Is Toronto experiencing a record store resurgence?
Just a few years ago, the Toronto record store business was heading down a slippery slope. Sam the Record Man went out of business in 2007, which prompted a series of other chains and independent stores to close or change business models. HMV now carries as many books and t-shirts as they do actual music and Criminal Records closed their doors after five years of business. Even Sonic Boom went through a rough patch when they were suddenly forced out of their Bloor Street location last summer.
"When I opened the store in the Annex, there were five record stores in about a four-block radius," says Jeff Barber, owner of Sonic Boom which has since relocated to a space inside Honest Ed's on Bathurst and has a second shop in Kensington Market. "And now, eight years later, we're the only ones there and every time someone went out of business, customers would come in and say, 'Oh that's great news!' - No, that's not a good thing. Competition is good and it's an indicator of the industry's health."
To Barber's suprirse, Sonic Boom's move has boosted its business. Its Bathurst storefront now catches the attention of streetcar commuters and instead of a projected 20 per cent loss of business, Sonic Boom is doing better than ever — as are many of its new competitors.
"The revitalization of record stores is a good healthy thing," says Barber. "It has a new life that we can only benefit from and the competition is only going help us all strive to be better."
College Street has also seen a couple of new shops pop up. Of A Kind and June Records are both drawing vinyl fanatics to the busy strip but instead of competing with College veterans Soundscapes, they're adding to the community.
"It's not competition... it's complementary," explains Greg Davis, owner of Soundscapes. "It brings more people to the neighbourhood who likes music; we all love music and we just want to turn people on to music. Each store has such different characters and if we don't have something, we'll recommend another place."
Camaraderie and carving out individual niches seem to be the key in this new band of record stores. When June Records' Ian Cheung decided to finally leave Kops Records and open his own shop, he confided in many other record store owners for tips and admits that if his store doesn't carry a particular title, he'd have no problem recommending another store, adding, "I'd happily pick up the phone and see if another place is carrying it."
And with most stores offering something different - whether it's developing a specialization in a specific genre or just carrying other types of merchandise - that might be the perfect way for every store to thrive and co-exist in a city that's getting more and more concentrated with stores.
"They're better off being very niche," explains Barber. "We've done the opposite but we've paid for a lot of square footage and are able to carry more things. To succeed, they have to curate what they're doing and generate a real cult following."
Davis agrees, adding that only time will tell whether these new additions and their unique store models will survive. "Every store carries The Beatles so you have to do something different and that's a challenge because there is only so many stores that can open before there's too many; there's a limited number of people who buy vinyl so we'll see how it ends up playing out."
But, for now, music fans are emerging as record store owners for that exact reason: because they love music. "I believe in music," says Grasshopper Records' Derek Madison. "It's not going away - it's like food and sex."
And just as Davis points out that Toronto is now among one of the best cities in the world for music, part of that now also boasts one of the strongest scenes for record stores.
"Toronto's amazing with the vinyl resurgence and it seems to be extra strong here," adds Barber. "We're definitely one of the best cities for record stores.