His mother’s commute to work had never been a long one—just down the stairs to the storefront beneath the two-bedroom apartment with the large bay windows and light-soaked rooms that Sanjay had always known as home.
This home sat atop a vinyl record store, Soul Records, opened by Sanjay’s parents twenty-one years ago in Toronto’s East End, back when a small business could operate there without the pressures of gentrification and skyrocketing property taxes. They had been called crazy for daring to open a record store during the dot-com era, but somehow, they made it work.
The shop had always been eclectic, styled with castoff ‘70s furniture, overcrowded with gathered objects like that of a well-loved home. Rows of worn plywood racks held a plentiful selection of albums from jazz to hip hop, offering regularly requested classics, as well as that of lesser-known and local artists, many from Toronto’s Black and Brown communities. When asked about the common denominator between the entire collection, his mother, Georgia, would say, “It’s all got soul.” The result was a unique treasure trove of old and new music, drawn together by little more than ‘a feeling’.
Georgia was the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and in the early nineties, the lead singer of a Motown cover band. Despite the small crowds the band drew in, Georgia’s enthusiasm and love for the music kept the band alive. Sanjay’s father, Rishi, a carnatic violinist from India, was a regular in those crowds and it didn’t take long for a budding friendship and a shared appreciation of a music genre to blossom into a romance, a business and a small family of three.
Sanjay closed the apartment door behind him and followed his mother down the narrow, creaking stairwell, Georgia clutching an armful of cardboard as she carefully navigated the stairs on two bad knees.
“Want me to carry those down, mom? Here, I’ll take ‘em.”
“I got it, Jay,” said Georgia in a measured voice. “Just don’t rush me, kid.”
Most weekdays, Sanjay would attend classes at Ryerson University, where he was completing his third year in Business Management. So, he considered it fortunate that this was all happening now, during the winter study break, when he could designate a bit of time to help his mother box up records and clear the place out.
As he slowly descended the staircase behind Georgia, Sanjay ran a hand along the century-old wainscotting, years of layered paint softening its details. In just a few weeks, they would be putting the storefront up for lease. After that, it would only be a matter of time before they sold the place completely. There would be no real reason to stay, just the two of them, without the family business.
He had grown up loving the commotion of the shop and the liveliness of the neighbourhood, barely noticing the sound of sirens or the race of cars on the busy street. It had all been a part of the music.
Sanjay remembered life as a kid there, the humid summer nights when his father would set up a makeshift bed for him down in the record shop, away from the stuffy heat of the upstairs apartment. He could still recall the cooling cross-breeze and fluttering candlelight, drifting to sleep as his parents played a soft record, holding one another and dancing slowly. He remembered his mother’s laugh peppering the muted tones of their conversation, the feeling of calm as his father carried him up the stairs and put him to bed.
In the cramped vestibule at the bottom of those stairs, Sanjay now unlocked the door to the shop. Day one of packing; the first day the store would officially sit closed to the public after twenty-one years of operation.
Georgia looked a bit frail as she clutched the flattened cardboard, two rolls of packaging tape stacked around her wrist like thick bangle bracelets. He held the door for her and they both seemed to take a deep breath as they moved forward.
“Coffee?” Georgia asked, not even needing Jay’s grunt of confirmation to know the answer. She made her way to the small coffee cart behind the cash register. “You pick the record. Something good,” she added, a smile gracing her tired face.
Sanjay located an album he knew his mother would like and set it up on the turntable, purposely starting it on Side B.
Georgia let out a whoop in recognition of the first few notes of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”, clapping above her head, a coffee filter in one hand muffling the sound. She sang along, a little shimmy in perfect rhythm. He was happy to have inherited that rhythm from her. And from his father, an impeccable sense of the beat, like a built-in metronome.
They worked all morning, making their way along the tiered shelving racks, packing up the blues, the jazz, the funk, and of course, the soul. Every so often, Sanjay would come across an album he didn’t recognize, pulling it out from its precisely ordered place to ask about it, prompting a story from his mother about meeting the band or seeing them in concert, some charming situation that she and his father had found themselves in.
His mother knew everything about each album they carried. Every name and date and influence. She was a walking encyclopedia of music, an expert in the field. It had been her life’s work.
“Are you sure about this, mom?” Sanjay asked her. “Do you really think you’d be happy doing something other than this?”
Georgia sighed. “I don’t think I have the strength for this anymore. The hours, the constant uphill battle. It was a dream and I’m thankful for the time we had here.”
