or nearly two decades, visitors to the Beguiling, the charmingly overstocked comic-book emporium in the heart of Toronto's Mirvish Village, would often be greeted by the sight of long-time owner Peter Birkemoe sitting in his "office" – perched behind his computer, at the first-floor cash register, surrounded by the ever-encroaching comics, artworks, 'zines and other ephemera that have made it the most important comic-book store in Canada, and one of the greatest in the world.
"I've spent more of my life, hour-wise, awake, in this room, than I've spent in any [other] building," Birkemoe said one morning earlier this month, as he took a break from preparing for the store's last day, on Tuesday. He laughed, quietly, as if realizing this for the first time. "That will be sad."
Countless obituaries were written about Honest Ed's, the discount department store that anchored Mirvish Village, an eclectic block of art studios, restaurants and other small businesses, in the days before the brightly lit retailer shut its doors on Dec. 31, the result of a redevelopment that will significantly alter the southwest corner of Bathurst and Bloor in the coming years. The Beguiling, at least to its customers, is as vital an institution.
Since the store moved into its current home more than 20 years ago, it has served as a sort of clubhouse for many in the city's comics community. It will survive, in name and in spirit, in a different form – a new location, on College Street, on the edge of Kensington Market, opened last month – but at the same time one can't help but feel a sense of an ending, that a chapter is coming to a close.
"It will definitely be hard to have that feeling of something just so densely packed with history," said the comics artist Michael DeForge. "I'm sure the new location will eventually get as lived in, and accumulate that history as it goes on, but that's going to be a hard thing to get back again."
Growing up in Ottawa in the 1990s, DeForge discovered the work of Toronto comic artists such as Chester Brown, Joe Matt and Seth. "The Beguiling seemed like a part of that [world], this weird linchpin of the scene, this mythical store that had comics that I only dreamed of ever having access to."
DeForge first visited the store when he was in high school. "I remember seeing it for the first time and being pretty floored. It was sort of like coming across a box full of cash. It was just a magical thing. A treasure chest of cool stuff. And a lot of it I'd never seen before in my life."
In an e-mail, the artist and illustrator Jillian Tamaki wrote that the Beguiling "was one of the reasons I chose to move to Toronto from New York. It's a place that serves as the spiritual heart of a very energetic scene. Canadian comics would be a lot poorer without this place."
Since 1992, when it moved from its original location on Harbord Street, where it opened in 1987, "this place" has been a converted house at 601 Markham St., in the shadow of Honest Ed's. Birkemoe first frequented the store as a customer, then got a job there, and, in 1998, bought the store from original owners Steve Solomos and Sean Scoffield.
Birkemoe, inspired by comic-book shops he'd visited in Europe, set about to expand the scope and substance of the store. His goal? "Whether you were here for the superhero stuff, or you were here for comics academia, or you were here for French or Japanese stuff, you were encountering a selection that you were not encountering anywhere else."
Tom Devlin, the executive editor of Drawn & Quarterly, the Montreal-based comics publisher, was in Toronto for business a few years ago. Inclement weather delayed his trip home, leaving him with plenty of time to browse the Beguiling's shelves. "Really, everything was in there," he said. "It had everything. And stores don't have that. It's got to be the last store that has that kind of depth. A book that's 30 years old – there it is, just sitting there."
But not for much longer. Despite the new location, Birkemoe is taking this opportunity to get rid of much of the stock, which filled up the store's basement and a storage unit across the street, too. ("Had I wanted to, I probably could have opened a chain of 10 stores across the country with the existing stock.")
On the day of my last visit, the owner of a Buffalo-area comics store was picking through the shelves, looking for things to take back across the border. Business has been brisk since Birkemoe announced the shop's closing – aided, no doubt, by deep discounts – but the store looked just as cluttered as my last visit. It reminded me of an archeological dig: Things that hadn't seen the light of day for years were being brought to the surface. Even staff, said Birkemoe, were finding books they'd never seen before.
"It's very liberating," Birkemoe said, when I expressed surprise he was getting rid of so much of the collection. "There is a natural attachment to these books that you've accumulated over the years. But that is the wrong emotion to be feeling. I desperately want to find homes for all of these books."
The new location represents a blank canvas, in a sense. Since he learned of the Mirvish Village development several years ago – he found out the day before San Diego Comic-Con, and spent much of the festival, the biggest comics event of the year, breaking the news to colleagues – Birkemoe looked at "several dozen" spots throughout the city before settling on 319 College St. (Little Island, the Beguiling's children-focused kid sister, and another casualty of the development, will not be relocating.)
While the new location is smaller – 900 square feet, compared with about 1,200 square feet on Markham Street – Birkemoe is excited about the possibilities the space offers. It's accessible, for one, and the floors are actually level.
He admitted one thing, though, is currently lacking. "[It's] not as cluttered," he said. "By any normal retail standard it looks full. By Beguiling standards, it's not full by any stretch."
In praise of the 'holy church of the graphic novel'
The graphic novelist Seth says the Beguiling serves as a monument to the success of comics as a serious art form
I probably visited the Beguiling the very first week it opened on Harbord Street in 1987. I'm sure I went there the moment I heard of the place. I don't actually recall the visit itself, though I do fondly remember that early (and much smaller) shop. Mostly what I remember is Steve Solomos, the original owner. He had such a large, bombastic personality that the image of Steve has overshadowed my image of the store.
The Beguiling was fairly modest back then. In fact, comics themselves were fairly modest. The number of good comic books being published then was slim and it was a daring move on Steve and Sean's (Scoffield) part to open a comic shop that was focused almost entirely on the art-comics side of the coin. Almost every other comic shop in North America was all about selling superhero comic books and baseball cards.
I was very snobby in those days about comic books (still am). Filled with indignation toward those crasser elements of the comic-book world, I was utterly thrilled to see the Beguiling open. Cartoonist Chester Brown and I (and later Joe Matt) were early devotees of the store and never failed to call it "the best comic shop in North America" on our letters pages or in interviews. I still do the same thing today.
Eventually, the store moved to Mirvish Village and that is the iconic location for most folks. That location is burned permanently into my brain from so much time spent there over the years. Steve and Sean eventually moved on and Peter Birkemoe took over.
At first, this regime change was very worrisome to me. Steve and Sean (especially Steve) were very devoted to the artier side of comic books and in my eyes this was a sacred cause. I was somewhat afraid that Peter (who I didn't know very well) might not be so faithful to the holy church of the graphic novel. His taste might not be up to my lofty standards.
It turned out the opposite. Peter has been a most faithful and vocal champion for the medium of adult/art/alternative comics. Much of the credit for the success of modern comics goes to the cartoonists and publishers, but a large part of it is due to the handful of retailers who seriously championed the medium in its early days.
It's hard to overemphasize how valuable it was, as a cartoonist, to live in a city that had such a shop. Other cartoonists in other cities did not have, at their doorstep, every good comics publication currently being published. Most cartoonists had to mail order everything (if they were even aware of the books) or had to wait for scattered visits to a good comic shop (usually far away). I never took this for granted. I was always afraid the store would go out of business and we'd be left in a comics desert.
I will certainly miss the Markham Street location. That place has a special spot in my memory. We all have a lost city inside ourselves – the memory of places that used to be. I'm sorry to add the Mirvish Village shop to that inner lost city, but I am happy to see the Beguiling carry on and prosper. Long live the Beguiling.
Seth is the author of the graphic novels It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken and George Sprott (1894-1975). His next book, Palookaville 23, will be published in May.