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What is the future for comic shops in Toronto?

Posted by Guest Contributor / June 16, 2012

comic book torontoComic shops in Toronto sometimes get a bad rap, despite the fact that science fiction powers our future. It's hard to ignore that superhero movies make a billion dollars in a week and we all own Star Trek communicators. It's validating for me. I spent years being laughed at by my peers for having "stupid" interests, and now that geek is chic I proudly laugh back--quietly, and behind some dumpsters on the other side of Toronto in case they heard me.

But what about the stores that helped feed our collective imaginations? Comic shops serve as holy ground for fans of all stripes, inspiring new scientists and authors and creating entire communities. As high-speed internet and services like Comixology emerge, there's a fear that comic shops will become obsolete. How will retailers adapt to the changing landscape? How will they survive in our fast-paced high-tech world?

Luckily for you, I'm a curious one.

I caught up with six comic store owners to learn about the futures of their respective shops: Joe Kilmartin, Dragon Lady Comics' former manager who now runs The Comic Book Lounge and Gallery; Robert Chin, owner of Excalibur Comics; George Zotti of The Silver Snail; Dan Merisanu of Labyrinth Comics; Leon Emmett, owner of Hairy Tarantula; and Daryl Collison, who sublets his old store Third Quadrant through Hairy Tarantula's North York branch.

To find out how stores are expected to survive, I asked why some closed down, or face closing down.

"Three things killed Dragon Lady," Kilmartin said of his old store. "The owner was in his seventies and wanted to retire, rent prices were going up, and finally, industry complacency. People know what they want. Like, the newest Walking Dead sells, but Green Lantern will sit on the shelf for months."

Chin, whose store once boasted two floors instead of the loft it now occupies, explained his situation: "We opened in 1987, and it was the best time for us because disposable income was about 50%. Now, it's maybe less than five percent, so people have to prioritize. Plus, I think too much choice killed the market. So much is being printed that people don't know what to buy."

Finally, Collison told of Third Quadrant's final days as an independent store: "The landlord decided to sell the building towards the end of 2007, and then at the beginning of 2008 the real estate market took a dive. We moved to Queen and Spadina, and I thought that people wouldn't mind an extra ten minute walk. I lost 80% of my business."

Making rent is a common problem for Toronto's retailers. So how do stores stay afloat? Sometimes, location matters; The Lounge and Gallery sits near several schools, including the University of Toronto and Ryerson. Other times shops get help from the film industry; Collison apparently sold every copy of The Infinity Gauntlet he had thanks to The Avengers' success.

"I told people I was going out of business about a year and a half ago and sold all my stock," Chin said, smiling.

Well. That works, too.

Leon Emmett offered some thoughts: "A lot of retailers need to look at what they do and who their customers are. Many are at a loss for evolving their business models. Things are changing. People who can't change won't make it."

"It's all relevant to the expectations you have," Dan Merisanu said in a telephone interview, "We're always working hard here and we're open to trying new stuff. We usually attend schools and conventions and sell different products to see what works. Posters don't sell in the store, for example, but are really popular at shows."

George Zotti explained some past and future plans: "We do outreach, advertise in schools, and work at charity events and launch parties. We're putting a cafe in the new Dundas store, and we're going to set up iPads in there so people can read comics. You can read comics on them but they'll be issues from three months prior. We'll have the current ones in print."

comic shop torontoWith the economy sinking and with technological progress booming, we can't afford to be set in our ways. We need plans, and more importantly: the right mindset. For example: what attitudes do my six interviewees have about the future of their stores? How do they plan to face recession, rising rent prices, and the ever-looming shadow of digital distribution?

With overwhelming gusto.

Collison: "A copy of Action Comics Number One recently sold for 2.1 million dollars. That shows that there are still people who want to have the hard book in their hands."

Merisanu: "We treat our customers fairly, and we try to treat them the way we want to be treated. And me, I'm a risk-taker. I try stuff, and if it fails then I'm okay with it."

Chin: "I'm going to keep my customers happy. I mean, hey; some still appreciate vinyl even though everyone else downloads MP3s."

Emmett: "Comics are important because comics are the last remaining subversive medium. The paradigm is different from film, because comics engage in cognitive and imaginative faculties."

