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Farewell to the Westender—my first newspaper love

December 14, 2017

A “West Ender” cover from April 1981, featuring Murray Pezim—the king of the Vancouver Stock Market.

On December 21 Vancouver’s Westender newspaper will publish its last issue; then this community weekly, with its 37-year continuous publishing history and a name that dates back to the late 1940s, will join the 38 newspapers that have closed in British Columbia between 2010 and 2016.

With one exception, all 38 closures have been due to cost-cutting and wheeling and dealing on the part of two B.C. newspaper chains: the Surrey-based Black Press Group and Glacier Media, run from offices in Vancouver.

One bit of horsetrading between the two chains occurred in 2013 when Black bought (and then closed) the Abbotsford-Mission Times and the Chilliwack Times from Glacier and Glacier bought the North Shore Outlook, Bowen Island Undercurrent, the South Delta Leader and the Westender from Black.

The Bowen Island Undercurrent continues print but in 2014 Glacier closed the North Shore Outlook and made the South Delta Leader digital-only.

And yesterday (December 13), in a “notice to readers” posted on the Westender website, Glacier announced that the Westender newspaper will publish its last-ever issue on December 21. The paper’s seven employees will then “take on other roles” with Glacier.

It’s bad enough that Vancouver is losing a newspaper. It’s worse to think that the Westender is not closing just because of competition but rather that it’s being sacrificed as much to reduce market overlap between the Black and Glacier chains—to actually eliminate competition between the two and create cozy, monopoly positions for each.

The living legacy of a newspaper

It feels good to see publications that you worked on survive and thrive. I contributed to the Georgia Straight newspaper between 1983 and 2004. Naturally I was very happy to see the paper reach its 50 year milestone earlier this year.

I was happy (like every other contributor) to think that I had helped to get it there and happy also to see the Straight and its publisher Dan Mcleod receive some much deserved recognition.

Conversely, it feels awful to see the Westender (or any other newspaper) die. It’s not as if all the hard work and the good reporting that went into the paper was in vain but it’s a shame if it all simply fades away into the past without a trace. And moving forward it means that the indispensable need for strong local journalism will almost certainly go unmet in the future.

In a trivial way, I’m sad that circumstances couldn’t stay the sentence even two years so that the Westender could celebrate it’s 40th anniversary.

And it pains me personally. I only worked at the paper for three short years—from mid-1980 to 1983—but those three years were a lot of fun and they set the stage for the next 20 years of my life.

Building a newspaper the hard way

As I recall the history of the Westender, the newspaper was started from scratch by a British Fleet Streeter named Mike Abbott, who arrived in Vancouver sometime in the 1970s and saw that the publishing landscape lacked any kind of pennysaver newspaper. He created the Buy&Sell to fill the gap and proceeded to become fairly rich, fairly quickly.

In 1980 Mike Abbott decided to start a new community newspaper. No one apparently told him that it was easier and much less expensive to buy an existing newspaper and turn it into something new than to start one from the ground up—but he learned.

My understanding is that Mike resurrected the name of a old Vancouver community paper that had some cachet and name recognition but was no longer publishing. And to begin with, it was not “Westender” but “West Ender.”

But however it came to be, exactly, the West Ender newspaper was fully formed and publishing its first volume of issues out of ground floor offices on Davie Street when I arrived in town in May of 1980.

I was a fresh-faced 17 year-old newcomer to Vancouver, just off the Trans-Canada highway from Saskatchewan. Provincial welfare (called Human Resources in those days) fixed me up with a busboy job in a restaurant on Davie Street, where everyone was so friendly and the tips were great. Among the regular lunch customers were editorial staff from the West Ender.

One day—puppy dog-style—I followed the editor back to his office and asked if he had any work for an illustrator. My qualifications were all contained in a Grumbacher sketchbook that I had filled over the nine day it had taken me to hitchhike from the Prairies—ending with a little bit of local content done at Coal Harbour and Granville Island.

The editor’s name was Kevin McKeown and he created a job for me as the paper’s first editorial illustrator.

Actually, my first published work in the paper was not editorial but rather an advertisement in the form of a comic strip for the Old Spaghetti Factory in Gastown. Appropriately enough, I drew the ad while sitting on the floor of a room in Gastown’s old Europe Hotel, surrounded by Québécois I had met on the road, who were all headed to the Okanagan to pick fruit.

