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culture

A Queen Street Icon Finds Its Silver Lining

The comic book store Silver Snail may be moving on from its 36-year stint on Queen, but it’s also moving forward.

Photo by Kyle Bachan/Torontoist.

Years before Chapters Indigo wised up and decided to start stocking graphic novels up the wazoo, before movies based on comic books became a thing, and before the Internet made it possible to access every issue of every comic book ever made, there was an independent comic book store on Queen Street called Silver Snail. Alas, the years have changed the street considerably, and what was once a hub for lovers of literature has now become our fashion district.

So it comes as little surprise that Silver Snail, well known to residents for its iconic superhero-mural façade, will be closing the doors at its current location in the hopes of finding a more appropriate home in the Annex. A little heart-wrenchingly, the building will be partially demolished once the Snail moves out.

We caught up with George Zotti, who owns the store, to see how the move is coming along and what the future holds. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our interview.

Torontoist: When is the last official day at the Queen Street location?

George Zotti: The end of June. That might change. If we can find a place before then, we’ll probably move sooner.

We were supposed to move probably come March, but we just weren’t finding a place, and then the landlord approached us and asked us if we could stay for a while. So we said “yeah, sure,” because he’s been giving us a great rent and we haven’t found a place that feels like home yet.

So are they definitely demolishing the building?

Oh yeah, the building’s coming down. I think they’re going to rebuild it and then put in some higher-end retail. Something like a GAP or a Guess—some sort of national or international chain.

They do have to keep parts of it because it’s a historic building. They’re going to keep the façade that’s underneath the stucco that we put up that has all the superheroes on it. The first 18 feet of our building has tin ceilings—they are vintage tin ceilings—so they have to keep those.

Are you still looking to settle in the Annex?

Yeah, we’re still looking in the Annex and along Yonge Street. We’ve gotten a lot of resistance leaving Queen Street. A lot of our customer base and a lot of the people I’ve been talking to really don’t like us leaving Queen Street. So we’ve actually expanded our search to start looking at Queen again. But it would be on the west side of Spadina where things are a little cheaper.

It feels like you’ve been on Queen forever.

We’ve always been on Queen—this May will be 36 years we’ve been in business. It’s always been on Queen Street and always on this block. We’ve been in three different locations on this block. But now, we simply cannot afford this block. Our previous owner, Ron Van Leeuwen, owned the building but he sold it a couple years ago. He sold the business to me and then he sold the building to a development corporation—because, unfortunately, you don’t become a millionaire by selling a comic book store, you become a millionaire by selling property on Queen Street.

Did it start primarily as a comic store?

Originally, Bakka Books was across the street. [Van Leeuwen] started working at Bakka, and then Marvel came out with the Conan comic books and he loved the comic book, so he said, “Hey, we should start carrying comics.” So he had a rack at the back and sales were going higher and higher and things were picking up and taking up more and more space—until the owner at Bakka said, “Look, you’re taking up too much space; we’re a book store, not a comic book store.” So our owner at the time went, “Okay, I’m going to go across the street and open up a store. I won’t carry books and you won’t carry comics.” They had a handshake deal and went from there.

Have you been around for the various celebrities that have come into the shop?

We opened the store early for Harrison Ford—he came in shopping with his kids. It was the early 2000s. It was in his phase of always playing the president.

Robin Williams—whenever he’s in town, he comes by. He’s really relaxed and if people ask him for his autograph, he’s cool about that. He went onto Hockey Night in Canada and they asked him what his favourite thing about Toronto was and he didn’t say our name, unfortunately, but he said, “Oh, the comic store that’s just up the street from here.”

And of course, the one that everyone always asks me about—when I was 17, Bob Dylan came into the store. Our manager flipped out, but I was like, “Oh, it’s Bob Dylan, yeah. He’s that guy who doesn’t sing very well. Okay, sure.”

Did everybody recognize him?

Absolutely. I mean, he looked horrible—he is a scruffy little dude. But as soon as one person recognizes him, there’s that sort of energy.

And Mark Hamill came into the store—that was pretty cool. It was later on a Friday night and I was there and helping him out. He told me a story about how he wished he hadn’t signed a contract with Kenner [now Hasbro]. He said that when he signed the contract he specified that his kids get one of everything. So he has rooms full of Star Wars toys. As a 17-year-old kid, I thought that sounded awesome. He said it was funny, though, when the kids would say, “Dad, I can’t find my Aunt Carrie doll or my Uncle Harrison doll.”

The Silver Snail storefront sans the iconic superhero mural.

A lot of distributors are switching over to the digital medium—putting all of their back issues up online. How is Silver Snail moving in this direction?

It’ll probably come to the point where we’ll start offering digital comics as well. Our main distributors and all the main publishers are set up so that we can be digital storefronts for them as well. But a digital comic book is one thing. A trade paperback is another thing. The actual physical monthly comic books are another. You have to have a certain affinity or a certain love for any one of those things.

And when you’re dealing with an old comic book, there’s a vintage quality to it. You open up an old comic book from the 1950s or 1960s, and the newsprint is different. It has a smell to it. There’s the tactile sensation of turning the old comic book pages. I’m assuming it’s going to get to the point where nobody has that nostalgia because generations are going to be growing up with less and less paper things.

You previously mentioned plans to reopen Silver Snail with a cafe element?

Yes, we’d very much like to put in a cafe when we move the store. We’re trying to stress the physical aspect of it. You’re running here on your lunch to buy your comics and then maybe you want to sit down and have a cup of coffee and read the latest Batman. We’ll probably do things like set up along a bench—we’ll download comic books, put it on iPads, and let people sample some stuff.

Back when the comic community was young, Silver Snail was a hub to come to, a place to hang out and meet like-minded people. We wanted to get back some of that feeling: that the Snail is a place where you can come and do shopping and then hang out with your friends or play Magic Cards or read comics.


CORRECTION: 3:49 PM One of the images we originally published with this post showed a different Silver Snail location than the one discussed in the article, and has been replaced.

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