In Memoriam: Tom Laing

When I was a boy, I used to frequent my local convenience store, reading comics. It was how I learned story plotting. But there was a problem; my local corner store was owned by a very sweet Pakistani man named Mr. Jain, but whom we all called Mr. James. He had two boy, Sanjay and Achel (sp?), and they were also comic fans, and had first pick, so there were a number of comics I didn’t get to read or collect.

But then one of my school friends, (I think it was Jason McGuigan) suggested we visit the local flea market, which in those days was housed in Eastgate Square on Sundays. This was before the makeover that made it into the mall it is today; it still had golden yellow brick tiling and high white metal ceiling girders in plain view. And there parked in the corner just before the diagonal turn toward the Food Court (including the unforgettable Steak and Burger) and Sam the Record Man, the old Cavalier Hair Salon, the original Red Hill Library and the arcade, outside of what my memory tells me was either a jewellery store or a shop for shoes and hand bags (I’ve forgotten the name, if I ever knew it), was Tom’s Comic Stand. It was small in the beginning; just a few racks and some long boxes (LONG BOXES! Who knew?). I hadn’t even realized that someone could or would devote their sales entirely to comics.

It was a revelation to me. Lightning storm moment. Flashpoint. Ground Zero. I’m not kidding. I was amazed and dumbfounded. I became a fan of Tom and his curious profession right then. In some ways, it’s incredible that I didn’t follow him into the trade, but I had deeper ambitions; I wanted to MAKE comics, not sell them. I think in a small way, I always wanted to make a comic that I could see on the racks at Tom’s place, but I get ahead of myself.

Tom kept his stall at Eastgate until they were all given the boot and moved their various stalls and chattels to Roller World, which didn’t get a lot of business on Sunday’s (in stark contrast to later years, when the Sunday crowd was pretty much the (last remaining) roller rink’s bread and butter). Roller world lasted for a few years in this configuration, but sadly was going out of business even then. The Disco era had passed, and New Wave and Heavy Metal kids didn’t want to roller skate any more. But Tom hung in there and grew and grew. I still have happy memories (amidst memories of a tense and unhappy home life beleaguered by drugs and alcohol, but that’s another story) of parking myself on the corner of Barton and Centennial, reading my comics while perched on the legs of the sign outside the Esso station (or was it the Shell… there was a gas station on every corner in those days). I spent many sunny afternoons there, barely noticing the traffic or the high winds. It was bliss.

When the roller rink was shut down and demolished, we all wondered where Tom might wind up next, and the answer soon came when it was revealed that the flea market wound up at Queenston Mall. When I got there, it was well lit, and he was in a prominent spot where he could really display his comics in full view of the passers-by. By this time, the 80s indie comic boom was in full swing, and comics were starting to become a going concern, so Tom has to start wrapping everything in mylar bags and asked us not to open the bags. I’m pretty sure I got around this somehow, as I remember spending many Sunday (or was it Saturday by that point; I’m pretty sure the days changed, and his frequency at the flea market increased) reading strange titles like (the original) Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Colleen Doran’s earliest incarnation of A Distant Soil (which I was actually properly introduced to by my old school buddy Scott Mitchell’s high school sweetheart, Sue Cormier), along with all of my favourites.

Then the news finally came; Tom was leaving the Flea Market. He’d outgrown it, really, taking up practically two stalls worth of space and growing. But the good news was, he was setting up shop not too far away, in ‘down town’ Stoney Creek. It wasn’t too far for us to make the pilgrimage, and so a new tradition started; and we got our first taste of an actual comic shop, with posters and shelves and stacks of long boxes. It was a somewhat modest shop, and I don’t think Tom ever quite managed to fit all of his comics in there safely, but he seemed happy, and it was a nice shop that felt safe and never catered to the ravening hordes of belligerent teens who wanted their comic art as close to cheesecake art as possible.

What I haven’t told you in this diatribe was that, over the years, I had really grown to like–perhaps even love–that sweet gentleman behind the counter and his crazy world of comics. Sure, there were other comic shops in town, and when I moved closer to the downtown Hamilton area (where I still live), my visits to Tom’s shop became far less frequent. Still, most of the classic comics I have in my collection were bought in his shop, and more importantly, my love of the medium and much of my skill and invention for plotting adventure scripts came from spending those many, many weekends visiting, reading and buying comics from Tom Laing.

I just got the news today that Tom passed away suddenly this past Monday. I hadn’t visited his shop since bringing my future wife to meet him (she doesn’t remember it, so I may be wrong about that) in the early part of the 00s, so it’s safe to say I’d allowed my membership in the fraternity of the Friends of Tom Laing to lapse. I’d meant to get back down to Stoney Creek to visit him at least one more time, and now I’ve missed my chance. But for the record, he was a great guy, and I’ll miss him very much.

I plan to attend the friends’ viewing at the funeral home tonight.


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