Things Done Right, Things Done Wrong and Things Picked Up Along the Way
Posted by Jim McLauchlin on August 16, 2021 @ 3:41 am CT
Like many, Peter Birkemoe’s route to comic store ownership ran through part-time work as a teenager.
"I was one of those kids who worked occasionally in comic shops, age 13-14 or so, but it was strictly to feed my habit," Birkemoe remembers today.
Unlike many, Birkemoe also studied to be a chemical engineer, and he did some paper conservation work for a comic book restorer.
But then, a store came calling.
"The store that was my go-to important place for things I could not get anywhere else (independent, small press stuff that I was actually interested in reading) approached me because they mistakenly thought I had money," he says. "They were looking to get out, and I was afraid of what might happen if I didn’t take it over. I wouldn’t have my source."
The store, Toronto’s The Beguiling, had opened in 1987, and Birkemoe took it over in 1998. The Beguiling has always had a crazy-wide selection of books, just to Birkemoe’s taste. It’s still his source, and he’s now at the center of it.
BROADEN FOR READERS
Birkemoe sees The Beguiling’s broad base as its strength, and he loves making it even more broad.
"Even before I took over, the store set itself up very much in opposition to what was typically seen elsewhere in the comic industry," Birkemoe says. "Most emphasized collectability at the fore, and they expanded into toys and sports cards and whatever else when they had to. But this was very much a store for readers. It would carry porn when the other stores wouldn’t. It would carry foreign stuff when the other stores wouldn’t. It came to be a store that was very focused on comics as a medium, and anything that entailed."
Birkemoe is happy to use a loose definition of "entailed."
"I pushed it further in that direction," he says. "If a cartoonist did children’s books, we’d carry those books, too. These wordless wood-block novels from the 1920s are kind of like proto-comics, so maybe we’ll carry those, too. Carrying a bunch of French comics? Okay. Trying to have as much variety in what might be considered comics is what we do here."
Bottom line, Birkemoe wants to give a Beguiling customer an experience they can’t get anywhere else.
"The aim of the shop is no matter who you are, if you come into my store, I really want to have something that you’ve never seen before," he says.
"Comics as a medium” includes the original artwork as well. It’s a product line, yes. But to Birkemoe’s mind, it’s much, much more than that.
"It is mostly about secondary benefits," he says. "It’s a way you deal with the cartoonists in your community. It makes the shop more interesting. It’s a thing you don’t see everywhere, at every shop. It raises our profile. It generates a revenue flow and a relationship with the artist. It’s a good way to launch a graphic novel; have the artwork on the wall."
The Beguiling does work on a 25% commission, so there is a "there" there for revenue… and a long, long tail as well.
"I’ve sold art over the pandemic that’s been here in the shop for 15 years," Birkemoe says. "So it doesn’t always sell fast, but that’s the power of the internet: someone somewhere finds something they want and purchases a page, and it’s a nice surprise for the artist who may have even forgotten it was here. Again, it builds relationships."
MAKE THE (REAL ESTATE) MOVE
In 2017, The Beguiling changed locations. Like many, Birkemoe had his apprehensions about making a move. But it paid off.
"There are very, very few happy real estate stories in Toronto, but we landed in a location that turned out to be great, and within two years, allowed us to triple our size into adjacent units," he says.
Bigger space means—of course—even wider variety in products offered at The Beguiling. Birkemoe is happy for that, but considers himself no real estate genius.
"There’s an enormous amount of luck that came our way," he says. "It was brutally hard in terms of the work involved, but we were back up where we were revenue-wise within a year, which is far better than I had hoped. Every day, I realize we landed in a great circumstance and caught a break. There is an element of luck."
LEARN HOW TO WATCH OTHERS
The Beguiling is a reader-first/not-collector-first store. It has arguably the widest selection of diverse material you might find in North America. Birkemoe likes being the counterpoint, but when the rest of the world catches up...
"Setting yourself up in opposition to the rest of the industry worked really well when the industry wasn’t really that good," he says. "But... there’s a lot of really good shops out there now! So a model of seeing what other comic shops are doing, seeing what you don’t like and then not doing that... doesn’t last too long. You have to find new ways of challenging yourself and getting things done."
