Sunday, 30 August 2015

Farewell Silver Snail

Silver Snail: 1988-2015

On Monday August 4th, 2015 I received some bad news, the kind that really takes you aback. The manager of my favorite comic book shop sent out a notice of closure to their distribution list. I am extremely saddened to learn this news. The Ottawa Silver Snail was without a doubt the best comic book shop in town. I moved to Ottawa in 2008 and immediately adopted the Snail as my `go-to` comic book shop. It wasn't too difficult to make this choice; the shop was organized, the staff friendly, and the stock showed that the manager actually genuinely cared about comics as an art form. I have been across Canada for my work this past year and I`ve truly come to admire the way the Silver Snail kept the shop clean and organized. It may seem like a minor detail, but after visiting no less than 22 shops across the nation (and even some in the US), the Silver Snail in Ottawa was one of the best I've been to, rivaled only by The Beguiling in Toronto. No small feat, let me assure you.
The quirkiness of the place also gave it a peculiar charm. I remember being taken aback when I first noticed the wall of "Kin" behind the cash register. A ton of newspaper clippings taped to the wall with various headlines like “Next of kin” or “Sister loses kin in a car accident”. I asked the manager “What is all of this?” He replied simply “Kin, that’s my name” and cracked a smile. He was not above a good pun, which was excellent news for me since I`m a master of puns.
It was during one of my frequent visits that I met one of my best friends, Helen Anderson, the store’s assistant manager .And as she put her creative energies into starting a Comic book Book Club, I started this blog. Through the Silver Snail, I was able to explore and realize my tastes in comics, learn the language of the art form, and begin exploring manga and historical publications. I began to write again in a critical way, which I had stopped entirely after university. This blog has been instrumental in sorting through my passion for comics and making something good come out of it. And none of these things - whether my friendship with Helen, the book club or even my blog - would have been possible without Kin and the Silver Snail. For this, I am truly grateful.
As I arrived at the store on the first day of their closing sale, I saw a crowd of regular"Snailers". I asked someone where he’d go for his comics now that the Silver Snail was closing. He replied without hesitation: "Nowhere. There IS no other comic book shop within a 150 km radius who deserves my business. Comics are over." “How about you, where will you go now?” I asked another regular. He looked up at me with a smirk: “Pirate Bay”. It was clear in their answers that they were not only encouraging the comics industry, they were encouraging the Snail specifically. Without it, there’s just no point in going anywhere else. If this was any other place, I wouldn’t have believed them, but there was a sincerity to their answers that was incredibly clear to see. This was the end of the line for them.
This is not just a comic shop closing down; it’s an institution. I’d heard of the Snail before I even moved to Ottawa in 2008. I went to my regular shop in Quebec City, Librairie Première Issue, and asked them to remove me from their mailing list. “I’m moving to Ottawa”. The owner of the shop said “Then you should go to the Silver Snail. Kin is a great guy, he taught me a lot about this business when I was starting my own shop”. Even some people who haven’t been there in years remembered the shop fondly. My brother-in-law who now lives in Toronto remembered the shop. “I used to spend so much time there as a kid. Kin was always nice, sitting comfortably behind the counter chatting with customers. I remember he had a bandana and an Hawaiian shirt. He never minded me being in there. It was a great place to get into comics”. Word traveled and the shop made an impression on anyone who went in. I even asked two fellow Snailers to weigh in. Paul Inder and Stephanie Hudson, both friends of mine now residing in Calgary, and not only had they already heard the news, but they had already sent a note to Kin to thank him for all that he'd done.
