Friday, July 20, 2018

Last Days of AstroLib

Well, my comic store - sorry, ex-comic store, AstroLib officially closed at the end of last month.  Their last day was announced on their webpage, but I went the week before to pick up the last of my stuff while I still could.  Then, I went there next Wednesday, for one last good look-around before it was locked up for good.

What I didn't expect was to see that the interiors had been completely vacated.  Save for several paperback books keeping the front door open, the inside was practically empty.  The trucks had already come and taken the excess books not sold, leaving a hollow shell of what the store had once been.  I was surprised to see that so many wooden fixtures that had been part of the store - the counter, the shelf rack - were just movable tables.  It felt extremely unusual to be wandering over empty spaces that were once dependable structures.

There were the occasional leftover books left lying on the floor, but nothing I really wanted worth keeping.  The biggest noteworthy item was a Robert Crumb cookbook, but since it was filled with random images of his Underground Comix, and recipes that I had no interest in, and no overall stories in it, I didn't bother picking it up.

Since this would be the only time I'd ever get a chance to see what the back of the store looked like, I jumped at the opportunity.  If anybody showed up, I'd politely make my apologies and hightail it out of there.

Along the way, I noticed taped notices on the walls, giving notice of card game tournaments that would happen after hours.  I never participated in these, let alone knew of their existence, but browsed the room where the Magic (the Gathering) would've happened.  What interested me were the papers that gave rushing memories of my first time there.  I was notoriously nervous and shy (still am), and my time there was mainly spent browsing the latest and back issues, catching up on comic stories.  It wasn't until I found out that I dared to ask and confirm that there was substantial discount on preordered stuff that I started ordering books on a regular basis.

One of the promotional material in order to spread word and find potential customers was to encourage people to sign up at the store in a "Headhunter" program.  I would've participated, if I knew anybody who I would've taken advantage of, who liked comics as much as I did.  Let me rephrase that - if I knew anybody in the vicinity, period.

In the middle of the store was a huge trash bin, holding various electronics, including a large outdated scanner, a busted printer, and near the top, a bulky catalogue of comic titles and their prospective prices.  None of these were worth salvaging.

On one of the shelves were a bunch of Sports cards, and promotional cards for the store itself, that's now sadly redundant.  Next to these cards was a box of American Trade Collections that was labeled "Printing Errors", notably pages that were in the wrong places.  Since none of the rejects were to my liking, let alone collector's items, I wasn't interested in their offerings.  Off to the side behind where the counter once was were scattered Previews catalogues that I could've easily taken with me with no one the wiser, but I didn't feel like taking bulky material that I couldn't really use.

As it turned out, exploring the forbidden recesses of the store wasn't as thrilling as I thought it'd be.  Behind the dusty shelves were some magazines, some papers meaningless to me, and a promotional booklet from the Previews catalogue.  In the back room where the mythical card games would've been played, the only item of notice left behind was a dictionary with half the content missing.  In the basement were less interesting things than I'd hoped would be.  The most noteworthy items were boxes of discarded VHS tapes, their covers in another box, and dozens of copies of the same issue of a sailing magazine.  If I'd bothered to bring my cell phone, I could've taken pictures as proof.  But these remainder keepsakes weren't what interested me.

A week before the store closed, I mentioned to the clerk behind the counter that I would like to have a memento of the place, and the thing that struck out for me was the Subscription Program advertisement that was taped on the table next to the cashier.

I asked if there were any other people who wanted this piece of history, and if so, was willing to pay for it.  I later got confirmation from the owners that no one else had asked, and the next time I showed up, they would let me have it for free.  That was extremely generous of them.

Even more generous of them was giving me back the down payments I'd made for upcoming books that would no longer come.  I wondered what would happen to the other customers who weren't as fortunate to come over before the store closed?  I later learned that another comic collector, the Comic Book Hunter had these clients shifted over to him, and would give any prospective clients the books they might've otherwise missed.

Looking at the stuff on the walls, there was another item of memorabilia I neglected - a silly photoshopped Peanuts comic.  It was in the doorway between the second-hand books and the bagged stuff in the back.  It had been around since the first time I visited the shop over twenty years ago.  I thought for sure this would be picked up or asked for by someone, or at least kept by the shop owners, and was surprised to still see it standing.  I figured I'd never have a better chance to save it from obscurity, though now that I have it, I'm not sure it was worth the effort.

Apart from a few promotional material, paperback novels and discarded coin rolls (waste not, want not), there wasn't much left for me to salvage.  During this time, one other guy popped up, and I expressed my condolences, and left him to wander around the remains of the store that had once been a beloved place.

For anyone who's been wondering about the lack of updates for this month, I've been extensively going through the Astronotes - vintage Previews catalogue with added commentary sprinkled throughout the page.  A feature that was:
"published in hard copy since 1995, and coming on-line in 2004.
It's basically "Previews Lite", giving descriptions of just about every new title in comics and TPBs each month, along with the odd item of unusual interest, line listings of ongoing series, and bits and pieces of news and commentary."
Now, the online notes only went as far back as September 2012 (AstroNotes 206), and continued until March 2018 (AstroNotes 272), but that was still an extraordinary amount of text to wade through.  What made this personal project so labour-inducing was that there was no quick and easy way to search for these extra notes.  They weren't highlighted or surrounded by variable { } brackets, which would've made finding them easier, but thin borders which didn't register at all.

So I had to manually go through the entire catalogues for each one, one at a time.  And I was enough of a perfectionist that I only chose samples that I deemed worth keeping for posterity.  What worried me was that their homepage would be taken down the instant the store went too, until I received confirmation that the webpage would still be up for a few months longer.  This came as a great relief, since it extended my deadline, but also made me more laid back, knowing I had an extended reprieve.  I operate better under definite deadlines.

