I wander past the neatly organized rows of graphic novels and dueling superhero motifs at Lee's Comics in Mountain View. The back office is adorned with original drawings by some of the comic-book industry's most celebrated artists -- Frank Frazetta, David Mack, Alex Ross, Jim Steranko. Lee Hester, the store's owner and founder, hands me a comic wrapped in thick black vinyl.
It's a rare copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962), Spider-Man's first appearance and one of the hobby's most prized collectibles. The comic can sell for upwards of $100,000 if it's in good condition.
"It's an entry-level copy," Hester says humbly.
Dealing in comics many fans would involuntarily drool over is standard practice for Hester. He owns two comic-book stores that virtually bookend the Peninsula, with one on El Camino Real in San Mateo and the other on Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View.
But Hester hardly looks the part of comic enthusiast.
The Palo Alto-raised businessman stands a towering 6 feet, 4 inches tall and bears a slight resemblance to 1980s action-movie star Steven Seagal, though Hester is more affable and less menacing. An avid runner, he is a periodic participant in the Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run & Walk with his wife, Connie. Passersby would more likely peg him as a police officer or basketball coach than a comic-shop entrepreneur.
Comics, though, have been a passion of Hester's since before high school. It's a passion he turned into a career when he opened his first store in Palo Alto's now-demolished Alma Plaza in 1982.
"It was a 700-square-foot store in the back of Alma Plaza. Most people didn't even know it was there. It was the worst location in Palo Alto for sure," he said.
Hester's family moved from San Francisco to south Palo Alto when he was 1 year old. He attended Fairmeadow Elementary School and Wilbur Junior High (now JLS Middle School), and was in the last graduating class of Cubberley High School before it was shuttered in 1979. Hester was drawn to superheroes at the age of 10 after spotting a Superman anthology ("Superman: From the 30's to the 70's") at a local bookstore, though his parents rebuked his pleas to purchase it.
"Things have changed since back then because back then kids didn't always immediately get what they wanted. My parents' standard answer to any question was 'no.' Luckily for me my local library, Mitchell Park, turns out they had that book. So I checked that book out, I pored over that book," he said. "This was the greatest thing in the world."
And Hester didn't stop with the Man of Steel -- he also checked out "Batman: From the 30's to the 70's," "The Origin of Marvel Comics" and a wealth of similar publications, studying each with an ambitious enthusiasm. He would even sneak eager viewings of the 1960s-era "Batman" TV series from his cracked bedroom door while his parents believed him asleep.
Following high school, Hester took on a hodgepodge of odd jobs, including construction work and as a hotel clerk, but "nothing really clicked." Meanwhile, he had become a regular attendee of the De Anza flea market, where he would buy and sell comics alongside other collectors.
But Hester was struggling, living in rooms not much larger than his current office, commuting in a run-down Volkswagen and munching on a steady diet of Top Ramen. In the summer of 1982, while strolling around his Palo Alto neighborhood, Hester noticed an empty store in the back of Alma Plaza. The landlord told Hester he would need a co-signer to lease the space, and his parents were not optimistic about his chances so refused to co-sign. The landlord decided to lease the space to Hester anyway to help populate the mostly vacant plaza.
"(My parents) were cautious," Hester said. "They had heard that businesses always fail. I mean, this is well known, that businesses always fail. That's the riskiest thing you can do, is open a business."
Initially, his parents' misgivings seemed justified. Lee's Comics was competing with the dominant Comics & Comix store on Cowper Street, and for the first few years Hester wasn't turning a profit. He built the shop's comic-display fixtures himself, served as a one-man staff, used a cigar box in lieu of a traditional cash register and felt fortunate to make a hundred dollars in a day. He would even play board games and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons with the neighborhood kids during lengthy stretches of stagnant business.
"I didn't have any money for fixtures, didn't have any money for advertising or promotion, didn't have any money for staff. It was just me seven days a week. Probably the world's worst comic-book store," he said.
But Hester would not relent. "Little by little," he said, the store showed steady improvement, allowing Hester to open a second location in San Mateo in 1987. In 1990 he closed the Alma Plaza location in favor of a more visible spot in Palo Alto, on the corner of El Camino Real and Curtner Avenue, though eventually he shut down that store as well for the more rent-friendly locale in Mountain View. Hester said the decision to stop doing business in his hometown of Palo Alto was a difficult one.
"In my life, nothing's ever been easy. I'm kind of used to every advance being just a bitter struggle," he said. "So I have learned to have a great deal of discipline when I pursue something, because I know it's nearly impossible and you just have to keep it up."
Hester has seen the industry evolve faster than a Marvel mutant over the past 25-plus years. He accurately anticipated the rising popularity of graphic novels in the early 1990s, heavily stockpiling them in his two stores well before most people even realized what a graphic novel was.
"If people want to spend the time, and if they enjoy reading, they will find graphic novels that are on par with the best of literature," he said.
He has rubbed elbows with celebrated creators like Stan Lee and Gene Colan. He has watched superhero films proliferate and once-obscure comic conventions become frenzied attractions.
And despite business highs and lows and the unpredictability of a transforming industry, the mere mention of comic books ignites a certain spark in Hester's eyes. It's as though that 10-year-old child enamored with Superman still dwells somewhere within the father of three.
"I think that the so-called 'nerd culture' has become the culture. It used to be considered not hip to be into comics. Now everybody's into them," he said.