When the ‘for rent’ sign went up in the display window a few months back, a lot of anxious faces started walking in the front door.
“There was one guy… he was probably here for twenty minutes. He went on a rant about how landlords have driven rental prices through the roof, how the little guy couldn’t catch a break in this economy.” Paul Landry shoots a knowing grin to Ray Silas. “When we told him we weren’t closing, and that we were just moving next door into a larger space, he was elated. He went on and on about how great it was that we were succeeding, how valuable and important a comic book store is to this part of town.”
Ray chimes in, perfect timing after waiting a beat: “None of us had ever seen him before. I’m certain he had never set foot in the store.”
Crossover Comics is unique: it’s a bookstore in an increasingly digital world and its stock of graphic novels, comics, games and related paraphernalia can be described as a ‘niche product’ for a somewhat limited audience. It’s not close to any major post-secondary education institution, as is the tendency with most other urban bookstores generally speaking, nor is it located in a middle-class residential neighbourhood, as is the tendency with suburban comic book stores. Instead, it finds itself on the somewhat resurgent commercial artery that is Notre Dame West, a street increasingly dominated by restaurants, bars and bistros.
Though Crossover Comics is unique in myriad other ways too (which will be illustrated throughout the article), what stands out to me is that it is the collective endeavour of three (now four) friends from high school, and you’ve probably heard it before that starting a business with your friends isn’t a very good idea.
On August 22nd 2015, Crossover Comics will officially inaugurate their new expanded location immediately east of their first home (of three years) at the intersection of Rose-de-Lima and Notre Dame West. From my estimation it’s four times as large at least, occupies two floors and is brimming with stock. As far as I can tell the partnership succeeds because of the individual commitment to collective benefit, and owners Paul, Ray, George and Adrien have taken this notion outside the confines of the shop and applied it to the community at large.
I sat down to speak with two of the four owners to find out more about going against the grain.
How did you come to settle on starting your business in Saint Henri?
Paul: there was intention behind it, but also luck.
Ray: Saint Henri was maybe third down the list, but we looked everywhere really. We’d spent a whole day walking around various Métro stops, trying to get an idea of the pros and cons of each location. We quickly eliminated Saint Denis because the rents were so high.
Paul: we were discouraged by business owners around Atwater too. Same thing… a number told us they were having a hard time getting by because of high rents. By the end there were three neighbourhoods we decided we would seriously consider opening in.
Ray: we wanted to position ourselves strategically, not too close to established comic book shops. The area around Lionel-Groulx appealed to us because it’s a major Métro station, it’s centrally located within the West End and it’s connected directly to the West Island by bus, and there weren’t any other bookstores nearby.
Paul: Russell Crowe helped out a lot with the negotiations.
Me: …can you explain?
Paul: Ray found our first location online.
Ray: there was a point when I was getting pretty frustrated and I knew we had to settle on a location quickly or else I’d have to go find another job. I was looking around online and found this spot on Notre Dame West and the price was reasonable. It was also the right size.
Paul: but there was a spot nearby that we had wanted, but the landlords instead leased it to a Public Mobile.
Ray: so when we saw that there was a Public Mobile right next door we breathed a sigh of relief. Public Mobiles at the time (in the summer and autumn of 2012) were popping up all over, and they all had roughly the same space requirements as we did. But because they’re a chain selling cellphones, and we’re an upstart comic book store, a lot of landlords went with the established chain as the better option. So we contacted the owners and didn’t get a reply. Normally you get the brush off but this was total silence. So we waited and eventually they got back to us. What really surprised us was that this landlord wanted to see our business plan.
Paul: most other landlords wouldn’t even distinguish between a comic book store and any other book store. Our current landlords understood the distinction and asked about the specifics of our plan.
Ray: and the owners’ dog’s name is Russell Crowe. Apparently, we were the only people the dog liked.
Paul: everyone always tells me ‘don’t keep bacon in your pocket’, but this time it worked out!
Ray: early on they told us ‘we’re not going to be your parents…’
Paul: they said they had other people in mind, but ultimately they liked us a lot. They gave us about a week and a half to get ourselves in order and then we signed the lease. After that was done they told us that they figured it would be unprofessional to have brought it up during negotiations, but that they really liked the ‘Big Bang Theory’ and that we reminded them of the show, and that they wanted us to bring that dynamic to Saint Henri.
