By Helena Shlapak
George Zotti was only eight years old when he first stepped into the Silver Snail comic book store. Overwhelmed by the colours and action, little did he know that 38 years later, the store would become his own Batcave.
“I felt like it was a place created for me,” he says, now a 46-year-old veteran of nerddom. After Zotti shopped there for a number of years the original owner, Ron Van Leeuwen, offered him a job. At 14, he was only too happy to accept.
The store was opened in 1976, but after 35 years of business, Van Leeuwen decided to call it quits, saying that the Silver Snail could either be shut down or George could buy it. Zotti and his co-owner, Mark Gingras, pooled their money together to save their sanctuary and preserve a staple of Toronto.
Since Van Leeuwen owned the original building, on Queen Street West, the Silver Snail made a move to its new home at Young and Dundas. Zotti and Gingras have seen just about everything in the business, including the boom of nerd culture.
“Nerd culture everywhere has exploded.” Zotti says. “It’s a little bit to our detriment because we’re not the specialty store we used to be.”
The Silver Snail and other comic stores were the only places to buy a Spiderman mug or X-Men t-shirt but now, just about every store sells “nerdy” merchandise. Places like HMV, Hot Topic,
Walmart and even Chapters jumped on the cash cow, especially when Hollywood began making hit superhero films.
“Geek is chic and nerd is everywhere.”
Although business has been slightly hurt during this explosion, Zotti is ecstatic at how diversified the industry and culture has become. People from all cultures, ages and backgrounds come in to flip through the monthly selections. He thanks the Internet for the surge in popularity.
“It made everything accessible. You finally had something at your fingertips that wasn’t accessible before.”
And when it came to Hollywood finally sinking its teeth into comics, the popularity only skyrocketed. Although it did take them far too long to do so, considering they had millions of untapped stories.
“I think it took Hollywood so long because technology had to catch up to imagination,” says Zotti. “You can now have characters like Thor and Iron Man and do them well. They also realized that comics weren’t really for kids anymore so that made a big difference.”
Technology also made it possible for publishers to scout out new talent and for this talent to produce their work independently. Zotti says he knows a few artists who got picked up from Instagram and Tumblr. Chapter House, a Canadian publishing company that Zotti is creative director for, has snagged some amazing talent as well.
Although he believes the popularity bubble will burst at some point, he knows his clientele and business will thrive.
“Stories are never going to go away. Hopefully as long as there’s stories there’s a Silver Snail.”
Those looking for something more interactive need to go further down Queen Street West where Mario and many other characters are rescued from garage sales and basements all over the city – Iceman Video Games. Iceman was born 24 years ago and its parents are co-owners, husband and wife Christine Houle and Gary Butler. This video game haven came from a promise to quit smoking.
Butler had promised his wife he would quit if she bought him a Nintendo. Then they got a Super Nintendo. This continued until they had accumulated so many games they had no idea what do with them, until Houle’s mother insisted they sell their unwanted goods at a church sale and the business was born.
“We started selling at a flea market. Dixie Value Mall and a lot of malls wouldn’t even touch us because we had used products and used products were forbidden, but now it’s very common,” says Houle.
Since the business has taken off, and they own three stores, the couple don’t get a lot of time to play much anymore. But their love of the business and the clients has made the sacrifice worth it.
“We love the interaction with people. Seeing customers when they’ve been looking for that one game for whatever amount of years, finding it and purchasing it and seeing the joy on their faces,” she says.
Despite stiff competition from other stores and the internet, Iceman Video Games prides itself on hiring knowledgeable staff and insisting that upselling isn’t what’s important. Helping customers in the best way possible and gaining loyalty is what sets the store apart, even when downloadable games reached the market. The irony is, downloadable content has only increased their profits.
“People have been emulating games for years. You can download them to your computer or phone and even your watch for god’s sake. In the beginning, people thought that with all the emulation people aren’t going to want to buy. And that’s been the opposite,” Houle says.
“People play on their phone or computer and then they realize they want that trophy for themselves and they have to go and source it out. That’s been driving the retro market.”
Now with gamers able to come together and share their passions with the world, the owners at Iceman agree that nerd culture has finally gained acceptance in Toronto.
“I used to be embarrassed to tell people I read comic books. I would hide that when I was a teenager,” said Butler. “But now I love to talk about my collection.”
“Nerds and geeks used to be the lepers of society. Now, if you’re a geek, you’re in. Geek is the new black,” Houle adds.