Kilmartin: "In the end, going to comic book stories is an outing, not an obligation. In this business, you want that. You want to be a destination."

Zotti: "There has always been talk of doom and gloom in the comics world for twenty years, but you know what? We evolve. Our industry is extremely unique, because we get new content every week. So, there's a reason to come back every week."

Excelsior, guys.

For more info on comic shops in Toronto, view our directory of Toronto comics shops.

Writing by Robert Iveniuk. First photo by photosapience, second by ezhilinskyin the blogTO Flickr pool.

Discussion

17 Comments

comicfan / June 16, 2012 at 11:36 am
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Paradise comics (3278 Yonge Street) near Lawrence is not only surviving, but thriving. With a major renovation coming up that will double the size of the current space. The staff are super friendly and helpful, and it's the best source for rare silver age and CGC books. Every Wednesday when I pick up new releases the store is packed and they always have great guests like Darick Robertson coming in next wednesday.
Paradise? replying to a comment from comicfan / June 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm
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Sockpuppet much? Paradise is linked with a dying con (Wizard World) is pretty much banned from FanExpo...the store is dingy...my friend (a girl) once whispered to me that she wanted to get the hell out of there because she felt uncomfortable...I once waited six months for a graphic novel order and finally gave up and had it in two days from Amazon...In fact, your comment is the first time I have ever seen anyone praise that store...$10 says it's out of business in 10 years.
jerry / June 16, 2012 at 01:32 pm
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the margins are on magic cards and toys/statues.
Anna / June 16, 2012 at 01:54 pm
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Your directory is missing Pendragon Comics in Etobicoke.
Samantha / June 16, 2012 at 02:42 pm
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No Beguiling. Since they're the greatest fucking store in the country they obviously don't give a thought to going out of business.
Brandon replying to a comment from Paradise? / June 16, 2012 at 07:27 pm
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I myself am a new customer to Paradise Comics since April and I don't feel you are being fair with the store. Paradise used to run their own convention, which I enjoyed a lot more then the Hobbystar conventions, before they sold it Wizard. It's no secret that Paradise and Hobbystar were putting on competing conventions , so why would Paradise attend their shows?

Paradise also employs 2 or 3 women on their staff and the Peter and Doug are both nice guys, so I don't get why your friend would be at all uncomfortable in the store.

If this is the first time you have ever heard someone praise the store, you clearly haven't been listening hard enough.
Tom / June 18, 2012 at 12:06 am
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Revenge of the Nerds was on TV last night!!! This so reminds me of that!...
Arrow / June 18, 2012 at 02:45 pm
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Your Toronto comics shops directory is sorely outdated. Unaddressed comments on the 3rd Quadrant Queen location mention it closing three years ago. The Beguiling is also missing.

Surprised you didn't update the directory before you promoted it with this (very good) post.
Daryl Collison / June 18, 2012 at 05:08 pm
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I bought my store in 1996, after owning one in Niagara Falls for a short time. Since then it has been in 5 different locations and has been on a steep roller coaster ride that has put me in the unique position of sharing space with what most people might call competition, The Hairy Tarantula. Over the last decade and ahlf I have been called a number of things, and the simple fact is that no matter how good or bad you are, people will always have something contrary to say about who and what you are. BUT I am sure that most people - competitors, detractors, friends and peers - will all tell you that I am a survivor. I also like to think that I can walk into any comic book store in the city and when i leave, I am not the subject of unfriendly conversation. Having said that, I can say unreservedly that every person that I deal with in this industry is a stand up person, who has NEVER treated me with even an ounce of disrespect. Those that did, are no longer in my lexicon. I would also like to address one comment in particular: Paradise comics is far from dingy, and the level of assistance that they provide to customers - and other comics businesses alike - is exceptional. Peter Dixon and Doug Simpson are great guys whom I am proud to do business with and I do not hesitate to send people in their directions when I am unable to be of assistance. I am genuinely proud to work in an industry where every owner that i deal with is more than willing to help when they can, and I would hope that they all know that I would render assistance when I can. I am hardly a force majeur in the city anymore, but everybody knows who I am.
Magda / June 18, 2012 at 07:10 pm
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I have an issue with comic book stores that I consider important because it has occurred to not only me, but numerous friends of mine as well: the friendliness of staff. Now wait! Before people jump on me about their staff being exceptional (and yes, some are) I have had horrible experiences in a wide variety of comic book shops around the city.

