Dona Sturmanis: Melvyn's Living Room
Named after a frivolous white Persian cat, this quirky shop became a much needed, small-town culture salon.
"What a concept!" enthused Karen Connelly to a milling crowd of close to 100 people. "Poetry and shopping!" This Governor General's Award-winning author then began to read from her poetry book, The Disorder of Love, to appreciative laughter and applause.
The audience stayed long after Karen's reading, imbibing food and drink and yes shopping. Karen worked the crowd with her usual charm and hawked an impressive number of books from her backpack.
Sound like a Vancouver bookstore? Try the unlikely, isolated venue of Melvyn's Living Room, a purveyor of used books and miscellaneous merchandise on a side street in downtown Westbank - that quaint little collection of buildings on Highway 97 that you whisk past when driving south to Penticton or north across the lake to Kelowna. Those hundred people had gathered from as far south as Penticton and as far north as Vernon.
The salon idea hits Westbank
Salons always intrigued me as a young person growing up in Vancouver - the concept of fascinating people gathered in an intimate setting to entertain and educate each other through social interaction and exchange of knowledge. Salons were particularly popular in France from the 17th century onwards, drawing writers, artists, musicians, philosophers, and other influential people of the day.
I moved to the Okanagan in 1992, and after finding no suitable informal venues, began holding a writing group in my home and the homes of others from Penticton to Kelowna. Five years later, three writing groups a week were taking place in my little living room, under the watchful gaze of Melvyn the cat.
The idea had been simmering to find a commercial space for a books-and-stuff shop to help my mother, Fran Kraintz, sell off many estate items after my father passed away. We found the perfect space on Hodgkins Road in Westbank. Large and full of natural light, it made an ideal combination shop, gallery, workshop, and performance space.
Family members, friends, and writing colleagues helped paint the walls light green, turquoise, and yellow. And Melvyn's Living Room opened in June, 1998, with a reading by members of the various writing groups that had been meeting in my living room.
With the aid of extensive press coverage and newspaper advertising, Melvyn's Living Room was in full operation by December of that year, having quadrupled revenue since its opening. Retail sales were strong, and courses and events well-attended. The Christmas party featuring Karen Connelly celebrated our seven months in existence.
Celebrations and courses
That vibrant winter evening was only one of countless such events that took place at Melvyn's between its opening and its demise four years later in June, 2002. But it wasn't just celebrants and shoppers who came to Melvyn's Living Room.
People hungry to learn and participate with others could choose from two dozen different courses; and special interest groups took place under the umbrella moniker, Okanagan Institute of the Arts. Writing courses - taught by local practising professionals - provided the mainstay: children's writing, humour writing, memoirs, fiction, poetry, The Artist's Way, journalism, book publishing, and screenwriting. Guest instructors included First Nations children's book authors Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, Victoria's veteran poet Cathy Ford, and Vancouver filmmaker Roslyn Muir.
Classes in storytelling, drawing and painting, belly dancing, bodywork, drumming, yoga, meditation, aura and chakra reading, aromatherapy, and three different levels of feng shui rounded out the list of courses held in the Living Room.
Show openings featured Okanagan artists such as painter Robyn Lake, potters Des and Peg Loan, photographers Hugo Redivo and Gary Nylander, as well as talented lesser-knowns. Globetrotting photojournalist Wendell Phillips hosted dramatic slideshows; there were performances from Governor General's Award-winning poet Heather Spears, fiction writer Elizabeth Haynes, and others ranging from amateur to semi-pro. Kelowna's beloved Trinidad-born Reverend Albert Baldeo, wearing a straw hat and singing calypso songs, launched his memoirs; and Jeane Manning, author of the globally published The Coming Energy Revolution, introduced a panel of local new technology inventors.
Costume balls, crystal bowl séances, drum circles, writing slams, classical chamber music concerts added to the mix. Parties celebrating summer and winter solstice, and of course, the millennium, each attracted between 50 and 150 people.
Such events, courses and meetings may have taken place at other Valley venues, but not under one roof. (The Rotary Centre for the Arts in Kelowna opened in 2002 - but how can you compare?)
The Melvyn's Living Room phenomenon was special because of its intimate salon-style environment and because it sprang so lustily into existence. It happened without funding from any source except the shop's retail sales and donations by course participants. Melvyn's patrons had decided what they needed and wanted!
