Thank you for making 2016 a fabulous year – with even more to look forward to in the New Year.
After a quick family visit to London, England, we are back home to celebrate Christmas and to perform our sacred rituals – like nom-nom-noming the Festive Special at Swiss Chalet with Ed’s car club!
Santarchy ruled again on Dec 17th. Costumes were especially creative with an emphasis on naughty. No need for a big budget as you will see in the following pics!
This year went off without a hitch. The weather was mild and perfect for marching down Queen Street. Gathering at the Imperial Pub, we stormed Dundas Square then invaded the Eaton Centre to give out candy canes and treats to kids.
Group photo on the steps of Old City Hall, then after a long wait for the Zamboni, an impromptu slide across the skating rink at city hall dodging security guards and skaters on blades.
Get turned away at The Rex – check. Wave to Christmas-spirited cab drivers and cops – check. First stop, The Black Bull – check. The bartenders serve 50+ customers without missing a beat. Amazing!
Some great costumes below.
On to night clubs, Crocodile Rock and The Ball Room, where like the Big Lebowski, you can go bowling. At 1 pm, Ed and I called it a night and walked through the rain to the perennial late night fave, Fran’s on Shuter street. We survived and look forward to Santarchy 2017.
Every year on a Saturday mid-December 100+ Santas storm through Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and head down Queen Street west. Flagrant rebels in search of BEER! This is a world-wide movement from Hanoi to Helsinki to Tokyo to London and beyond. Read about Santacon here.
Ed and I have been part of this rampaging mob for several Christmases now, thanks to our friend Eric. (Read more about Eric and his Grand Guignol clowning in my most popular blog ever, Charlie the Lonely Sentinel. Charlie’s a stuffed dog BTW.)
We’re polite rebels with several rules of decorum, including being nice to kids and obeying police officers and security guards. After all, we’re Canadian! A Santa suit is a must, but one’s imagination may run wild from racy to saucy Mrs. Claus. We’ve even had a Thor Santa! (Sorry, ladies, no photo). And we are led by Old St. Nick in resplendent bishop’s robe and staff.
Typically, we meet up at the Imperial Pub on Dundas St. East then march through the Eaton Centre, giving out candy canes to kids. Then on to Nathan Philip Square for a rampage through the skaters. Group photo at the war memorial on University Avenue then on to The Rex to be refused admission. (Hey, it’s tradition!) The Black Bull though is usually our first and favorite watering hole.
We wend our way down Queen Street, invading the pubs that will let us in. (To be fair, they’ve been pre-warned.) The Academy of Spherical Arts is a fav as well as the late, great Hideout. This is a way to get in to clubs who would never otherwise let you in because you’re obviously middle class and O-L-D. We’ve even witnessed Fetish Night. (Great material for crime fiction, but who would believe me?)
By 2 am, Ed and I are ready for food (poutine anyone?) and home. Many times the subway has gone sleepy-bye for the night so we’ve relied on the notorious Zoo Bus of our youth. The Yonge St. night bus is a whole quantum level more surreal and never fails to disappoint.
Interested? The info isn’t up on the website yet but word is that if you come to the Imperial Pub at 6 pm, Sat Dec 17th, you may find something to your advantage…
October 29, 2015 I published my first blog: All Hail Word Press!
Blogging is great! Free license to explore street art, weird stuff, books, books and more books! And it’s a procrastination tool extraordinaire when I should be working on my next book in the Danny Bluestone series, Windigo Ice.
Most of my blog’s followers by far live in the USA and Canada. The split is almost exactly 50/50. Next up: Brazil (!), West Germany and the UK. I’ve had hits from around the globe, including places as far flung as Angola, Macau and Mongolia. (Really? Crime fiction fans …or not?)
Popularity of my blog categories is pretty evenly split although Surreal Trapdoor, Eat This Book and Cyber Café have the edge. And what were my most popular posts? Check back here: I’ll be republishing them from time to time FYI.
First up, the winner: The stuffed dog – Charlie the Lonely Sentinel!!
SURREAL TRAPDOOR: TAXIDERMY and CHARLIE THE LONELY SENTINEL
This story is true. Strange things always happen to me.
Last Halloween, our friend, whom I’ll call Eric, invited us to a party at his place. It’s a gently decayed mansion divided into flats with high ceilings, narrow twisting corridors and connecting backstairs so that he and his friends have as much company or privacy as they want.
Eric is a software engineer by day but by night, he’s a gifted and well-known cabaret performer. His friends, whom I’ll call Fred and Mary, are musicians who play regular gigs in Toronto.
