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Memories in Silver

August 13, 2012

Update: this article is now on

Over the next few weeks, The Silver Snail will be moving (not closing!) from it’s long-time Queen West location to rub shoulders with the HMV Superstore at Yonge and Dundas, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It’s one of the oldest comic shops in TO, possibly Canada. The move is bitter-sweet for me, as it was the second comic shop I ever shopped in, the first being Queen’s Comics in the Beaches (RIP).

Full disclosure: I’ve never worked at or been associated with the Snail in any way. I’m just a long-time (almost 30 years) customer. As my life has moved around, so has my relationship with this iconic piece of Hogtown.

Before the Snail moves completely, I’d like to share a few of the memories I’ve had of the store. Some of these will coincide with other folks memories, some won’t. They won’t all be pretty, and many will be effected by faulty memories. But they’re mine, shabby as they are.

Queen St. circa 1985

Queen West, in the strip between University and Spadina Avenues, was a much different place in the 80’s than it is today. There was almost a half-dozen used bookstores and record shops, 3 (count ’em, 3) comic shops, and some of the more unique Queen St. institutions like Black Market, Pages and Urban Surplus.

Stepping onto that strip in the 80’s was a nerd’s wet dream. You could find your music at Driftwood, your science fiction and fantasy paperbacks at Bakka, and your comics at both The Silver Snail and The Dragon Lady. And you were in spitting distance of both The Eaton Center, Chinatown, and Kensington Market. Add in all the antiquarian bookshops and antique stores on Queen past Spadina, and you had it made. And were probably also broke by the end of your shopping spree.

It’s much harder to find that level of concentrated street shopping in Toronto anymore.

How many Snails are there?

By my count, there was at least 3 shops that had the name Silver Snail: 2 in Toronto, and 1 in Ottawa. I’ve visited all 3. The second Toronto store was at Eglinton and Yonge, and I visited it regularly while working at St. Clair and Yonge. This was my first job as a young webmonkey, and I’d hop on the TTC and go up to visit the Snail at lunch. This store had a lot less shelf space than the Queen location, but it had what I really wanted: fresh, pulpy newsprint with word balloons.

I only visited the Ottawa location once, on the way back from a weekend trip to Montreal. From what I remember it felt and looked very similar to The Dragon Lady, another iconic Queen West shop from my childhood.

To my knowledge, both the Ottawa and Queen West (soon to be Yonge St) shops are all that remain.

Special guests

I’ve attended very few signings at the Snail, though I remember 3 of note, which have their own stories surrounding them.

The first was Moebius. This was decades ago. Mark Askwith (now working for the Space Channel) has a legendary story attached to this signing, which has become Canadian Nerd Folklore. This was so long ago, and Mark’s story so powerful, I will admit that my memory may be playing tricks on me in regards to my attendance. Also, at the time, I barely knew that you could have comics without superheroes, so Moebius wasn’t that big a draw for me. But I can remember being there (even if I wasn’t), although I never witnessed the incident that Askwith recounts. On this score, Mark is the more reliable witness, and I believe what he says, and the story is both poignant and wonderful.

The next was Will Eisner. By this time, my comics diet was 50/50 superheroes and independants, and I not only knew who Eisner was, but how important his contribution to the industry was. But…I didn’t have anything for Eisner to sign. Except one thing. Cerebus Jam. This is humliating to admit, but I waited in line to have Will Eisner sign Cerebus Jam #1, and had to explain to him that it was the only thing he had created that I currently owned. At that time, I was working retail, and the bulk of his work was reprinted in very expensive hardcover editions. There was cheaper trade printings of some of his work, but most of that wasn’t that appealing to me.

(Note that this wasn’t humiliating because of the other fine creators in this comic. It was embarrassing because it isn’t part of Eisner’s core creative work.)

The last is Neil Gaiman. Here, I outfoxed myself, and have another embarrassing story to tell. When he dropped by, I had managed to obtain 2 copies of Black Orchid #2. I’ve done very little speculating in my comics reading, and I purchased the second copy because it had been signed by Dave McKean, his collaborater on that project. The first copy I had bought was already signed by Gaiman. Perfect opportunity to have Gaiman sign the one signed by McKean, right? Well, in my excitement, I hadn’t realized that I already had Gaiman sign it at a previous event. And I brought it in, dropped it in front of Gaiman, who picked it up, looked inside and said, “Ah. I’ve already signed this. No problem. I’ll sign it again”. And that’s what he did. And I walked away feeling like a prize chump.