Ungrateful as I can be, I will always be indebted to Kevin McKeown for taking the chance to give me the chance. Lives turn on such chances.

I palpably remember my sense of good fortune. Production staff informed me that as the newest (and most inexplicable) hire, it was my job to clean the PosOne daylight process camera—a marvelously compact and complex electro-mechanical device that required daily transfers of several noxious photo-developing chemicals.

Happily, I all but slept beside that camera and I read its documentation over and over until I understood that process camera inside and out. Otherwise, I drew like a fiend.

One of my regular assignments, as I recall, was to draw any house in the West End that was slated to be demolished and replaced with a condo.

The early years of the 1980s were a time of rampant real estate speculation, roughshod redevelopment and blatant condo flipping. (sound familiar?) These were particularly dangerous years to be a single family dwelling in the downtown neighbourhood of the West End.

I also illustrated news stories, film reviews and at least two regular columns.

I especially remember the columnist Nina Anthony. This wonderful lady, who was involved in (among other thing) founding the Vancouver Opera in the 1950s, filled her column with warm anecdotes and reminiscences from her long and active life in Vancouver. I used to accompany her on walks through the West End.

And then there was the column by Laurier LaPierre. His bombastic opinions were always good for a chuckle—even when he wasn’t trying to be funny.

Holding a mirror up to the community—warts and all

The full Murray! The complete April 1981 cover showing stock promoter Murray “The Pez” Pezim close to a dollar sign, as usual.

The West Ender was a community newspaper with a very strong focus on local news. The coverage that I remember best was:

  • “Progressive” Mike Harcourt defeating “reactionary” incumbent mayor Jack Volrich in 1980.
  • The ongoing crusade against slumlords Giovanni Zen and Luigi Aquilini (father of Francesco).
  • The bulldozing of single-family housing in the West End to make way for condos.
  • Housing affordability and availability, as well as neighbourhood livability.
  • The introduction of traffic calming in the West End, as championed by Carole Walker.

The editorial department under Kevin McKeown was all youthful go-getters and very talented. There were at least three reporters: Jim Oakes, Mark O’Neill and Norm Poole. Kate Trotter was the assistant editor and also wrote her share of news stories.

Unfortunately my email to Kevin McKeown bounced but I see that he left a good, long comment to the Georgia Straight’s piece on the impending Westender closure.

I did reach Kate Trotter. She reminded me about the West Ender’s inimitable (and “excitable”) staff photographer, Franco Citarella (sp?). She wrote how Mike Abbott hired a designer to organize the newspaper office, and that he had it painted “black and white and red all over”. (get it—read all over?) And she provided the cover wrapper from April of 1981 which illustrates this post.

While I do not recall the colour scheme of the offices, I vividly remember a certain sales manager who was not shy about wearing green striped shirts with orange slacks!

I Left the West Ender in the spring or summer of 1983, after Eric Cardwell bought the paper from Mike Abbott. I kept in touch with almost none of the people I had worked with, besides Bob Mercer, Kevin McKeown and his brother Trevor.

It was Bob Mercer who hired me for the the Georgia Straight later in 1983.

A few years later, in a bit of turnabout, I bought a few stories from Kevin. And after I became homeless in 2004, I worked part-time for about a year in the little used bookstore in the Downtown Eastside that Kevin operated until early 2005.

Kate Trotter tells me that she went on from the West Ender to work as a reporter, “notably a‎t the Tri-City News for a couple of decades.”

As part of the editorial team at the heart of the West Ender Kate has the perfect take on what made those early years so special:

“Editor Kevin McKeown attracted, and nourished, an eclectic group of talented writers and artists to work at the West Ender—gosh, almost 40 years ago. We were given the freedom to (as Kevin would put it) hold the mirror to a community that bubbled with stories: Drag queens, sleazy landlords, fires, political dirt fights, crime and outrageous stock promoters.

“Never again will there be a newspaper that covered opera, prostitution, traffic calming, fashion and night club openings with the cheek, liveliness and delight we put into every story, photograph and illustration. And the West End smiled at its reflection.”

The back page of the April 1981 wrapper with story by Kate Trotter.

