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culture

Sharing the Love

How two fresh faces, Of a Kind and Alberta Darling, plan to make your Record Store Day.

Of a Kind, a new vintage boutique and record store, is one of those rare discoveries. It’s located, unexpectedly, in a gritty, semi-industrial neighbourhood, where it’s nestled between a convenience store and a streetcar stop at College and Rusholme Park Crescent. The area is not the first place you might look for a curated, vibrant retail and performance space, and yet the shop epitomizes its neighbourhood, its street—hell, even its town. And it’s starting to feel a lot more like a community hub than a business.

A lot of this dynamic atmosphere owes itself to the cultivated eclecticism of the place. Tamara Salpeter—co-owner with Keyel Turner, Jes Storm Chaser Luu, and Robert Moseley—said the store’s gallery-like atmosphere emerged organically. The business plan was simple: create a place for the public to interact with the city’s artists, artisans, and musicians—a place where visitors could become part of the local community. The shop achieves this, in part, by lending books, and by allowing patrons to rent vinyl records. That basic, conversational level of sharing, Salpeter said, is the driving principle.

And with Record Store Day around the corner (it’s on April 21) that principle will be there for the whole city to enjoy, beyond the neighbourhood residents who have discovered the shop because of its growing buzz.

To build that buzz, Of a Kind has been hosting in-house performances by local acts, many of them from the neighbourhood, and some of which have barely played anywhere but in back yards and living rooms. Earlier this month, one of those shows featured Alberta Darling, a local bluegrass act with Roncesvalles roots that has since become a local favourite. They’ll be playing at the shop on Record Store Day, along with ten other bands.

All About Alberta Darling

We went to an Alberta Darling show at Of a Kind having heard nothing about the band aside from some positive neighbourhood buzz. By their own admission, the band members have spent more time rehearsing in living rooms than performing for crowds. But for band and venue alike, that freshness proved more an asset than a handicap.

Through a set that ranged from originals to classics—including a rich, choral take on “I’ll Fly Away” and a bluegrass cover of “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson—the effect was consistent: very few people made it three feet past the storefront before turning back, so they could stand in the doorway and listen. Some stuck around for the full performance; others popped in just long enough for a tune or two, then dashed to catch an arriving streetcar. One of them, doing a passing double-take with his bike, was Andrew Cash, member of parliament for Davenport. The band’s vibe was infectious, and almost perfectly of a piece with Of a Kind’s community focus.

“I would rather play back yard shows for the rest of my life,” said Teague Stanfield, the band’s guitarist, eliciting a chorus of agreement from the other band members. “If you can make a living doing that, that is the way to make a living.”

When Alberta Darling first emerged from their Dundas West living room with a prodigious range of music already under their belts, it wasn’t just backyards where they played first, but back alleys, the pagoda at St. James Park during Occupy Toronto, and even the TTC—not by busking on the platforms, but by playing without permission on vehicles. “Me and Michelle [Beauregard, on banjo] ended up playing on the streetcar one night after a party,” said mandolin player Ben Alexander, “and people were singing along. I went up to the driver to get off and was like, ‘Thanks, man,’ and he said ‘No, thank you.’” It’s an approach to performing that goes beyond spectacle, embracing the communal approach to music as a matter of principle.

But it was their role at Occupy Toronto that best underscored this principle in action. “We kind of became the quasi-unofficial band of Occupy Toronto in a way,” Beauregard recalled. “The first night we got there, it was pouring rain; everybody was in their tents, everybody was miserable. We started playing and you just saw people kind of emerging from their tents, all, ‘What’s going on?’”

“We made a lot of people happy that night,” added fiddler Sara Cowan. “Everybody was in a piss-poor mood; the cops had been in that day. Everybody was on edge.”

Perhaps it was the music, or perhaps it was simply the way the performance helped listeners form one strong, resonant voice, with no inequality among their ranks. The inclusivity of bluegrass and folk can give power as a community rallying point.

That potent inclusivity, though, requires a little humility on the part of a performer. Musically, bass player Adam Bailey said, this means recognizing the song—not the songwriter—as the epicenter of a community. “It’s like a good friend of mine once said: folk music is a river. You drink from it, and hopefully if you’re doing right by it, you put a little bit back in. But it keeps flowing.”

At Of a Kind, inclusivity means recognizing the person as paramount, and allowing patrons to get as much as they can without necessarily buying anything. “If someone comes in,” Salpeter said, “they’ll be able to walk away with something, and it doesn’t have to be something they’ve purchased. It can be them learning about a new artist—we have featured artists every month, and we have an event to celebrate that artist. Like an art opening: you can’t necessarily purchase a $600 painting, but you can learn about that artist.”

Looking ahead to Record Store Day, Salpeter is eager to keep reaping these types of returns. “Personally, I want to meet more people,” she said, “I want more people from my neighbourhood to come in, and from other neighbourhoods. To not make more customers, but have more people experience something that I love, and to enjoy something that I’ve put so much work into.” This open invitation, among other things, is what makes Of a Kind and Alberta Darling a stirringly good match.

Photos by Jessica Rose Powell.

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