Birkemoe is still working out how he’ll change and expand. But he also believes that a rising tide lifts all ships.
"In the long term, the success of comics for a broader number of readers is good for me," he says.
"Not-collector-first?" You can make that a philosophy. But sometimes, the cash register tells you different.
"The back issue side of comics is doing so well for us, and for decades, it was beyond an afterthought for us," Birkemoe says. "It was something that we did, but never something that we put forward or invested in or tried to find staff that had that kind of expertise. If I had any concept that this aspect of the business would be a major engine at this point… I would definitely have made other moves."
Birkemoe is catching up.
"Back issues were already ramping up a few years before COVID, and the pandemic was just gas on the fire," he says. "So yes, it’s deserving of a stronger focus."
DON’T BE THE WORLD’S WORST CONSUMER
Physician, heal thyself? Birkemoe knows he’s made mistakes, and he owns them. He has only himself to blame!
"All the mistakes that I think I have made I can blame on the fact that I am a terrible consumer," he laughs. "Since I stopped hunting for CDs in my early 20s, I decided that I don’t have the inclination to spend my time shopping. I don’t enjoy it. And I’m cheap as fuck. I shave with a straight razor so that I never have to buy a disposable! So I’m not a good bellwether for shopping experience. I’m bad at putting myself in the consumer’s shoes."
Birkemoe kind of likes The Beguiling as "old Beguiling," but is coming around.
"For years, I’ve run a shop that people loved and I’ve loved running it as a cramped, overstuffed bookstore, not always the best lit," he says. "But yeah, if you have wider aisles and better signage, maybe more people will come in and those people will buy more books. So the simple basics of providing ‘good retail environment…’ it’s something that does not come easy to me. But I’m getting there."
AND WHAT ELSE?
"We don’t sell toys. Or bobbleheads or T-shirts. Because I have no passion for those things. I’m engaged and interested in visual storytelling."
"I used to think this market, for most of what comics are being produced…had no potential for growth. Comics has to tell other stories, have more diverse voices, write for adults. If we don’t do that, we can’t grow the market. But apparently, I was wrong, because the entire continent grew up to be superhero-obsessed nerds! So whereas I’m very glad I did what I did to help grow the market, this is still great. I guess I didn’t have to! I guess I could have just banked on the tried-and-true. It grew in a way I never would have believed."
"We felt very lucky in terms of government support we received [during the pandemic], in terms of both not having to worry about our staff being able to eat due to being laid off or having their hours dramatically reduced, and also having some degree of rent or wage subsidy if we were operating at significantly reduced revenues. Because we had these, even when early our business dropped by about half, we were able to feel we could survive."
"We did a hard pivot to web sales, and it worked out very well for us. We knew we had a loyal clientele, and they proved it. People bought from us, either existing customers wanting to keep their shop alive, or new customers just wanting to buy from an independent and sink their money in their community. Everything worked out. I don’t think we are where we would have been, but no one is afraid for the future."
"We made this big pivot during the pandemic to take our web business which was institutional only (schools and libraries), and take it broader. It is very clear now that we could have been making a lot more money if we had been doing this for a while. But we really wanted to cultivate an in-store thing. Our thought was, ‘You only make money online in a world where Amazon already exists if you have something they don’t.’ So selling the artwork online made perfect sense. But it’s clear now that there are people who want to buy from me and use our website… I should have had this open years ago."
"It’s hard for me to imagine that people would enjoy doing what they do in a store… not in a store. But people enjoy shopping online if you provide that service. So. Online."
"I see a lot of people talking about alternate supply chain things, and I think this is a good conversation to have. But I would like to see more conversations not just about another way to get the same product, but discovering new things that were never in the chain. We’ve always been a big champion of the small press, and we love finding new things. There is so much in the world of comics now that you can’t offer everything, but I feel there is a benefit to having things in your store that people haven’t seen in every other comic shop. Find your thing; help them find that thing. That’s a strategy that I think can work, at least in small measure, in any store; not just mine."
"The smart money is not in opening a bookstore. Opening a bookstore is a work of passion."
Click Gallery below for The Beguiling pics!