Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Booksellers are Holiday Heroes: Peter Birkemoe, The Beguiling/Little Island Comics

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Toronto loves comics.

Toronto loves comics. I mean, have you been to the Toronto Comics Art Festival that happens every year in spring at the Toronto Reference Library? I took my five year old nephew for him to see what his future should hold he keep reading Tin Tin at the pace he is now. (I wept for my 14-year-old self who longed for this - a community of army-surplus, buttoned and awkward compatriots.) If my nephew, like so many sensible youngsters of Toronto, gets hooked on comics and graphic novels, I'll know where to send him: first to Little Island Comics (742 Bathurst Street), and then as he gets older, to The Beguiling Books and Art (601 Markham Street). And when he gets there, shuffling his feet, hair drooping in his eyes, thumbing through his iTunes and snapping his gum, when he finally, finally, looks up, I hope Peter Birkemoe is still behind the counter to pull his comics for him.

 

Peter Birkemoe is the owner of The Beguiling and its newly opened kids-store companion, Little Island Comics. He bought The Beguiling in 1998 to prevent the comic book store he shopped at from closing; owning the store seemed the best way of guaranteeing his line of supply. The best thing about working in a comic book shop, then, is clearly staying close to the stash. Peter thinks he’s well suited to owning a comic store because he loves the medium not as a would-be comic artist, but as a reader first. As such, he is happiest when surrounded by comics all day. It's not just his love for comics, but his skill and dedication as a book retailer that has led to him being widely regarded as a major figure in comics today. Peter co-founded TCAF, and The Beguiling has received two awards for retailing given in the comic industry, an Eisner award and the Harry Kremer Retailer Award.

And - since you were wondering - did you know that Little Island comics is so named because the Beguiling was often mistakenly heard as “The Big Island”? Did you also know, Torontonians, that you have North America’s only kids comic book store right here on Bathurst Street, just south of Honest Ed’s? Both stores have books and comics for everyone on your list, and friendly and intensely knowledgeable staff, so get you to Mirvish Village this weekend and get in the stores - and get happy.

Peter was kind enough to answer some questions I had about holiday retailing. Check my blog regularly this month to see answers from a variety of Toronto's loveliest booksellers!

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1. Describe a typical holiday shopper in November.

Many of the customers we get doing their holiday shopping early are those who give comics almost as a form of proselytizing. From local cartoonists like Chester Brown to some of my weekly customers who have loved graphic novels since well before their current mainstream acceptance there is a tradition to give comics as a way of growing a readership for their favourite medium. These folks typically know what they want, but are also looking to us specifically for things that aren't widely available.

2. Describe a typical holiday shopper in December.

December is when we start to get people we haven't seen before, or haven't seen since the last Christmas; they wander in with lists clutched in gloved hand. Our taxonomy isn't - well, let's just it's idiosyncratic and could be better labeled. As much as we try to be a fun store for browsing, if someone doesn't love comics themselves, the faster we can get that list from their hands and run around the store gathering a pile, the happier everyone will be.


3. Describe your ideal holiday shopper.

Customers with lists of titles, or who know exactly what they want are easy. But if someone is willing to thoughtfully describe who they are buying for and trusts us, it's a joy to make suggestions for the person you may never meet simply based on personality description. It's a rewarding challenge.  The further challenge, if you do a good job of that, is to have customers consider giving comics to someone they hadn't before (and maybe themselves!) and pick and describe something that they go for that too. Now that we have spun the main store's children's section off into its own shop, Little Island Comics, I have to send people around the block if their list includes young 'ins (12 and under), so often don't get to cross the last name off their shopping lists myself!

4. What is your most memorable holiday bookselling experience?  

Over the years, I have had many parents make an annual visit for a graphic novel to put under the tree, perhaps for a finicky older teen. Getting it right has meant that people come back and that there are some parents I have been serving for over 12 years now. I don't know the names of their now-adult children, or really anything more than which of my blind picks have been the biggest hits, but it is a fun to be part of this curatorial ritual.