How has Saint Henri and Notre Dame West changed in the last three years?
Ray: how much time do you have?
Paul: I really liked Griffintown as a location initially, but the rents are too high. We realized that rents on the west side of Atwater, equidistant from the Métro to the west as Griffintown is to the east, were undervalued at the time.
Ray: we figured we were ahead of the curve and that businesses were beginning to bleed over to the west side of Atwater. We anticipated it might be a rough few years, but that ultimately ours would be the right choice. At the three year mark we expected the neighbourhood to change for the better.
Paul: a lot of the markers of a sketchy neighbourhood have disappeared in the last few years. The pawn shops have closed, the army surplus stores have closed. Our first location replaced a massage parlour. They’re not ‘bad businesses’ per se, but for a long time they defined the local business environment. Some of those locations successfully evolved into new businesses. Others are now just empty storefronts.
Ray: it’s also interesting that there’s not a single non-restaurant business that’s opened that has stayed open since we moved here, in at least one block in each direction. And that’s not a comment on the product or services offered, it’s just the economic realities of Saint Henri and Notre Dame West. So that gives you an idea of how hard it is to get a small business off the ground.
Paul: but since day one we wanted to established ourselves as a destination business. We want people to come here to experience this neighbourhood. So we benefit from the large number of restaurants, bars and other attractions in the area, like the Atwater Market and the Lachine Canal. Crossover is the comic book store in Saint Henri, and it’s within walking distance of two Métro stations. Being a destination shop means the client will prefer you over something else that might be closer to home, or over purchasing a given item online. So we realized that if we wanted to thrive in Saint Henri, and benefit from what Saint Henri has to offer, we’d also have to go above and beyond and provide excellent customer service. That way there’s a kind of reciprocity and mutually-beneficial, if unofficial, business relationship between the store and the community around it.
Ray: we knew we were offering something very different for a street dominated by restaurants and bars, and that a person out for a night on the town isn’t necessarily going to stop over and buy comic books. We were told constantly that stores selling niche items would invariably lose out to online sales. But we also knew that, historically, comic sales are inversely proportional to the state of the economy. During periods of economic downturn, comic sales increase, and I think this is because people want the escapism, the fantasy of an everyman with an extraordinary gift, able to do right in a world gone wrong. There’s mass appeal there.
What distinguishes Crossover as a comic book store?
Ray: that we run our store as a business. I feel like a lot of comic book stores, and this isn’t particular to Montreal either, often forget they are running a business. We all love comics, and we can all geek out on the comics we like, but we’re also focused on running a business. I’ve seen too many comic book stores staffed by comic book fans, and as fans they may show their personal biases concerning characters and themes, or even potential customers coming in. That’s why we diversify, and we force ourselves to review all the stock, even the stuff we don’t necessarily enjoy personally. If I suggest something to you, it’s because I’ve read it. And considering that the majority of our customers are repeat customers, then it’s not in my interest to focus exclusively on the sale. I’d much rather have the repeat customer continue to come back every two weeks than to sell him or her something they don’t want. So excellent product knowledge goes hand in hand with knowing your clientele’s interests, budget and tastes. We also did far more marketing than our competitors.
Paul: I wouldn’t say we marketed more, but we did have a more targeted approach. We sponsored random things we thought might have overlapping interests – wrestling matches, geek-themed comedy nights.
Ray: we hosted an event to raise money for flood victims in the Philippines…
Paul: we went back to our old high school in Pierrefonds, the place where we used to get in trouble for reading comic books, and helped the students there organize and launch a comic book club…
Ray: we got a call from CJAD on our first Free Comic Book Day… (which takes place the first Saturday of every May) they wanted to find out more about it and do an interview. That’s one of the busiest days of the year for any comic book store, as it was for us. But I took five minutes to do it because you can’t turn your nose to free advertising. We had 500 people coming through here, I had to do the interview in the back alley to get away from the din.
