Come for the Comics, Stay for the Class Struggle

There’s a revolutionary vibe at Downtown Comics these days as outspoken anti-capitalist Kerri Neil adjusts to running a business.

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What does it mean to run a feminist business? 

It’s the kind of question the owner of Downtown Comics loves discussing with her customers. 

Downtown Comics has been a fixture of the city’s downtown core for almost a quarter century. But those who haven’t been there in a while will be surprised to see the transformation it’s undergone over the past year, as owner/operator Kerri Neil—one of the province’s most outspoken anti-capitalists—gets used to running a business. 

Downtown Comics has a history as vibrant as the fan-art that adorned its earliest storefront. Comics enthusiast Jason Conway began selling comics at the Avalon Mall flea market in the 1990s. He eventually generated enough revenue to open a store on Duckworth Street in 1997, in the space immediately below Fred’s Records. The strip was a haven for comic book enthusiasts: right across the street by the War Memorial was the city’s other major comic book shop, Timemasters, while other used bookstores peppered both Water and Duckworth streets. 

Timemasters eventually moved up near the Avalon Mall (and then out to Torbay Road, before landing in its current home on Hamlyn Road)—while the bookstores vanished one by one, with the exception of Elaine’s Books on Duckworth. But Downtown Comics remained in the downtown core from which it drew its name, moving down the road a few doors to 141 Duckworth near the turn of the millennium. There it remained for almost twenty years, until Conway’s death in December of 2020.

His death came as a shock to the community, and the outpouring of sympathy and support messages from hundreds of people was testament to the impact Conway’s work had on the broader community. His daughter, Kerri Neil, was touched by the powerful outpouring of community care when her father died. 

“You don’t realize how many people you interact with over the years, and how much they appreciated that space,” she reflected. “I really appreciated seeing that outpouring.”

Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

As sole heir, she was faced with the decision of whether to sell, close, or continue the business. She decided to keep it going. Neil, a researcher in the social sciences with a degree in economics and a Masters in sociology, had never seriously considered running a comic book shop. She was a frequent presence at the store as a teenager, spending weekends with her father and helping to price items or dust shelves. Running a business, however, was an entirely different prospect. 

“It’s been challenging,” she reflected. “I got thrown into the fire and didn’t know what I was doing at all… but I think I’ve been piecing it together and figuring it out.”

Running a business means a never-ending to-do list, she finds; gone are the days of discrete weekly tasks that can be checked off. But there are rewards: a sense of community, and a social atmosphere that’s helped her forge new friendships with customers. She’s also discovered a new-found respect for comic book storytelling. 

“There’s something really endearing to me about comic books,” Neil explains. “Storytelling is so important for figuring out—how do we live in community together? It helps us learn new perspectives. When we see how people in these stories are interacting, and especially when we talk to other people about the stories and the plot and how they went down, you get a sense of how you’d want to be treated in these situations.”

“Comic book storytelling is really beautiful, and of course the artwork of comic books makes them really accessible to read.”

Not just comics anymore

Neil is well known for her activist work in the city—and her Twitter provocations. A member of the Social Justice Co-op, her unabashed efforts to hold power and corporations to account have drawn both praise and criticism on social media.

As she sees it, making books available to people is an important part of bringing about social change. As she wrapped her head around the demands of running a business, she realized there were ways she could expand the shop’s social and intellectual impact, by expanding the gamut to include an array of fiction and non-fiction prose titles as well. 

“Bookstores can be really cool places to get access to new ideas and new stories and try to understand the society we’re in and help us understand how it could be changed,” she said. “Reading is a really powerful tool for change. ‘Educate, agitate, organize’ is the mantra that I practice and with the comic book store I felt like there was a cool opportunity. I wanted to create a small space for people to access these books because I know the price of shipping is so high, and being able to do it wholesale makes it more accessible.”

“There’s a lot of problems with the status quo, so if I can do my little part to share some ideas about what things could look like differently, and explain some of the issues that we’re facing, then I think that can hopefully have a snowball effect.”

Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

Books and comics now share space on the shelves, which showcase radical publishers like Haymarket Books and the anarchist AK Press. Neil has also sought out smaller Canadian indie presses, like Detritus Books. An array of pamphlets and promotional material from local activist groups like the Workers’ Action Network also festoon the shelves, along with progressive magazines like Briarpatch, Shameless, and Canadian Dimension. 

Neil, who’s an avid participant in a book club of her own, hopes people will give the new content a try. 

“We spend a lot of our time reading on our phones, but it’s generally headlines or short tweets. You can say so much more with a book than you can with a tweet. Being able to read a book and take the time to really delve into a topic and sit with it, I think that’s really important because there is a depth to these arguments that I think are worth delving into.” 

