KITCHENER

Now and Then Books, a downtown Kitchener landmark thought to be the oldest comic book store in North America, is closing its doors at the end of this month.

The Queen Street shop, opened in 1971 by Harry Kremer and Bill Johnson, has been on life-support for nearly a year, and its pending closing is no surprise to comics fans.

But that doesn't make its demise meaningless for the many in the industry who cut their teeth at Now and Then as employees or had their first comic books sold there.

"It was the first and only place in Kitchener that I ever felt truly comfortable before or since," Kitchener comic-book artist Dave Sim wrote in a note to The Record.

"Comic book reading into your teen years was severely frowned upon by everyone in those days, and since comic books were the most important things to me, it was naturally a relief to be somewhere where I wasn't expected to either hide my interest or be ashamed of it," Sim wrote. "It was my only real home."

Kremer, a legend among Canadian comics fans, took over complete ownership of the store shortly after it opened and continued until his death from a heart ailment in 2002.

Originally a second-hand bookstore, Now and Then in the 1970s became one of the first stores in North America known especially for selling comics. Before Now and Then came along, comics were sold almost exclusively at newsstands.

"If you talked to anyone, even in the States, if they had been around in the comics industry for a while, they both knew Now and Then and they knew Harry," said Andy Brast, a former Now and Then manager who now owns Carry-On Comics & Books in Waterloo.

The store, which moved across Queen Street to its current location in 1982, was widely known for distributing Sim's self-published Cerebus the Aardvark comic books.

But Sim was not the only local cartoonist supported by Now and Then. Kremer carried the work of fledgling area artists as well.

For instance, before Rick Taylor of Mississauga began drawing books for DC Comics, Kremer sold his Wordsmith book series at Now and Then, said Mel Taylor, Rick's cousin and collaborator on the book Bootleg Comics & Stories.

Kremer would help young people interested in comics by giving them jobs at the store. Sim worked there in his early 20s, while Peter Birkemoe, now co-owner of The Beguiling comics store in Toronto, worked at Now and Then in his teens.

The current owner, Dave Kostis, also worked under Kremer. Kostis bought the store after Kremer's death.

It would have been almost impossible for Kostis to live up to the standard set by Kremer, Mel Taylor said. Even after he died, people referred to the store as "Harry's" rather than by its official name.

"People were so heartbroken when he died," Taylor said. "I seriously think it was a phenomenal thing to take on your shoulders."

"Dave's had to live with that, to put it succinctly."

Kostis declined to be interviewed for this story.

For months, the store has been open irregularly, and its phone has been disconnected. But the comics community is not going to let the store die without its due regards.

"We're actually planning a wake," Brast said. "A lot of people are going to get together and celebrate the store and tell stories."

mwalcoff@therecord.com