The first Suspect - 605 Markham Street
IN THE BEGINNING...
Suspect was begun, as most things are, as an idea thrown out in conversation. Now, I can’t quite remember the precise seed of the idea, but I do remember that over the course of several drunken (and even sober !) get togethers. My friends, Todd and Merrill, and I kicked around ideas of what we’d like to see in a video shop. The funny thing is that I was never a big video rental customer. The extent of my renting adventures were renting a couple of films (horrible b-films like Shriek of the Mutilated or Mutant Hunt, of course) along with a Vhs machine (!?) from 7-11. I do remember that the few video rental shops that I did step into were a decidedly boring lot. Pretty well the same cookie-cutter design. You know what I mean: metal, grid shelves, carpets that wouldn’t have been out of place in a faux pub, the latest hollywood schnoozefest playing on the tv(s) hanging from the ceiling. BORING.
Both myself and Merrill had ‘completed’ film school and had both written feature scripts but of course raising the dough for such an iffy endeaver is pretty dificult-it was much easier to raise money to open a video store.
And we did.
Very early Suspect - Pre-signage.
Very early Suspect - Post-signage.
FINDING A LOCATION...
Now cash in hand we set out to find a location for our crazy idea.
We knew that there was no way to afford to me on a major street - sure rents were better back in 1991 but many streets were quite out of our range - and we set our sights on Harbord Street which was a street that ran parallel to Bloor street several blocks south.
We imagined that it was close enough to a major street that it would be convenient but far enough away that the rent would be good.
We stepped into The Beguiling (which over the years has become one of the great comic book stores in the world) and chatted with the owners there. We knew them, and in fact, their own store had begun in a small location on Harbord before moving into it's location in Mirvish Village, a neighbourhood of shops named after Ed Mirvish beginning on Bloor street with the massive Honest Ed's and extending down on both sides of the street one city block.
We had never even considered this area as we assumed the rents too high but that assumption was completely wrong and, as luck would have it, there were a couple of spots for rent.
One was located about halfway down the block. A small walk down (basement) location. The other was a street level spot, about 1000 square feet and right next to Honest Ed's Markham street exit door.
Our first counter - at the back of the store!
The curio cabinet at the front of the store.
Our very first ad !
SETTING IT UP...
Now to make the place presentable and get stock to present!
Bu first, we pretty much knew that a) we wouldn't have enough time or money to open the shop with a massive collection of films and b) we wanted to experiment a bit and make the feel of the store unique.
We knew someone who had a vacu-form shop (vacu-form being a process by which you create a three dimensional model and place it in a machine that provides suction on one side while the other drops a sheet of hot plastic on your model-resulting in a formed plastic version of your original model) and an idea came to me. We needed to line the store with shelves so why not make them custom?
What I created was a shelf panel with bits of old computer parts, wire, nuts and bolts and more bric-a-brac on it.
The result were shelves that resembled something that Giger would make if he was right into steam punk.
After installing them we brought in a cool spray gun and painted them a blur concrete colour and added a red speckles throughout.
At the same time Merrill, my partner, found an vintage dealer that had FIVE (!) vintage retail cabinets which ranged from a metal corner unit, a curved table top unit and several larger 'olde tyme' larger showcases. We thought they would contrast beautifully with the shelves.
As for stock, we got an account at a local comic book distributor that I was employed at, working a one night a week at their all night distribution. For videos Merrill sourced several used wholesalers that we would frequent once a week and literally scrounge through hundreds and hundreds of titles in search of either critically acclaimed classics, celebrated cult films or bizarro oddities.
After making the shelves, buying cool vintage showcases and acquiring books, toys, magazines and a whopping 450 (!) VHS videotapes the opening day was decided for us.
Decided because, believe it or not, the legendary GUNNAR (LEATHERFACE from the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) HANSEN was available for an exclusive signing on August 3rd, 1991. So… August 3rd it was!
We had a name we loved, a location we loved and were collecting some really cool (at least to us) stock.
Now what we needed was a logo.
See, our buddies' band CHEEZBOXX was going to be playing a Toronto club called Sneaky Dee's several weeks before our great unveiling and we wanted to start getting the word out ( remember, this is waaayy before the web ) by printing up pamphlets and handing them out at the show but for that we needed a design.
I remember I must have roughed out dozens of frankly crummy sketches and time was running out.
In frustration I remember tearing off the end of a pencil, dipping it in ink and scrawling the design. The design that became our logo. No modifications.