Costumes were de rigueur. Ed went as Tommy Wiseau , creator of The Room, possibly one of the worst films ever made. I went as a cat, aiming for so-bad-it’s-good. We were meeting Fred and Mary for the first time so knowing Eric, I expected the unexpected.
Fred and Mary’s flat was dark and crowded with denizens of Toronto’s demi-monde. Costumes ranged from drag to burlesque to clowns. Wine glass in hand, I wandered past dimly lit museum exhibits of fossils and stuffed rodents.
“That’s cool,” I said, eyeing one of the stuffed squirrels. “Very Halloween.”
“Oh, they’re here all the time,” said a fellow guest. “They live here with Fred and Mary.”
“Permanently?” I squeaked.
“That’s nothing. Did you see the stuffed dog?” He pointed to a shadowy lump on the floor next to a large potted plant. Sure enough, it was a remarkably life-like black and white spaniel.
Later Fred explained how he and Mary came by Charlie. In life, he belonged to a decrepit and eccentric acquaintance down the street. When Charlie exited this Vale of Tears, the elderly man had him stuffed. And continued walking him along the street on a set of rollers.
“That’s creepy,” I said.
“Well, the guy came by it honestly. He ran the Toronto Explorers Club,” Fred said.
“There’s an explorers club?!” What an absurd Victorian anachronism, I thought.
“Yeah, there is. And the old guy acquired a load of stuffed trophies from the club. Legit or not, who knows? Anyway his house was crammed with them. When he died, his relatives rented a dumpster and tossed all the stuffed animals into it. Mary spotted it on her way home from work. It was really bizarre, looking inside that steel crate and seeing it full of deer heads and stuff.”
Fred took a sip of beer. “What was really sad was seeing Charlie lying there on top of all that. Especially since we knew him when he was alive. Mary didn’t know what to do at first, but then she decided to rescue him. The problem was that she’d biked to work that day. So she strapped Charlie onto the back carrier and rode home with him.”
Our friend, Eric, continued the story. “I saw Mary riding along on her bike with this cute black and white dog on the back. I thought, ‘Wow, Fred and Mary got a dog! And boy, is he well-trained. Look at him sitting still and riding along on the bike like that.’ But when she stopped, Charlie kind of rotated and stayed sitting still in the same position. That really freaked me out. I didn’t know what I was looking at.”
Now Charlie now stands guard in Fred and Mary’s home: the lonely sentinel.
Just got back from Bouchercon 2016 held in New Orleans, LA. It was my first visit to this haunted city – and I loved it. Tropical heat, “painted-lady” mansions, ornate ironwork, fin de siècle French cafes, crass voodoo shops (gruesome made in China shrunken heads), a streetcar really named Desire, antique neon signs, fab music…the list is endless.
A bar culture shocking to a Canadian. Alcohol is freely available 24/7. Walgreen’s Drugstore sports shelves and shelves of bourbon. People wander freely about the streets drinking – as long as the container is plastic.
But what did I really want to see? GATORS!Swamp tours out of New Orleans end up at a nature conservancy about an hour’s drive out of the city. Tourists are loaded into flat-bottomed boats named, somewhat disturbingly, Gatorbait!
Our guide climbs on board the Gatorbait carrying a bag of marshmallows. This is not, as we first suppose, a cheap snack for us. No, kiddies, this is the true gator bait! As we are soon to learn, gators love marshmallows. And propelled by their powerful tails, they will jump out of the water for a hotdog on a stick. After all, hotdogs look just like tourist fingers!
Our guide tosses a marshmallow onto the brown brackish water. Impossible to know what lurks beneath the surface. It looks so bland and boring. Until two beady primordial eyes glide to the surface and snap! We’re back in the days of the dinosaurs.
Hey, who cares if the sugar rots the gators’ teeth or clogs their arteries? Gators aren’t endangered, the guide tells us. They’re farmed locally, from eggs collected at the nature preserve. Otherwise the gators would eat them, a twisted sort of birth control. In fact, that’s why they love marshmallows. The candy looks just like gator eggs!
In fact, gators will eat just about anything smaller than them, especially baby alligators. (More birth control.) Someone asks the guide if they eat humans. “Oh, no” he says. “My buds and I swim and jet ski all through the bayou. They’re a lot more scared of us than we are of them.”
Other denizens of the swamp share the gators’ sweet tooth: an egret, a blue heron and a baby wild hog who chomps away at the mushy treats with a wary eye on a nearby, avariciously hungry baby gator.