An interesting sidenote is that Dave Sim (the creator of Cerebus and organizer of the Cerebus Jam book) tells his own story about this signing in a rare small-press ‘celebrity roast’ chapbook on Gaiman…this and many other humorous stories on Neil are found within.

Christmas in the 31st century

Or, how I started spended money on games I never played.

I’m a huuuuge fan of technical manuals. I read them cover-to-cover. I rarely understand any of it, but I love reading them. A company called FASA created and put out the first editions of the role-playing game Battletech, which has since been made into video games, novels, and still maintains an RPG.

I was never interested in actually playing Battletech. At that time, I didn’t know anyone who actually played RPG’s anyways. But I loved the technical manuals. So, for Christmas (I must have been between 10-12 years old at the time), I asked for 2 of the Battletech technical manuals. I actually had my sisters (both 20 years older than myself) drive downtown, walk into a comic shop, inquire about these books, and successfully give them to me as Christmas gifts. No one else in my family is a genre fan, so they never understood how much that meant to me. They probably washed their hands for days afterwards. But I had one of the best Christmas’ ever.

Can you read comics in a blizzard?

You can if you’re Canadian, baby.

The worst trip I ever had to The Silver Snail involved a winter blizzard, in the early 90’s. I was working for Coles Bookstore at the time. We were at Yonge and Bloor, and The Snail is at Queen and Spadina (give or take a few blocks). This is a long walk, even in the summer. That day, Toronto had received enough snow that they were measuring it in feet, not inches. The TTC was down. No buses. Nothing. The sidewalks were impassable. I certainly wasn’t dressed for the weather.

It took me over an hour, maybe more, but I made it. On foot. By this time, partial service had been restored to the TTC, and I made it home with that week’s comics. Mission accomplished.

The upstairs above the upstairs

I’ve been to the third floor. I’ve met Bill Marks. Yes, that Bill Marks. If you don’t know who Bill Marks is, ask Ty Templeton about him the next time you see him at a con.

Back in high school, I started a comics project of my own with a friend. He drew it, I wrote it. He was much better at what he did than I was, but neither of us was at a professional level yet. But we had lots of energy, and probably too much guts for our own good.

Bill Marks was the owner and publisher of a comics company based in Toronto called Vortex. It’s most famous creation was Mister X, who became famous nationally in an ad campaign for Black Label Beer. Vortex had their offices (at the time) directly above The Silver Snail comic shop.

I still can’t believe I did this, but I phoned up Vortex and managed to get an interview to pitch our comic to Bill Marks. I showed up with a portfolio and everything. We spent almost an hour talking through the business of comics, proper anatomy, what comics storytelling consisted of, and what the current market (circa the late 80’s) wanted. Contrary to the many stories I’ve heard of Bill Marks, it was actually a productive meeting. For me. For him, it was a waste of an hour dealing with a writer who couldn’t write very well.

Me and my friend did put out 3 issues on our own. We called our book Chased by Dogs, about the adventures of a Toronto bike courier. I’ve kept them (and the original artwork), all these years. We actually did have it stocked on consignment in The Silver Snail. We even managed to sell a few copies.

What’s next for the Snail?

Hopefully, many happy returns. I’ve been looking at the some of the videos of the new space, and I’m a bit excited that there may be a cafe inside the store, as well as a kid’s section. These are both great ideas.

I don’t play favorites with stores. I shop at many of the comics stores around Toronto, and try to visit most of them once a year, at least. I love genre fiction, and no store has a complete monopoly lock on all the different things that can be sold in these stores.

Like I said at the beginning, these are my memories, and they’re fragmented across 30 years. I’m sure many people have their own cherished memories of the store.

If you’ve been to New York, you know that their most famous comics shop, Midtown Comics, is very close to Times Square. Here’s hoping the Snail’s move to Toronto’s more modest version of Times Square brings them as much success.

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