I go around the corner and my dad is bent on one knee, flipping through the stack of records. I have a pile of knick-knack type things and a few clothes thrown over one arm.
“Can I get this stuff?” I ask him. He looks down his nose over the top of his glasses to get a better look at what I’m talking about.
We’re at the Salvation Army in Belleville Ontario and I'm about 11 years old. It’s at the back of the Industrial Park. Beside the bay where the store is located there’s a garage. The parking lot is a mixture of people who have dropped off their cars to be fixed, and people with cars they can’t afford to fix.
My mom will shake her head when we get in. Me with my thrifted over-sized clothes that I thought to be cutting edge. Him with a stack of records that would make their way into his record stash. Later on I’d sit in my room and take out my finds; try on the shirt I’d scored. The coolest kid in grade seven, that was my aim. I might have missed the mark a bit. But it was the thrill. The thrill of the hunt. And honestly, looking back, who is cool in grade seven anyway?
All over the area we’d traipse. Draw a 360 circle in 100 km circumference around my parent’s house and any Goodwill, Salvation Army, thrift store, junk store, used book or record store you hit, my dad’s been there. Him in search of records, and me, tagging along for the ride.
I’m not exactly sure how old I was when he started collecting. He’s always had records, as most people from his generation do, but the precise date of the big bang that led to his collection of today is unknown. You could probably say it happened organically but I’d love to go back in time to that moment - to the first record purchase that kicked it off. If you asked him I’m sure he’d come up with a memory for it. Because that’s my dad: he has a good way of marking all momentous occasions in his mind, even before they are known to be so.
The first particular record memory I have from my early childhood days (aside from the Roger Whittaker or Bony M Christmas Albums of course) is of a Mannheim Steamroller album. It was a collection of nature inspired songs called "Saving the Wildlife." The record kicks off with an eerie piece of wolves howling. Then, the synthesizer picks up with low beats. While the other kids were listening to Mini Pops, this was me: "Play that wolf song daddy!" Having had the memory recently, I dug my own copy of the record out and listened to the piece not too long ago.... it’s... eclectic to say the least.
And then, it must have been sometime between my 6th and 10th birthday, he started The Search. His collection slowly started to grow. As a carpenter and photographer, he had a workshop and studio separate from our house where we lived; on a dirt road in the country, about a 10 minute drive from town. The attic above the studio slowly began to house his collection. I’d go up there to look through the stacks. The plywood floor was covered in crayon drawings that I had made when the shop was being built and he let me go to town. “Emily and Dad Fort” was what one of my childhood scawls read as you climbed the set of drop-cieling stairs.
I’d like to say I helped him with the collection but really I was just along for the ride. More often then not, I’d be whining within 20 minutes if I had exhausted looking through all the racks of clothes. Of course you need more then 20 minutes to sift through the dusty stacks of records. If you’re a true collector, you discern! You pull each prospective record out and inspect it for scratches. The jacket shouldn’t be too dusty with mildew from the previous owner's garage, mildew being the hardest of the scents to get out. My dad quickly perfected the search process; Usually the shop will have the records in some sort of box or crate so you can flip through the pile. He’d first quickly flip through the stack, pulling ones that looked "collection worthy" along the way. He would then go back and inspect each one separately. Finally, he’d flip through his own pile and assess it’s value so that when he got to the cashier, he’d have a number in his head he could haggle with. It might seem rude to haggle at a charity shop, but some of them were acting as if these were CD’s! And honestly in 1995, there weren't too many people hitting "Beyond the Blue Box" for vinyl.
By my 13th birthday, he was DJ’ing my party with the "Golden Oldie" hits I'd come to love via his influence. He set up a pair of big speakers and amp on our deck so the music was pumping around our above ground pool and we listened while swimming in the dark. Afterwards, as the night got cool, we wrapped ourselves in our Umbro hoodies, wet hair dripping down our shoulders, and had ice-cream sundaes beside the still water and floating pool noodles. My birthday is at the beginning of September and I remember that particular night feeling like a farewell to summer.
And it was probably shortly after that that it became less cool to tag along with my dad on his hunt. These were the days before “vintage” was in. I had other things to do and was admittedly moody and embarrassed at the prospect of heading into a Salvation Army with my father. Somehow I'd acquired the high and mighty opinion that it looked poor to be seen frequenting the thrift shop. We weren’t poor, we were treasure seekers! But how would I explain that to the potential group of teenage girls from high school should they see me? And of course today, thrifting has become a multi-million dollar business, having built the back-bone of Ebay and Etsy (in it's early days.) That's why I like to say now, I was part of the original "vintage" wave. But that's just to make myself feel better having not stuck my neck out when it counted.