Conservatives vs. cultural creatives
I was a little concerned when we first opened Melvyn's how we might be perceived by the generally conservative Christian community - as pagans, even practitioners of witchcraft? We had heard stories of an esoteric shop in Summerland that had been shut down by a local church group because they carried such dubious merchandise as tarot cards, crystals, and dream catchers.
We carried these same items in addition to books, local art, collectibles, and jewellery. We also offered groups and courses for participants from a variety of belief systems. Kevin Moul, a marketing rep from Mission Hill Family Estate winery and professional storyteller, offered a regular Tibetan Buddhist meditation circle. Judith Good Sky taught the First Nations Medicine Wheel. A number of members from the Unity Church (Science of Mind) instructed sessions in metaphysical subjects. New Age enthusiasts offered seminars on how to heal with semi-precious stones or how to intuit the future.
Not once did any placard-waving religious types show up to drive Melvyn's out of business, in spite of our growing stock of drums and Buddhist statues. In fact, the acceptance of our interfaith environment was astounding. We even had an in-house Christian writers group with some very conservative members.
At the peak of Melvyn's four-year run, we had a database of 1900 people who had attended events or courses. Not bad for a modest little shop named after a cat!
Perhaps it was the lack of similar venues; perhaps the timing. In an age of increasing computer use and television watching, a mini-era of people hungry for globally conscious, cross-pollinated interaction and knowledge also wanted the vitality of face-to-face communication.
We informally identified our Melvyn's patrons as "cultural creatives," the new breed of people keenly interested in improving not just their own well-being but that of others and the world in general. They cared about world peace, the environment, and a cross-cultural exchange of ideas. And, living in the Okanagan, they were just discouraged because there weren't many other similar places to go.
People from all over the Valley found us - goth teenagers in search of comedy improv and séances; impoverished wanderers in search of obscure New Age knowledge; seniors who wanted to chronicle their memories from the Prairies Depression; well-travelled, educated people hungry to meet others like themselves. People prominent in conservative Kelowna social and civic circles crossed the bridge to visit Melvyn's for a refreshing, open-minded getaway.
Melvyn's busts a move
By early 2000, we had a loosely organized "board" consisting of Living Room instructors from a range of course disciplines. Besides idea-generating meetings, we also had retreats and group appreciation dinners. We acted like a non-profit society even though we were still a private sector enterprise. My mother and I remained primarily responsible for the financial support, something that was becoming more and more challenging.
We conducted an exhaustive phone survey and found, much to our surprise, that three-quarters of our patrons were from Kelowna. Yes, they said, they would come more often if we moved to the other side of the bridge.
In June, 2001, we moved to a location upstairs from the Bean Scene near the corner of Bernard and Abbott Street in downtown Kelowna. It was ideal, so we thought - heritage building, former antiques shop, above a cool coffee house, and very salon-like.
Business was slow at first - stifled by realities like being located in an increasingly perceived dangerous part of town, as well as difficult parking and stairs that discouraged some of our more senior patrons and customers. But we looked forward to a fertile fall, planned a new course calendar, and undertook a buying trip to our usual Vancouver tradeshow to stock up on eclectic merchandise for Christmas.
With the exception of that haunting day - September 11, 2001, when not one person walked into Melvyn's - we had a successful season with well-attended courses, events, talks, and art openings. Brisk retail sales through Christmas showed promise for the new year, but my mother and I were already too deep in the red to hope that anything but a miracle could save us.
My mother's health problems had landed her in a nursing home by this point after a couple of years of intensive home-care challenges. When I visited her at Brookhaven Rest Home in Westbank, I would try to address the issue of closing down Melvyn's. But she kept insisting we should hang in there - my stories of happenings at Melvyn's provided her bedside entertainment.
I finally accepted that I had to lay off my original writing colleagues and long-time co-workers, Cathy Mamo and Ruth ten Veen. I owed them substantial back wages and could not afford to pay them the relatively decent hourly amount I had always paid my employees. Instead, I hired two young people, Yvonne Schurian and Michael Williams, to run Melvyn's. They did a supreme job, drawing in a whole new 20-something group from the downtown nouveau-Boho artsy crowd - lots of ideas and enthusiasm, but very little money.
Spring 2002 passed and business did not improve substantially. I was exhausted from the previous several years and my mother had been moved to the critical care unit at Kelowna General. She died May 16, 2002.
We closed Melvyn's about two weeks after her death - a sad but necessary decision.