This industry will crush you. Comics is built on exploitation. It exploits it`s creators, who are forced to sign contracts preventing them to any claim to their intellectual property, which can be worth a significant amount of money in this corporate day and age, more than the pennies they’ll receive for their work. It exploits it’s vendors. One simply has to go read Brian Hibbs` archive of “Tilting at windmills” to understand that the comic shops aren’t selling you books and making a profit. Every comic, floppy or trade paperback is purchased in advance by the shop, and often these books are non-returnable, as is the case with some of the biggest companies, like Marvel and DC. Shop-owners are lied-to repeatedly by these companies (example of Hibbs talking about how the secret wars tie-in are ongoing) and are frequently caught with stacks of unsellable comics that were marketed to them as the next big thing. Comics are a niche market and it's hard to succeed in it in the first place. But it's more than just a difficult market. Even without having to navigate the murky and byzantine waters of the direct market distribution system, comics are hard to explain to the uninitiated. There's a perception that comics are making top dollar right now, but it's only true for a select few. Amazon is underselling every comic shop in North America and most bigger chains like Chapters and Barnes. The collected edition of Sandman Overture, by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams, is going to be released through Amazon before comic book shops; that's how valued comic shops are. 
My long-time friend, Ottawa Comic Book Book Club ringleader and Valkyrie Helen Anderson had this to say about the shop’s closure:
I started going to the Silver Snail in 2007 when I moved to Ottawa for university. I had only ever read Archie comics as a kid, but my best friend was an avid comic reader and looking for a shop to go to in our new city. After finding out that there were two stores in town, we decided to hit them both up one fateful Wednesday (which happens to be new comic book day) and the differences between the two were enormous:
As a non-comic reader at the time, I immediately noticed how welcoming everyone was at the Snail as Dave (the assistant manager at the time), took me around and offered some good starter titles based on my various film and television interests and I left the store that day with my first graphic novel, volume 1 of the Fables series (which I was so sad to see end just the other week).
My friend, who was a long-time comic reader, was pleased with how the store was organized and all of the new issues were out on the back rack in alphabetical order. This may seem like a small, obvious thing, but Niagara Falls' only comic book store (at the time) was notorious for leaving all the new stuff in boxes which you had to dig through, not really knowing where anything was.
Needless to say we left the store pretty pleased.
The second store we hit that day was a bit further down the street and I left with a bad taste in my mouth after being hit on by a staff member. Needless to say, being a woman in this comics industry is difficult, both as readers and as staff. I never went back as a customer, and only later as staff of the Snail to pick up mis-delivered orders.
After a couple years of shopping at the Snail, I was offered a job and after graduating university, I was offered full-time employment as the assistant manager. I have worked at the Silver Snail for 6 years and the manager Kin, the staff and many of our regular customers have become family to me. I can't say I have ever worked at another job where my manager has genuinely cared about my well-being and future. Kin has taken pay-cuts to keep the store running and has offered to take pay-cuts so that his staff could earn a better living.
We all kind of knew that we wouldn't last long after the ownership changeover at the head office in Toronto two years ago but we didn't think it would come this fast. It's been a long running joke amongst staff and many of our regular customers that we were the ugly step-cousin to our Toronto location, but we did the best we could to stay afloat. The Silver Snail has been open for 25 years in Ottawa and now it will become the third Silver Snail that has been closed by the current owner.
I spent the last 6 years loving my job, coworkers and customers and it breaks my heart that I won't be able to spend my time there anymore.
We’ll be sad to see the shop go.

Even as the vultures descend on the stock (myself included), I'm surprised to see there are still many gems on the shelves. A testament to how well Kin kept his stock. It is with bitter disappointment that I will let this shop go. The Silver Snail Ottawa will be remembered fondly for years to come. Not only for us loyal snailers, but for those whose lives were impacted by sequential art, and by Kin fanning the flames of the love of the craft.

The shop has already announced that one of their employees is opening up her own shop: Comet Comics. I'd urge every Ottawa comic enthusiast to check it out. I wish them the best of luck. Working within the confines of such a niche market is difficult, but I have no doubt they'll do well. I believe they'll do a terrific job at keeping the same energy and love for the craft as the Snail.

Farewell Silver Snail!

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