A man about town

The tale of one record store owner and his quest to own a village

Pascal Hogue, News Editor

Most people do not plan on purchasing a town. But Manuel Paul Gabber, owner of the quintessential Plateau record store and event venue, Paul’s Boutique, does. Gabber has been eyeing a property called Canadiana Village for a couple of years now: A ghost town about 50 minutes north of Montreal that has been up for sale for $2.7 million since 2015. What’s more, it used to be a movie set for dozens of Westerns and TV shows. A decently popular 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, was shot there.

If things go as planned, Gabber should be able to purchase the town within a few years. He’s willing to sell his boutique if necessary. He also hopes to start a radio station at the end of October to promote Montreal’s counterculture scene, as well as inspire people to help him make the town sustainable and self-sufficient. Developing this town, Gabber contends, is a retaliation to the large businesses that he believes are breaking up Montreal’s organic musical and commercial culture. Here’s the tale of one record store owner and his quest to combat gentrification, foster Montreal’s alternative music scene, and own an entire village.

The man:
Paul’s Boutique is a vintage vinyl store on Mont Royal Avenue, located between Avenue Coloniale and Rue de Bullion. For those familiar with the area, the store is unmissable. It’s Mont Royal Avenues’s radiant, odd gem—a dainty yellow house with green gables and Gabber’s first name displayed in bright, bold red. On bright Sunday afternoons, people are probably posing for Instagram pictures in front of the house. It’s also quite literally squeezed between two brick buildings.

Gabber himself is a neighbourhood icon. When Mont Royal Avenue was converted to a pedestrian-only street during the summer, Gabber was often outside managing his street sales or chatting with friends on a nearby bench, always wearing his tricolore cap. Having owned the store for nearly two decades, Gabber knows the street incredibly well. One Friday in September, he could name just about every other person walking by his store: Montrealers young and old, students and musicians, and a pedestrian who had once won the Granby International Song Festival.

Gabber started the boutique in 2001 out of his own apartment, which is located next door to his current store. He had worked the five previous years at the family-owned Polish grocery store Warshaw on Avenue Saint Laurent until the store, like many immigrant-run enterprises in the Plateau at the time, closed.One of his coworkers was future Arcade Fire bassist Tim Kingsbury. Warshaw was eventually replaced by a Pharmaprix in 2002. Out of a job, Gabber started selling vinyls from his apartment, placing a small sign at street level inviting people to visit his place.

For Gabber, music was nothing new—he had DJ’d events and had helped produce over a dozen albums for local bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was no stranger to collecting records either.

“By the time I was 20, I already had 52 boxes of discs,” Gabber said. “At the time, it was easy to gather collections. It wasn’t expensive. You’d find The Smiths vinyls for three-fifty at second-hand stores. Now they are $40.”

His small business thrived, and in 2003, Gabber borrowed $5,000 from his girlfriend at the time to buy the lease for the neighbouring yellow house—and he managed to repay the money with record sales that very summer.

The store:
The yellow house, which dates back to the 19th century, is one of the two oldest surviving buildings on Mont Royal Avenue, the other being the neon green Dollar Plateau Plus at the end of the block. Gabber says a third house, built around the same time, was demolished and converted into a nearby parking lot in 1965. While the house does show its age—the roof, for instance, isn’t particularly straight—this quality adds to the boutique’s quirky and vintage feel. From top to bottom, the store is chock-full with vinyls new and old, second-hand CDs, cassette tapes, posters, postcards, playing cards, PS2 games, and stacks of vintage 45s. The ceiling is gilded with license plates from across the world and the walls are plastered with more oddities. Navigating the cramped store can be hard, as customers are bound to bump into a box or two of old comic books on sale for a dollar each.

At the back of the small house, an unassuming door and a narrow hallway lead to a vast white room, replete with hundreds more vinyls and posters— a space he purchased more recently to expand the store. At the end of the room is a stage and an arcade with a couple dozen retro games, although you’d easily mistake the space for a production set in A Clockwork Orange. For much of the past two decades, Paul’s Boutique has hosted concerts and arcade nights, inviting local bands and budding musicians to play before packed crowds. Owning a music shop has also brought its share of perks over the years, including visits by members of well-known bands, from Sonic Youth to the Beastie Boys.

The project:
In recent years, however, Gabber says that he has become increasingly drawn by an altogether different enterprise: Creating a self-sustaining community that could revive an urban space in decline. Gabber says he became more intrigued by the concept of an alternative community as a response to the gentrification caused by capitalist interests and the political status quo.

