Art, Arts & Life, Books, Movies

Saskatoon’s evolving geek culture

I grew up reading comics, watching science fiction and playing video games in a rather small Saskatchewan town. The only source for new comics was the local drug store, which had a rather limited selection, and it was a few years before a comic shop opened in the nearest city, Lloydminster. The only comic shop I knew was the downtown location of Tramps Music and Books in Saskatoon.

Near the King George Hotel, long before it became the condo-fied shrine to our current housing culture, Tramps was a haven for people looking to pick up the newest issue of Spider-Man or Batman in addition to used literature and music. I have many fond memories of staying at the King George with my parents and heading over to Tramps to shop for comics.

I almost wrote “CDs” instead of “music” but this predated CDs. Yeah, I’m that old.

After I moved to the Saskatoon for university, the beginning point of my immensely satisfying career as a freelance writer and sarcasm purveyor, I found a small comic shop on campus named Amazing Stories. Tucked away on the path between Place Riel and Marquis Hall, Amazing Stories had a nice selection of new comics, graphic novels and toys, a tiny wonderland for someone like me. I quickly got to know the owner and was hooked on the store for life.

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In the decade and a half that my life has centered around this city, both Tramps and Amazing Stories have moved locations a few times each. In one case, it’s been a mark of growth and the other its decline. But it all led to one end point with Tramps closing its doors in Saskatoon and Amazing Stories celebrating its 20th anniversary within days of each other.

By the time it closed, Tramps had long since stopped selling new comics, focusing entirely on used products. At one time it was located in a massive downtown location in the core of the city but found itself cutting down square footage and product. Eventually, it just couldn’t sustain the business model anymore as fewer people bought while more people were trading in. That lack of cash flow is an obvious issue. Amazing Stories, on the other hand, has consistently grown since leaving the University of Saskatchewan campus, expanding to include anime, manga, games, card games, high end products and a wide variety of novelties in addition to comics, graphic novels and toys.

The dichotomy between the two stores and their respective trajectories is a prime example of the changing geek culture in Saskatoon and beyond.

At the time that Tramps was one of the core places to shop for comics in Saskatoon, the average comic book shopper didn’t have the options for toys and more than exist today. And what did exist was readily available in a number of places, so differentiating yourself with comics, back issues, used books and more was enough. Now, you have to stock specialty toys, hard to find manga and high end collector’s products only available in specialty stores to keep your clientele happy. Tramps was never really that place, especially as competition for those dollars has increased.

Amazon, eBay and other online retailers are always huge threats but there are more than a few brick and mortars to contend with. In addition to Amazing Stories, Saskatoon also has Unreal City and 8Th Street Comics and Books competing for your comic shop dollars. Numerous card and game shops like Dragon’s Den or Hi Tech Game Traders are vying for your gaming cash. And bookstores like McNally Robinson and Indigo certainly have their own selection of graphic novels.

Sufficed to say it’s a competitive market place.

Geek culture continues to evolve in Saskatoon in some exceptionally visible ways. There are now two comic cons in town. Unreal City hosts regular art shows featuring local talent. Said local talent continues to make waves far beyond the city’s borders. And the tastes of local geeks have simultaneously become broader and more refined. Stores like Amazing Stories have positioned themselves well for this new era marketplace. Tramps didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t.

Some business models simply can’t evolve and are destined to either survive or die as is. The concept of a store that buys and sells used merchandise is one of the most basic in retail. If the issue is a glut of stock coming in from customers who don’t buy, then you’re model falls apart. To put a less fine point on it, you’re screwed.

While there has been a sense of inevitability and impending doom around Tramps for years, its closure is still a loss for the local geek community. While Amazing Stories is dipping into this area, Tramps was the prime source for comic book back issues in the city. On the upside, the recently closed live music landmark known as Lydia’s might be finding a new home in the vacated Tramps building. It is, at the very least, a silver lining should it come to pass.

For Saskatoon’s geek culture, it has been an odd time as a 35 year vanguard of our community fell by the wayside while another of our gathering places celebrates its 20th year. I can’t imagine a more visceral example of a changing geek culture.

Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at@ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at