“But we could fix up the place, target a new demographic and rebrand. I’ve been learning so much about all of this, we’d just have to make a few changes—”
“A lot of changes. It would need a huge investment, Jay, and we just don’t have that. No. I’d rather… face the music.” She gave a light laugh and closed up a box of records, folding the corrugated flaps within each other.
“Well, why not take out a loan?”
She stared at him, hands on her hips. “Why do you think I’ve been working my entire life? Why your father and I put money away specifically for your education? It was to avoid debt.” She looked suddenly pained, her fingertips pressed to her forehead. “Please, Jay. Why can’t you just let this be?”
Sanjay was silent. He didn’t want to accept the fate of something that still felt so alive to him. Like his father’s diagnosis. Refusing to accept stage four and spreading, even as he witnessed it happening. In his father’s hospital room, still typing ‘cures for pancreatic cancer’ into his phone, as if Google might reveal a miracle solution no one had considered yet.
He wanted to tell his mother about the business plan he had been working on for his entrepreneurship class in which he had been granted permission to base his assignment on reviving a local business instead of inventing one. Or about the online crowdfunding campaign he had started in hopes of raising the necessary funds to carry out the initiative. This was the very reason he wanted to study business in the first place.
But since the crowdfunding page now sat stagnant, having achieved only a couple hundred dollars, his business revival plan seemed nothing more than a pipe dream conveniently recycled for academic purposes. He remained quiet about both.
Sanjay went to the record player, where Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life had run its course. He turned it to the flip side and “I wish” began to play.
He watched Georgia nod to the beat, frown lines fading from her forehead. He knew that the best thing he could do for her right now was to just be supportive during this transition.
Lowering the lid over the spinning record, Sanjay suddenly spotted something that he had never noticed before. Propping up a corner of the turntable, where one of the adjustable feet had long been missing, was a small black notebook.
He slid it out from underneath, the base of the turntable remaining precariously balanced on its three legs. He ran his hand over the soft, flexible cover of the book, wiping off dust. The paper appeared wavy and aged, and on each lined page was a list of names.
“What’s this?” he asked his mother, holding up the book.
Georgia looked up from what she was doing, squinting over the top of her glasses. “Where’d you find that?”
“It was under the record player.”
He brought the book closer, showing her the pages where columns of names, contact information and personal messages were scrawled in different sets of handwriting and various tones of ink. These messages, many expressing gratitude, seemed to grow longer and more detailed as they flipped through the pages.
“It was the ‘guest book’,” said Georgia. “We used to hold small concerts and events here and people could put their name down to sign up for the newsletter. But then they started leaving us these comments… What we were doing here used to really matter to people.”
The record player abruptly tipped forward, the stylus skittering across the grooved vinyl, the noise startling them both. His mother cursed. “Hope that didn’t scratch,” she said, pushing the book back towards him. “Here, put it back. Everything in this place is falling apart.”
But rather than returning the book to where he found it, Sanjay discreetly placed it in one of the boxes to go upstairs, wedging an old cassette tape under the corner of the turntable instead.
That evening, when he was supposed to be studying, Sanjay found himself looking through the guestbook, reading the comments left for his parents in recognition of their efforts and commitment to the city’s music scene. “Thank you for the important work you do in celebrating Black music and artists of colour.”
Knowing what he needed to do, Sanjay grabbed his phone, flipped back to the start of the guestbook and dialled the first of several hundred phone numbers.
When his father died, he remembered how quickly the news had travelled, how various people he didn’t know had taken it upon themselves to inform others of funeral details and the surprising number that showed up in person or on social media to give thanks for the role his father had played in their lives. So perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised at the community's response to this too.
The contact list was outdated, only a portion of his calls actually reaching the intended person, but those he did speak with seemed engaged and receptive to what he had to say. Many of them were thankful, recalling their own memories of Soul Records, offering to help spread the word.
On what was meant to be their fifth day of packing, Jay greeted his mother at the breakfast table, his laptop in his hands. “I thought maybe we could try something different today,” he said, unable to keep the smile from his face.
He set the laptop in front of Georgia who stared quizzically at the webpage entitled, ‘Save Soul Records’, the images depicting a streamlined space with a vintage feel, a record store that doubled as a place for musical collaboration and performance. B-Side Soul, where music, old and new, mainstream and up-and-coming, could have a home—as long as it had soul.
Georgia gasped, a hand over her mouth as she took in the five-figure number that had been raised, now surpassing $20,000. Not just the investment they needed, but an extraordinary opportunity to keep a dream alive; theirs and so many others who cared deeply for the music they shared.
“How about a business meeting? We’ve got lots to think about.”