Seven Steps – The Potpourri

A year or so after quitting high school my bosses at Chevalier Associates persuaded me to enroll in night courses at Sir George Williams College (which eventually became Concordia University). They seemed to think I was executive material (I had a modest mail room job but I was damn good at it) and thought I should at least graduate so that I could run for office one day. Something like that.

Sir George was was housed in and run by the Drummond Street YMCA. The back door opened on Stanley Street and, a few feet to the right was the Seven Steps Bookshop which was always open when I got out of classes around ten at night. Night school was no better than regular school. In some ways it was worse. There were just a couple of youngsters, misfits like myself. The one cute girl turned out to be a Mormon. No, wait . . . the guy was the Mormon. She was probably Amish. The rest were poor, aging DP’s trying to make a go of life in the land of skim milk and pasteurized honey. And instead of spending the whole class looking out the window longing to be out in the sunshine my longing to be out in the night was even fiercer.

The best thing about this phase of my educational career was going to the Sir George jazz society concerts and jam sessions every Saturday afternoon and to the Seven Steps every night after classes. Bob Silverman owned and ran the place – a goateed hipster-Marxist who was to foster my descent into communism. Godfrey Stephens, who was the first genuine so-called beat I’d met face-to-face at that point – sandals even in the Montreal winter – came in one night and tried to drag me to a party as I had a couple of bucks, enough for a jug of wine. I was just about to spend that money on a copy of the Communist Manifesto, published in Moscow by the Foreign Languages Publishing House. Bob pointed out to Godfrey that it was more urgent I get the Manifesto than go to a beatnik party and, though I sincerely had my doubts, I opted for socio-political enlightenment, thereby wasting the next ten years of my life. A spectre is haunting Europe . . .

I can’t recall what, if anything was in the back room at the Seven Steps. The best I can recall (an accurate chronology would really help me out here) is that at some time, probably when I was on the road, the place was sold to Morris Feinberg and became the Potpourri – bookstore in front, coffee house in back. Most of my friends started hanging out there. Famous and not so famous folk acts appeared there including a young Bob Dylan who was there while I was out in Vancouver. When I came back all the girls were mad for Bob Dylan. One night me and my jazz pals (David, Harvey, Willy, and maybe Sam) sat down and listened to his album (impressively, on Columbia Records) to settle, once and for all, if this guy had merit. I pronounced, in my inimical and omniscient hipness, that he was just another wearisome folkie, and dismissed him outright. The only mistake I ever made. Later I found a page of typed prose he’d composed while at the Potpourri – liner notes for an upcoming Happy Traum Folkways album. I hung on to it for years and tried selling it once but as it was typed and unsigned it was apparently worthless. Eventually I lost it. I also remember Dave Van Ronk playing at the Potpourri and Murray asking him if he slept in the raw, in imitation of a New York Post writer’s interview style. Van Ronk was amused, and confused enough to comment on it on stage. Anyway, he was and remained to his last days a brilliant artist and I treasured a couple of albums of his that I had but now only have on tape. I last saw him in the 80’s at the Vancouver Folk Festival and he was as great as ever.

Around this time I fell insanely in love with Debby R. This was my first major death-defying infatuation. I wrote a stack of poems declaring my passion and presented them to her at the Potpourri one afternoon. Although she seemed pleased and flattered and we did hang out for a few months the romance never really went anywhere and eventually I lost track of her. Twenty or more years later I did see her again, briefly, and she quoted lines from these poems to me so it just goes to show you.

One day Morris asked if I’d pick up a shipment of book for him at the Customs House. I showed up, documents in hand, and watched them slit open the cartons of books for inspection. What were they looking for? Drugs? Sex? Atom bombs? Among the contents they found copies of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, one of the more popular psychology books of the day. A gathering of half-wit French-speaking clerks conferred briefly, perplexedly flipping through the book, then decided they’d have to seize the shipment. Morris eventually got the books back, but the fact that these dim-witted civil servants, who didn’t have ten words of English among the lot of them, had this power, had an effect on my worldview that has only grown more cynical and despairing with age.

Sometime later . . . a year? . . . two years? I returned again from a trip west to find the Potpourri gone. In it’s place, French-Canadian folk maestro, Jacques Labreque, was opening a snazzy restaurant and cabaret. I asked him for a job, which he vaguely promised me, so I hung out there for awhile giving advice but getting no job or money. I’d remembered that Godfrey Stephens had painted a mural on one of the doors back in the Seven Steps days and I noticed that it had been removed. I asked Jacques to let me have it. He said he would but evaded the actual gift and I never did see it again. I never saw Godfrey again either except that I ran into some people living on the ocean at Vancouver Island, years later, who mentioned his name and said that he’d been living on the beach there, but was gone. Bob Silverman I would see in Montreal occasionally driving his blue beetle. Later I ran into him in Havana where I think he may have gotten into some kind of trouble with the authorities. Now he’s Bicycle Bob, famous Montreal bike activist.

2 comments »

2 Responses to “Seven Steps – The Potpourri”

  1. lavy

    I was there at the young Bob Dylan’s performance. My uncle was sort of a ‘silent partner’ of the bookstore. His role was to find folk singers in Grennwich village and to choose most of the books for the store.

    I was a pre-teen then, but my uncle invited me to come to the performance. He said he’d heard of this ‘real interesting’ folk singer – who however was considered somewhat wild and so was not asked to stay over at Morriss’ home. Not sure if a room was rented for Dylan. In any case this was my first experience of folk music. Dylan warmed up in the bathroom, which was not far from the ‘stage’.

    Dylan performed some things from his first album, which was featured near the book store entrance, and many things from this second album, which had not yet come out. The energy of his singing was similar to the kind of energy on his first album. I haven’t seen a similar energy on any of the various Dylan documentaries that have come out even after all these years.

    I’m sure that my uncle was also responsible for ordering Fromm’s book
    since he recommended to me around that time and the bookstore’s inventory paralleled my uncle’s political interests.

    As for the Seven Steps, my father was the person who was responsible liquidation (similar to bankruptcy). The only time I was in that bookstore
    was after it closed.

  2. Robert Silverman

    Bicycle Bob here. Very interesting and accurate article. I’m pushing 80 now and living in beautiful Val-David, Quebec nestled among the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal. I have become a natural vision improver specializing in presbyopia reduction and prevention.

    I was delighted to read your reminisces of the Seven Steps Bookshop which I founded in early 1960.


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