MONTREAL - A hundred copies of the brand-new, self-titled, Beatles album, bought COD by 18-year-old retailer Eric Pressman, were spread around a former laundromat on Park Ave. Pressman’s total cash outlay for the lot – and a few LPs by other Capitol artists – had been $800. The money came from his architect father, David, who had also found some contractors to make the basement space at 3472 Park Ave. look like a record store.
It was Nov. 28, 1968 – the opening day of Phantasmagoria. From that shaky beginning came a Montreal institution that drew music lovers to spend hours listening to, and talking about, new albums. It was a product of its time, when music was a communal experience. When record stores – and, some will no doubt say, rock n’ roll itself – truly meant something.
A store with rocking chairs, sofas, a fish tank and an unwritten rule that the customer could hang out all day to dissect the latest music with the staff, other regulars and kindred spirits? It almost certainly couldn’t happen again. In an era when you can have a passing thought about an album and own it within a few minutes, without leaving your chair, we will never see the likes of Phantasmagoria return.
Phantas, as the regulars called it, was a destination store: you made that special trip to Park Ave. And it was always worth the trouble.
Phantasmagoria: Déjà Vu, an exhibition to be presented at the Galerie Nota Bene (located in what was once the store’s second, larger location) opens April 1, with a view toward giving nostalgic boomers and curious young vinyl revivalists a sense of what it was like. For the duration of the event, photos, memorabilia and a recreation of the famous albums-on-the-wall look will play the next best thing to time travel.
“Other stores were places you went to shop and purchase and leave,” Pressman, now 62, said of the music retail landscape of the time. “Phantas was a living-room environment. You watched the fish, you listened to music, you watched the people. Everybody knew everybody. I didn’t know people’s names, but I must have known thousands of faces. Everybody was greeted personally. It was a home away from home for music lovers.”
But it might never have happened if that first album for sale hadn’t been the Beatles’ White Album. Because it was the Beatles, all 100 copies of the double album – priced at $8.88 each, according to Pressman – were snapped up in a day.
And a pattern was set. “We didn’t really know what we were doing. We never had any business training,” Pressman said. “It was really all done on faith and love and hope that it would all work out in the end. It was always very stressful, financially, because we were always stretched to the limit. Every time a new Beatle record would come out, it would save our life, make the bank balance bigger and keep things going.”
The day after opening, Pressman bought another 100 copies of the Beatles album – this time on credit, which became the norm. With the industry’s generous return policy at the time, inventory purchases became a no-risk action, Pressman said. Even so, he said, all the store’s profits were reflected strictly in the albums on the walls. The latest, the hippest and best was pretty much the retail strategy.
Pressman’s partner was the woman he calls his first love, Marsha Dangerfield. He had met her at Sir George Williams University, the same night he first encountered future CKGM-FM (later CHOM) DJ and Phantasmagoria booster Doug Pringle.
Early clients quickly developed a taste for hanging out in the store to talk with Eric and Marsha.
“We thought of ourselves like John and Yoko,” Pressman said. “That was the model. We were very much in love and wanted to be together all the time, so the record store allowed for that. We did it through passion for each other and passion for the music.”
The couple encountered the real John Lennon and Yoko Ono, courtesy of Pringle, during the Montreal bed-in in May 1969. Pressman gave Lennon copies of his two favourite albums, Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello. A track from the Buckley album, Phantasmagoria in Two, and the Lewis Carroll poem Phantasmagoria had given the store its name.
“I said, ‘Here, you gotta listen to these!’ John kind of smiled, took them, looked at them and thanked me. I didn’t feel strange about it. It never occurred to me to think ‘How dare I try and turn John Lennon on to something new?,’ ” Pressman said, laughing. “It just seemed perfectly normal to me.”
Dangerfield, who could not be traced for this story, was behind the upstairs boutique that came with the store’s 1971 move to a second, larger location down the street at 3416 Park Ave. Hippie clothing, candles, incense, cards, pipes and books, much of it imported, took up the second floor for a couple of years until records demanded more space.
Dangerfield disappears from the narrative in 1973, after what Pressman described as a “fiery separation,” returning only in the early 1980s to successfully claim compensation for her part in the enterprise. Pressman’s sister Linda, then working as an elementary school teacher, joined the business shortly after Dangerfield left, Pressman said.
The new digs, with twice the floor space for records, is the store most will remember, with its psychedelic painted-glass storefront window, fish tank, sofas, plants and staircase made out of birch. As the 1970s – the store’s golden years – went by, jazz and classical music took over the upstairs area, as did an import specialty area heralding and celebrating the punk and new wave years in the latter half of the decade.
In 1980, Pressman moved to Vancouver, leaving Linda in charge of the Montreal store. While living there, he saw an empty storefront on Granville St. “I have this weakness,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s open a store here,’ without knowing the market at all, just thinking I had the magic touch.”
Spending $100,000 in borrowed money to revive the Phantasmagoria dream out west, Pressman soon hit a brick wall. Stereo equipment retailers, using albums as loss leaders to get people into the store to buy sound systems, were selling records at his cost, he said. The failed venture almost killed the Montreal store, he said, and he returned in 1982, deflecting bankruptcy by going into partnership with Tom Faludi.
With Faludi in the fold, the Park Ave. store lasted until 1995. Another downtown branch, on Ste. Catherine St. near Guy, was open only between 1996 and 1998, Faludi said.
Other branches of Phantasmagoria were launched in Westmount, Place Versailles, Beloeil, Longueuil, Gatineau and Cornwall. Most were opened in the 1990s and lasted until 2001. According to Faludi, the Phantasmagoria name remained on display at the Westmount store until last year, under new ownership, but it had otherwise long vanished from the record-store landscape.
Pressman was gone when most of this happened, having left the record business and moved to Toronto in 1986 as, in a symbolic transition, vinyl took a beating and CDs replaced it.
“I felt I was losing my passion for the music because of what was going on, musically, in the mid-’80s,” Pressman said. “Our customers were coming in with their little kids and rap music, which I had no affinity for, was taking off. I guess I just began to feel old, which is odd at 36. I just felt like I’d had enough of it. I might have just been tired and burned out. It was a long run and there was a lot of stress involved – always – financially. There wasn’t a day that went by in 18 years when I didn’t have to worry about what cheques were coming into the bank that day. It was that kind of cash-and-carry affair.”
After working as a mortgage broker for eight years and then becoming franchise director for It stores, Pressman briefly opened a daycare centre for dogs and, in 1995, started walking dogs for a living. A lifelong dog lover, he walks about 20 a day, in three groups. He lives with his wife, Judi, who works for Ticketpro Canada.
Pressman’s record collection is gone and his CDs have been digitized. He listens to The Loft on Sirius XM. A new Avett Brothers or Ryan Adams album, purchased from iTunes, gives him the same charge as a new Cat Stevens record off the Phantas wall once did, he said.
But old habits die hard.
Thinking about returning to the old location for the exhibition (he’ll be there on opening day), Pressman chuckled. “If I were in Montreal, I’d be tempted to open a record store in the old building,” he said. “I go to Starbucks and fondle the CDs while I wait for coffee and reorganize them if they’re mixed up. I still have that in my blood. ‘That’s old! That shouldn’t be up front.’ I’d do it again, but, unfortunately, that market doesn’t exist.”
Phantasmagoria: Déjà Vu will be presented April 1 to 20 at Galerie Nota Bene, 3416 Park Ave. The exhibition will open from noon to 5 p.m. on opening day. For the gallery’s regular hours, go to www.nota-bene.ca. Admission is free.