Somewhere at the confluence of sociology, archaeology and pop culture is where New Jersey native Robert Bruce chooses to hang his professional credentials. In recent years, his appearances on the AMC television series "Comic Book Men" exposed his talent for locating and marketing unique collectibles ranging from furniture to comic books and toys, and grew into an interest he strived to parlay into a robust business endeavor.
"Comic Book Men" ran for seven seasons and followed daily interactions at the Secret Stash — a comic book store in Red Bank, New Jersey, co-owned by movie director, actor and author Kevin Smith, who directed such films as "Clerks" and "Mallrats."
A self-identified "pop-culturist," Bruce excitedly described his fascination with memories of his youth, bouncing from discussions on film iterations of Zorro and the toys and collectibles associated with the character, and quickly making a segue to reflections of when he first saw the spicy 1968 science-fiction film "Barbarella" decades ago.
"My mother's side of the family has a legacy in the U.S. dating back to the 17th century," he proudly remarked. "My father's family settled in the Rumson, New Jersey, area in 1840, and I graduated in 1977 from the same high school my father attended."
Bruce recognizes his greatest notoriety has come from "Comic Book Men," for which he has received credit as a producer and procured collectibles used in a number of episodes. On several occasions, he made appearances on the show to provide appraisals for rare and exclusive items, which, he maintains, has been a blessing and a curse.
"The money that comes with a television series is certainly nice but then you still have to make a living for the rest of the year," he explained. "Also, it got to the point where people were hesitant to sell me any items because they thought I was getting something over on them."
After finishing high school in New Jersey, Bruce traveled to New York City, where he briefly became involved in the punk rock scene. For a short time, he was a roadie with iconic bands including the Clash and the Ramones. However, he soon embarked upon a path of greater stability when hired as a bicycle messenger for a large printing company.
While performing his messenger duties, he was injured when struck by an automobile. The company placed him as a sales representative and Bruce later ascended to the position of a vice president of sales. He sold facility brochures and postcard printing services to customers like the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
"During this time, I really became intrigued by historical American furniture and American art pottery," he said. "But I guess that I always had an interest in collecting because as a kid I collected coins, stamps, comic books and various other items."
He continued, "Sometime around 1986 or 1987, I began purchasing toys and attending the 26th Street Flea Market in New York. What I liked about that is that people would descend on that flea market from all over and I didn't have to search for unique items outstate."
In the 1990s, while continuing to amass an assortment of thousands of collectibles, he opened a small retail shop in Red Bank, New Jersey, called the Groove Spot. Infrequently, he bid on storage lockers but soon chose to focus his efforts on visiting flea markets throughout the region to expand his inventory.
"There always seemed to be despair associated with storage lockers — the owner has passed away and they are selling it, someone lost their job, someone went in the military and was sent overseas," he explained. "I got away from that because there's just too much bad karma involved."
Bruce's retail establishment had a healthy run for a number of years but rent soon became too high for him in the business district of Red Bank. He then chose to embrace the advent of online sales and opened a small warehouse (which he estimates to be only 20 by 30 feet in size) that is now packed with nearly 100,000 items.
"There are certain items that people remember owning or playing with during their youth and when they get older, they want to find those items as a means to reconnect to the past," he noted. "I really enjoy being part of that process."
His experiences as a collector have bequeathed him a wealth of knowledge regarding estimated values of thousands of rare items, resulting in his being called upon to pick specific pieces for notable collectors in addition to appraising estates that have later gone to auction.
He said, "Personally, I have about 20,000 comics in my collection and focus on independent, undergroud and alternative press. For me, these comics truly represent the First Amendment carrying forth our freedom of speech and, at times, pushing the boundaries of social norms."
Television has delivered Bruce a level of unexpected fame among a worldwide audience but, after seven seasons, he now enjoys a break from the show and his return to the thrills of collecting. The passion and the expertise he developed within a unique market has since inspired him to train a new generation of collectors.
"I mostly sell online and continue to visit a flea market every Friday," he said. "I am always on the search for rarer items, which is the thing that drives me—you never know what your are going to find."
He added, "Over the years, I have accrued all of these prices and values of thousands of items that are stored in my head.
"At one time, I didn't want to share my knowledge but have now reached the point where I didn't want it to be wasted. I have begun escorting those interested in the trade to flea markets and other venues to show them the entire process of finding an item, researching and then marketing."
He concluded, "Now I view it as my responsibility to share what I've learned and am mentoring others who can take up the torch of the collectibles business."
For more information on Robert Bruce, visit Popculturizm.com or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.