Paul: one of the ideas that Ray brought to the table, and I think he got it after spending several years managing a comic book store across town, was that Free Comic Book Day could be an event that was bigger than just the comic book store. It’s a reason for people to go not only to a specific address, but the whole neighbourhood around it. A person comes here to get a free comic, maybe buys another at full price, then goes to another shop around here, or stops in at a restaurant. They’re carrying bags with our logo on it.
Ray: we’ll have coffee from one place, cookies from another, posters advertising other local businesses, maybe coupons from another still. It’s a natural opportunity for cross-promotion… you’re helping yourself and helping other small businesses around you, and it’s vital and in everyone’s best interest. We’re not in direct competition with any other business on this street… no one’s debating between buying a comic book and eating out at a restaurant.
Collaborative commerce… was the city involved at all, or a local merchant’s association?
Ray: no, not at all. It was quite the opposite in fact, it was our initiative to start reaching out to other businesses. We went out and proposed coupon ideas to other local merchants, even offering to do the production work.
What’s your take on gentrification and do you think you’re gentrifying Saint Henri?
Paul: I don’t think we’re gentrifying Saint Henri as much as the neighbourhood’s shifting a little bit. I think the stories of Saint Henri’s gentrification is a little exaggerated. There are people who live here, who have lived here all their lives, and they don’t want to be forced out by rising rents, and I understand that completely. But in some respects Saint Henri is changing slowly, and a lot of the biggest changes have been the conversion of old factories and warehouses down by the canal into lofts, condos and office space. I think there’s a lot more smoke than fire.
Ray: it doesn’t make any sense to me that someone would want a pawn shop or a massage parlour rather than a bookstore or a sandwich shop. Don’t get me wrong, there are places that are problematic (Paul points at a coffee cup from a company that sounds similar to Kim Morton’s) but I don’t think we’re perceived as part of the problem. We’re not driving rents up. No real estate agent is talking about a condo’s proximity to a comic book shop. We’ve always been very community-oriented. Gentrification happens when you can’t afford what’s for sale in your own neighbourhood, and we’re conscientious of this.
Paul: that’s true, and it’s always been part of our overall business plan to offer something at every price point. We have books starting at one dollar.
Ray: we have neighbourhood kids come in and hang out. You’d much rather have your kid come hang out in a comic book store than some of the establishments that used to be here.
Paul: you can find news articles about Saint Henri’s gentrification stretching back over a decade. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have lived and worked here a long time, and for them it’s not gentrification, it’s improvement. I was told that the biggest difference in Saint Henri is that, twenty years ago, there was a lot more illicit activity going on in the street. Whether it was drug selling or prostitution or drunken fist fights, it was all happening out in the street. That made it difficult for families to live here. Now most of the sales of illicit things have gone online, and bars take greater responsibility in knowing when their clients have had enough. So what happened, and this isn’t specific to Saint Henri either, is that the illicit activity isn’t as in your face anymore, and now Saint Henri has renewed value as a desirable urban neighbourhood. That’s not gentrification, that’s the march of time, technological progress and concerned members of the community taking a bigger personal responsibility for their neighbourhood.
Ray: you go to other large Canadian cities, like Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary, and you can’t get affordable housing as close to the city centre as Saint Henri is to downtown Montreal. It’s true that rents and urban housing costs have gone up here inasmuch as it has elsewhere in Canada, but not to the same degree, not even close. Saint Henri is still an affordable neighbourhood, and that will drive up interest in living here, it’s inevitable.
Paul: I always get frustrated when people claim to love a neighbourhood so much they need to vent their frustrations by damaging or destroying property in their own neighbourhood. It makes no sense to me… I don’t think the people out spray-painting anti-capitalist slogans or breaking windows are invested emotionally or financially in this neighbourhood.
After the interview I decided to amble over to Satay Brothers for a late night Singaporean treat. One of the owners recognized me and came over to say hello. He asked what I was up to and I told him I had just finished interviewing two of the owners of the comic book shop down the way.
He told me how relieved he was to find out the ‘for rent’ sign in the window was because the shop was expanding next door, and not shutting down.
“I’m glad. It’s a great shop and good for the community too.”
Crossover Comics’ grand re-opening takes place Saturday August 22nd 2015 at 3560 Notre Dame West, corner Rose-de-Lima in beautiful Saint Hank, starting at 11:00 am.