We visit the perennially popular Mirvish Village comic-book shop to learn its secrets to 25 years of success.
For the past 25 years, The Beguiling (601 Markham St.) has been serving the comic-book needs of both the niche enthusiast and the traditional collector of superhero titles. This Monday (Nov. 12), the store celebrates its remarkable run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema by gathering three of the medium’s most celebrated creators—Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, and Charles Burns—to present their latest works.
How it all started: The Beguiling was opened in 1987 by Steve Solomos and Sean Scoffield and, right from the beginning, they had a unique approach to the business. “They started stocking things that other comic shops weren’t carrying,” says current owner Peter Birkemoe. “[They featured] a lot of the emerging alternative-comic scene—titles people would recognize like Eightball by Daniel Clowes, Love & Rockets, things like that.”
Initially a customer, Birkemoe eventually bought The Beguiling in 1998, an act inspired more by a love of comics than shrewd business sense. “I started shopping there when I was still in high school,” he recounts. “Eleven years later, I was occasionally picking up a shift when someone needed a day off. [Solomos and Scoffield] were going to sell the store and I was very anxious about what might happen if someone didn’t step in, if it got sold to someone who was not particularly concerned about the reputation and vision. So I bought the shop, in a way, to preserve my source for comics—if Beguiling were to have closed at that point, it would not necessarily have been obvious where you might get the latest Optic Nerve.”
Who shops there: While Birkemoe has seen comic-book culture embraced by a wider demographic over the years, customers at The Beguiling have never been very typical. “We have always, compared to the norm of comic-book stores, had a much more gender-balanced, more age-diverse, more ethnically diverse clientele,” says Birkemoe. “And that’s because we carry comics for people to read versus for people to collect.”
Birkemoe gives credit to the hyper-specific nature of manga for helping to lure in a broader audience. “You have so many more genres, from cooking manga to gangster manga to manga for young girls to manga for literary adults,” he says. “There are so many more types of readers in the Japanese market. As we start to translate that material, we’re able to reach people that would never have considered reading comics before, because there was nothing for them.”
As new readers are introduced to comics, titles with distinct voices will emerge. “One of the issues [in the industry] is why there aren’t more comics for girls—there’s a cart-horse problem there,” says Birkemoe. “It’s because there was a large period where there were no comics being published for girls, so there were no girls growing up with comics for themselves. But, gradually, those ruts in the industry get eroded.”
With a proliferation of new titles heading down offbeat paths, there are signs of this erosion already. “It’s great to be in that position where someone has read five things, they kind of have an idea of what they like and you can put any number of books in front of them based on what they’ve told you, which previously would not necessarily been the case,” says Birkemoe. “When the store first opened and someone would say, ‘I just read Maus and that was great,’ it was like, ‘I don’t really have that much to offer you that’s as great or that’s great in a way that you’re looking for more of.’ It took a while—a full generation of people seeing the potential of Maus—to develop this critical mass. Now there’s so much variety.”
The pop-culture crossover effect (or lack thereof): One might think that the latest comic-based Hollywood blockbuster would lead to increased demand at the shop. “People say, ‘the new Spider-Man movie must be great for sales,’” Birkemoe relates. “But it’s not—it doesn’t relate at all.”
Even for those newbies who are enthused enough to venture into the shop, expectations might not align with reality. “We had trouble when the Iron Man movie came out,” says Birkemoe. “People were like, ‘That [movie] was great, can you recommend a great Iron Man comic?’—and they don’t exist. There aren’t any good Iron Man comics. I’m overstating it a little, but the idea that people are used to—of graphic novels that stand alone as a complete story—there just wasn’t something good that you could hand to people.”
Upstairs, downstairs: The ground floor of The Beguiling focusses on what Birkemoe describes as the literary end of comic books, while the second floor stocks more traditional fare. There are certain titles, however, that both sorts of customers can appreciate. “Charles Burns is often the perfect bridge between the two floors,” says Birkemoe. “The quality of both the writing and art is recognized as top-of-the-form by any of the people who have this literary taste, but the subject matter is much more approachable, given that it does have the trappings of the genre fiction very typical to what people traditionally think of comics.”
Kids’ stuff: One advantage of having been around for 25 years is direct access to an entirely new generation of shoppers. “We took what was a very popular, bursting-at-the-seams children’s section and spun it off to its own retail space,” says Birkemoe. “Our original clientele have grown up and started to have children, so that’s allowed us to open the second store last year: Little Island Comics,” whose name was inspired by the fact that “people used to hear the name The Beguiling and they’d get it wrong: The Big Island.”
Future forecasts: As interest in comic books grows, even mainstream bookstores have started to carry the more popular titles. “We are no longer the only game in town,” says Birkemoe, “However, the readership is growing proportionately, or even more. People, eventually, if they become interested in comics tend to come into our orbit here.
“People always assume with the book industry in this day and age that things are dire,” Birkemoe concludes. “But while the future is very uncertain, the present has been very good.”