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Doc's Leathers: A Toronto Tradition

Last Updated Jun 25, 2015 at 5:19 pm EDT

Paint it black you devils!”

– Fan at Rolling Stones show, Madison Square Garden, NYC Nov. 28, 1969.


I bought my first real record, The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, just before Christmas 1993.

My father took me to Doc’s Leathers on Parliament and left me in the stacks while he talked to the owner and looked at lord knows what.

And two Jewish hippy bikers bantered a room away while a 12-year-old discovered “Sympathy For The Devil.”

“It’s not all that dramatic,” Doc says.

I’m pulled back into the moment with the grizzled local legend – the man known to most by just three letters – sitting behind the cash in the store he moved to Queen and Claremont not long after my first visit.

Now it’s the last interview of my five-year career at Citytv, having chosen to set aside my love for Toronto in favour of a love of music.

In front of me, a man with the face of a Hells Angel and the disposition of a rabbi talks about the self-proclaimed tradition he built with a nickname and a sea of black leather.

“I had my moments of being a nice Jewish boy from North York,” Doc says.

“I had my moments of being a bad boy. In the end it’s better to be good.”

I quickly realize there’s no way.

There’s zero chance I can grasp Doc’s Leathers, let alone the man behind it, in the space allotted, in the time allowed.

Then I realize maybe that’s the point.

Doc’s been dealing jackets, bikes, parts, tins, trinkets (chachkas), skulls, bones, masks, records (although he got out of that business), fake facial hair, helmets and on and on and on since he was 14 and has carried on for most of four decades.

Countless Torontonians have some story related to his place, and that’s the tradition and its value. Trying to explain exactly why that is, or summarize it would just undermine that worth.

Better to just appreciate the rare, quintessentially Toronto, almost Mirvish-esque mix of randomness and goodwill.

Of course there’s also irony at play.

—-

Stigmas attached to the biker community, often tired stereotypes, for some might obscure the grandness of the Doc’s story.

“I get the look sometimes,” Doc says, tugging pensively on his beard.

And I can’t get righteous. I perk up when he mentions names like “Satan’s Choice” and “The Bandidos” and you would too.

“But I try to be a United Nations,” he continues.

“Every motorcycle club, legal, illegal, ex-cons, cons, moms and dads, weekend drivers … we like anybody.

“Of course some things are always in a grey area.”

Doc speaks fondly of the generations that have passed through his store, and has hundreds of customer photos plastered throughout as evidence of a nostalgic streak.

But he also gets a strange spark in his eyes talking about … bone collection.

“People ask me about the skulls. It’s not illegal to own a skull, it’s illegal to dig up a skull.”

Doc, it seems, would know.

He claims to have paid his way through college selling not only bikes, but bones and body parts, a hobby and business that’s allowed him to see a good piece of the world in the process.

His stories are the kind of thing that makes a Dos Equis ad writer run for his note pad.

And if he takes a little creative license, so be it. We all do.

“You used to come in here with your dad,” Doc says, as if I needed reminding.

I tell him that he sold me the thing that changed my life and he barely blinks, offering a smile that’s flat, but warm enough. Odds are he’s heard the line from hundreds if not thousands of people, for better and worse.

“Sometimes it’s a bit heartbreaking to lose customers, and very often for a split-second mistake,” Doc says, shifting slowly in search of momentary relief from the effects of his own crash.

It’s true, lives change in an instant.

True tradition, like sympathy for the devil, is built by generations.