By Michele J. Kuhn
Robert Bruce has no use for a Porsche, Maserati, Lamborghini or even a classic Triumph Roadster.
Nope, Bruce’s idea of the “perfect car” is a station wagon.
Bruce, a Red Bank resident whose family roots in the Two River area go back about 175 years, sees a station wagon as the ultimate vehicle because of the amount of stuff that can be packed, stacked and transported in its cavernous back space.
It’s the perfect car for this self-described “popculturist” who is a toy expert, huge collector of comic books, a television producer, co-promoter of Asbury Park Comicon and an Internet merchant – to name just a few of his various endeavors.
As a popculturist for the past 30 years, he said he’s “basically a professional collector” and “a historian of pop cultural, a curator of history of images.
“Pop culture is movement. It’s Warhol. It’s Lichtenstein. It’s going into the future,” Bruce said. “It includes what’s coming out next week.”
While he does sell some of the things he has collected, he’s “more of a collector and cataloger in a lot of ways,” he said. “I specialize in postwar, mid-century furniture, art, pottery … toys and comic books. I have a large underground comic book collection that is nonsuperhero-centric.”
Through his passion for comic books – “I’ve always been this independent comic book guy” – and networking with like-minded others, he also has “sort of created this whole alternative universe of comic book shows. I’ve produced two comic book shows, one in Asbury Park … We had 4,000 people in one day. We’re shifting over to two days, April 12 and 13 (2014). We’re expecting 7,000 to 10,000 people … We’ve rented out the entire Berkeley (Oceanfront Hotel).”
He and his business partner, Cliff Galbraith, who is a comic book creator, run Crucial Entertainment and promote the shows through their company.
Bruce also is associated with AMC Network’s “Comic Book Men,” now in its third season and filmed at Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comic book store on Broad Street, Red Bank. He supplies the local color.
“I am consulting producer,” Bruce said. “I am a site location advisor and I have and an on-air role as the show ‘expert.’ So, when they get jammed up, I will come in and I give them a price, tell them a story, explain why something is rare, why it isn’t rare, why it’s original or why it isn’t original.
“I sort of utilize this knowledge that I’ve acquired over 30 years working with auction houses and just doing what I do,” he said.
“Everyone goes to school to become a lawyer. I sort of taught myself to be this reservoir of information. A lot of it has to do with that I have an eidetic memory. I can remember visually just about everything I’ve ever seen … It helps greatly.”
He also attributes his success to “being in the right place at the right time,” his passion for collecting and an almost lifelong drive to get up and get out early to hit the flea markets, record shows, toys and comic book sales, estate sales and other venues where he finds his treasures. He gets up by 5 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays when the weather is good to get the best stuff first. He travels across the country to about 40 shows a year to find what he calls a “moveable feast.” He likes being “the third car in the parking lot” or arriving when boxes are being taken out of cars. Some of his bests finds have been sold from the trunks of cars.
Bruce attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City and took courses at New York University where he studied “graphics art-centered” offerings. He began working in the city as a bike messenger, worked his way into a company shipping department and three years later was head of production at the printing firm.
“I was 30 years old, a vice president and began collecting toys,” he said. “With a little disposable income, I became fascinated with the design of toys.”
He started collecting pre-1960s tin Japanese race cars. “I’m fascinated with design and characters and advertising and historical significance of things… It became my passion to the point where I woke up one day – I was working from 8 to 6 – and a light went off: Why am I doing that when I could be doing this?”
He opened a store, Groove Spot on Monmouth Street, which he had for about five years. He then moved his business onto the Internet when his second son was born and now is involved in about four websites. His latest toy collection is Japanese monster toys.
He describes his range of interests as “kind of renaissance, but in a low-fi kind of way.”
He has always loved comic books and recalls buying them as an 8-year-old from antique dealers in Red Bank. He has seen a resurgence in interest in comic books during the last few years. “They have taken off.” He believes that is tied to recent movies aimed at broader audiences and not just those who love comic books.
While he has always collected comic books and later a variety of toys, he also has collected marbles, records and political buttons – he has about 1,000 of them. In the 1970s, he began collecting cereal boxes from the ‘60s and ‘70s, “stuff you throw away.” But the images on those boxes fascinated him and he continued collecting them through the ‘90s.
“I’ve sold some collections to buy other collections … Ultimately, you can’t keep everything forever,” he said.
His favorite items, ones he would not consider selling, are a cast-iron dump truck toy that was his father’s, and a 3-inch tall Nitta Gamera, a giant Japanese monster toy from the 1960s.
His passion for collecting is driven, not by the value of what he seeks, but by the aesthetics and the challenge of finding it. “Collectors are one part preservationist, four parts hoarders and five parts getting out and finding things,” he said. “For me, there’s always that drive to find.”
Another of the many facets of Bruce’s life is his deep respect and love for the area where he has lived his whole life and of the history of the Two River area. He can trace his own family history in the Rumson/Red Bank area to 1840 when his family built the Presbyterian Church in Rumson. “My great-great-great grandfather was actually the first lay minister of that congregation,” he said. “We had a farm up the road, across from where city hall is, on Bruce Place. When I was a kid growing up, the sign would always be stolen because people thought it was for Bruce Springsteen. In reality, it had nothing to do with Springsteen.”
The Navesink River is close to his heart and he looks back fondly on its connection to his growing up. “When I was growing up, that really was my playground,” he said.
The 50-year-old remembers Red Bank with a J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime that was followed by a McDonald’s that he believed closed because it didn’t have a drive-thru. When he was a kid, the area where The Grove is now located in Shrewsbury was a cornfield with nearby woods. As a teenager living on Lake Avenue in Fair Haven, he ran track through the Sickles property when it was a farm.
He and his wife Laura Dardi, who is the pastry chef at D’jeet in Shrewsbury, are happy to pass their love of the area along to their two sons, Josh, 17, and Frankie, 9.
What’s up next for Bruce?
In addition to new websites, the doors that have been opened through his work on “Comic Book Men” have resulted in talk of a spinoff television show for him, he said.
“It hasn’t been officially green-lighted but it has been announced that we are working on it.”
He’s hoping to open an independent comic book shop on the west side of Red Bank where he could also run Crucial Entertainment.
He’s also looking forward to the 2014 Asbury Park Comicon, which specializes in the highlighting of comic book creators. “We’re a creator-centric,” he said. “Our core belief is that the creator is the most important person – the artist, the creators, the writers, the storytellers and the story itself.”