A Comic Shop Tour Part 1

With the pandemic still in full swing, my son and I were feeling nostalgic for the “hunt” or finding that great item at a great price. So I decided we would have a short getaway and take two days to tour the tightest concentration of comic shops in Canada, from the GTA (greater Toronto area) to the GHA (greater Hamilton area), or from Scarborough to Stoney Creek.

A little background before we get started. Let’s start with my son John: a 13-year-old who enjoys all comics and is in the process of finishing his run of West Coast Avengers and Asterix Omnibus’. As well he wanted the pre-New 52 Deathstroke trade paperbacks. I’m a longtime comics reader who gave up on superheroes twenty years ago, loves newspaper strip collections, Artist’s Editions, and collects 80s hardcovers and European volumes. John was hopeful and I expected to find very little. As well I ran the Harry Kremer Retailer Award for five years, so I had a decent amount of experience judging comic shops and providing informed decisions. My photos are all of Artist’s Edition format material for sale and are, I know, very specific.

I should also say my “local comic shop” or LCS is what John and I are most familiar with, and they set a high bar. As well I’m a very long term customer and receive a discount that colours my buying decisions elsewhere. As we went to all these comic shops John would judge their pricing and selection against our LCS and most came up wanting. But we did encounter several welcome surprises!

We left early in the morning and drove to Toronto to discover most comic shops opened at 11 AM or later. So we puttered around, had an early lunch, and used Google Maps for our route planning. At lunch, we went through Google’s photos of comic shops using the search term “comic book store” and pretty quickly decided that we would be skipping any comic shop in an indoor mall. We had a few past experiences and found they catered to a casual comic and pop culture buyer and didn’t have a deep comic back stock. The ones we skipped may have had vast treasures but we only had two days and with the driving, limited open hours and time to dig, this seemed like an easy decision.

After lunch, we began in earnest and decided to start in Scarborough and head west to Hamilton, stopping at the edge of Mississauga before heading to our hotel for the night. The next day we started in Oakville and headed west again, ending right before closing in Stoney Creek.

When I was judging stores for a national award, there were a lot of criteria, focusing on not just was in the store but how they interacted with customers and the community. As a new customer, these things didn’t matter to me. Here’s what I believe a retail store needs to succeed, whatever they sell, and how this relates to comic shops.

  • A clear and presentable storefront. Don’t have sun faded posters covering the front windows because you can’t afford tinting or blinds.
  • Excellent lighting. I walk into the store and want to see what’s there: this isn’t a speakeasy, it’s a place trying to sell me things.
  • A clean store. There shouldn’t be dust or dirt anywhere. Stock should not be piled anywhere. Boxes should not be on the retail floor. If I have to move stacks of comics to look at other comics, you’ve failed. If I touch something and your precarious pile falls over, you’ve failed. If I have to manuever around boxes in your aisles, you’ve failed. If I have to get on my hands and knees to look under a table or pull out a bin, you’ve failed.
  • A greeting from staff when I enter. Studies show people are less likely to shoplift if they’re acknowledged, so at the least a store should let the customer know staff are there to help and curb casual shoplifting. Not looking at me while I’m in your store tells me you don’t care I’m there.
  • Have some organization to their displays. Let me as the customer be able to browse and find things. Signs are great.
  • Have stock priced or have signs indicating price. Canadian comic shops typically use the USD printed cover price and charge some sort of exchange rate. Not posting this and having me have to ask how much things are makes me want to not buy it.
  • Know your local and federal requirements for access, health and taxes. Have ramps if needed, have signs for masks and hand sanitizer, and charge the correct tax on purchases. You know, like a “real” store would.

These items all seem so basic, retailing 101, that it’s discouraging to have to list them. I know when I walk into an Old Navy or Cabelas all these things have been taken care of. In fact, I don’t have to give any thought to it. But if I want into a comic shop none of these can be taken for granted. And that’s sad.

It was an interesting exercise in the variety of comic shop retailing available, their approach to everything, and an overall sense of the market. I’ll name the exceptional stores but will not shame the others. This time.

Here are the best comic shops to visit, alphabetically: The Beguiling (Toronto), Big B Comics (Hamilton), BMV (Yonge St. Toronto), and Gotham Central (Mississauga). Let’s go over what each one has. The three dedicated comics shops in this list have all won the Harry Kremer Retailer Award.

