By Federico Sierra

The busiest day for The Comic Room is fast approaching. On May 2, comic book stores around the world celebrate Free Comic Book Day, which is designated to honour the publications and the stores that sell them. The staff of The Comic Room is preparing and owner and manager Troy Ritchie is leading his team. 

As Troy looks back on previous Free Comic Book Day events, he remembers relishing every second, even though they are exhaustive. Customers will line up around the corner of the plaza; inside, people buzz through the crowded room as each receives their free comic book. Troy spends his shift at the register, taking care of one customer after the other until the store closes. Afterward, Troy and his staff will wipe the hard-earned sweat off their foreheads and go out for dinner to celebrate another fantastic year, all together, like a family. 

That was the past. Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s doubtful the event will take place in 2020. That would be a shame, because this year, Troy was planning something completely different. He wanted to invite customers and anyone visiting the store to bring in canned food that he could donate to local shelters. Despite the circumstances, Troy’s strategy is an example of his desire to make a difference in the community.

“Troy is an unsung hero, he really goes the extra mile for his clients,” says Allan Gladwyn. Allan was introduced to The Comic Room over six years ago by his friend and has been one of the store’s loyal regulars ever since, thanks to the exceptional customer care he’s experienced. “I remember one time I wanted this variant comic, but the store needed to order 200 copies in order to get just one variant of them,” he says. “And being a small shop, I didn’t expect them to get it. But Troy understood how much I wanted the cover and somehow took care of my request, which showed me that he sincerely cares about his customer base.”

The Comic Room is located on the side of an old plaza across from Scarborough Health Network General Hospital. There are no big billboards or neon lights calling attention to it; blink and you’ll miss the store when driving by. However, the sign that reads “Books ½ price” is inviting enough to attract curious minds. 

Troy is a slender man sporting a bright red Toronto Football Club jacket. He sits behind the register, surrounded by shelves full of paperbacks, as he performs his routine accounting tasks. Administering a bookstore – just like any type of business – is a daunting ordeal that demands every ounce of energy. But Troy is a fan of the community (as his TFC attire indicates) and as such he’s committed his enterprise to cultivate a better community. Troy’s passion to cater stories to people of all ages is increasingly deepened by the many children he’s witnessed develop an affinity toward books and literature. 

“There are a couple of customers who I’ve known for many years who first came into the store dragged in by their parents,” he says. “But after they pick up their first comic book, they start coming in with their parents week after week. The most fascinating aspect is when these kids have grown a little, and then they start to browse around on the first level and pick up paperbacks instead of comics.” Inviting younger generations into the world of books is powerful and Troy knows it. “It’s like they’re expanding their literary craving they developed with comic books,” he says. “Watching non-readers transform into avid readers is probably the biggest satisfaction I get from this job.” 

The Comic Room aims to foster a healthy habit of reading for children who could potentially ignore books in lieu of the plethora of entertainment options available to today’s youth. “I’ve had parents who come to me to thank me,” says Troy. “Their smile is worth all the effort this takes.” Despite the incessant challenges of maintaining a comic book store, Troy finds solace when he remembers that The Comic Room played a pivotal role in the future of many kids.

Jenny Ierullo, who was introduced to The Comic Room by her younger brother, recognizes the impact of stories in the development of young readers. “The Comic Room is crucial because it is a community gathering space,” she says. “Kids are able to meet like-minded individuals in their neighborhood and have the chance to make great friendships.”

Ierullo became a regular customer of The Comic Room after she was reeled in by The Avengers movie in 2012. “One time I visited The Comic Room I found a copy of the issue where The Avengers went on the David Letterman show!” she recalled. Ierullo is both a reader and a collector, but what’s most gratifying about her visits to The Comic Room is the welcoming atmosphere of the store. “I feel like I am a part of a community. I enjoy chatting with other people while I am there and sharing recommendations with each other. Troy is a great guy and deserves all the praise. He goes above and beyond for his customer, and I always trust his recommendations for me.”

Possibly the store’s strongest quality is how neat and tidy it is. No shelf is overflowing with books; they’re all stacked up in organized piles that not only make it accessible to trace the title you may be looking for, but also lends an elegant solution to the common stereotype of a dusty, dishevelled bookstore.

 The Paperback Exchange ground level: A room full of books on Monday, March 2, 2020. (Federico Sierra/T•)

The shop, situated in a two-storey building, is divided into two separate sections. The ground floor belongs to The Paperback Exchange, where an abundance of titles can be spotted, from Shakespeare works to Hemingway stories, from science fiction to Greek plays. The register and Troy’s main desk sit just a step away from the front door, strategically located to grant Troy the opportunity to greet and offer assistance to anybody who steps in. At the far back, there is a flight of stairs that lead down to The Comic Room – this brief descent into the basement feels a lot like Alice sliding down the rabbit hole as she approaches a vibrant, alternate world. Posters adorn the walls and action figures dangle from the ceiling over fat boxes replete with comic books.

Entrance down to The Comic Room, situated under The Paperback Exchange on Monday, March 2, 2020. (Federico Sierra/T•)

Troy has been the owner and manager of The Comic Room for 20 years. Meanwhile, the bookstore has been open since 1981. Troy was 9 years old the first time he opened a comic book. The delightful combination of the zany images and quirky storytelling quickly paved the way for a lifetime of devotion and passion for the medium. Back then, it wasn’t so easy being a collector. You could love comic books, yet it was a big deal trying to gather every issue you needed to collect in order to get the full story. But the pursuit of that one missing issue is what makes this hobby so exciting and dynamic.

Troy learned from such limitations and built upon them when he stepped up to take ownership of The Comic Room after the previous owner retired. Formerly known as Roy’s Comic Room, Troy was a happy member of the staff, and seeing how much he enjoyed the experience of being part of this niche enterprise, he was prepared to take the mantle from his previous manager. This allowed Troy to learn from an experienced mentor and improved his knowledge to ensure that his store delivers a memorable and satisfying experience to every person who enters through the door.

 “There’s nothing better than when someone says, ‘I’m looking for something new to read,’” he says. 

Troy Ritchie may not have any superpowers, but his super-generosity and his super-commitment transform him into somewhat of a literary hero of his community. Managing a bookstore is a colossal task, a battle every day, yet Troy is able to accomplish this with sheer passion and devotion to his customers.

Stepping into this cozy room can inflict a seriously healthy habit of getting lost in the pages of a book.

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