Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Don Keele, Parkdale, 1986

EARLY ON AT NERVE MAGAZINE WE HAD A REGULAR FEATURE called "Local Hero," where writers were asked to pick someone who'd had a big influence on them - someone in the phone book, who could be visited on public transit. I chose Don Keele, who ran a collectible record shop called Don's Discs in Parkdale. I could confidently say that he was the reason my interest in music went from a lonely suburban kid's hobby to an obsession that would open up the world - and the past - for me.

Photograph 1988 by Patrick Cummins. The sign's still there but Don's moved out.

I photographed Don in what would be the last Don's Discs, in the main floor of an old two-story retail building near the corner of Queen St. West and Sorauren. This was just down the street from his previous store, and would be the last Don's Discs. I did a brief interview with Don and then took a photo of him sitting on the couch by the big front window, beneath a painting of a doo wop group.

The meat of my story was my recollection of the first time I ever met Don. It was the turn of the '80s and, shortly after "going punk," I'd found myself increasingly interested in older music - R&B and soul and rockabilly - and had come upon an ad for Don's store in a local music paper. So on a bright Saturday in autumn I made my way down to Don's first Parkdale store, at Queen and Lansdowne, and found it full of customers. I'd read somewhere that Elvis Presley's Sun sessions were the Holy Grail of rock and roll records - the moment where lightning struck and the world changed direction.

A collectible record store is different from the mall record outlets I was used to, and for a few minutes I wandered around in a daze, picking through the singles, reading the header cards and trying to familiarize myself with names I'd never heard of before. Don was hard to miss - he had his hair greased back and dressed like a DJ at a big city radio station in 1957.

He had the loudest voice in the room, and maintained running verbal battles with several customers at once, mocking them when they tried to bargain him down and alluding to records in their collections or anecdotes from their shared pasts. His wife, Linda, sat by the cash register rolling her eyes at this - I have no other word for it - performance.

At this point he noticed me in my cream '50s sport jacket with the black windowpane check - my prized vintage find from a thrift store out in the east end. "What are you looking for, my friend?" he barked at me, clearly picking up on my confusion. I'm guessing that my loud jacket prevented him from mistaking me for a potential shoplifter.

I told him I was looking for Elvis' Sun sessions, and in my mind I had an image of the black and yellow record labels I'd seen in a magazine; looking up on the wall I saw the label on a t-shirt displayed on a hangar, alongside several other shirts emblazoned with record labels I'd never seen before. "It's your lucky day, my friend," Don said, and reached into a bin with what seemed like a single lunge. He pulled out a 10" EP that collected eight of the two dozen tracks Presley made at Sam Phillips' Memphis studio, pressed by RCA France.

I still have it today:

Before I could take it from him he leapt over to the turntable in the corner of the store and whipped the little record out of its sleeve. He cued up the needle, put on "Milkcow Blues Boogie" and began playing along with Bill Black's standup bass in the middle of the store. His enthusiasm was obvious, if a little intimidating, and from my own perspective today - older now than Don was when he sold me the record - it's impressive that he still got such a jolt from a record that he must have heard, and sold, a thousand times by then.

I'd return to Don's store again, and even attended one of the record collector's conventions he put on in a hotel down by the lakeshore, where I got a full blast of the record collecting obsessives I'd end up spending much of my '20s, '30s and '40s amidst. He was always friendly, introducing me to dealers, trying to find me bargains, inviting me to sit at his table at the party and concert after the show, next to all these burly, hard-swearing dealers from all over Canada and the U.S., where I'd sit quietly trying to retain details of their stories and the names or musicians I'd never read about in Creem magazine.

Don also showed me a way to be an adult without being boring, which was a big deal at the time for me. I would find a few more of these role models - the artist parents of my best friend; another friend's slightly eccentric, very upper class English parents - but they were few and far between, and I was desperate to know that I could make my way past thirty with my enthusiasm and sense of humour intact.

A year after I wrote my Nerve tribute to Don I ended up moving into a loft apartment across the street from Don's Discs, but by then he and Linda had closed up shop and moved out of storefront retail. The address had been taken over by a cheque-cashing business, which is still there today:

I looked out at that storefront every day for over a decade, and often wished that Don's Discs was still there, as it would have given me a local hangout and an easy fix for my collecting habit, just steps from my front door. I still pass it almost every day as I walk my kids to their school in the morning - just after getting off the bus around the corner from the storefront where I first met Don, on my quest for Sun sessions, thirty-five years ago.

The spot where I took my portrait of Don doesn't look at all the same today:

Don is still in business, as is Linda and his son Aaron, finding and selling records for the obsessives and the collectors, though I wonder how easy it is for a curious kid with twenty bucks in their pocket to find their way to a friendly place in the world of music nuts and hoarders. I doubt that I would have found my own way there if it weren't for Don.


No comments:

Post a Comment