Melvyn's becomes a state of mind, not a reality
It took a year to wholesale the rest of our merchandise and pay our creditors. Cathy and Ruth were instrumental in helping me sort out all the final business. In the fall of 2002, I retreated to my Peachland home and concentrated on writing fiction and poetry, and finishing up some gemology courses. I then did some long-neglected travelling.
During the past several years, key Melvyn's people have successfully continued their creative pursuits. Me? I've gone back full-time into the writing, teaching and publishing world, which I used to do full-time before Melvyn's came along. Most of the people I connected with at Melvyn's are still my friends, and they'll frequently reminisce, "Gee, I miss Melvyn's. We should do it again."
I agree, but somebody else can do the work!
Memories of Melvyn's:
Wendell Phillips, 40s, international photojournalist:
"Dona's passion and talent for writing attracted some very interesting artists to Melvyn's. One never knew what to expect there. It was a place to find stimulating conversation, a good book, or learn African drums in one afternoon."
Leif Nordholm, 24, former Melvyn's Living Room weekend manager and comedy improv instructor, now University of Victoria English major in Middle English and Communications:
"For me, Melvyn's made me aware of what's out there because of the remarkable diversity of workshops - creative to New Age. Influence, impact. It influenced my life and self-exploration on a daily basis and benefited what I talk about and take in school. Melvyn's was a real social group, an event, a catalyst, a time and place. All you had to do to step in there was to have an open mind. It was impossible to make age distinctions."
Sterling Haynes, 78, retired physician, workshop attendee and patron, now BC bestselling author of Bloody Practice and well-published writer:
"The ambience was kind of funky. You could buy stuff from most parts of the world or concentrate on your nonsense poetry in both the Westbank location and later in the walk-up above the Bean Scene, on Bernard Avenue.
"I remember hearing my friend Rev. Albert Baldeo reading rhyming poetry from his new book. When Albert stopped reading he continued to talk in rhyme about religion, humour and life. His wife, Beryl, was with him one evening. Albert was having a particularly bad time with his tremor due to Parkinson's. He told us his wife was having trouble in her menopause as well. In bed at night together he said, "It was just shake and bake."
LaRue Hayes, 70, metaphysical minister:
"If you wanted to challenge your old way of thinking or examine the paths your life had followed - Melvyn's was the right place to go. Wow! Culture, art, whimsy, spirituality and education all in one place - that was Melvyn's.
Ruth ten Veen, 40s, former Melvyn's Living Room manager, coordinator of Christian Writers' Group, now full-time writer at Media Button, Kelowna:
"Melvyn's was a gathering place - a place where you could find people who shared common interests not like anywhere else. It was a dynamic, colourful place to be. It was incredible and amazing what you could learn there. It was amazing who came through. It was a leading-edge fork in the road that focused people in the right direction. There was so much to be explored and it was fun."
Jeanette Dunagan, 71, former Melvyn's Living Room patron, art instructor and exhibitor, now Daily Courier columnist:
"Melvyn's drew an eclectic group of photographers, New Age practitioners, inner children grown old, and seekers of truth on various pathways. I met writers from all over. What I really learned was how important is the company of others, to encourage, support, and imbue us to best express the artist within. Reflecting on my association with Melvyn's, I recall how much I enjoyed the group that gathered there and how much I miss the critical comments and the theories from the arts patrons regarding form over content."
Deborah Greaves, 50s, former Melvyn's hostess and writing instructor, now full-time freelance environmental and business writer:
"Some took classes at Melvyn's and were inspired to go on to develop and teach their own. Several started writing and couldn't stop. Many ideas and quite a few books sprang from the Melvyn's phenomenon. Reverend Albert Baldeo wrote his, Sharron Simpson completed hers, and both Dan St. Yves and Dr. Haynes wrote theirs. All were published."
Mike Williams, 35, former Melvyn's clerk, workshop attendee, and now independent documentary film aspiree, on board of Alternator Gallery, Kelowna:
"It was a real, warm family environment where anyone could fit in. You felt accepted."
Dona Sturmanis, BFA, MFA Creative Writing, UBC, has been in the professional writing, editing, publishing and teaching business for 34 years since the age of 17, in both creative and trade perspectives. She has written thousands of published articles, poems and short stories; edited numerous periodicals and books; placed in or won 18 writing awards; organized literary and cultural events; and helped many people in their writing careers and publishing endeavours.