Making music accessible to all

The story behind the first instrument lending library in Canada

Joe's MILL relies on community support and donations, like that from The Old Bastards Vintage Motorcycle Club.
Credit: 
Photo supplied by Tim Aylesworth.

A man walks into Joe’s MILL and asks to borrow an instrument. 

“I’ve worked hard all my life, I retired early, got some money saved, now it’s my time to realize my ambition. Do you have a saxophone? I’ve always wanted to play.”

An employee lends the man a saxophone. Three days later, he returns with the saxophone.

“Never mind, I want to play the banjo.”

That’s the beauty of Joe’s Musical Instrument Lending Library (MILL), says Roger Eccleston, the library’s current inventory manager: you don’t have to choose. After working at the MILL for more than a decade, he counts the aspiring saxophonist-turned-banjo player as one of his favourite moments at work.

Electric guitars line the walls, unassembled drum kits are stacked up in piles, and a box of wind instruments sits on a table in the middle of the room. The team of staff and volunteers who help things run smoothly sit working at their desks, waiting for aspiring musicians to stop by. 

For $15 a year, ID, and proof of residence, all Kingstonians have access to the library and its instruments for 28 days. If you’re not finished with it at the end of the month, bring it in to renew.   

In the summer of 2017, Jake Dawson (ArtSci ’19), the current bassist of Kingston band Jens Krüger, was looking to learn the bass.  

At the time, he knew little about the instrument, only that he could borrow one from Joe’s MILL.

Once there, a staff member helped Dawson learn the ropes. Dawson said what stuck out was the employee’s willingness to sit down and walk him through the entire process, including how to use an amp until he was comfortable.  

Dawson considers his moment at Joe’s MILL an important step toward where he is today in his musical career. In 2018, he created Jens Krüger with three of his friends.

“I think it's just a great opportunity for bands and new musicians in Kingston to kick off, and if maybe [...] bands are interested in throwing a new instrument into their mix. It's a great place to grab something,” Dawson said. “It's a great place to get started.

***

The MILL was established in memoriam of Joe Chithalen, a well-known Canadian bassist who was in multiple Kingston bands during his lifetime, including Weeping Tile, The Mahones, and Wild Blues Yonder.

In 1999, he was on tour in Amsterdam with The Mahones, where he died of anaphylactic shock. 

The same year, Chithalen’s friend and a fellow musician, Wally High, started a memorial concert for him, calling it A Joe Show!

But that wasn’t enough.

High shared Joe’s belief that everyone who wants to should have the chance to become a musician, so he founded Joe’s MILL: the first instrument lending library in Canada.

Over the years, the library has moved from a spare room in St. Lawrence College to the Boys and Girls Club to its current location at the Tett Centre on King St. As its location has changed and grown, so have its patrons. In 2019 alone, the MILL processed 7,000 instrument loans. 

“Basically, it’s putting musical instruments into the hands of people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance,” said Tim Aylesworth, the library administrator and coordinator.

     ***

While most patrons are Kingston locals and families, the MILL has also supported several budding Queen’s student musicians like Dawson. 

For the Queen’s University Chamber Orchestra (QUCO), the lending library is instrumental to its everyday functioning.  

As a fully student-run, no-audition orchestra, QUCO is one-of-a-kind on campus, made up of about 90 people.

Since the orchestra isn’t affiliated with the Dan School of Music, they don’t have any access to school funds or equipment. That means they rely solely on their own instruments and the ones they borrow from the MILL.

For Valerie Brown, QUCO’s equipment manager, the MILL is particularly valuable to students who played an instrument in high school but have never had one of their own, and for those who live outside of Ontario and have no way of bringing their instruments to school with them.

“We’ve had a cellist from Vancouver. We had a trombone player from Singapore last semester. Many, many people from all different places have come—and many of them have come from farther away—have borrowed Joe’s MILL for sure,” she told The Journal

Given the nature of the orchestra, Brown attributes its success and longevity to the MILL 

“We’d probably be little more than half the size that we are if people didn’t have the opportunity to borrow those instruments,” she said. “So having that opportunity has been huge.”

     ***

The instruments lent out by the library are all donated by members of the city, and the MILL relies on these donations to stay open.

With only annual membership payments, late fees, and donations, the library doesn’t generate enough cash on its own. 

Luckily, the city has been generous, donating expensive guitars, legendary drum kits (like the one used by The Tragically Hip, donated by drummer Johnny Fay himself), bells (like the one used in April Wine’s “Oowatanite,” donated by drummer Jerry Mercer), and unsolicited cheques for hundreds of dollars. 

Every year, two concerts are also held with the purpose of donating the proceeds to the MILL. One is A Joe Show! and the other is HomeGrown Live Music Festival.

In 2019, the concerts brought in about $15,000 altogether. Sometimes, though, a show isn’t needed to land the library a big donation. 

Aylesworth recalled a summer day that started out like any other. He was sitting at his desk, busy with work, when he looked up and saw six men decked out in leather. 

“I looked up, and there’s like six biker dudes, leather, beards, the whole big thing. They were from The Old Bastards [Vintage] Motorcycle club,” Aylesworth said. “They roared in with their Harleys and gave us a check for $750 bucks. They just raised money for us.”

Eccleston added, “They came in like something out of a Hell’s Angels movie, with their whiskers and tattoos everywhere, stern faces.”

After graciously accepting the cheque, Aylesworth and Eccleston took a photo with The Old Bastards to commemorate the donation. They all posed by the Harleys and held violin cases to “make it look like the old mobster thing, with machine guns,” Aylesworth said.

In the photo, Aylesworth holds the cheque up, smiling wide. 

     ***

“We want to keep on doing what we’re doing,” Aylesworth said. 

Though the library is clearly well loved, sometimes people still wander into the MILL, unsure of how it works. Aylesworth says some people even try to rent or buy their instruments, prompting him to respond, “We don’t rent instruments, we lend them. We’re a library.” 

Seeing the surprise and excitement this brings to the MILL’s patrons is one of his favourite parts of the job. “People are discovering us,” Aylesworth said. “We’re seeing 20 per cent growth in the people that come year after year.”

Thanks to generous donations, the library is doing well financially, and Aylesworth hopes to one day see satellite locations spread throughout Kingston so they can spread their love of music further.

“We’ve been very fortunate; the community has been very generous. Because this is a jewel, this place is a jewel.”

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