9 Comments
  1. kevindalemckeown permalink

    Thank you for a fine and fitting tribute to a community paper we all put so much heart into during our years there. You and Kate have filled in many blanks and acknowledged so many of the contributors who made it a true community endeavour.

    For a bit more history, for the record, I first contributed to the West Ender in 1969 (just before I began a regular gay community column in the Georgia Straight). The owners at the time were Tom and Sarah Kelly. He was a UBC professor and she owned a number of small tea shops in Vancouver. The office was in what is now a sushi bar on Denman, just north of Robson. The editor was Toni Dabbs.

    By 1979 the paper was dormant (I don’t recall for how long) and that’s when journalist Jack Moore and sports writer cum ad salesman Doug Dulmage talked Mike and Meagan Abbott of the Buy & Sell into purchasing the name and reviving the weekly. The new paper was briefly run out of a store-front office on Bidwell (where the owner-operated West End Hardware is today) and quickly moved up to spacious digs on Davie (now Abasa Optical) where you joined the team. It was very strange a few months ago to find myself being fitted for a new pair of glasses while sitting pretty much exactly where I had sat 35 years ago editing the West Ender!

    We were indeed a great team, and a great mix of enthusiastic youngsters and seasoned veterans. From seniors columnist Nina Anthony (Off My Walker) who was in her 70s and Italian ex-pat paparazzo Franco Citarella, and your young self, it was a unique newspapering family and I was honoured to lead it. I use the word “lead” advisedly, as it really was a team effort and everyone, including young illustrator Stanley Q. Woodvine, was free to correct my course, and often did.

    Thanks again Stanley. And as for my bounced emails … in recent years and into the future you can always reach me at kevindalemckeown@gmail.com.

    PS: You may be amused to know that my mother (now 97) asks after you from time to time. She grew very fond of you during your time at Arcanum Books.

    Like

    • Thanks Kevin. You did good. Now who will come along and do as well in the future? That is a concern.

      I miss Nina Anthony and Jack Moore. I wish that their writing, at least, could live on. Readers deserve to be able to read them. And all that journalism should also remain available, somehow. It shines a clear light on the events and issues of its day and thus helps put the Vancouver of today in context.

      Like

  2. Jamie Abbott permalink

    Hi Stanley
    Doubt you will remember me but I remember you. I’m mike and Megan’s son Jamie and I was 8 in 1980 when you were at the paper. I have a very vivid memory of sitting beside you while you did an illustration of what was probably a political cartoon. I remember watching you put your fine art pen to paper as you made each individual dot of beard stubble on the charicture. At the time I thought that was amazing! I came across your blog recently and forwarded it to mom. She replied…
    “I can still see him as a 17 year old as if its today. He always stuck in my memory for some reason, maybe because of his talent. ”
    Know you are still remembered fondly from all those years ago and we are thinking of you in the hard times you must face. I read another post you did about the poor fellow who passed away at the tim hortons on broadway. I now live on 8th across the alley from there. Keep doing what you are doing and know that people are taking notice and are listening.
    warm regards.
    Jamie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow Jamie. What an amazing comment. Thank you. Please say hello to your mother for me. I hope she knows how important the job at the Westender was for me. It led directly to my long career in design and illustration and it helped shape my attitude to and love for the city of Vancouver. The example of the paper’s commitment to community coverage made a lasting impression on me that, I hope, is reflected in my blogging.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. DJP permalink

    Do you remember the name of the restaurant on Davie St. Metro Broiler perhaps?

    Like

    • The restaurant that I briefly worked in as a busboy was, I recall, named the Au Petit Bout. It was located on Davie Street, a block, or two (or three) west from the Westender’s office in the 1000 block. I remember the Metro Broiler — it was located right beside the Westender’s office and allowed the paper’s staff to run up a tab!

      Like

    • kevindalemckeown permalink

      The restaurant where the West Ender discovered Stanley Q was Au Petit Bout. It subsequently became Benjamin’s and then Doll & Penny’s, and was later absorbed into what is now the Pumpjack. The Metro Broiler was across a small courtyard from the West Ender offices, and is now called Joe’s Grill. The former newspaper office is now Abasa Optical.

      Like

  4. kevindalemckeown permalink

    Just an amazing memory for useless trivia. Don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday.

    Like

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