I'll try to find that pamphlet but, you know, we never were very good at archiving.
Thankfully in the few days leading up to the opening day we had friends who worked tirelessly, (Todd, Dave and Carole) volunteering to help us open in time of the signing but it was still a daunting task. Little sleep was had in the days leading up to opening.
Would it be ready?
Would it look like what we'd envisioned?
Of course not. It never does but if there's a lesson in life it's: Put it out there and keep working on it.
Trying to make the joint look fuller than it was was the real art in the early days and the opening day/signing was a prime example of this.
We had somewhere like 450 tapes to open with as well as smattering of models, books, magazines and posters.
The day had arrived. We opened up the doors with several people waiting outside. Many with Vhs copies. Some with magazines and posters and I remember, one fellow with a hand made chain saw replica!
They came in and browsed the store as we busied ourselves with last minute tasks when Mr. Hansen walked in accompanied with his fiend. He was a large, hulking guy but with a wide and easy grin. After the introductions between us had taken place we directed our guest to his space near the front of the store, behind our grand showcase.
For the next several hours Mr. Hansen, gracious as could be, chatted with the fans that came, answering questions, telling stories and being simply a great guy.
After all of the lucky fans' expectations were fulfilled and they left giddy I, Merrill, Mr. Hansen, his friend and our two new friends Glenn and Dave left the store and went out for dinner just down the street.
At dinner much alcohol and food was consumed. Mr. Hansen regaled us with stories of the filming of Chain saw, his life and even gave us his chili recipe. Exhausted, Merrill had to bail out before the end of the meal and I, too, just after paying the (large) bill as I was so exhausted all I could do was fantasize about being in bed. The rest of the fellows, I found out the next day, taxied downtown to a strip club..
FIRST MONTHS ...
From then on all our efforts were in getting as much cool stuff as possible and we spent as much as as we could on just that – advertising be damned – it was too expensive anyway. To our astonishment people started talking about us! Recommending us! People started to use us as a meeting place! Then something really lucky happened. Horror scribe extrordinaire GEMMA FILES was an early member/friend of the store and was writing for a Toronto publication-Eye Weekly and somehow persuaded the powers-that-be to run a full page profile on us! AMAZING!
More press followed as well as being voted multiple years as Best Video Store and/or Best Indie Video Store in both Eye Weekly and NOW Weekly. Each win, and even getting the Runner Up wins, were great for us. Our memberships were growing by leaps and bounds and we were making heaploads of friends too.
Suspect even hosted some great signings too: Jorg Buttgereit, of Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2 fame, was in town for Schramm and was a gentleman at the signing.
Peter Jackson (yes, THAT Peter Jackson) was super nice during his signing. He’d made the low budget classic Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles and was in town for Braindead.
We’ve also hosted signings with: Dario Argento (twice), Lloyd Kaufman, Mary Woronov, Jon Cryer, Karen Black, Misty Mundae…
As we grew we decided we needed an office and our friends at The Record Peddler were moving from their Yonge Street location to a spankin’ brand new location on Queen street west that was a bit too big for them. When they offered us a space for little more than an office would cost us.. we said YES to a second location at 619 Queen Street West.
The second Suspect - 619 Queen Street West
We now had an office AND a second location...
It was a pretty small store. Smaller than Markham but felt larger because the ceilings were so high! At least fifteen feet.
I remember what was in this space before the Peddler rented it. It was a furniture store and now it was a music and movie palace.
The approach to this location was vastly different. With the first we, Merrill and myself, had to make due with little and make it seem like much. We were constantly building display shelves, book shelves, acquiring display cases, etc. The floor plan was malleable, changing to make it seem we had more than we did. With this new space we could afford the time and money to create the floor plan and have the shelves and displays made for us by a great artist and greater friend MICHAEL TOKE.
Which isn't to say that we didn't physically do a boat load of work ourselves.
We trucked down Queen street west when true artists and real studios occupied the "west Queen west" area and helped paint all of the pieces that were being constructed. We also, painted the ceiling a strange, metallic silver (it took forever and no one probably EVER noticed) and all the walls. We also had the basement for... AN OFFICE AND WAREHOUSE! Luxury!
Finally we had a place to work other than our apartments or just on the counter.
The entrance to the basement was, in Suspect style, through a door in the small adult section we like to call our "Self help" section. That section was through an awning we made that had a curtain of beads hanging from it.
The beads would make a racket when brushed aside. You bet we knew when someone went in.
MORE HISTORY COMING - CHECK BACK SOON!