Last week I mentioned having grown up in a little town outside Saskatoon. It was a great place to grow up. In my teen years, there were basically two schools of thought for young men: there were those who played a musical instrument (or attempted to), and there were those who rode dirtbikes. I personally spent a considerable amount of time in the “attempted to” category of the musical instrument school, but eventually I was able to actually play a guitar and dabble in drums and percussion. But even when I was still attempting, I started hanging out at H.E.L. Music on Broadway in Saskatoon. I never felt cool enough to linger for long, but I darkened the door as often as I could and gazed at the hanging rows of gleaming guitars. The walls were full; if not with guitars, then with other musical equipment and accessories, or signed photographs of musicians, some famous, some obscure. It was like a mystical cave of dreams for me and my friends, and it was an easy decision to avoid the larger, national chain music stores and offer my meager business to H.E.L. I had an old electric guitar – more of a shadow of a guitar, really – and on one occasion I brought it down to H.E.L. to see if anything could be done. I was young enough to be supervised by my mom, and I think she was glad she came as we were led by a strange, long-haired musician, via winding stairs and corridors, deep into the bowels of the building. Apparently we had arrived when we entered a tiny room, with guitars stacked high around a tiny workspace, decorated only by a tiny, trickling fountain, fringed with non-descript greenery. A wide-eyed, friendly-looking woman was confined to this space, looking and acting far happier than anyone in such a cavern should. Her prognosis for my guitar was not good, but the experience was eccentirc enough that it has never left me.
All this is to demonstrate that H.E.L. Music was more than a store in Saskatoon. It was a hang-out, a society, and an institution of sorts. More than just a place of business, it was a place to live life and create art. Saskatoon suffered a considerable loss when the owner decided he wanted more time for fishing and closed the place down forever.
After the impact H.E.L. made on my young life, I never expected to find a place like it in Wetaskiwin, and when I moved here, I didn’t. And then last year I noticed some activity in an empty building across from the library, and that activity quickly took the shape of Warren’s Music.
When we discovered this, my oldest son and I were on one of our Sunday Morning Adventures, which involved our minivan, Choral Concert on CBC Radio 2, and a tour of the peaceful streets of Wetaskiwin, for the purpose of giving my wife a much-deserved morning off. We had turned up 51 ave downtown and suddenly noticed the sign for Warren’s Music hung over the previously deserted storefront. Despite the car parked in front, I assumed that, because it was a Sunday, it would be safe for us to have a peek. So I parked a few doors up and hauled my little man out of his car seat into the pleasant summer morning. We walked up to the big front window and took a quick look inside. One look was all I needed; we were definitely coming back during business hours. I turned quickly to go, because even though no one appeared to be there I felt quite self-conscious peering in through the window. We were almost at the car when I heard someone behind me. I turned, and the man who would turn out to be Warren himself was standing in the doorway, inviting us to come have a look. I hesitated openly, but he insisted it was fine, so we quickly took him up on the offer.
Walking in, I was almost immediately transported back fifteen odd years to the sanctuary of my teens. The store is smaller than the one of my youth, but it’s perfect. The walls are heavy (without being cluttered) with fine guitars; a perfect balance between standards, famous gems, and lesser-known yet high quality instruments, all at remarkably reasonable prices. I don’t claim to be exactly current when it comes to quality and pricing, but I’ve never found a dud at Warren’s.
The atmosphere is cozy. T-shirts and posters of local bands have their place on the wall, and the odd banjo, mandolin, and violin punctuate the steady flow of guitars. Stools and chairs stand around, welcoming customers to not just look, but to try out an instrument, and the familiar, somewhat comforting hint of cigarette smoke is barely detectable; the only ashtray in the place tops an ornate stand and is clean of everything but a colourful assortment of guitar picks.
Needless to say I stood in the centre of the room, slowly turning in a circle and trying not to drool on the little boy in my arms. When my slow-roaming gaze reached the door at the back of the room I was delighted to glimpse shelves of richly-coloured wood, obviously from trees grown in areas where winter isn’t allowed to “just show up” ten months out of the year. It suddenly became clear that Warren not only sells and repairs fine guitars, he also builds them himself. The deal was sealed. I would be back, and probably not nearly as often as I would like.
Since that day I have learned more about Warren and his shop, and it has only served to bolster my opinion that his is an establishment worth haunting. Warren is active in community events. If you’ve listening to music at an outdoor event this summer, it’s probably rushing out of his speakers, and he’ll be the bespectacled man, under a golf cap, standing behind the soundboard. The man himself is delightful and laid-back, putting me at ease as I try to corral my energetic toddler, bent on turning every knob on every amplifier in the store. My recently-repaired guitar is a testament to the quality of Warren’s work, and rarely do we walk by his front door without the warm sounds of vibrating guitar strings wafting out to meet us, either from a lesson in progress or a weary soul satisfying their hunger for music.
Like I said, I’m not there nearly as often as I’d like, so if you’re like me and you long for a place to call your second home, then take a trip to Warren’s Music for me. Lean against the wall and soak in the atmosphere; be a part of the art that hangs in the air like a faint and subtle smoke. Believe it or not, there is more to say about this wonderful place, but I’ll leave it to you to discover it for yourself. I feel strongly that a place like this is not to be taken for granted. Warren’s Music is a rare gem, and we the citizens of Wetaskiwin are lucky to have it’s doors open on our city.