Beguiled by The Beguiling
By Jeet Heer
National Post (May 17, 2002).

A first-rate specialty store can turn shopping into an educational experience, a fact well-known to customers of The Beguiling, a Toronto comic book store celebrating its 15th anniversary next week.

Long cherished by discriminating cartoon enthusiasts in the city, The Beguiling also has an international reputation: When the Popular Culture Association held its annual conference in Toronto this spring, scores of scholars from places like France and Singapore made sure they visited the store.

Although derided by some for its elitist attitude, The Beguiling has had a remarkable impact in its 15-year life. "I took my bearings from The Beguiling as a magnet location for me when I visited Toronto," notes Charles Hatfield, who teaches about comics at California State University in Northridge, Calif. "The Beguiling is distinguished by an abiding sense of history, particularly by the art work on the wall, which ranges from classic works to contemporary artists. You always leave the shop with a larger sense of what comics are about."

Most comic book stores in North America focus almost entirely on selling contemporary superhero comics. By contrast, The Beguiling stocks a broad range of comics, including the great caricaturists of the 18th and 19th centuries (notably William Hogarth and Gustave Dore), reprints of classic comic strips (such as Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy), underground comix that flourished during the counterculture of the 1960s (Robert Crumb's Zap and Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), as well as prize-winning graphic novels (Dan Clowes's Ghost World and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan).

The inventory at The Beguiling is as cosmopolitan as it is diverse, including a rich selection of comics from countries such as France, Japan and New Zealand. If by chance you are looking for French scholar Thierry Groensteen's brilliant little monograph on Krazy Kat, The Beguiling is one of the few places in the world where it will turn up.

When Steve Solomos and Sean Scoffield first opened The Beguiling in a dingy storefront on Harbord Street near the University of Toronto, their main goal was to carry items they were interested in but could never find in other stores. In the early days of the store, that largely meant carrying expensive "portfolios" by illustrators such as Bernie Wrightson, which tended to be sold through mail-order catalogues.

"Every store is stocked the way the owner likes their comics," notes Scoffield. "Most comic fans like Spider-Man and Superman, so that's what they stock. We felt that while we liked those old superhero comics, they were also passe. Soon after opening the store, we discovered what we really liked is alternative comics, which is what we started carrying and pushing."

During the 1970s and early '80s, alternative comics, often done by artists inspired by the underground comics of Crumb, were largely sold through head shops, boutiques that specialized in drug paraphernalia such as bongs and psychedelic posters. As the war on drugs expanded in the early 1980s, law enforcement agencies across North America started targeting head shops, destroying the stoner distribution network that had sustained alternative comics.

By the late 1980s, The Beguiling was in a perfect position to fill the vacuum created by the decline of head shops. Aside from carrying the comics of Crumb, they also championed the work of such second-generation underground cartoonists as Clowes, Julie Doucet and Chester Brown. Because these alternative cartoonists frequently trafficked in sexual and scatological imagery, many comic book stores didn't carry their works.

A wave of police busts at Toronto comic book stores reinforced this trend, leaving The Beguiling as the undisputed bastion of alternative comics, not only in Toronto but also North America. Since many of the cartoonists sold at The Beguiling had ties to the larger world of alternative culture, the store also started carrying books by cult writers such as William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski. The aesthetic of the store is perfectly captured by a Crumb drawing that graces the wall, showing Bukowski in all his drunken glory.

Clowes, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for turning his graphic novel Ghost World into a screenplay, recalls that The Beguiling promoted his work in the late 1980s, when it sold only a few thousand copies. "The Beguiling is one of a tiny handful of comic book stores that presents my beloved profession in a positive light," says Clowes, who will take part in the anniversary festivities this weekend. "The atmosphere in most comic stores is so dispiriting that I often feel suicidal after about five minutes. It's truly one of the best four or five stores in the world and one of the very few places I would send a non-reader of comics (even female!) without embarrassment."

Scoffield acknowledges that in its early years, the store was so abrasive in pushing forward its vision that it alienated some in the comics industry who considered the owners to be snotty and stuck-up.

The store even sponsored a short-lived critical journal, entitled Crash, which devoted much energy to condemning bad comics. Crash was the equivalent of Harry Rosen or The Gap publishing a catalogue devoted to lambasting shoddily made clothes.

"There was some bad blood because we were seen as uppity young guys who were saying how great our store was," Scoffield admits. "But look at the other stores: They are mostly geared to 13-year-old comic book geeks. Often they were run by 20-year-old guys who refused to wash or clean."

In 1998, Solomos and Scoffield decided they wanted to devote more time to creating art rather than just selling it. After selling the store to Peter Birkemoe and Shane Chung, the two founding fathers both moved into the world of film production.

Although they are much more soft-spoken than the previous owners, Birkemoe and Chung remain committed to what they call the "Beguiling aesthetic," which they define as promoting the comics they love best while maintaining a wide stock.

"We are a store with an agenda, and I've pursued the Beguiling aesthetic to a real extreme in that I'm trying to get anything that is even peripherally comic book-oriented," says Birkemoe. "There are two conflicting forces, both of which are good for the store: The desire to have a strong aesthetic stands in competition with the desire to have everything. Rather than have five copies of the latest X-Men graphic novels, I want one, plus four other graphic novels no one else has. If someone is looking for a comic, I want to be the one to put it into their hands."

Birkemoe's quest for diversity gives the store its distinctive feel. Now nestled in a two-storey house on Markham Street, in the shadow of Honest Ed's gaudy emporium, The Beguiling has more than enough room to hold its riches.

"The main room looks like, well, like a good book store," notes Professor Gene Kannenberg, who teaches comics at the University of Connecticut. "Tables up front display new and noteworthy books of comics, while the walls are covered not with wire racks but bookcases holding a deep selection of comics narratives from around the world, as well as an excellent selection of children's books and reference works on comic art. Silkscreened European fanzines compete with archival reprinting of classic comic strips for your attention. The store is packed to the brim without being cluttered. It's an environment that encourages browsing, that begs for your time and rewards your explorations."