The forlorn, former home of Cans ‘n’ Stuff

The street on which I was raised runs nearly three quarters of a mile, a straight line along its entire length. We lived almost dead center, whence I could pedal my bike a satisfying distance in either direction. On the west end of the avenue lived Big Ed and Little Ed, a father and son whose nicknames reflected their seniority but not their relative size. Big Ed, as I recall, was a quiet, gray-haired man of small stature. Little Ed, however, was bigger in every way, from his large frame to his frizzy, black hair, which framed a happy-go-lucky countenance. They would have been an odd couple under any circumstances, but for a brief period of time they were business partners. They ran their unique venture from a tiny and disheveled storefront at the eastern terminus of our street.

Cans ‘n’ Stuff was surely one of the stranger establishments to have emerged in my hometown. Its eclectic stock was an outgrowth of its proprietors’ respective hobbies. Big Ed collected beer cans, a fad of rising popularity in the seventies. Little Ed collected record albums, singles and related memorabilia. Naturally, they opened a shop that sold used records and beer cans. It was, perhaps, one of the greatest moments in the history of entrepreneurial zeal executed without so much as a shred of market research. What, after all, was the target demographic of Cans ‘n’ Stuff? Whom did Big Ed and Little Ed envision as their customers?

Herein was a lovely irony, for it so happened that, despite the presumably limited appeal of Cans ‘n’ Stuff, the quirky endeavor held great appeal to another pair who lived smack in between the Eds and their silly shop: my father and me. I don’t know that Dad and I had a whole lot in common with Big Ed and Little Ed, but we did share their peculiar elder/younger – beer can/record album preoccupation dynamic. Imagine, a little bit of father-son heaven opening up right at the end of your street. I was too young to recognize its improbability. I just knew I liked it, and so did Dad.

Long before the term man cave was admitted to the popular lexicon, Dad had created a peaceful refuge of sorts in a corner of our unfinished basement. A work bench sat under the darkened window that use to look out over the back yard before its view was obstructed by the crawlspace of our addition. Plenty of illumination was provided by a hanging bank of fluorescent lights. Though the furnace, water heater and fuse box surrounded the space, Dad added little touches of manly decor that made his “workshop” comfortable. He nailed old license plates to the exposed floor beams and taped calendar images of faraway places to the sides of storage boxes. Stacks of National Geographic and Popular Mechanics filled a utility shelf. And somewhere along the way, Dad decided to paint the wooden shelves affixed to the upper half of the foundation walls a vibrant orange. Within these eye-popping display units he assembled his beer can collection.

“Someday,” Dad was fond of intoning as he gestured toward his collection with a sweep of his hand, “this will all be yours, son.” It took me a few years to discern his wonderfully dry and gentle sense of humor. He never took his hobby seriously, although it is true that some of the rarities he possessed had the potential to escalate in value. As was the custom among collectors, Dad’s cans appeared to be full, their pull-tab tops unmolested, but their concealed undersides had puncture holes that allowed for the draining and enjoyment of their contents. For my father, half of the pleasure of a beer can collection was the opportunity to try new beers, and the other half was derived from the colorful and often amusing packaging art. Any monetary value was just icing on the cake. Or perhaps foam on the beer.

Among the more memorable brands I recall was Olde Frothingslosh, a tongue-in-cheek product of Pittsburgh Brewing Company featuring Iron City Beer in a series of novelty cans emblazoned with retro cheesecake portraits of the hefty Miss Olde Frothingslosh. From the same brewery came Hop’n Gator, a lemon-lime flavored beer said to be inspired by a mixture of suds and Gatorade. Dad also had the requisite can of Billy Beer, the shameless self-exploitation of President Jimmy Carter’s notoriously backwoods and beer-swilling caricature of a brother. Alongside a beer calendar and a festive St. Pauli Girl poster, the collection added a cheery touch of whimsy to the otherwise drab basement. On many evenings, Dad could be found contentedly puttering away down there to the tinny sound of a baseball game or classical music on his portable radio.

Meanwhile, I was starting to look beyond the records I had found in the house and began exploring my own musical interests. Little Ed, long admired by me since the days he had been a jaunty high school chum of my big sister Diane, graciously heralded the opening of Cans ‘n’ Stuff by presenting me with a promotional gift: an 8×10 black-and-white glossy of the Ed Sullivan Show-era Beatles and a 45 of the KISS standard Rock and Roll All Nite. Unsophisticated as I was, I quietly disregarded the photo while prizing the single, which I errantly spun on my turntable at 33 and 1/3. Having only seen yet never heard KISS, the resulting monstrous sludge that thudded from my speakers seemed credible enough, bizarre as it was.

Soon Cans ‘n’ Stuff became a regular destination for Dad and me. Big Ed and Little Ed must have loved it when we walked through the door. Fathers and sons enjoyed a few moments of enthusiastic talk about fields of interest that seemed to captivate no one else. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing another customer in the shop, though surely it must have attracted its share of curious passers-by. Perhaps I was always too occupied by the business at hand. Dad and Big Ed chatted about cans while Little Ed promised to keep an eye out for the records I coveted. We always left a few cans and albums richer.

In the end, however, our occasional patronage could not sustain the short life of Cans ‘n’ Stuff. I can’t imagine it ever turned a profit. But for an all-too-brief season, Dad and I knew a place down the street that seemed like it had been created just for us. Big Ed and Little Ed, your business may not have succeeded in the traditional sense, but you certainly were a hit with us. Even now, I smile to think of the time we spent idly perusing your bygone establishment. And believe it or not, we still have those records and cans.