A notable example of his vision is Auroville, an alternative town of about 2,800 founded in 1966 in south India. The town professes a philosophy of openness to all cultures, religions, and political affiliations and has received the support of UNESCO multiple times since 1966—in 2017, it recognized Auroville as a successful project that continues to promote world peace

An endeavour closer to home is Quebec’s Cité Écologique, a rural, self-sustaining community of about 150 operating since 1984. The town farms its own organic food, in spite of Quebec’s barren winters and uses local lumber for construction projects. The addition of solar panels and small wind turbines in recent years has helped the Cité Écologique sustain its energy needs, allowing for a low-carbon lifestyle. The town’s children receive their schooling within the village, and the entire community gathers for daily common meals.

When Gabber noticed that an entire village near Montreal was on sale with a decent existing infrastructure, he saw a golden opportunity to make his vision into a reality.

The Canadiana Village property comprises 60 hectares and 45 buildings, all of which mimic a 19th century town from the Wild West. Among the buildings is a general store, a windmill, a church, a saloon and 22 houses. The village was founded in 1959 by Earle and Norah Moore, and became a busy movie set and attracted up to 30,000 annual visitors at its peak. The site was closed to tourists in 1996, and has been uninhabited since. The real estate company in charge of the sale, Genest & Marinacci, could not be reached for comment as of print time.

Gabber envisions forming a community that can live by its own means through agriculture and renewable energies while remaining connected to the outside world. He believes that the town can be used as a hub to experiment with new forms of sustainability and would be financed by cowboy-themed tourism on the weekends.

“To pay rent, given it would be a research centre, people would live there for free, so weekends we could have tourists dressed in [cowboy]-era costumes, a mix of retro and stuff for the research centre, which would be up to date,” Gabber said. “There’s a salon, so we could sell a bit of alcohol, and I could move my arcade there. With 15,000 tourists per year at $20, that’s $300,000, which is lots of money to pay rent.”

Gabber spent much of the past summer constructing studio spaces on the second floor of his boutique, with the hopes of starting a radio station by the end of October. His station will operate 24/7 and touch on all things music, with a particular emphasis on his project.

“I want to have programs that have to do with vintage stuff, like vinyls, 8-tracks, pop culture in general, but I also want it to be related to the project of the independent city,” Gabber said.

Gabber’s ideas have already resonated within the student community. A frequent customer of the store, Sarah Robertson, U2 Arts, believes that while the town project could have its set of challenges, the end goal is noble.

“[It’s] a little bit unrealistic, honestly,” Robertson said. “But if I wanted to be a dreamer, then I would love for [this] to happen. You know, nothing’s good going on right now. Moving to a town in the middle of nowhere, living in [something] like a Western movie.”

Saumiyaa Pathmarajah, U3 Engineering, is another frequent customer familiar with the project who says she would be eager to visit the town as a tourist.

“If it was marketed right and if everything he says is going to be [as he says], then one hundred per cent I’d visit and see what it’s about,” Pathmarajah said.

With his radio station, Gabber explained that he wants to highlight how Montreal has seen waves of gentrification causing the closure of small businesses in recent years. Gabber maintains that it is up to citizens to stem this tide, because he has little faith in the political establishment enacting any substantial change.

“We have to send the message that cities aren’t just businesses,” Gabber said. “I know there’s political parties, there’s people who are working on it, but at one point […] if you don’t jump in the pool you’ll never know if the water is cold.”

It’s this belief—that cities aren’t just businesses, and people’s lives should not be reduced to mere commodities—that drives all of Gabber’s projects, from his boutique to his utopian city. Gabber hopes that his project will inspire others to reject society’s consumerist ideals and look for a more meaningful purpose to their life.

“[This project], it’s like a cri du coeur, [because] people want to leave [the city],” said Gabber. “There’s more of them than we think. People want to leave the system, they want to be rich with their time. At one point, we all grow old, and being rich of one’s time, that is a fine value.”

The pandemic has not particularly hindered Gabber’s project. On the contrary, Paul’s Boutique has fared relatively well through this summer thanks to the closure of Mont Royal Avenue to cars, which allowed Gabber to attract pedestrians and conduct street sales. Government subsidies for small businesses have also helped him purchase more vinyls and recording equipment for his radio. But with recent public health restrictions now in effect, Gabber worries that the new restrictions could further hamper business going into the winter months, which typically see fewer sales. Restrictions on the maximum number of people at gatherings has forced Paul’s Boutique to halt their popular concerts and arcade nights indefinitely, which has been detrimental for local bands as well.

In spite of recent challenges, Gabber has remained steadfast in his objective to purchase and develop the town. If needed, Gabber plans to sell his shop to a local who can maintain the record store, and he hopes to inspire a younger generation to adopt his dream.

“I think students can be interested in [...] projects like this one because […] it’s been a long time since there’s been society projects in Canada, in Quebec,” Gabber said. “Even if it takes me two to three years to get there, that’s where I’m aligning myself. I want there to be more cities like this one. I think that at one point, governments don’t always have our interests [at heart]. And, you know, at one point we’ll have to send the message that one day we won’t need you guys.”

*The interview was conducted in French and translated by the author.