Max-Vancouver's Gay Shoestore pioneer
Max my Gay Cousin
When I was 10 a man with dark wavy hair and an accent came for dinner. He brought expensive chocolates and planted a soft wet kiss on my cheek. Mom said, "This is Uncle Max Dexall." I wiped my cheek with my sleeve.
“Call me cousin Max," he told me years later. "Uncle sounds too old. You should see me in my emerald heels and matching evening gown. No one has legs as beautiful as mine.”
Max flashed his charming smile pulling up his pant leg suggestively to show off his thin ankle and smooth calf. He told me he was great in drag, but I couldn't tell if he was joking. I regret being too shy to ask him to take me upstairs and unlock his mahogany wardrobe.
In 1907 Max was born in Antepol, the Gorodno district of Belarus on the Polish Russian border. His grandfather was a poor Jewish farmer who painted and decorated churches to make a little money. Cousin Melvin showed me a family photo of Max with his mother and four siblings standing outside a log house on a rutted dirt street.. In the photo all the kids have bare feet. Melvin said the house had a dirt floor.
The Russian Czar sent Cossacks to brutalize the Jewish Schtetl in Belarus, and evict Jews from their property. When Max was a young teenager Cossacks murdered his father. Max escaped to Canada with his brother thanks to money sent by my great grandmother Sara Goldberg, Max’s mother and sisters came on a later boat. They ran a boarding house in Vancouver. Max did odd jobs, sold newspapers on the street, and helped in relatives’ shoe stores.
Max worked very hard and managed to save up one thousand dollars which he used to open his first shoe store in 1928 in the 400 block of Main Street. Within a few years a large bank wanted his desirable corner location so the bank officials agreed to move his store to a new location. The store which ended up at 10thand Granville was a great success thanks to Max’s energy and impeccable taste. Max Dexall’s Shoe store was known throughout the city for selling the latest styles and especially the most stylish women's shoes. Max charmed all his customers. He knew them all by name, and whenever a new mother came to buy her baby’s first pair of shoes, Max kissed the little one on the forehead and gave the baby shoes for free.
“This way the customers are happy and they always come back,” said Max.
Cousin Melvin said:
“In the early days here in Vancouver Max organized surprise parties for all the family almost every month. But Max was sort of effeminate. We didn’t like him. He didn’t marry and the family parties stopped. Max must have felt badly that he was not invited to family weddings, bar mitzvahs or Seders. Our family did not get along well with each other.“
I remember this time from my childhood. I was about 6 years old. My Dad came home from helping at Max’s shoe store. I heard Dad laughing nervously and complaining to my mom.
“Well did anyone do anything to you?” asked my mom.
“No,” said my dad. “But I was nervous down there with Max and all those fairies.”
I got very excited imagining tiny bright fairies flying on cellophane wings.
Dad, Dad, did you really see a fairy? Is Uncle Max really a fairy?”
“Not that kind of fairy, a different kind. You know, a homo.”
“Don’t use that word, Myron.” said my mother.
“Well what should I call them, then?” asked my dad.
Max told me how he stayed involved with the Jewish community after his family rejected him.
“Marsha, I went to the Share Tsedeck every Shabbas to pray and I cruised in the men’s section of the Synagogue. There were lots of gay Jewish men there. Most of them married to hide.”
Max was rarely alone. He made friends everywhere. He befriended lively young men and hired them as salesmen in his shoe store. Vancouver drag queens hung out and shopped at Max’s store. Max told me he organized and attended gay house parties, often in long silk gowns. Max told me his favorite story:
“One day during WWII I was working in the store when a tall, handsome, air force man walked in.
“I rushed to serve him, I always fell for men in uniform.”
The man was George Hill.
Max offered George a job as soon as he left the air force. Max and George fell in love and lived happily together from the 1950s to the 90s. They owned a beautifully decorated home on 38th near Granville. As a young woman I would walk through their manicured garden with matching garden furniture. Stepping carefully on the Persian carpets I stared at the oil painting, the statues, the rooms filled with antique wooden furniture that Max polished religiously. Max and George hired a young gayartist to hand paint vines with flowers and birds on the kitchen wallpaper. Off the entry hall was a red walled den with large Chinese porcelains. The living room was cluttered with rose crystal and dozens of Royal Doulton figurines. There was a needlepoint “ladies’ screen” near the fireplace.
“This is to protect the ladies pancake makeup from melting in the heat of the fire,” whispered Max.
For forty years, Max and George decorated their house, ran their shoe store, attended concerts and the opera. George did the repairs and all the gardening. One of Max’s neighbors was a homophobic doctor. I never saw this creep but heard how he used to throw garbage and rotten fish over the fence into their spotless yard. George rarely retaliated, but sometimes he threw the fish back. Max dusted his beloved Chatchkas that covered every flat space.
“My mother told me to never clean a dirty house,” said Max. “She told me to always clean a clean house, so I put on my frilly housewife’s apron and get out my red feather duster.”
In 1978, Max and George sold their shoe business and retired. They traveled the world, bought more antiques, and worked in their garden. George attended his Anglican Church and Max his Orthodox synagogue. They helped organize Vancouver's first GLBT Jewish group in the 1980s. When a young man from that Jewish group was jailed for embezzlement, Max and George visited him in jail.
“I always dreamed of praying in a gay minyan , but thank G-d we never invested any money in that group,” Max said to me after their visit.
In the 1980s, I took my little nephew Adam to visit Max and George. They fussed over the youngster, gave him treats, and told him stories. Adam was wide eyed as George did magic tricks. I took one of my lesbian partners to meet Max. Max planted a soft wet kiss on my cheek, then on hers. Max said “We are so delighted to have another "Gay" in the family. Isn’t Marsha beautiful?”
“ I think so.” Replied my partner.”
Max and George took me and my partner to dinners. One evening they took us to the Gay Men’s Chorus production of HMS Pinafore. At intermission a dyke in a suit ran up and hugged Max.
“Max, Max, remember when you gave my baby’ his first pair of shoes?”
(“This always happens, wherever we go. Even in Squamish,” ) George said to me.
I brought gay Jewish friends to visit and Max always welcomed them warmly. My Cousin Max became everyone’s gay uncle. He helped many young gay men with work, recommendations, and encouragement.
Max tracked down his nephew, Bruce, a professor in New York. Bruce had been rejected by his family for being gay. Max and George flew to visit him.
“Bruce is just beautiful, and so smart,” said Max.
Bruce wrote an essay about meeting his gay uncle. Max showed everyone the essay. Then Bruce became sick with AIDS.
“When we talked to him on the phone he was crying and we were crying.” Said Max. When Bruce told them he was dying, they prayed for him. When the Bruce died, Max recited “Kaddish,” the prayer for the dead, for a long time.
Max died of heart failure in 1991. At the Jewish orthodox funeral we said the “Kaddish,” and threw dirt on his coffin. We then went to their beautifully decorated home. George arranged a lovely reception. It was a sunny day and the crystal collection was shining in it's glass case. Many older gay men attended, and after all the straight relatives and friends left, George and the group sat in the living room telling stories about Max.
“Remember when the police stopped our car and we were in Drag?”
"Remember the shoe store?"
"Remember his emerald gown?"