Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Kenk Under Glass

Toronto’s Bike Thief and the Window Display Controversy
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By Stacey Madden

Petty crook. Folk hero. Common criminal. The most prolific bicycle thief in Canada. Igor Kenk has been called all of the above and more, so it’s not a surprise that the subject of Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox), written by Richard Poplak and illustrated by Nick Marinkovich, ignited further controversy after a number of retailers in Toronto decided to showcase the book using elaborate and in some cases boldly inventive window displays.

The Beguiling

Two of Toronto’s most popular comic book stores — The Beguiling at 601 Markham St. near Bathurst and Bloor, and Silver Snail at 367 Queen St. West — decided to cover their windows with a giant close-up of Igor Kenk’s bearded face, a grizzly image from the pages of the book itself. But how would the public react to having the gaze of a notorious bike thief thrust at them from a store window?

“Love him or hate him, Igor Kenk has been a part of Queen Street culture for a very long time,” said George Zotti, manager of Silver Snail. “Our decision to do the window display was about representing Queen Street West. Silver Snail has been on Queen Street for thirty-four years, and Igor Kenk is part of Queen history.” When asked if he’d had any negative reactions from customers, he said, “If people are upset, I tell them to take a look at the book. I think it presents a fairly unbiased view. He’ll either canonize or hang himself. But most of our customers thought the display was pretty cool.”

Preparing the Kenk window for the Silver Snail

Silver Snail is located right in the blast radius, so to speak, of where a lot of the G20 mayhem took place — just steps from one of the infamous burning police cars. When asked about the timing of the Kenk display, Zotti suggested the decision was strategic. “I thought it was perfect for the G20. If the anarchists were about to put a brick through our window, they’d see the display and think, ‘Wait a minute — maybe these guys are on our side’. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but our store was left untouched.”

Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling, called the reaction to his window display "moderate." “The response was mostly one of curiosity,” he said. “Our clientele is very comics-based and composed mostly of regulars. Most of them just wanted to know if Kenk was a good comic.” I asked him if he thought the poster drew more people into his store. “I wouldn’t say it brought any more or any less. We get less foot traffic than a store on a main street would. Most of the people who come in here have set out to come here in the first place. But we did sell a lot of copies of the book.”

When I asked him about the most extreme reaction he got from a customer about the poster, he said, “Honestly, I think it was people feeling conflicted or slightly uncomfortable about Igor Kenk the man, but nothing that questioned our decision to put up the display.”

Where the response of comic store patrons was somewhat lukewarm, bookstore shoppers were a little more skeptical. Type Books at 883 Queen Street West was approached by the novel’s publisher with the idea for an elaborate multimedia display involving bike parts, book pages and video clips. The people at Type thought the display made sense, seeing as the store is located just down the street from where Igor Kenk ran his biz. Problems arose because a number of the store’s customers, who have lived in the neighbourhood for years, had had their bikes stolen by the man in the window who, they felt, was now being celebrated.

Type Books

“Kenk upset a lot of people in our ‘hood over the years,” said Type's Becky Toyne. “Without knowing the context, some people assumed the display was a glorification of the man. We were asked a lot if Kenk would profit financially from the book. (He won’t.) That was the main concern voiced.”

Besides a few complaints, however, the majority of Type’s customers regarded the display as a salute to Queen Street culture. “Type is a neighbourhood business with very strong ties to the local community — a community that included Kenk’s bike clinic for the first couple of years we were open,” Toyne said. “By doing the display, we were making more of a neighbourhood statement than a bookish one. Loathe him all you like, but Kenk is a piece of urban lore in Toronto now. I think our customers took it as it was intended — a nod to our Trinity Bellwoods community.”

Perhaps the most interesting approach to doing a Kenk window display came from Curbside Cycle at 412 Bloor Street West — an unlikely outlet, given the nature of Igor Kenk’s infamy. Eric Kamphof, manager at Curbside, said his decision to do the display was about alerting the public to an important urban problem. “The reason was educational,” he said. “I wanted to open up a conversation about bike theft in Toronto.”

Curbside Cycle

Besides selling bikes, Curbside Cycle places an emphasis on the importance of bike locks. A common misconception in the cycling world is that the quality of the lock should match the quality of the bike — a misconception that Kenk took full advantage of. “If you saw our display, you would’ve noticed that the bike we used was an old piece of junk,” Kamphof said. “Those were precisely the kind of bikes Kenk was stealing. Obviously we don’t sell a lot of books, but there’s a sad lack of bike literature out there. We want cyclists in the city to be informed, and to give them a theft-proof option.”

Makes sense when you think about it. Read the book, buy a lock. Be aware. Know what’s going on in your community. I guess window displays don’t always have to be about selling things.

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Stacey Madden is a writer and frequent window shopper from Toronto. He works at Book City, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is currently at work on a novel.

Photos courtesy of Pop Sandbox. For more images of the Kenk window displays, go to their Flickr page.

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