I first met Jay about 13 years ago when a friend of mine introduced me to the wonderful world of Happy Harbour Comics. Jay opened the first incarnation of Happy Harbour in 1999 in Jasper, Alberta. Since then Happy Harbour has gone through many changes including an expansion followed by a refocusing into what the store is today.
After 5 years of running the store in Jasper, Jay packed everything up and relocated to Edmonton where the customer base was bigger and he had more room to grow his business. “Moving to Edmonton seemed like the thing to do and it worked out pretty well” Jay tells me. Happy Harbour has been voted Edmonton’s best comic book store 6 years running by Vue Weekly. It’s not just a store but a place for people to gather and get their geek on. The staff are friendly and the space feels inclusive.
Jay is originally from a small town in southern Ontario called Chatham. He has been in Alberta for over 20 years. “I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t have what I have had I stayed in Ontario” Jay says.
I asked Jay when he fell in love with comics: “It’s something that I discovered when I was a really young kid, about 8 or 9 years old and they were just fun. I’ve even tried to pinpoint a moment but I really just remember them being around.” Jay got small odd jobs to pay for comic books as a kid. He read a lot superhero comics. “Even though you’re reading the same story over and over again, I just never got tired of it.” Nowadays, comics aren’t limited to just capes and crusaders. There are endless genres that appeal to a wide audience of people. “If anyone was to walk into a good comic book store and say ‘I don’t think that there’s anything in here that will interest me’, you just don’t like happiness or freedom apparently. There’s way too much and there’s always going to be something that connects with somebody. We’re in a new golden age of comics.”
So what is Jay reading these days? “As a long time DC comics fan, it almost hurts a little bit to say but some of my favourite books right now are Marvel Comics’ Champions and Mighty Thor. Justice League is kind of my book so I read it regardless of how good or bad it is…And Astro City is a book that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves because it’s so well written and wonderfully drawn.”
The comic book landscape has changed drastically in the last 10 years. With superhero films dominating the box office and wider variety of comics available than ever, you get a much broader range of people shopping in comic book stores. “Now in our shop, you don’t have one type of customer. It’s not the addicted weekly comic guy or gal. Now you get a substantially greater mix. You get a lot more families. We get a lot of young kids, teens, or pre-teens, who come in on their own now to pick up their stuff and pick stuff out. Which is great. 10 years ago it was only really like 25-40 year old established adults, usually male. Even in the last five years it’s totally different, totally different audience. Certainly a far cry from everything I was experiencing as a kid growing up and going to comic book stores. The different kind of stories you put out there, the broader of an audience you’re going to get.” And Jay has tried to adapt to the every changing landscape. “As much as we will supply stuff quick and ready for the hardcore fan, our goal isn’t to just take customers from other businesses, we want to find a way to generate new customers, or lapsed customers. We want to find a way to bring people back into comics or introduce people to comics and that’s generally more often than not, our goal.”
I asked Jay what he does when he’s not running his business: “I eat out a lot. I’m always looking for cool little places and trying to find new for experiences. I like doing the festivals in the city and being downtown, I can do a lot of stuff because there’s always stuff happening downtown, nice and close. I’ve recently, through the business, become involved a lot with the Winspear so I’ve been seeing a lot of symphonies lately which is something that I never used to do. I’m passionate about music so that worked out pretty well. I do a lot of music stuff too. We have bands here at the store. When we get a chance to bring in new bands, I try to go out and follow them. I go to all of these neat little clubs to go and check out these bands that I’ve come to love… This town certainly doesn’t leave you with many empty moments.”
As for those who say Edmonton is lacking in things to do, well Jay doesn’t have a lot of patience for those people. “I always find it funny when someone say ‘Oh it’s Deadmonton, there’s nothing to do!’ and I’m like, no you just suck, I’m sorry, but if you’re in this city and you say there’s nothing to do, that’s your own fault.”
Jay has taken big risks, moving across the country, and eventually settling in Edmonton but he’s content with where he is. “It worked out okay. I’m quite happy to live in Edmonton and take in everything that it has to offer and I almost feel bad that I don’t take in as much as it has to offer.”