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Long Winter Galleria: A night of fun where the main attraction is the venue

Toronto's Galleria Mall. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Musician Steve Sidoli remembers Elmvale Acres Shopping Centre like a character in a Proust novel remembers a sponge cake dipped in tea.

Located near St. Laurent Boulevard and Smyth Road in Ottawa, Elmvale Acres, as its advertising boasted, had “something for everyone.” There was a grocery store, a cafeteria kiosk smack in the middle of the mall – offering hamburgers and hot dogs and what Mr. Sidoli called “quote/unquote drinks,” such as grape drink and peach drink – and those waist-high cylindrical ashtrays topped with smoke butts strewn among the sand.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Elmvale Acres was a mall like any other small, sorta dingy Ontario mall. And when Mr. Sidoli walks into the Galleria Mall at Dupont and Dufferin, he’s reminded of his youthful days in Ottawa, strolling through Elmvale Acres with his mom. “When you go into the Galleria Mall, it automatically takes you back to an era that doesn’t really exist any more,” says Mr. Sidoli, who drums in the punk band Teenanger. “It taps into nostalgia for a certain kind of mall that reminds us of the Galleria, but isn’t necessarily the Galleria.”

These half-remembrances of malls past encapsulate the excitement around Long Winter Galleria, a nearly sold out night of arts and music where the main attraction is the venue. Blocks of tickets moved in seconds, with disappointed locals flooding the event’s Facebook page to lament the lost opportunity to go to a concert in a strip mall.

Brian Wong, left, and Mike Haliechuk, are organizing the festival. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mike Haliechuk, Long Winter organizer and guitarist/songwriter for Toronto punk titans Fucked Up, says that ticket demand turned out to be tenfold the supply, and that the show was a “big time logistics jam” from start to finish. After all, hosting a concert (and art installations, and a dance party inside an empty storefront, and a swap meet) inside an active shopping centre poses its own set of challenges.

But it’s all part of what makes Long Winter Galleria such a singular, unmissable event.

“It’s a bit of an island up there,” Mr. Haliechuk says, “between the encroaching hipsterdom from the south, where everyone I know lives, and the north, where there are lots of venues and cafés opening along Geary, or Wallace. It certainly evokes ‘old Toronto’ for me: wide open spaces, huge parking lots, Microgramma fonts. It’s a tough mall, but it’s real.”

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Galleria’s “realness” can seem like a double-edged-sword-type deal. On the one hand, the mall faithfully evokes a bygone era of what malls looked and felt like: the pebbled exterior, the beige-on-different-shade-of-beige interior, the sad electronics store and the El Amigo food court kiosk that specializes not in tacos and horchata, but egg salad sandwiches, Shopsy’s dogs and iced slush beverages. On the other hand, it’s easy for such sentiment to curdle into ironic mockery, casting cynical glares at the emptied-out storefronts and older retired men slumped on the mall’s various arrangements of indoor park benches.

In the past, I’ve winced at wistfulness for the Galleria – which is sometimes pitched as some hip local landmark by people who have never really been there. But Mr. Haliechuk and Mr. Sidoli are onto something. The warm, fuzzy feelings afforded to the Galleria, which was recently sold to condo developers, isn’t about the Galleria specifically so much as it’s about a certain kind of mall, one that many small-town and suburban kids are intimately familiar with. (For me it was the strip-length Port Colborne Mall in my hometown, where I spent hours thumbing through comic books and Fleer Ultra Spider-Man trading cards at a now-shuttered shop called Smoker’s Place.)

For Mr. Sidoli and Teenanger, who share the Galleria bill with local acts such as New Fries and The Highest Order, being asked to play was more than just exciting. “I guess incredulous would be the right word,” he says. “Who’d have thought in a million years we’d get to play a shopping mall? That’s usually the kind of opportunity afforded to Canadian Idol superstars.”

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

With Long Winter Galleria, Mr. Haleichuk and all the bands and artists involved aren’t just crying crocodile tears for a fading stretch of vintage Toronto. They’re creating a site-specific experience that’s bound to be remembered years later – not merely tapping into phony nostalgia, but helping to create the conditions for sincere future nostalgia.

“In this day and age,” Mr. Sidoli says, “people clamour to be a part of something, or witness something that’s going to be timeless or unforgettable, or that’s going to mean something. I think this is going to mean something for a lot of people.”

It may seem a bit cheesy, but it’s true. It’s easy to imagine that, in a few years, after developers dump stacks of cognate condos on top of the Galleria, anyone lucky enough to score a ticket to the Long Winter show might walk by, nudge a friend, and brag, “I saw a band called S.H.I.T. play in there once. Outside the Dollarama. Right by the slush stand.”

Long Winter Galleria: Jan. 30, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Some tickets available at the door. The Galleria Mall, 1245 Dupont St.

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