I decided to visit some old digging grounds today, heading slightly south-west from my place towards the 51st ave Goodwill thrift store. The drive over was simple and familiar, winding through an industrial section of town in which I’d worked a couple jobs in the past. A cool winter day with some semblance of sun lighting up the grey-and-blue clouds, and nothing on my plate.
Pulling into the parking lot, its stalls repainted far too narrow just last year, my thoughts were routine and unexpecting. Thrift store shopping yields random results, and my oil strikes here have ranged from zero to sixty.
Something was clearly different when I turned and advanced on the store. The long stretch of floor-to-ceiling windows depicted the inside as whiter, blanker… emptier. It was definitely that, and with each step my eyes realized that something was amiss.
Just past the store’s narrow double-automatic doors, the truth was revealed: the place was half empty of stock and shelves. This location was closing, moving elsewhere. In so many words my heart said, “… No way.”
I’d been frequenting this Goodwill thrift store at 51st ave between 87th and 89th street for the past twelve years. Well, semi-frequently, anyway. When I first moved to this city it was the closest thrift store (aside from a Value Village a mere minutes from my place), and offered the best used vinyl record selection. As a casual record collector this place became my bread-and-butter; my well; my go-to spot for second-hand wax.
For over a decade I dug for records here. And CDs and cassettes, and VHS tapes, and books and magazines and comics, and electronics, and clothing. It wasn’t a super-regular thing. At best during the first six or seven years I would come once or twice a month. The turnover for new vinyl stock was never super-consistent – you had to wait at least a couple weeks to make the dig seem worth it.
The first years, I was on public transportation. It was usually on a weekend that I’d take the #8 or 15 bus. Sundays especially meant a decent wait at the bus stop around the way from my house, the sun often bleary and the wind blustery regardless of season. Sometimes with portable music, sometimes just myself, I’d hop off not even 10 minutes later along 87th street, past the bus garage and the 56th ave drive that took me to the book bindery job I had at that time, past the O2 tank supplier and rental shops and the gym and the martial arts dojo and the other odd spots that decorated the winding route.
Getting off at 51st ave, there was a major bus terminal on the other side of the street and an old technical college on my dropoff side. The college burned down sometime during these years, flattened to a parking lot for a long while and making the short walk to the Goodwill slightly more efficient. Otherwise this meant going around the old or new buildings at this spot, and going right was ultimately swiftest.
Through rain and wind and snow and sun, this two minute trek took me to the second-hand promised land. On just the other side of the 80’s-looking dark-brick government building lay the two blocks worth of blue and grey thrifty convenience. Many a time I moved along its front sidewalk towards the main doors, wondering what lay behind the initial glass windows and doors obscured by shelves. The main doors were eventually upgraded to electric sliding ones, a bizarre step into a future that the store’s ancient wares otherwise contradicted.
Once inside the routine continued, with evolutions. Generous, high fluorescent lighting illuminated the dirty-white tiled proceedings. Pop music hummed quietly overhead, and I don’t remember there ever being a distinct smell to the place for my memories to latch on to.
For a while my first stop was to the right, where tabletop bins displayed hundreds of CD’s standing on end. Browsing them like this was very easy, my eyes glazing over dozens and dozens of small-print titles and artists. Over time I realized that I didn’t even have to read the actual words – often I could just get a sense for what was relevant to my interests and what wasn’t.
The next stop was the vinyl. Heading left from the CD’s I would randomly circumnavigate the racks and racks of clothing, depending on who was blocking what aisleway. A big bay opening revealed the Books & Electronics department, my true haven. Two aisles to the left lay my grocery store of vinyl.
I roughly estimated once that these racks averaged about 1,000 records at a time. Sometimes less; rarely more. It would take me an hour to an hour-and-a-half to dig through it all, coming back every few weeks at best to ensure enough fresh produce to make the no-stone-unturned hunting worth it.
This process became one of artful efficiency. The records were housed along three shelves: one at ankle height, one at my thighs, one at my chest. Rather than straining my back and knees I would first look a few feet away for a simple little rolling office chair on sale. Starting on the left end on top, the dig would begin. I worked in columns, from the top to the middle to the bottom, then rolling my chair one spot to the left and digging upwards.
During this hour-or-so there would of course be other diggers, but not often ones as dedicated to looking through everything. In either case I would keep my pickings close, and crossed my fingers not to be elbow-to-elbow with someone not overly bathed. Not that this was a very clean venture to begin with. Record conditions ranged from factory-fresh to almost pulled-from-the-gutter. The halfway point was simple dust, and over time I phobically learned to position my body at an angle so as not to waft any ancient dustiness into my face as I flipped the records towards me.
With intermittent successes I was torn between being efficient and meticulous. I never wanted to be in there any longer than I had to, but I also had to look at every single record. One of the record digger’s curses is that you never know what you may find. And so if it took me 1.5 hours to find 1.5 pieces of vinyl (the .5 being a 7″ single), then it would essentially be worth it. The thrill of the hunt, you know.