Most of the times I have gone in the past, the people working simply look at me, ignore me and talk to other employees or scoff at my questions and give me short, unhelpful replies. This has happened at stores across the city and to numerous people I know. The comic industry is dying (as some say), and I walk into a comic book shop ready to read and commit to this hobby (for life!) and your employees won't even acknowledge me entering the store.

I know it may not seem that way to some of the owners here but this happens all the time and it sucks. I have resorted to buying and reading all my comics on my iPad through comixology because I dread having to go into a comic book store.

And before anyone gets upset, I urge you to talk to your staff about being helpful and friendly (even if you think they might be). Customer service is extremely important and key to a successful business (look at Mac, or Starbucks or TD Canada Trust) and I think it would greatly help the business in your shops if you realized how significant it is.

I'm afraid this complaint will get overlooked because everyone is sure their staff is wonderful, but I URGE and PLEAD that you re-evaluate your staff from a NEW customers perspective.

Once again, this is not regarding everyone, as many owners I have encountered have been WONDERFUL, and extremely helpful and kind. But I have had enough horrid experiences to say that there is a problem with bringing in new customers.
Matthew Fabb / July 11, 2012 at 02:47 pm
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Okay article, but definitely a oversight to not include the Beguiling. Especially since when talking about the future of comics, they have done something quite different and opened North America's first kid focused store called Little Island Comics. However, the Beguiling has done a lot with the Toronto Comics Art Festival and I'll be curious if it's proven to drive any business to their store.

Also no mention of free comic book day, which is likely the biggest outreach events in the comic industry. As I would be curious in hearing from all the Toronto stores in what it has done to drive business. Have they found new readers that way, or is it too much geared towards already regular readers?
Satisfied / July 11, 2012 at 03:58 pm
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The article outlined points of view from selected comic book store owner/operators. It was never stated that these are the "definitive" stores for the city of Toronto. I was satisfied with the insights offered by those interviewed. Obviously, some notable stores were not represented but who is to say that a) they weren't approached for an interview or b)they possibly were not available for comment. This is an article, not a research paper. Unless you want the interviewer to dedicate several years to interviewing all store owners in the city and collect it into a 1000 plus page hardbound volume, don't get overly sensitive about the fact that your favourite store was left out. I am sure it was not an intentional slight.

I am amazed that some of you can use this as a place to start aother Hobbystar/ Wizard World pissing match. Who cares anymore? If you don't like one show or the other, just don't attend it anymore! In any case, it has absolutely zero relevance to the article and the point that a store isn't worthwhile because it has been banned from Fan Expo...well, clearly you need to do a little research on this topic.

This is precisely one of the reasons that comic shops get a bad rep (as a whole). Too many people forget about the fact that comics are supposed to be for entertainment and enjoyment and instead adopt elitist points-of-view and ostricize those who disagree with them, whether it's about "which store is best" or which Batman book should be discounted from the canon of the character. I shop at several comic shops which depend on which area I am in at the time. I choose these shops because of the customer service, pricing and atmosphere. In that order. Obviously, there is a sharing of opinions about this book or that while I'm in the stores but the owners of these establishments respect their customers and will take care of them, even if it means interrupting our discussion about the successes and shortcomings of the New 52. Comic stores are still businesses and are subject to the same responsibilities (rent/lease, staffing, electric/water bills) so they act accordingly to make their business profitable for them. The article told us how some do it and how others have struggled. Good Job!
Kevin Boyd / July 12, 2012 at 01:25 pm
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I think that's the Beguiling pictured above is it not?

Free Comic Book Day was actually really great for us at the Comic Book Lounge, we had a lot of new visitors and signed up a number of new customers.

Our goal with TCBL+G is to create a unique, relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere where comics and community meet. We've grown a lot since we opened in February, and the place has really filled up nicely but we're still trying. Hopefully we meet your customer service needs, we want to be as friendly and welcoming as possible.