More interesting facts: gators are territorial (no kidding), they cool off by panting like dogs, food rots in their stomachs if the weather gets too cold and they can live to be 100 years old. Reminds me of certain presidential candidates…
For breakfast we sample gator sausage. Hmm. A bit dry with a taste reminiscent of the mystery meat served up in university cafeterias. Better to eat than to be eaten though…
You think I’m kidding, dear Readers? No need to wait for a time machine. Merely hop in your smug-emitting hybrid and head down to Huron County in August.
Fall fairs are big here. It’s still possible to be a big fish, or even a small fry, in your local pond without competing with the millions and millions served on the internet. You can find fame growing the largest vegetable, making cakes with vegetables, crafting fantasy planters, great pies or jams and pickles.
The handmade quilts and tapestries are especially awe-inspiring: all hand sewn. True artistry!!
Pies are a fall fair staple. Not only in a variety of contests but best of all for eating! The variety is huge: apple, rhubarb, strawberry, blueberry, pecan, pumpkin, raisin. If you can dream it, you can enjoy it here.
We manage to drive through Stratford regularly without getting infected by Shakespeare but summer stock comedy greatly appeals so we headed to the Blyth festival. If Truth Be Toldturned out to be a well-acted drama about local heroine and Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. Sadly we missed the comedy about the turkey baster…
The theatre package included a country supper at the Legion. Awesome! But we hadn’t counted on the current demographic for summer stock theatre. Suffice it to say that we were the youngest by a lot!
Dinner time on the ticket said 6:15 pm. We wandered up and down the main street of Blyth and finally conceding that we were uncharacteristically early, we walked the 50 feet to the Legion. Rule #1, elderly people always arrive early. Rule #2, don’t get between the geriatrics and food or there will be blood. At 6:00 pm there wasn’t a seat to be had except two up against the wall in the corner at the furthest distance from the bar and the washroom.
Food as expected was “meat, potatoes and two veg” and the roast was cooked the way my dad liked it, black all the way through. Portions were huge and the volunteer wait staff friendly. But what’s this? Something that looked like miniature coloured marshmallows in a creamy dressing. No, that couldn’t be. But yes MARSHMALLOW salad! I didn’t think they made rainbow, mini-marshmallows anymore.
It tasted the way you’d expect it to taste. But when in Rome… And I slather chutney, red pepper jelly, etc on my cheese and meats so the sugar sin was probably the same.
Ed was delighted to find Old Vienna on tap, a beer he hadn’t seen since he guzzled it as an engineering undergrad. Huron County: the veritable Jurassic Park of retro brands.
And dessert was pie, of course, but lemon meringue and banana cream disappeared long before the waitress ploughed through the crowd to reach our Arctic exile. We settled for pecan and pumpkin – both damn good! – but skipped the watery, grey coffee. Americanos at the fancy new hipster bar across the street proved a salvation – and our true urban nature.
East York wanderings with TO Poet revealed a fab gallery of street art in East York and motivated me to explore the alleyways of my own hood. My explorations revealed some hidden, lushly vined and mysterious trails, but sad to say, the garage doors and garden walls remain empty canvasses.
But how could I forget the Man Fish of Bayview? Our single example of street art, adorning the side wall of a vintage barbershop. I pass by it nearly every day – so often, it’s become invisible via mundanity. I found it defiled by the ubiquitous graffiti tags that lurk in our hood’s hidden corners / canvases. Proof that we’re regularly explored, but, sorry folks, no art yet.
So I struck further afield. And there, tucked away in a hidden alley parallel to the subway tracks, I struck relative gold. The murals decorating the backs of the buildings may reflect the biz enterprises facing Yonge Street.
Even further afield, spectacular treasure on St. Clair Avenue West, an 8-storey masterpiece allegedly the world’s largest street mural by artist, Phlegm, whose black and white surreal visions of the man machine are world famous.
Starting July 8, 2016, Phlegm painted the mural via hair-raising swing stage over the next four weeks. He was assisted by Stephanie Bellefleure. To see the details of the buildings in the figure, have a look here.
The mural was made possible, in part through StreetARToronto (StART), a city department that tries to beautify Toronto through street art – and thereby make it a tourist destination. It funds one well-known artist per year.
Ah-ha! That’s why we stumble upon well-done murals depicting historical or cultural mythology – and other more vibrant and subversive stuff! (More in my next blog)
Phlegm’s 8-storey Man Machine depicts famous Toronto buildings like the CN Tower, Casa Loma, the Mackenzie house, ya-da, ya-da. Funding etc. also through the STEPS Initiative and Slate Management who wanted to give the Yonge and St. Clair area a much-needed boot up its esthetic, business and cultural arse. Let’s hope it works!