By the time I was finally done, I'd amassed 170 pages of material.  I was planning on sharing some of those, but given the amount of text, figured that could wait another day.

One of the surprising finds amidst the datadumps of Cowboy trivia and Montreal history was two pictures of a man and a woman who could've been the owner's Father's parents.  Their file names were "Dads_father" and "Dads_mother", respectively.  Just thought I should show them here, in case they disappear later on.

Another item of notice was a link to a Gazette article in 2017, lamenting the store's status back when it was on perpetual danger of closing up, no thanks to the owners suffering a stroke, and increase on taxes.  Those fears were finally founded when the rent went up. Since it won't be up for much longer, as old Newspaper articles don't have a long archival life, I'm reproducing it in its entirety after the cut.

Astro Books: buoyed by comics, beleaguered by taxes

Love, comic books and addiction have colluded to keep Astro Books alive for 33 years, but high taxes and age are conspiring against it.


Love, comic books and addiction have colluded to keep Astro Books alive for more than three decades. But of late, Montreal’s rising commercial tax rates, construction and the indignities of age are conspiring against it.

After 33 years mainly in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce on Sherbrooke St., and downtown on Ste-Catherine St. a bit west of Guy, one of the largest comic-book retailers in the country is appealing to its local community with a crowdfunding campaign to help cover its $20,000-plus share of the landlord’s tax bill.

After a slow winter in which drivers who fear construction detours were reluctant to venture downtown while other customers chose cocooning over browsing, owners Paul and Betty Stock were unable to save for the tax hit. The financial situation for the siblings, for whom the store is both a lifeline and a way of life, is tight.

“If the money doesn’t come in, I think we will have to close. I think so,” says Betty, 71, who deals with customers and staff with a seasoned grumpiness offset by the twinkle in her eye. “And that’s hard.”

On top of the tax bill, Astro Books (or Librairie Astro, as the awning reads) has to deal with rent north of $3,500 a month, rising hydro and water meter bills and salaries for four employees.

The store’s dog-eared appearance and a window display featuring used books ranging from Shakespeare’s Othello to a dated copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to India belies a well-organized enterprise that sells in the range of 100,000 comic books a year, as well as CDs, videos, graphic novels, collectible cards and used books of the popular fiction variety.

Key to the comics sales is a reserve system for 400 clients (it used to be 600) for whom Astro puts aside new orders as deliveries come in each week. Most customers pick them up, while some orders are mailed out as far as Taiwan. Some clients order dozens of titles — one pays $125 a week for his comic fix — but most are in the $10- to $15-a-week range.

It has made Astro one of the largest retailers of new, used and collectible comics in Canada, with loyal customers dating back more than 20 years. They shifted their focus to comics and closed their N.D.G. store about 15 years ago when the book market slumped.

Stock says she’s seeing a shift back toward print, both for books and comics, that is also evidenced in growing sales of printed books worldwide as the popularity of Kindle and other e-readers declines.

“If we can get through this year, I think we can make it,” she said. “Book sales are getting better, and comic book sales, which had bottomed out, are climbing. People are seeking that tactile experience.”

As customers who grew up on superhero fare have matured and evolved, so have comic books, branching out to a wide variety of genres that include murder mysteries and romantic comedies. Ms. Marvel, about a New Jersey high-school girl of Pakistani descent who suddenly attains superhero powers, is the first comic to have a Muslim headliner; it was a smash hit, indicative of publishers’ willingness to reflect a more diverse society, noted store clerk David Villeneuve. Acclaimed writers like Margaret Atwood and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk have entered the graphic-novel genre.

For customers like Sean Gallagher, it’s the ambience and the availability of new genres, many chosen for him by store employees, that have kept him coming back for 20 years.

“I like the convenience, and the atmosphere,” says Gallagher, a 42-year-old computer designer who fell in love with comics at the age of nine.

Gallagher is also picking up titles like Looney Tunes and Teen Titans for his seven-year-old son, aiding in the store’s marketing strategy of “getting them addicted.” Because comic books are written as serial novels, with storylines spanning multiple editions, once a reader has read one, they want to see how it ends.

“They find a used comic at $1 — it gets them hooked,” Stock says. Soon, hopefully, they’re following a few titles a month.

For Von Allan, both a customer and a comic-book creator and graphic novelist, much of the store’s charm lies in its willingness to support and promote lesser-known titles outside of the mainstream, including his own.

“A store that is willing to lend a hand and help rookies get started is rare,” Allan said. “And Paul’s been doing that for decades. I can’t stress that enough. For a young artist starting out, it means the world. We need more stores like this, and I’m saying that as a friend, customer and comic creator.”

The last few years have been hard on the Stocks. Betty walks with two canes, but still comes in daily. Paul, 67, got past a bout of flesh-eating disease several years ago, then suffered a stroke about five years back that left him partially paralyzed. He still comes in for a few hours a day, and works from home.

“If this store closes, he would turn into a vegetable,” Betty says. “So will I. I’m not looking for that.”

Across the street at Capitaine Québec, neither is owner Charlie Vaccaro. With three comic stores in a three-block radius downtown, the close-knit competition is good for business, he said, bringing in customers from all over Montreal.

“If Astro closes, it might be short-term gain for me in terms of getting a few reserve-list customers, but … it would be long-term pain,” he said.

After half a lifetime serving book lovers and comic-book addicts, Betty says it’s the fun she would miss.

“Generally, the comic-books community is a very nice community,” she said. “We’re nice, and a bit weird.”

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