Over the last two decades the couple have seen fandoms during conventions increase and they enjoy watching peple grow. They’ve seen the same kids who came to their tables at 10 years old now become adults – just stopping by to say hello. Now they see conventions as family reunions.
The couple are also heavy supporters of indie gaming as it’s taken off and say they would love to sell indie games in store. As it’s great for the industry and supports small developers that Sony and Microsoft won’t give the time of day.
“There’s a spot in the market now for games that have soul. The technology is there and the passion is there. This generation grew up playing some really great games that they can’t find any more so they’re making their own. They want to give that back,” said Butler.
Following their passions is just what the Fung brothers did further down Queen Street.
A little over a year ago, Derek Fung was working as a financial advisor for a bank when his brother Gary (who worked at a dessert restaurant) called him up, asking him if he wanted to start a board game café. Derek and Gary leapt at the chance after seeing a space available for rent. Thus, A-Game Café was born.
“We wanted to open up a board game café because of the idea and the concept of it, making another type of social space, another activity for people to do other than going to the movies or going drinking. It’s a spot for people to come and hang out and actually interact with each other. Plus, we love games,” says Derek.
Their love of games goes as far back as they can remember. Derek had fond memories playing Trivial Pursuit and Connect Four. Although he didn’t win much, he enjoyed the challenge of trying to outsmart his opponents. But Settlers of Catan is what pushed him to find and play the more obscure and challenging games.
“It was the one that stepped away from monopoly,” says Derek. “And when I played, I realized there’s a lot of variation to be played and a different type of strategy that I didn’t see in board games before.”
To make the most interesting collection for their clientele, Derek and Gary scoured the internet and found a web-
site called Board Game Geek, a gamer’s forum where people can rate and review board games. When the brothers go to buy these games, the store owners often make suggestions of their own. Even the brothers’ own customers bring in games for them to test out. Derek believes that the social interaction is also what has made board games so appealing in recent years.
“Video games used to be about that but with an internet connection, nobody’s in the same room anymore.” With places like A-Game Café, everyone can interact with each other.
Derek especially takes notice that when people play the games, no one is even on their cell phone. He says that the interaction has been able to bring out the qualities everyone has and to help bring people out of their shell.
“Everyone has different qualities that they bring to the table and not everyone’s comfortable doing it in the typical sense.”
Toronto has always been one of the most multicultural cities in the world and Derek thinks it has become one of the most accommodating cities for those wanting to try new experiences.
“I think the whole world has become around customizing your life. And the thing about nerd culture is that those guys have always been about doing things they’ve really enjoyed. Things that are seen as being different, now being different has become cool. Now they get to shine. Now’s their moment.”
The last person on this journey grabbed her moment. Jennifer Hoang was a little girl when her older sister introduced her to Anime. This short form of animation refers specifically to Japanese Animation. Shows like Sailor Moon and Pokémon were watched by a lot of children in the ‘90s and through the shows and artwork, Hoang found another love cosplay.
“One of my favourite genres of anime is the magical girl genre. I always loved how regular girls were able to wear such cute and elaborate costumes,” said Hoang. “I’ve always loved dressing up.”
Cosplay is considered a form of performance art where people dress up as various characters. Conventions are a great place to show of your costume-making skills and one of the largest conventions in North America, Anime North, was where Hoang debuted in 2003 as Sakura from Cardcaptors.
“It may seem a bit egotistical but I love being complimented on costumes I’ve made entirely,” says Hoang. “One of the best things about cosplay is being able to make a costume from just fabrics and a sewing machine.”
“It shouldn’t matter whether you don’t have the right body type, or skin colour/complexion to portray a character. There’s a reason why we cosplay and it is to express our interest or passion and show our appreciation of the character and its show/comic.”
Hoang isn’t a fan of the phrase “nerd culture”, saying it’s far too broad a term so the market has been trying to define the boundaries of who identifies as a nerd.
“All the people within the community don’t necessarily know each other, nor do they often consider themselves part of a “nerd” culture nowadays or think of themselves as part of the same community as one another,” she says. “We each have our own niches which have a habit of not interacting with people beyond our own personal small collective of friends and acquaintances.”
There is one thing that brings all the various nerd cultures in Toronto together; their passion. The passion to stand up and be different. The passion to open their own businesses. The passion to love something, whether it be comics, games or cartoons. No matter what anyone says, there will always be someone like you, especially in the of Toronto.