And so for several years my scores would look something like this: anywhere from 1-to-10 records, 1-3 CDs, 1-3 cassettes, the odd VHS tape, and the occasional book or magazine. Every now and then a pair of pants or a coat; here-and-there a VCR or action figure. With these curiosities and victories in hand I would re-mount the 8 or 15 bus on the other side of 87th street and be on my way home.
While most of my digs ranged from adequate to unremarkable (and sometimes completely fruitless), others provided some rather memorable moments. There were the thrills of finding albums featuring solely synthesizers, or some legit jazz music, or even some hiphop. There was the time I found a Joy Electric single; the Caribbean steel drum record hiding the awesome Beastie Boys sample; the sealed Denny McLain LP.
One time after my dayjob at the industrial heater company not five minutes away I started nonchalantly flipping through the stacks, and the usual “90% fluff, 10% interesting” suddenly became “20% fluff, 80% OH MY GOD WHAT IS ALL THIS”. Every other record appeared to be from the 90’s (as opposed to previous decades, typically). In fact three or four stacks in the upper rack were almost chock full of this stuff: indie rock and British twee rock and shoegazer music. My heart skipped a beat as I discovered to EP’s from shoegaze-rockers The Catherine Wheel. And just as I thought to myself, “There’s no way their Ferment album is in here,” my heart stopped altogether. I came out with roughly 30 albums that day, and when my gut told me to check back the next day I came out with another 35.
From the turntablism VHS tapes to the Bollywood cassettes to the Previews comic book catalogues that threw me back to the mid-90’s, the 51st ave Goodwill lit up my introverted, retro-pop culture life for many, many years. There was the awesome VCR with the, *ahem*, not-for-kids tape still inside. There were the old jackets that fit and the pants that didn’t. There were the dozens of cheesy 80’s movies that I reviewed for a website about so-bad-they’re-good films. And there was that time CBC Radio gave 5,000 of their old station records to the store and I dug for 5 straight hours only to come out with some classical and comedy records. But it was worth it. In a weird, weird way it was all worth it.
I know it’s just a thrift store. I know it’s just one of five in this city alone, with this location moving further south and a new one just-opened even closer to where I live. But the 51st ave spot was special. It was my place. Ask most any record collector and they’ll say they have a favourite digging spot. Some won’t even tell you what it is – it can get that secretive, that protective.
And of course there’s nothing terribly unique about a thrift store. It’s just a bunch of random records for a buck or so each, and mostly not too interesting. This has of course changed recently, with the vinyl re-boom reaching peak levels of popularity. Thrift shops seem to have gotten onboard, raising prices and sometimes even hoarding “good stuff” for special events. The whole thing isn’t quite as special as it once was.
But, to all good things an end, at some point. My own record hunting has finally tapered off lately. It may not be for good. I may yet get back in the game, addictive though it may be. But it’s some eerie timing that such a steadfast hobby such as this would ease up just as my key hobby location would suddenly disappear.
I wonder how I would feel about this had I known about the store’s closing earlier, rather than stumbling in on it at the last minute. Would I have come back regularly during the final days? Would I have spent more money? Would my last dig have felt any more or less special?
In reality, I at first wandered around in a daze, uncertain what to do. The Books & Furniture department was closed off, empty of stock. I poked around at some clothes, eyed some chairs and cabinets. I wandered the kitchenware area, bemused by battery-less old video cameras and glass cups with stickers on the sides instead of the bottoms. I felt eager to take at least something on this last day, and picked out a nice oil painting of a brook, leaning against a wall amongst others.
Making my way towards the cash register I suddenly – inexplicably – noticed the part of the store I used to go to first but in this case never even looked at. And lo-and-behold there was vinyl.
Of course there was nothing overly remarkable, at best some curiosities. But that’s what I was used to for a long time. You never expect amazing. You never expect to find original Blue Note releases or obscure garage rockers or northern soul singles. The odds aren’t impossible, but they’re not in your favour. And so you do what I equate to renting movies. Instead of paying $20 for something you’ve never seen (or in this case heard), you shell out a couple bucks and see (hear) what happens. It’s a much more reasonable gamble.
And so I gambled on four records: a sealed classical album put out by the CBC, a presumably-funky sounding LP titled Jesus is a Soul Man, an Erik Satie album and Spanish folk group called Agueviva. I also grabbed some books and magazines, with content ranging from drums to skateboarding to… well, vinyl records. All of this was at a closing-out discount of 75% off, and I payed just less than four bucks for everything.
I had no idea this store was closing. And who knows, maybe it represents the beginning of the end to something else in my life. I keep wanting to end this by making a “closing / closure” pun, but really it wasn’t about closure.
It was more like the relief of being able to bring this chapter of my life full-circle. Or at least book-end it.
© 2017 Andrew Hall Writes