As a kid growing up in Ottawa, a trip to Montreal was a Big Deal. At the time, it was bustling, vibrant, the only Canadian city known to the outside world. Then the separatists happened. Sun Life moved to Toronto, taking business and commerce with it and Montreal became a relative ghost town.
A phrase from Denys Arcand’s film, The Decline of the American Empire, comes to mind: “It is pleasant to live during a decline.” Humanity overshadows the military – you simply can’t pay for all those soldiers and weapons. Simple pleasures – food, wine, relationships – are the order of the day.
Voila Montreal! The best food and social programs in Canada. Great bars andrestos, fab festivals winter and summer. Affordable housing. What’s not to like?The city’s new axiom is distilled in this artist’s street painting below: I want to rest in peace before I die.
And, in keeping with Montreal’s sparkling culture, amazing street art. Feast your eyes, readers. (Click on each image to view in more detail.)
Peter Sellers, Ed and I became friends during the early days of Crime Writers of Canada. And we share a love for Toronto's demi-monde of burlesque, adult clowning and alternative music. Not only that, our kids went to school together and grew up to work in media.
In 1992, Peter won the CWC Derrick Murdoch Award for his work in revitalizing the crime fiction short story. His off-beat, often chilling and highly engaging tales have appeared in every major mystery magazine and numerous crime anthologies. He is a four-time finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story.
On November 12, 2011, Peter opened Sellers & Newel Second-Hand Bookstore in Toronto's Little Italy. His passion is hunting down rare and collectible volumes for his clients.
Visit Sellers & Newel at 672 College St., Toronto. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 7 pm; Sunday 12 to 5 pm. Mondays, by chance.
And be sure to visit the bookstore's website at www.sellersandnewel.com and on Facebook and Twitter (@sellersandnewel).
BTW click on any of the images you'd like to explore more closely.
What books will we find at Sellers & Newel?
We carry second-hand only. Mostly 20th Century literature, crime fiction, poetry, lots of weird fiction. Some are antiquarian, but we have lots of affordable reading copies. Our books range in price from $1 to several thousand dollars.
What led you, a writer, to open a bookstore?
I love books. I like the fact of them as much as anything and I’ve always bought many more than I could ever hope to read. Now I buy many more than my customers can ever hope to read. I also like working for myself and working without a net. It’s all up to me. I love going out and finding books, making house calls, visiting other dealers, especially when I’m out of town. Buying books is almost as much fun as selling them.
What do you find fascinating about crime fiction?
To be honest, I don’t read nearly as much crime fiction as I used to. But my initial interest was most likely fuelled by black and white crime films of the 1930s through the 1950s. They used to be on TV a lot, and I grew up on Bogart, Cagney, John Garfield, Mitchum, and other actors like them and the films they made. When I started reading books seriously, the first novel I can recall buying was a stunning 1971 Ballantine edition of The Big Sleep that I still have. I was 15 or 16 and bought it from a bookstore across the road from my high school. From then on it was mostly mysteries and thrillers for years.
I love the pulp books you have collected, especially the lurid book covers. What attracts you to the pulp era?
A lot of that stuff is crap, really. But there are some occasional gems. John D. MacDonald, for example, in his non-Magee stuff, is great. He is better than anyone else at giving you this awful feeling that something is going to go really bad really soon. Mickey Spillane I used to love, not because he was good but because he wrote like he was insane, all kinds of repressed sexuality spilling out in this remarkable violence (in tone as much as action) that nobody’d done like that before.
I hate happy endings. I like books that end badly. Nasty people treating each other shabbily has a certain appeal to me. (And a twisted sort of justice, which is why I love noir – M. H. Callway)
Tell us something about your customers.
There is no typical customer, though I was surprised to realize, soon after I opened, that most of them are under 35. That was not what I had expected.
My customers seem to like the coffin, which gets photographed a lot. Some people find it creepy but most love it. They like the crooked walls, the metal ceiling, the mismatched floor tile and the big leather chair. They seem to like my selection and the fact that the books are all in really good shape, and that I have lots of unusual stuff.
Which of your books have proved to be the most popular?
First editions are popular and I have a lot of collectors who come in for the Weird Fiction, which includes some very scarce titles. They also like the fact that I will track down books for people, even if they cost as little as five bucks. And I never give up. A few months ago, I found a book that a customer had asked for three years before. She was surprised that I had kept at it for that long, especially an inexpensive paperback, but her reaction when I called her was priceless.
But my unscientific survey says Hemingway, Steinbeck, H.P. Lovecraft and an obscure British author named Simon Raven because I love the guy and plug the hell out of him.
You’ve embarked on two cool innovations at your store: music and film nights. Tell us about the music events.
