The Beguiling Books and Art, which opened in 1987 in Toronto, is considered one of the best comic book stores in North America. When it was announced several years ago that Beguiling (which takes its name from the The Beguiling of Merlin, a painting by Edward Burne-Jones) would have to move out of its former home in an old Victorian mansion to make room for a condo development, it looked like it might be the end. But four months after a blowout clearance sale in January, and a move from the Mervish Village neighborhood to more modern digs near the University of Toronto, the shop is thriving.
Gone are the teetering piles of esoterica and dusty racks holding hard-to-find comics. Though smaller—900 sq. ft., down from 1,200—the shop is now more of a clean, well-lighted place. “It also has amenities like windows, level floors, and enough room in the aisles for two people to pass each other,” joked Peter Birkemoe, who bought the store from the original owners in 1998. Birkemoe is largely responsible for its reputation as a retail destination for the best in comics and graphic novels.
In addition to the sales floor, a basement space has been key to making a smooth transition, Birkemoe said. “It doesn’t leak and it’s bigger than the sales floor above.” It was tough to find adequate space to store years of accumulated stock. Birkemoe took a 10-year lease on the new property. “We’re here for the long term,” he said.
On the main level, shelves are organized by genre or author, and there’s original comic art for sale, with few sidelines. “I never wanted to sell toys or games,” Birkemoe said.
The new location and fresh interior look has had a positive impact on business. “Before, we primarily had customers who knew what they wanted,” Birkemoe said. “Now we have people who walk in out of curiosity.”
In addition, the location close to the university is bringing in more students and professors, many of whom are key clients for the store. Classroom adoption of graphic novels and comics has become more commonplace and accounts for a burgeoning part of the store’s trade. “Before, it might have been considered edgy to include Watchmen in a course about queer studies; now professors are willing to branch out and try more things,” explained Birkemoe, pointing to a copy of Benjamin Marra’s Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (Fantagraphics, 2015) being taught in a course on alternative heroics. “If a professor doesn’t quite know what he or she wants for a course, we know what to recommend,” he said. The Beguiling also supplies much of the comics and graphic novel stock for libraries across Canada, which accounts for some 50% of the store’s annual revenue.
The one major casualty of the move was the closing of Little Island Comics, Beguiling’s highly regarded children’s comic bookstore, which opened in 2011. Several of the staff from Little Island have moved to Page & Panel: The TCAF Shop, a sister store that opened in March 2015 inside the Toronto Reference Library, where it serves as a de facto gift shop for library patrons, as well as a bookish destination for comic book lovers on the edge of the posh Yorkville neighborhood.
The two stores operate independently—Page & Panel is a nonprofit shop owned by the popular Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), an indie comics convention held in the library—but the outlets share logistics as well as employees: both are managed by Chris Butcher, who, together with Birkemoe, founded TCAF in 1987. Between them, the stores have 20 employees.
“Sales at TCAF are phenomenal, for both us and the vendors,” Birkemoe said, adding that he expected about 25,000 people to attend the 2017 festival on May 13 and 14. Part of the success has been due to the festival’s ability to attract top comics creators from Japan.
Birkemoe, who learned Japanese while studying engineering, makes regular buying trips to Japan, which has enabled the Beguiling to stock manga titles well before they are translated. It also means that TCAF has been able to feature Japanese comics creators who rarely travel to festivals abroad. “One year we had the manga author Moyoco Anno over from Japan for a signing,” Birkemoe recounted. And, in a kind of cultural exchange, Birkemoe and Butcher have been taking groups of Canadian comics creators to Japan for the annual Kaigai Manga Festa since its inception in 2012.
But the key to the success of the Beguiling and events like TCAF, which feature unusual, unconventional comics, Birkemoe said, is the city and people of Toronto. “Sure, we have a vibrant comics creators scene in Toronto,” he said, “but I also think it’s a matter of diversity and open-mindedness. We have a city where half the population was born abroad. In Toronto, you are used to encountering things from other places, things that are new, or different, or strange and giving them a shot. And that curiosity extends to us.”