A different way of doing business

Neil drew criticism from a motley assortment of detractors on social media when she recently described Downtown Comics as a feminist business. But what does it mean to run a feminist business?

“I think it means uplifting marginalized voices and stories,” she reflects. “I think that feminism is intricately part of the class struggle, and to create a world where the genders are equal we do need to uproot capitalism.”

Her hope—once her business is on a solid footing—is to explore the idea of converting it into a co-op. 

“I think the community part is really important. I have customers who come in every week to get their comics, and I’d like to do more to help create a community around that.”

But balancing the running of a business, with a commitment to ecological and social justice, can sometimes require difficult decisions. One of the revenue-generating mainstays of Downtown Comics has been the ubiquitous assortment of plastic figurines the shop sells—action figures from comics, movies and other collectables. Neil recently made the difficult—and somewhat controversial—decision to stop ordering plastic figures. Previously made orders will still be honoured but she’s no longer going to purchase new items to sell. 

“We’re just choking in plastic, and I didn’t want to be part of facilitating that any more,” she explained. “I’m trying to be more cognizant of my waste and what impact I’m having on the planet. I’m definitely not zero waste, but am trying to do as little damage as possible.”

Even her mother questioned the financial wisdom of that decision. 

“My mom thinks I’m nuts,” she laughs. “But I want to hold myself to a higher standard and practice what I preach. I’ve had to be patient with myself because I can’t do everything overnight, but putting in those orders every month was just getting harder and harder on my soul.”

“It’s tricky, because people really resonate with certain characters in certain stories, and they want this art to be replicated in their homes. But I think we’re also encouraged to over-consume, so people are buying things and then throwing out other things. I think that’s something to be mindful about. How much do we really need? Do we really need all twelve [figures], or could we be happy with just one?”

Neil has also been working to try to make the space physically accessible—which until recently it certainly was not—by reorganizing the shelves and stacks to make it more accessible to get around.

Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

Another way in which Neil has sought to do business differently, is in her online engagement with customers and community. Through an array of posts, videos and other online reflections she’s tried to be open and transparent about how she runs the business—and even the challenges she encounters. Being open and vulnerable offers a different way to do business as a feminist, she feels. 

“I’ve always practiced vulnerability and I’m still doing it in this role, and I guess it’s catching people by surprise. I sometimes get flack for what I share on social media. It’s like I’m supposed to pretend that I’ve got it all figured out. There’s this perception that you’re supposed to be like an alpha, and be confident and not share how you’re struggling. But I think that’s a toxic culture. It’s okay to struggle. Obviously I’m going to be struggling—what’s happened has been quite a whirlwind! I don’t think it’s unexpected that I would be having a hard time of it. 

“In my social media I’ve still maintained my political values and my openness about them, which is not always received well. A lot of people try not to be political with their business because it can be really polarizing, but I guess I wear my heart on my sleeve and I don’t feel that I’m separate from my business.”

Fighting for downtown

Ever the social scientist, Neil’s vantage from the shop on Duckworth Street has made her attentive to some of the contradictions and problems faced by the residents and businesses of downtown St. John’s. Last year she spent some of her spare time exploring vacant buildings in the downtown, and recorded those explorations in a series of social media videos. Her interest was piqued by the Social Justice Co-op’s hunt for an office space, and she was shocked to discover just how many downtown buildings are being held vacant by their often absentee landlords. 

“There’s so much space! Why is it that it’s locked up and not being used? It’s not just the Social Justice Co-op that needs space, there’s all kinds of people that could use those spaces. I was trying to shed light on vacancy in our downtown.”

There are negative spin-off effects for allowing landlords to keep buildings vacant, in pursuit of higher-paying tenants, she said. With fewer employees downtown, that means fewer people going to local restaurants for lunch, or picking up coffees and snacks. Filling up the vacant buildings would help invigorate economic activity downtown on a broader scale. All these factors have been exacerbated by Covid, she notes. And in a province with rising rates of homelessness, people could use homes too. 

“There’s this hollowing out of downtown that I worry is happening,” she said. “There’s so much opportunity, but [landlords] are still just charging really high rent and hoarding all this space.”

One space that’s not empty is Downtown Comics. While I’ll always have a soft spot for the impenetrable stacks of back-issues and lightly organized chaos that defined the spot when I was growing up, there’s a different vibe these days: brightly painted shelves, lefty magazines and Angela Davis gazing down at me while I shop. As I leaf through horror manga, a customer behind me browses poetry. Another asks for recommendations for a book on climate justice to give as a gift.

But never fear, Neil says with a laugh—there will always be comics here.

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