part of his personal collection.
He estimated that probably only 2 percent of his collection is on display, and he’s always on the lookout for something unusual.
“Whenever I find something I don’t have, I’m so excited just to have it,” he said.
The goal: a museum
So if Kahn has all this stuff that he doesn’t plan on selling, what is the ultimate goal for the collection? A museum.
He envisions a pop culture museum, in Kenosha, that will display his vast collection. At 71, he knows he may not be around to see the ultimate fruition of that dream, but he believes his son, Deniz — a collector and expert of old video games — will be a good caretaker.
(Deniz has launched his own venture that evaluates and grades old video games for collectors. Learn more at www.watagames.com.)
“I want to continue to build inventory for this dream I have,” he said. “I want to keep the balance of buying and selling. When I’m selling more than I’m buying, I’m not happy.”
There was a similar museum in Baltimore, owned by Steve Geppi. But he closed it this year after 12 years in operation and donated the collection to the Library of Congess.
Kahn knows his vision will be tough to achieve.
“It’s not going to be a cheap thing to do. ... It’s fine to run into the red. It’s the bigger picture I’m looking at,” he said. “The question is, can I find a way to put it all together so people can see it?”
As a downtown merchant, Kahn is a big believer in the area’s renaissance, saying it is a gem just waiting to be plucked.
“I’m one of the strongest believers that one day you won’t be able to buy property in Kenosha,” he said. “There are beautiful beaches. It’s clean, accessible. One day the light bulbs will go on. I think the downtown could be amazing. Will it happen in my lifetime? I don’t know.”
While the museum is the ultimate goal, Kahn is content.
“I’m very happy to be doing what I’m doing now,” he said. “Every day I walk into the store excited about what the new day may bring and optimistic that that most incredible collection of comics, that amazing toy collection, that unthinkable original comic art collection will still find its way here, and my hope is that I will see that thing and I can share it with anyone that wants to see it all.”
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