The Beguiling has a staggeringly varied inventory and had things for myself and my son. The upstairs is bright and the staff are friendly. A ridiculous amount of Artist’s Editions, full sets of Cochran slipcased collections, a lot of higher-end back issues, foreign language material, art books, and many Big Two (Marvel and DC) collections. I asked about the exchange rate and the employee couldn’t tell me so he scanned a $30 book and told me the Canadian price which I used to determine exchange. The basement is dark, cramped, and dusty, and holds a lot of stock that wasn’t upstairs, including what looked like a complete run of Cinebook and lower-priced back issues. They monitor market prices and increase books prices so you’ll probably find something you’re looking for but you won’t get a deal. I found two copies of Humanoids Young Albert limited edition hardcover for the old cover price of $69.95 but both were damaged from poor handling and storage. I bought the better of the two, along with some Dan Dare Titan hardcovers, Jerry And The Joker from Dark Horse, and three Asterix Omnibus’. Plus a very nice copy of Batman From The 30s To The 70s, fourth printing.

Big B Comics has a varied selection with their main floor dedicated to collected editions and single issues, with vintage toys sprinkled around. Some statues, some games, some cards, some kids’ books: a curated selection of many things. I enjoyed the discounted book section, older or traded-in collected editions for 60% of U.S. cover. The basement is dedicated to lower-priced back issues, and was well lit and clean, along with the rest of the store. Everyone was greeted as they walked in. The only store that has their exchange rate posted around the store and at the cash.

BMV Yonge St. location is several floors of discounted books, movies, and more. Another bright and clean store. The third floor is all comics and they have a wonderful inventory of remaindered books, second-hand books, with a lot of Big Two and so much more. Walls of bookshelves with collected editions and rows of back issues. They sell new books for U.S. cover in Canadian, so a decent discount even on new items. Limited staff interaction, but the gentleman working the third floor counter was helpful. A glass counter with higher-priced items. They are always buying books and I find myself visiting to look through what has come in from the public. This time around it was The Complete Dickie Dare softcover and three DC “Unwrapped” volumes for half cover price.

Gotham Central is one of the largest comic stores I’ve been in. It’s in an industrial park and doesn’t have a basement to take advantage of, but they don’t need it. So many back issues and collected editions, with a focus on the Big Two. The entrance is dominated by glass statue cases. I passed a shelf of cereal boxes on my way through and a large card section. Bright, clean, nice aisles. No staff interaction until I went to the cash to ask about their exchange rate. I didn’t get a straight answer so I had to get the price of the two items I wanted, Bernie Wrightson’s Muck Monster Artist’s Edition Portfolio and Deathstroke Vol 2.

On the other end of the spectrum are “old school” comic shops: poorly lit, dusty, single employee (usually the owner), stock piled around the place, especially in the aisles. If you want to find anything you have to move a pile of stuff. Products faded from florescent lighting. These places can be full of hidden treasure since it’s so haphazard they probably don’t know what they have. But really, haven’t we all been to one of these shops and wondered how they’re still in business. In this crowded market, I marvel they’re still around.

Most of the comic shops we visited were middle ground: not great or terrible, just middling. They were a little dark, a bit dusty. They carried new comics and trades, or new comics and back issues, or new comics and candy, or new comics and Pop vinyls. A few had a wide variety of material but lacked depth. Neighbourhood comic shops for the weekly new comics buyers. Most were a pleasant experience but didn’t wow. We found an item here and there: Deathstroke Vol 3, The Phantom Dailies Vol 2 (damaged and half price), and a West Coast Avengers trade paperback John bought as he didn’t locate the single issues he wanted.

As a whole, comic shops have too much inventory, including my top picks. Every store I visited had shelves, pegboards, and comic boxes wherever they could be placed, floor to ceiling. They’re trying to sell as much as they can to as many different types of pop culture buyers, working with the space they have. Lots of items out of reach along the tops of bookshelves or high on the wall; thankfully I’m 6′ 8″ and can reach pretty much anything.

Two of the comic shops we purchased books at charged us 13% HST (harmonized sales tax), which is wrong. A little background: in Ontario, books have 5% HST charged. Magazines with advertising are charged 13% HST, so any “pamphlet” or comic magazine. Any collected edition is a book and should be 5% HST. This incorrectly charges sales tax surprised me, as this is their primary business and should know what tax to charge. I wrote about this in 2016 after visiting this same shop, being charged the wrong tax, and contacting them about it. Flat out unacceptable.

I’ve left my interest in AE format books to the last, even though that’s the focus of the photos. It was an expected mix: the best stores have the most varied stock and carried the most AE format books. When I asked about Artist’s Editions at these stores I received the same answer: interest in new releases, but the older volumes just sat there. Then there was a mid-tier where they seemed to have experimented with and found stock sat around. Finally, there were stores that had a token product: one store had a single overpriced Neal Adams’ Thrillkill Artist’s Edition Portfolio from 2012, while another had a single boxed Jim Lee’s X-Men Artifact Edition hidden behind some other product. The smallest shop I visited had Mike Zeck’s Classic Marvel Stories Artist’s Edition proudly displayed: I asked the owner and he said he didn’t remember ordering it but it showed up one day from Diamond and he’s been trying to sell it ever since.