I never knew or cared much about photography, but one of the most interesting and stimulating places I have ever known was a tiny little camera store named Photographer’s Choice. Names can be misleading because the store really should have been called “Al’s Choice.” Al was the name of the proprietor of this gem of a place. He was born in Kentucky and came to Canada during the Viet Nam war. He had an interest in and talent for photography. At some point he opened up his own little camera shop in Richmond Hill, and what a store it was! Photofinishing and cameras were really just a front – a front for the most eclectic and amazing intellectual and cultural centre in town. For me, it was the place of my intellectual and cultural coming-of-age.
Photographer’s choice was the name on the sign, but Al had business cards also made up that touted the store as the “Richmond Hill University Off-Campus Bookstore.” Now, it must be understood that there was, indeed, no Richmond Hill University. Therefore, there was no campus which would house an “on-campus” bookstore, with whom Al’s store was ostensibly in competition! However, the name said something of the ethos that Al was trying to evoke – counter cultural, or more properly, sub-cultural. The rules and guidelines that shaped what was sold were Al’s own, and reflective not only of his own interests, but I think, of his own intellectual and cultural journey. Thus, amongst the many dusty academic volumes and other historical classics (I remember complete sets of Churchill’s Histories), there were shelves and shelves of pocket books – Science Fiction, Westerns, and Mysteries. There were some types of popular literature that were strictly off-limits, though: “We don’t do Harlequins,” I remember Al once saying very sternly. I also remember him telling me that true Science Fiction readers detest the term “Sci-Fi” and prefer “SF”, as an abbreviation of the more acceptable “Speculative Fiction.” It was a tiny place, but there was always something that would capture the imagination.
Al could generally find anything that you wanted. There was a basement that was “off-limits” to customers. If you asked about a book that couldn’t be found on the store shelves, Al would refer to an old-fashioned card catalogue in metal box that was buried under piles of papers on the front counter and finger his way through it. This catalogue was the skeleton key to the mysteries of the mysterious basement. I was a pretty big Sherlock Holmes fan back in the mid-eighties and I was just starting to read about Conan Doyle’s influences and his imitators. I had heard about stories of a detective named “Raffles.” I asked Al about it. He rubbed his moustache, pulled out the card catalogue, found a card and said in his best Kentucky voice (which I’m sure he enjoyed playing up), “Mister Juuustice Raaaffles?” A smile came across my face, and I exclaimed, “That’s it!” delighted at the discovery. Giving me a funny little half smile, he descend into what I imagined must have been a catacombs. After what seemed like quite an eternity, he returned with a little hardback red coloured volume, about 80 years old, and said, “Is this it?” It was. I’m sure I paid him about $1.75 or $2.00 for it and went away happy. I must confess though, that I began to read it and lost interest after the first couple of pages. Having devoured all of Holmes, I was looking for a new seven percent solution, and Mr. Justice Raffles was not destined to become the new drug of choice.
It was probably a few weeks later that I returned to the store. Al asked me what I thought of Raffles and I told him I couldn’t really get into it. “What you should be reading,” he said, “Is Nero Wolfe.” He explained to me that Nero Wolfe was the perfect cross between the English drawing room detective story and the hard-boiled American private eye thrillers. Wolfe was a 300 pound Montenegrin private investigator that never left his office on business. When he was not tending his orchids on the third floor of his New York brownstone, he used his superior intellect to solve mysteries behind from behind his desk. His leg-man, the competent Archie Goodwin, did all his investigative work and provided the American P.I. angle. Goodwin told the stories from his perspective, in the tradition of Dr. Watson. Al gave me a Nero Wolfe novel to read but warned me, that I would not be able to stop reading Wolfe novels if ever I started. Like all good drugs, the first one was free. But for some reason, I was not able to get into it either. I never told Al, because he had been so generous in giving me the book, no charge. I think at fourteen or fifteen years old, I was just too narrow-minded and found it difficult branch out and try something new. Thankfully, Al did not give up on me, and I will say that to this day that he and his store were crucial in opening my mind to new intellectual and cultural delights, of both the “high-brow” and “popular” sorts. I think I first became a listener of CBC radio in his store.