The concerts are working out really well. I do two a month from September through May. None in the summer because of the heat. I started because I wanted to do something that no other bookstore is doing, and I find readings and signings to be pretty darn boring most of the time. Live music has always been important to me, and I still go out and listen to as much of it as I can. This also seemed a good way to promote the store and to bring new people in.
Performers are usually local people I like and who are all really good. Styles of music so far have ranged from Medieval to modern performance art. Past performers include outstanding singer/songwriter Kevin Quain (3 times), the wild, 300-plus-pound Corpusse (twice), country singer Zachary Lucky, singer/songwriter Ryan Cook from Nova Scotia, and remarkable guitarist Andrew Mah from Ottawa.
In the fall we have some jazz shows booked for the first time.
How do we find out about concert dates and times?
The shows are usually on Thursday nights at 8:00 pm. Cost ranges from $10 to $20 depending on who’s playing. Capacity is up to 35 depending on how much space the act takes up.
If you get on our mailing list, or check us out on Facebook, you can get all the details for future shows.
You’ve also tried film nights. How did they work out?
I did two film nights as part of Canadian National Film Day, screening classic Canadian horror films, like Terror Train, but neither evening was a big hit. I have one more thing I’d like to try so I may or may not continue the film nights.
Before we sign off, Peter, what is the strangestcustomer experience you have had?
There’s been no shortage of those. One of the most charming was a very enthusiastic teenage girl who came in and, with a big smile and shining eyes, asked me if I had a copy of “How to Kill a Mockingbird”.
Thanks, Peter! Your store offers a truly magnificent feast for booklovers. So readers, get yourselves over to Sellers & Newel, soak in the entertainment and eat those books!!
Mt. Pleasant Road was once colourless, staid and outdated, lined with dusty antique stores. Nothing happening, certainly not in the evening after a pensioner’s bedtime.
To be fair though, it always had some neat retro stuff. Penrose Fish and Chips hadn’t changed its décor, menu or deep fryer since the 1940’s. They still wrapped your take-out fish and chips in newspaper. George’s Trains sold my fav childhood toy: electric trains! And two ancient movie houses, The Regent and the Mt. Pleasant, showed stale-dated films to tiny audiences of the faithful.
Mind you, Mt. Pleasant had, probably still has, its seamy side. Above those silent-as-tombs antique shops – knocking shops! Smart of them to hide in a deadly boring, whitebread family neighbourhood over stores bereft of customers. I’m not kidding: readthis. There’s even a “rub map” of Toronto with Mt. Pleasant taking…erm…undue prominence! (No links, guys- you’re on your own!)
Change has surged into our hapless backwater. Condos, Starbucks and Second Cup have invaded. All our favs now swept away, except, inexplicably, the movie theatres. But wondrous new things have birthed: Thobor’s Parisian chefs make the best bread and pastries in North Toronto and Belsize Public House is trying to fill The Longest Yard’s big shoes.
This week a Surreal Trapdooropened up. On one side of one of the last chandelier-crammed antique stores, I spied the Green Room, a medical marihuana shop, with a brew pub-like menu of plant materials on display. And on the other, Meow Coffee, a cat café! Police raids and grumpy Toronto Humane Society notwithstanding!
We are now 21st century – and cool! I leave you, readers, with this song by Japanese pop group, Shonen Knife about bad kitties and cat mary-jane. And guessing which shop will become my new haunt….
TO Poet’s keen eye finds beauty in the oddities and detritus of hidden Toronto. (Enjoy his pics on Tumbler here.) He’s an early riser and dedicated walker. Recently, he led me through the back alleys of East York to view some amazing art.
East York, until 1998, was Canada’s only borough. In 1924, the 600 or so residents, pissed about their apparently inferior roads and sewers, voted against joining the City of Toronto. For decades the area remained dry, ie no serving of alcohol. so its southern edge, Bloor-Danforth Street, became the sinful watering hole. Prohibition was only abandoned in the 1970’s!
Most Torontonians associate East York with WWII veterans who flooded the area in 1940’s. The houses are tiny by today’s standards, typically bungalows with high basements, metal awnings over the cement front steps and trim, if conventional gardens.
So one might expect street art to be scarce. Not so! Garage doors are the preferred canvas. View here: (BTW for a better view and deets, click on each pic.)
Garage walls also offer opportunity. Especially corner walls.
And regular walls:
Or an interesting take on fence paint:
Originally and staunchly British, East York’s population is now almost 50% foreign born. As a student, I survived on the beloved Greek steam table and souvlaki restaurants along the Danforth. Gentrification has swept these away, but not this feast for the eyes.