Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/7/2016 (1208 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
According to the website www.thetoptens.com, the most popular music acts on the planet in 1976 were Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones.
Proving once again the more things change, the more they stay the same, when Gurinder Nirula, owner of O Calcutta, a Portage Avenue store specializing in rock-related goods, was asked which bands’ merchandise customers are most interested in when they walk through his doors, he replied, "Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones."
"When it comes to classic rock bands, I sell their T-shirts to people in their 50s, and I sell them to people in their teens," said Nirula, whose store is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
"Things like the Beatles, AC/DC and (Bob) Dylan? You can never have too much of that stuff."
Here’s the funny thing: when pressed, the father of two described himself as a casual music fan at best. Sure, the radio behind his cash register is perpetually on, he mentioned, but does he always twig into what songs are playing or catch himself humming along to More Than a Feeling from time to time? Not so much.
"You won’t really see me wearing any of the clothes we sell here, either," Nirula said, stylishly dressed in leather sandals, jeans and a slim-fit, pale blue shirt he picked up at RW & Co., "one of my favourite stores."
"My wife likes Pink Floyd, so when Roger Waters was here for The Wall tour, I got tickets for our anniversary. And I do like the Who and actually thought about going to their last show (in May), but in the end I didn’t bother."
'Customers who haven't been here in a whilewill come in, take a deep breath and say,"That's the smell I remember about O Calcutta"'— Gurinder Nirula on burning incense
Nirula was born in India. His mother, Sartaj, moved to Winnipeg in 1967. Nirula, his father, Jasbir, and his older brother followed suit a year later. (Nirula doesn’t remember his first snowfall, but he does recall catching chicken pox not long after he arrived in Canada, he said with a chuckle.)
"When I was growing up, my mom was working as a guidance counsellor. But she had to resign from her job when she got pregnant with my younger brother because in those days you didn’t get maternity leave," he said.
"My father had done different jobs through the years, but after he became the chief breadwinner in the family he got the idea, ‘Why don’t we start our own business?’"
The first incarnation of what would eventually become O Calcutta was decidedly different from what the place looks like today, with its wall-to-wall array of T-shirts, hoodies and flags. (Hey ho, let’s go: if you think your newborn would rock a Ramones onesie, he’s got that, too.)
Nirula’s father opened Universal Imports on the north side of Portage Avenue in 1972, near what is presently Elements the Restaurant. It was a "boutique type of store," Nirula said, that offered garments and jewelry brought in from their native country. After a 1974 fire that started in an adjacent building "pretty much gutted the place," Jasbir shifted over a few blocks to the basement of the former Club Morocco, his son said.
Universal Imports operated there until a smallish location inside the old Colony Theatre, at the corner of Portage Avenue and Colony Street, became available in 1976. That’s when the focus of the biz began swinging more toward pop culture paraphernalia — and also when the name was given a refresh.
For years, Nirula’s customers have assumed O Calcutta is a reference to where his family lived before they arrived in Canada. That isn’t the case, he said, noting he and his parents hail from India’s capital city of New Delhi.
"Back in the ’70s, there was a famous stage play — a nude play, as a matter of fact — called Oh! Calcutta! Because of that, and because of the connection in the title to India, my dad decided he would put up a sign in the window of the building we were moving into that read, ‘Coming soon: O Calcutta.’ It was a bit of a marketing ploy, for sure, but the name stuck."
O Calcutta was expropriated from its 459 Portage Ave., spot in the mid-1980s to make room for Portage Place, a set of circumstances that still rankles Nirula, who, by that time, was helping his parents out as much as he could around his university schedule.
"I understand why (the city) did it because at the time, the south side of Portage had Eaton’s and the Bay, and that’s where the majority of the foot traffic was. Here on the north side were mostly record shops and arcades, which the powers that be saw as a negative," he said.
"I’m not saying the city was wrong, but it was a shame to see all those unique, independently run places just taken away."
Following the expropriation order, the Nirulas moved to the Avenue Building at 265 Portage Ave. The rent there was substantial, however, and it wasn’t long before his father began shopping around for a space he could buy outright.
In 1995, Nirula was put in charge of negotiating with a party that owned the 7,000-square-foot building at 319 Portage Ave, opposite what was then Eaton’s. The two sides went back and forth for a few weeks, but when the negotiations broke down that summer, they were still $50,000 apart.
"Time was of the essence because our lease was going to be up (at the Avenue Building) in December (1995), and we knew if we got this place, there were going to have to be a bunch of renovations before we could be up and running," Nirula said.
After a month of sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring, Nirula was told by his father to table a second offer, slightly higher than the first. It was accepted, and the Nirulas moved into their present digs on Jan. 1, 1996.
Given its location directly across from the MTS Centre, it isn’t surprising to learn O Calcutta has seen its share of famous faces since the downtown arena opened 12 years ago.
"Paul Stanley from Kiss came in with his bodyguard one time, looked around a bit and said, ‘Cool store you got here,’" Nirula began when asked for a who’s who.
"Motley Crüe was here, I remember that; my wife once got into a conversation with Eddie Vedder (from Pearl Jam) one time, and even though I wasn’t in the store that afternoon, in one of these drawers is an American Express receipt with Rob Halford’s (from Judas Priest) signature on it."
Nirula also recalled an occasion when a person from Green Day’s entourage rushed in just before the store closed to hunt for items the California band could wear onstage during their concert that evening.
Nirula laughed when a scribe mentioned his own son always knew if one of his presents under the Christmas tree was bought at O Calcutta because he could smell the incense through the wrapping paper.
"We’ve always burned incense in the store, and I guess the smell gets into the clothes somewhat, but it’s true what you say because customers who haven’t been here in a while will come in, take a deep breath and say, ‘That’s the smell I remember about O Calcutta,’" he said.
Nirula’s parents retired a number of years ago, but Nirula said his father still drops by from time to time to chat with longtime customers — people who now show up with their kids or grandkids in tow — or sweep away a cobweb or two.
"My dad is in his 70s, and the first thing he’ll do when he gets here is ask, ‘Where’s the mop? Where’s the broom?’" Nirula said, breaking into a grin.
"His thought process from the very beginning was you have to present a good image because the image the store presents is us. In the old days, he would always arrive a couple of hours early if it had snowed the night before to make sure the sidewalk out front was shovelled. He’d wash all the windows, make sure everything inside was spic and span and then, at the end of the day, put everything away properly so the store was ready for the next day.
"That sense of hard work and pride are things I’ve always tried to instil in my children. Not that they’re going to end up working here, necessarily — my 27-year-old daughter is a doctor and my 21-year-old son is completing his bachelor of commerce degree — but those are good values to have, period, I believe, and ones that apply to anything you choose to do in life."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Sunday, July 24, 2016 at 9:29 AM CDT: Adds link
July 25, 2016 at 10:45 AM: Corrects date reference.