Al was also interested in comic books. In addition to photofinishing, cameras, photography accessories, and used books of all sorts and conditions, he also sold comic books. Indeed, he had another set of business cards that read, “Comic Collectors’ Choice.” Like many gangly unpopular, non-athletic kids of my era, I was an avid comic book reader and collector. Batman was my comic of choice. Al was very tolerant of my devotion to the caped crusader, but sought to educate me in the finer contributions to the canon of sequential art. “Have you ever heard of the Spirit?” He asked once asked me, in effort broaden my horizons in the field of panelogogy. Of course I hadn’t, because my only daring moves in comic book land was to occasionally perform the heretical act of betraying my DC masters by buying the occasional Marvel Comic book the featured the Amazing Spiderman. “Let me show you the Spirit,” he said, once again preparing me as a catechumen about to be inaugurated into a sacred mystery. He prowled around under that ever-present mass of papers on the counter – it always amazed me that whatever Al needed was close at hand under those papers – and drew forth a vintage “Spirit Section.” He explained to me that Will Eisner, the writer and artist, drew a short comic book every week (with the help of his studio assistants) that would be inserted in Sunday papers all across America during the 1940’s, these were known to seasoned panelogogists as “Spirit Sections.” He explained that Eisner was trying to break out of the superhero mode and tell human interest stories. He was an early innovator in graphic storytelling, combining words and images on the page with different shaped panels and panel action creating a pacing and timing that created and affective response in the reader. He also introduced me to the “graphic novel,” a literary art form more-or-less created by Eisner in the 1970’s with the publication of his graphic novel, “A Contract with God,” where Eisner began to explore the human condition more deeply in lengthy narratives and interrelated short-stories about New York city life. Eisner’s work was mind-blowing. My love affair with Eisner continues to this day (indeed, in our last house, I our spare bedroom was called “the Eisner Room” as it was decorated with several framed Eisner prints). I introduced his work to my wife Athena and she has used his stories in her English classes. What I learned from Eisner (and so many of the other writers of popular fiction to whom he introduced me) was that the various media of popular culture, including the comic book, could be the means for exploring and communicating serious themes and ideas about our shared human condition.
Around 1986, Al offered me a job in his store. Ostensibly, he needed someone to help him expand his comic book business, and at the wizened age of 16, I suppose I provided that. Of course, I jumped at the chance. What it provided me though, was my first real adult friendship outside the relationships of family and teachers. Al was a mentor of sorts, but more importantly, he was a friend. He was the same age as my parents, but had lived a very different life. He came here during Viet Nam, and he had experienced the culture of the sixties and seventies in a way my parents had not. He had a love of both high literature and popular culture that allowed us to connect in a way I could connect with so few other people, especially adults. Al had the gift of always meeting me where I was, and then leading me along the road into new and wonderful literary and cultural places. It wasn’t enough to stay with Sherlock Holmes, one must graduate to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe; one should read not only Batman but also Eisner’s Spirit, and explore the hidden world of Dennis Kitchen’s underground comix. This simple transitions are metaphors for the deep sort of growth and transitions a young person must take in their coming of age.
Al’s store was also a place of meeting people and it attracted a group of eclectic and eccentric people. In a future installment I will speak about a man named Woody, who introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s works one day in Al’s store.
Stores like Al’s are a lot of fun, but rarely an economic success. But I suppose in the grand scheme of things, that’s the point, and a word we so desperately need to hear today in our world in which public sphere of the polis has been replaced by the idol of the economy. I learned that economic success is not the most important thing. I know the important role that Al played in my life and the opportunity that his store provided for creating community and nurturing relationships amongst those who sought just a little bit more than the rest of the world was willing to offer. Culture is created in such places and it is a non-pretentious culture that says no to the banality homogeneity and enforced paradigms of success. Such places are places of intellectual and spiritual odyssey, and indeed places where a young person can come of intellectual and cultural age in the beauty of an eclectic landscape. Places like this come and go, and I am glad that I found mine. And glad that I found Al.
I think it was around 1989 or 1990 that the store closed. I was off to university by then. Al and his family moved down to southwestern Ontario and we lost touch for many years. Photographer’s Choice disappeared, replaced for a time by an upscale ladies’ consignment store and latterly a jewellery store. I regularly visit Photographer’s Choice in my dreams. Sometimes the dream involves realizing that the store never really went away and Al is still there behind the counter, ready to introduce me to some new book or thought that will forever change my intellectual world. Sometimes the dream involves Al returning and setting the store up again, and inviting me to be his partner. If our dreams reveal to us our unfinished business, I think these dreams are about the unfinished business of being formed as human beings. We are forever “works in progress”, especially with respect to our inner landscapes. These dreams remind me that I will never be finished being formed until the Good Lord brings me to completion. When I dream of that special place from days gone by I am reminded that the work of inner growth and maturity is ongoing.
Five or six years ago, when I began spending a lot of time in my car, I decided to begin listening to books on tape. At a visit to the local public library I found a talking book CD of the Nero Wolfe novel, “The League of Frightened Men,” read by Michael Prichard. I borrowed it and began listening. Al was right, if ever I started, I would be hooked. And so I was. As I began to undertake a life of ministry, I realized how important it was to have moments of pure escapism but escapism need not consist of mindlessness. I have learned that Nero Wolfe mysteries provide a world of characters and intellectual stimulation that joyfully fill my moments of distraction. I rushed home and looked for that old Nero Wolfe novel that Al gave me in 1984. As I never discard anything I knew that I would find it after some exploration – nothing. Somehow, over the years and a couple of moves, it had inexplicably vanished without a trace. To seek out old copies I have frequented many wonderful used book shops and now own (and have read) most of the Nero Wolfe books; but as wonderful as those shops are, none of them are Photographer’s Choice, and none of the proprietors are my friend, Al.
c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves
For the Prologue to this series, click here.
For Part I of this series, click here.