I would still go on occasion of course - but usually when we were on our way home from somewhere like soccer practice or basketball practice or a track meet or piano lessons or dance class…… (there was a lot of shuttling with Taxi Dad Service aka the original Uber) and my dad would suggest “let’s just stop by the Goodwill first.” I would reluctantly follow him in not wanting to sit in the car. But the days of used clothing were falling behind me; I was favouring the Quinte Mall with friends for my treasure finds at this point.
But still, I turned to my dad when I wanted to give my first “love” a birthday present. A framed copy of Neil Young's Harvest album. It was one of my favourites at the time and I wrote him a letter on the back of the nicely matted and custom wood framed record jacket that my dad made for me to give to him.
Those were the days when he’d try to pull my sister or I into the studio where he had a record player, amp and stereo system set up. He’d pull together a line up of music and try to get us to listen.
Try being the operative word.
"Ok just listen to this one,” he'd say to us, referring to one of his latest finds.
“Daaaaaddd” we’d say. "This stuff is weird!" My sister's favourite song at the time was Mariah Carey, Always Be My Baby. I think mine was the Mighty Mighty Bostones, The Impression that I get. Clearly each having much more of an imprint on our minds then the piece of Jazz or Celtic Folk - whatever the flavour of the week was.
But somewhere between the days when my most prized possession was my Mickey Mouse bedspread, and me graduating high school, my dad amassed his collection; Anything from classical to old country to rock to 60’s punk to folk to bluegrass to jazz to you name it. Everything - except gospel, which I don’t think he’s ever really had an ear for. If you can think of it, he’s probably got it. Some of it's worth something and honestly some of it you might have to pay somebody to take. But nevertheless it’s alphabetized and organized into genre, and each one has been catalogued for “market rate” in a spiral notebook.
When I was 16 we moved out of my childhood home. On a really hot day in early August we loaded an entire U-Haul truck with only records and books. I’ll just say that again: An ENTIRE U-Haul - the big 3 bedroom house size - with ONLY books and records. You see, as the movers began to fill up the 18-wheeler truck and it was nearly full half-way through the day, we realized that we hadn’t even gotten to the attic with the records. My neighbours showed up to help us as we battled a 40 degree heat wave, moving apple crate after apple crate of records out of Emily and Dad Fort and into the Uhaul, and then unloaded them at our new house in town. When we went over the train-tracks the undercarriage of the truck nearly scraped the tracks as the shocks struggled to bear the weight.
In my parent’s house now, you’ll find my dad’s record collection in the basement. Obviously, having moved into town, there wasn’t room to build a separate building from the house. So the basement is where my dad, like so many other men around North America, retreats. I’m just not sure how many of those other men are listening to vinyl.
After dinner, around 9 or 10 pm when the dishes are done and the garbage is taken out to the garage, he heads down with a glass of white wine, to clean records and listen to music. When I was a University student, home for the summer, that's where you'd find him. Tucked away in the back corner, patiently pulling the vinyl out of it's sleeve, diligently cleaning the smooth shiny black surface with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water, my childhood dog Bessie, curled up at his feet, snoozing away. He places it on the record player and looking down his nose over his glasses, he softly drops the needle.
"Now just listen he says." And we did. After it's finished, I head up to bed, faced with the lawns I was due to cut in the summer heat the next day. Tanned and tired and well on my way to heading out on my own in the world, it was still nice to know that he stayed up a bit longer in our otherwise quiet house, the dull thud of the bass drifting up the stairs as he listened to some more of his music.
If you talk to my dad about records, he'll tell you that there's just something in the sound - something that can't be replicated with a CD or digital wave. "It's warmer." I've heard him say that before. And it's true. I'm all grown up now and starting my own family but our treasure seeking days and the sound of his record collection have stuck with me. This past summer, I stumbled across the most amazing kijiji find; A mint condition Garrard Stereo system, complete with phono, circa 1970. It's a beautiful piece of furniture. But what's more, it's a house for my records. When I told my dad that I'd bought it, he excitedly said to me, "Oh good! I've got some doubles you can have!"
"You think!?" was my initial reaction.
Because while I can't corroborate this, I don't think it would be a stretch to say that he's amassed one of the biggest private vinyl collections in Ontario, so surely he's got a few to spare.
And as I sit here sifting through a stack he's just given me from our last visit, I can't but help remember: a young version of me hopping out of the car, heading into the thrift shop alongside my dad. Excited for the prospect of what we might find.
It’s my dad’s 70th birthday today and because we live three hours away, we won’t be able to celebrate in person until this weekend. Boo! But to mark the occasion I wanted to put together some words on time I’ve spent with him and highlight just one of (many) reasons I think he's so awesome! Thanks Dad for teaching me that everything old is new again, and sometimes it's the thrill of the hunt that will stick with you. Happy 70th Birthday!! May you find the time today to listen to a really good record :)
**photo of my dad is a self-portrait he took a couple years ago.