Christian pop culture in Steinbach, circa the late 1990s

I worked at Henry Armstrong’s Inspirational Corner in Steinbach’s Clearspring Mall, from 1998 to 1999. What a time (and place) to be alive!

I was largely sheltered from mainstream music due to the influence of the Grunthal EMB and its emphasis on the teachings of James Dobson and Focus on the Family, which offered many “Christian” music options that were “just as good” as that heathen filth influencing everyone else. The music offered by CCM was fairly disappointing but I tried to content myself with radio, alongside the tapes I stole from my brother. (Pink Floyd and Live, respectively. Collective Soul as well, but I believe they got a pass from Dobson, didn’t they? I bet that factoid is not their favourite. But, I digress.)

Then we discovered the Tooth N Nail sampler albums. This stuff was good, but it was also made by Christians! I remember turning up Everdown while vacuuming and my parents asking what that garbage was, so we had the talk about how they were yelling Christian things, and then it was okay. We had found a compromise.

However, those samplers were about the only thing we were able to get our hands on. Much of this stuff was not available in the stores we shopped at.

Then I began working at Henry Armstrong’s Inspirational Corner… and discovered the Demo Drawer.

I don’t remember a lot about my life when at age 19, but I do remember the moment the manager scrunched down to the floor, inserted the key, and revealed a giant drawer full of CDs that otherwise never saw the light of day. I went wild!

Every CD was different. They were all demos sent from the supplier. I suppose the assumption was that once the store manager heard this music she’d order it.

She did not.

And so, there sat all the demos, hidden from sight.

I immediately purchased all the Starfyler 59 and Pedro the Lion demos from my bemused manager, for a mere pittance. (“You are such a weirdo!” she exclaimed. I think she or the assistant manager said that to me absolutely every day I worked there, and this was all based on the things I had to say about music.)

I suppose that practice is frowned upon. (I hope/assume it’s all water under the bridge by now…)

Let’s see if I can remember what else I purchased in this manner. Morella’s Forest, Luxury, Sal Paradise, Joy Electric, Plankeye, Driver Eight, Velour 100, Pep Squad, Puller, Valu Pac, MxPx, Supertones… I won’t remember them all.

I could only buy the demos after they had sat there for a while. But no one knew they were there. But I did.

Andrew and I talked about this. We wonder if we had met in the Nineties. Had he wandered into the store when I worked in the mall?

“No,” he assured me. “I hardly went in there. I looked once. The music selection was… not great.”

“That’s because it was hidden!” I exclaimed. “The demo drawer! I could’ve introduced you to Staryflyer and David Bazan!”

Instead, that introduction came later, in 2001, when Andrew and I began dating. Better late than never!

A few other Inspirational Corner memories…

The end of the world.

Working at a Christian bookstore in 1999 meant encountering an influx of books touting the end of the world due to Y2K. Like, I swear half the book selection were prophecy tomes. As I dusted the shelves, I’d see these books and wonder who the heck was going to buy that drivel. Next thing I knew, I’d be at the cash register, ringing them through as my local townsfolk yelped, “It’s happening! It’s really happening! This is the end!” It was kind of amazing. (But also horrifying.)

The Jesus contract. 

I often ate lunch in the back room, where some industry magazines were kicking around, and I’d page through them. One day, I read an article that mentioned a Christian artist needed to include “Jesus” in their album a few more times to fulfill their contract (or be liable to a lawsuit or something? Those insider magazines contained many articles about lawsuits…) It was so strange to realize that the thing I’d often joked about… was actually true. (You know, that sneaking suspicion these songs were actually romantic love songs written to a person, but due to contractual obligations all lyrical allusions to any human had to be replaced with “God”, “Jesus”, or, at the very least, a generic sort of “You”.)

Bob the Tomato.

In 1999, the store celebrated Pioneer Days in Steinbach by hosting an appearance from Veggie Tale characters Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. I wasn’t very tall but since I was taller than my co-worker, I was to wear the upright cucumber costume and she’d be the tomato. I had my day in the sun: I ran out into the mall, wading into a sea of screaming children who were behaving like I was an absolute rock star. My adoring fans! Except they did not know I was Erin. To them, I was a wildly popular cucumber. Soon my adrenaline faded as I realized I could not see the children pressed up against the cucumber costume and I was probably trodding upon them, so I started putting my cucumber-hands onto their little bobbly heads, maneuvering them away from me in this manner so I wouldn’t accidentally knock them over. My manager did not approve but I thought it was a pretty good workaround and frankly the kids were so giddy, they were actually cooperative. But, being a popular vegetable is exhausting and soon we had to take a break. Our manager directed us to the back of the store. I led the way, charing through the maze of bookshelves with my tomato cohort hot on my heels. Suddenly I heard a crash and a shriek. I turned around, and there she was in her excessively wide Bob the Tomato costume, stuck between the too-close shelves, books crashing to the floor. Oh, she was so angry. She was yelling many things that hopefully the children could not hear.

As our manager worked to try to dislodge her and her giant tomato costume from between the tight bookshelves, I burst into hysterical laughter and was rendered useless.

“I am so sorry!” I gasped through the cucumber costume. “But this is the most hilarious thing I have ever seen in my entire life!”

“SHUT UP, ERIN,” was the inevitable retort. “SHUT UP AND GO AWAY.”

Eventually the manager got us both squished into the back room for our break. As I was dressed as a cucumber anyway we were truly in this together and soon my tomatoey cohort was laughing with me.

At the end of the day, I begged her to stay in her tomato outfit a bit longer so I could get a picture with her, because of an inside joke I shared some friends about tomatoes (I was 19, after all). So that’s why I have a picture of me hugging Bob the Tomato.

I think by now Henry Armstrong’s Inspirational Corner is largely extinct, but I’m pretty glad for the year (or less) that I worked there, back in the 90s.