Honestly, trade shows and arts festivals are a few weekends a year here locally. A lot of work may go into making them tick, and we may benefit from the exposure and sales that those events bring for our businesses, but ultimately, retail stores are open every day (holidays excepted) of the year. We spend too much time arguing over conventions here, or which store is the best in town. Reality is they all serve a purpose, and if they are not relevant to consumers they'll fade into obscurity.

Grifter / July 13, 2012 at 06:55 am
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Silver Snail and The Beguiling are too mainstream for me. ;P
I prefer to check different stores around the city, including second hand bookstores; but The Comic Book Lounge & Gallery is quickly becoming my favourite; The Labyrinth is perfect to get the hard-to-find books, posters n' shirts; Pendragon was a cool stop when I used to work in Etobicoke (super friendly staff), and the BMV in Bloor & Spadina has a lot offers on Marvel, some DC, but especially lots of independents or smaller companies like Dark Horse, Image, Dynamite, Boom!, ONI, and more (which is uber-awesome)...but we do need more stops where people can chill and exchange ideas and shoot the shit. Respect to my fanboys & fangirls. ;)
Nordic Lights / September 7, 2012 at 07:31 pm
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Pendragon is the worse. Just the worse. Never mention that place to me. I know people who just won't go back there. The ones who do, don't shop when the owner is in. The part-timers are great guys though.

I and many others have stopped going because the owner is the typical "comic book guy." Thinks he's doing you a favour by selling you his books. Lol.Other people have had the same experience. He's rude. Condescending and Primadonna-ish. It's like he is bi-polar. 10 percent of the time he's fine. 90%? forget it.

Also I've observed how he deals with most people of colour and frankly strikes me as a bit of bigot. He's lonely or frustrated with his life or something. Excalibur friendly. Silver Snail friendly, stocked and helpful. BMV decent staff.
Miroki / October 14, 2012 at 01:12 pm
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I completely agree with Magda on the account of customer service. While many comic stores are opened by people who themselves love comics, it is no different than other businesses borne out of love for the product/service. It is STILL a business. Not a club. Not a clique. A potential customer should not feel shunned, ignored, or put down when they come in and ask questions, no matter how experience or inexperienced they are in the world of comic/sci-fi/etc. As a business, respect is absolute key. An employee may get a small kick out of laughing at a customer now, but the repercussions will always come back tenfold. A manager may feel high and mighty and powerful enough to shame a customer, and that customer may just be or become someone with so much clout behind their opinion that it will bring the place down.

Places like the Silver Snail thrive and expand because of their exceptional ability to care for their customers. Even during the midnight madness when by all means they could probably get away with being super nasty and still make tons of sales, they do everything they can to be both efficient while taking the time with customers, and even giving out water. Conversely, when walking into the empty Comic Book Lounge, and trying to address ONE issue with the manager, escalated into my humiliation, shamed in front of other customers, and then lots of jabs at me personally, I have actively blacklisted this location. I am actually shocked that places like Guerilla Printing and Toronto Cartoonist Workshop, both of which I respect, are connected to such a place, and I'm saddened that I probably won't visit either of these places in person because my desire to stay away from Comic Lounge is so strong.
Kevin Boyd / December 26, 2012 at 07:28 pm
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Miroki, your mind has clearly been made up based on a bad experience you had with my manager Joe after he would not accept a voucher you wanted to redeem from a 6 month long promotion that ran March to September of this year. As per my instruction, since there had been ample warnings to the participants in that promotion that it was expiring (and then that it had expired), he was not to accept any vouchers after the expiry date of September 30th. That's a business decision on my part as I can only give away product at half price for so long, and as manager, he was in the position of carrying out the owner's instructions.

However, I do agree that he was definitely out of line in berating you after you wanted to debate the matter with him instead of just saying that he was sorry but we do not accept expired vouchers and that there was nothing more that he could do... I have spoken with him about it and he does regret what happened. No one should be made to feel inept or made fun of, and I've never seen him do this to any other customers, and I think you would find that Joe is very well liked and respected in our community and is a very helpful and knowledgeable manager.

Hopefully you'll give the store a chance some time in the future, or at the very least not hold it against our neighbours.

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