5. What are the most requested books you've had this holiday season?

No surprise, since it's a New York Times bestseller, but Chris Ware's innovative Building Stories is selling to both our regulars and there are new customers walking in looking for it. The only people who aren't buying it seem to be those that know they are getting it for Christmas! But mainly, now that it is sold out everywhere else, we are selling many of the companion piece to that - Ware's adjunct, limited-edition Multi-Story Model, where you can build a scale model of the building at the centre of the story.


6. What books should people be buying this season?

When I get a should, I lean to homegrown talent, something that as a community comics hub we are known for promoting, particularly in the early stages of a career. The Team Society League Book of Answers cries out to be stuffed in every stocking regardless of the recipients taste in comics - it's goofy, guiltily pleasurable and fun and has wide appeal. And we make a point of getting local authors to sign stacks of their recent releases to offer something our on-line competitors cannot. On the second floor, where the manga and genre comics resides, now that we have had works like Brandon Graham's Prophet become one of bestselling monthly comics, it's nice to hand someone the big fat collection of his earlier King City.

7. Retail can be a stressful environment during the holidays. How are you coping?

Short answer: by maintaining my Christmas music moratorium on the main floor, where I work. Typically we worry about running out to the things we want most to be pushing but I think we are well stocked this year. Matching customers with the right title - that old bookstore magic - is actually one of the best parts of the job. Being busy with this means that January will be spent catching up on everything else - that will be stressful.  


8. What books are on your wish list this year?

Having two bookstores has to a degree satiated my need to have the books at home. But if we don't sell out of the R.Crumb Sketchbook box from Taschen before Christmas, I might end up giving one to myself. I've already sold a few, but at $1000 retail for the first of two sets, it isn't a casual buy for anyone. We also act as art dealers for the original artwork of many international and Canadian artists and a page of someone's favourite comics makes a great above-and-beyond Christmas.  I'm tempted to keep a page from one of our bestsellers, Canadian artist Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth. The problem as always is figuring out which page to choose.

 

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I stopped in for a chat with Peter surrounded by his vast supply and asked him for a few more quick recommendations while I took his picture for this interview (on my iPhone, because that's the sort of blogger I am). I wonder if he would have worn a Santa hat if I asked? Here’s what Peter suggested.

Peter: Again - Building Stories by Chris Ware is at the top of everyone’s list this year. It’s 14 booklets that can be read in any order. It’s at the top of the top of so many best-of lists this year, sold out everywhere -- and the Beguiling knew how much you would love it, so it’s in stock. [ed.: QUICK!!!!]

The publisher tells me of Building Stories that "Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public (and which can return to them in somewhat damaged form during REM sleep)."

 

Peter: By This You Shall Know Him by Jesse Jacobs is instantly visually striking by a relatively new voice in comics that is now emerging as a fully formed talent.

The publisher tells me that BTYSKH "bears witness to the limitless ambitions of a gang of celestial beings as they fiddle and fuss with all sorts of molecular arrangements, creating infinitely detailed patterns and strange new worlds brimming with bizarre life forms.” Take a look for yourself. [ed: I think I might buy this for my nephew when he’s a bit older, as he is such a huge fan of the worldess adventures of Matthew Forsythe's Ojingogo and Jinchalo… but this may be a bit too mind-unraveling for him just yet.]

 

For the little ones? How about Anna and Frogga: Want a Gumball by Anouk Ricard? The first translation of the French-language series, Peter likes Ricard’s appealing humour that doesn’t talk down to children. Some of the characters are kind of jerks, and that’s refreshing. [Ed: I read one story from Anna and Frogga and bought it instantly for my five-year-old nephew. Luckily, he doesn’t read these posts.] For our luckily bilingual readers, you can see a little clip of Anna and Frogga’s shenanigans here.

 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sachiko Murakami

Sachiko Murakami is the author of the poetry collections The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks, 2008), a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and Rebuild (Talonbooks, 2011). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Sachiko Murakami’s Author Page