A man driven to protect the past

Published in the Montreal Gazette, November 6, 2015

Photo credit: Allen McInnis, The Gazette

 

 

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone

– Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

It’s Louis Rastelli’s mission to ensure that much of Montreal’s recent past doesn’t end up gone. Rastelli is the director of Archive Montreal, a repository of vinyl records (10,000 of them), concert posters, pre-digital-era films, books, photographs, pamphlets, long-lost underground newspapers, magazines and more. You want to see the disco album Guy Lafleur made in 1979, the Habs great on the cover, flying up the ice in a blaze of bleu, blanc, rouge speed lines? Rastelli’s got it.

Guy Lafleur’s 1979 disco album, with the price still on it. In truth, what Rastelli collects is mostly stuff people hoard in their basements for a while and then throw away. Ephemera, he calls it, which is defined as “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.” They are things that are not, for the most part, gathered by more conventional institutions like the Archives nationales du Québec or the Notman Archives, perhaps because they seem too inconsequential or, well, ephemeral.

But these artifacts do matter, Rastelli says. As an example, he cites a request from the Centre d’histoire de Montréal to display some of the archive’s rock concert posters from the 1960s and ’70s as part of an exhibition the Old Montreal museum will be mounting to commemorate the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017.

The Centre d’histoire de Montréal plans to display some of Archive Montreal’s rock concert posters from the 1960s and ’70s as part of an exhibition commemorating the city’s 375th anniversary in Archive Montreal’s clientele also includes writers who haven’t saved their own material. When they become better known, they might need to access their early work for an anthology or retrospective, and typically they come to Rastelli in a panic, asking, “Do you have that old zine I did?” He probably does, he says, showing off a 1954 chapbook illustrated by soon-to-be architect Melvin Charney and featuring poems by Leonard Cohen.

It’s is also a go-to place for documentary filmmakers, thesis writers – anyone interested in Montreal’s student movements, small presses, the indie art and music scene and generally everything that might be described as underground culture. As boomers and Xers age, there’s a growing demand to revisit the recent past, Rastelli says.

A 1954 chapbook illustrated by soon-to-be architect Melvin Charney and featuring poems by Leonard Archive Montreal evolved in the early 1990s from a collective of artists, authors and small press publishers. They discovered that they were turning up at the same book fairs and began to pool their resources and output. By the end of the decade they had founded the archive, whose mandate is “to promote and preserve Montreal independent culture.”

In 1999, Rastelli and friends came upon a windfall when the Russell bookstore on St-Antoine St. closed. They were invited to help themselves to a back-room trove that became the core of the archive’s collection. Among the goodies were copies of The Georgian, the student newspaper of Sir George Williams University before it became part of Concordia. As it turned out, The Link (The Georgian’s successor), hadn’t kept the older paper, which is a document valuable for, among other things, recording the Sir George Williams computer riot in 1969.

Another milestone for Rastelli and company came in 2006 when indoor public smoking was banned, as were cigarette vending machines. The archive got a supply of these, which were converted into small-press book-selling machines, and placed at libraries, cafés and concert venues.

That same year Archive Montreal moved into its present location, taking a spacious office in a hulking brick building in the city’s north end. When it moved, light manufacturing and wholesaling characterized the area. Now it’s part of the post-industrial, newly fashionable Mile-Ex neighbourhood, as the transition zone between Mile End and Park Extension has come to be called.

Here Rastelli leads a staff of four who retrieve, catalogue, file their finds and organize exhibitions. But grants go only so far in sustaining the operation, and that’s where Expozine comes in to the picture.

Expozine: the small-press trade fair attracts about 15,000 visitors annually. The small-press trade fair, created and run by Archive Montreal, attracts hundreds of exhibitors and about 15,000 visitors annually. For the public, the weekend event is free, but exhibitors pony up for a table, and sponsors like the Canadian Centre for Architecture contribute to the event.

Expozine, opening mid-November at Église Saint-Enfant-Jésus on St-Dominique St., is a typical Montreal happening, half-and-half French and English. This year, special guests, brought by the Goethe Institute, an Archive partner, are coming from Berlin, a hotbed of counterculture.

Over the years, other founders of Archive Montreal drifted away into family life and other pursuits. But Rastelli toils on, a tireless cultural field worker. Besides managing the archive and Expozine, he hosts a radio show on CKUT, the McGill University radio station.

Not surprisingly, the show, called Montreal Sound Ark, is a trip down memory lane, featuring hard-to-find music in French and English from the 1950s onward. So does he have the Joni Mitchell album mentioned at the beginning? Of course, but not at the archive, which is dedicated to Montreal artifacts. It’s part of his 8,000-album collection at home.