Nelson Becker was never in it for the money.
Lucky for Nelson, B.C. Otherwise we would not have the benefit of his string of culturally successful but financially marginal projects since the 1980s as a news editor, writer, videographer, café owner, photographer, and producer of film and music events.
Last week he shut down one of his labour-of-love projects, the Expressions Theatre Café, which he had operated since 2011.
His vision for the café was “a non-alcohol environment — I wanted it appropriate for all people of all lifestyles and all ages. And acoustic music — I come from an acoustic music scene, folk music.”
It wasn’t the first time Becker had been involved in music presentation. He had managed a theatre in Denmark in the 1970s and produced music events at Nelson’s Capitol Theatre in the 1980s.
He says events at Expressions have been 90-per-cent acoustic music by touring performers, along with a small number of community meetings.
The final evening at Expressions on Nov. 16 was an open mic organized by Selkirk College music students. Becker speaks of it now with great pleasure.
“The place was packed. There were 60 people in a room made for 50.”
A highlight of the café’s seven-year run was a video about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that turned into a Skype discussion between the Expressions audience and a group of BLM people in Baltimore.
“The audiences, they could see each other, and it was an extremely emotional event.”
In fact, he calls the entire Expressions experience “emotionally wonderful” but adds, “I could not sustain it as a business because there was no booze and no food.”
The Kootenay Weekly Express: ‘Emotional ownership’
The café used to be a newspaper office, the home of the Kootenay Weekly Express, published by Becker from 1990 until 2011.
“It was not left or right,” he says of his paper. “It very much wanted to reach out to everyone and it was truly there for the support of the community, much to the detriment of its own good. It had a problem being successful financially, but it did not have a problem being successful as a publication that had meaning in the community.”
“I worked there as an illustrator, later as an arts columnist,” says DeGrace, now a Star columnist. “Initially, the whole thing was produced on strips from a compugraphic typesetter that were waxed and pasted onto layout sheets. I clearly remember laying eyes on my first Windows computer there.”
Becker says the paper was not about him. He wanted the community to have “emotional ownership” of it.
“After I closed, the reaction of people was so strong. One day in the supermarket this man comes up to me and says, ‘I am so sorry that you closed the paper,’ and he started to cry. He said, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, I don’t normally cry.’
“I have many stories of where I was successful in having the community feel it was their paper.”
But Becker says the Express never made a profit.
“It had a lot to do with my own inadequacies as a businessman. I hate asking for money, but you have to do that. And even though I was not a non-profit, I never got a penny out of it and I supported and subsidized it for many years.”
The Express archives exist in two places outside Becker’s own house: at the Nelson library and at Touchstones Museum. He’s also in discussions on a project at UBC Okanagan that is digitizing small community newspapers from around the province.
‘Bringing people together’
The Express transitioned into the online non-profit newsletter What’s On Today, which has 2,300 subscribers and about 1,000 active readers.
He’s not retiring from that, Becker says, because it keeps him connected.
“I felt I had a responsibility to the community and have been grateful to have the Express morph into something quite small, but which still makes me feel part of the community.”
DeGrace has no doubt that Becker is a part of the community.
“Everything Nelson has done has been aimed at bringing people together,” she says. “There was always kindness and community-building at the core of everything he undertook. The fabric of Nelson [the city] is made up of a lot of layers accumulated over the years, and it’s fair to say that Nelson Becker has been a thread that runs through a lot of who we are today.”
Becker was the principal photographer at the Express and he has thousands of photos of life in Nelson over several decades.
Touchstones is gradually archiving these on a work-in-progress Flickr account called Expressions of Nelson.
Becker’s history with media goes back to the late-1960s and early-70s when he was involved with Videofreex, a precursor to citizen journalism. The group documented the 1960s in New York.
He immigrated to Canada in 1970 and worked in video in Montreal and also helped to create Canada’s first community radio station, CINQ.
In 1974, he moved to Vancouver and was part of the team that created Vancouver Co-operative Radio. In Nelson, his activities have included a peace festival, a series of outdoor movies at Lakeside Park, and music events at the Capitol Theatre.
How he came to Nelson is a familiar story in this city. In the early-1980s, he thought he was just passing through, but he wasn’t. Nelson, B.C. took hold of Nelson Becker and he’s been here since.
“I met Nelson when he first came to town — possibly even the first day — in, I think, the fall of 1983,” DeGrace says.
“There he was at my front desk at [her bookstore at the time] Packrat Annie’s — long hair, beard, granny glasses, a plaid flannel jacket, and an army surplus bag full of fliers advertising a slide show about Nepal he was showing. He was a distinct character from the very beginning, friendly and gregarious, utterly and unapologetically himself.”