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The past and the future of the record store in Toronto

When a restaurant or clothing store stays open in Toronto for over 20 years, it's a big deal. When a record shop stays open for over two decades in this city, it's a jaw-dropping, stop-in-your-tracks, holy-hell moment.

That's what makes the 25th anniversary of Rotate This such a big deal. The music sales business is one of the most volatile out there. It has not only survived by being honest and upfront, but also by consistently reinventing itself ever so slightly to remain a go-to spot for music lovers.

How do stores like Rotate This stay alive in this city when the big shops are calling it quits?

"It's kind of neat when a Soundgarden record comes out in 1991 and there you are in 2015/2016 repricing it. It's like wow, that's cool!" say Pierre Hallett, owner of Rotate This. "What's happening now is people are going back to those records that they've listened to for years but have not been able to buy.

"Another really interesting thing that my manager Brian Taylor pointed out is that the biggest thing that has happened in the music industry is the internet. It single handedly changed how music was consumed."

Hallett says now that music lovers have been downloading like fiends, they're craving something tangible again, something to connect with.

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"We spent the last nine years downloading and ripping as many gigs and terabytes as we possibly could, and we're so proud of ourselves for having 15 terabytes of music," he says. "But when are you going to actually enjoy 15 terabytes of music?

"[Now] there's all the new music that's coming out. People are attaching with that as well, it's a really interesting time for that. We are becoming connected once again."

Besides the world of vinyl in general, the store has thrived because of its content and the way its staff treats its customers - with respect and honesty. Something Lincoln Stewart of Good Music says is seriously missing in Toronto.

"There's a serious lack of ethics," says Stewart. He recently closed his Dundas West shop and sold his entire inventory to Rotate This. He says business was booming and he left for other reasons. "Some of the other shops in the city gouge people when they buy records or when they sell records.

"They don't guarantee their records, and they're curmudgeons and jerks. It's sad. One of my hesitations about leaving the store is having one less place where customers will be treated fairly."

Stewart claims the current state of vinyl shops in the city is great, if it weren't for certain stores - which he prefers remain unnamed - being slime balls.

"Things have definitely gotten worse," he says. Stewart used to manage Vortex Records for eight years before opening Good Music. "I kind of understand why. There's over 46 stores in the city and for some of them, especially the ones that don't pay fairly, it's getting difficult to get good [used] product.

"What they're resorting to is going to other stores or record conventions and buying records inches in front of a legitimate customer so they can bring them back to their store and make another $20. It's not cool."

Kops Records

One shop (or series of shops) that has survived on consistency alone is Kops records. The mini music empire has been open for 40 years and Andrew Koppel, son of founder Martin, thinks it's because he keeps listening to what Toronto vinyl lovers want and not rushing to put everything up online.

"We like to keep a lot of records in Toronto and not sell as many online," he says. He believes the current state of vinyl shops is a steady one, but also attributes the more recent trend to the fact that consumers want something to touch.

"We've got no illusions, it's always going to be a boutique, niche market," he says. "It's kind of hard to say 'it's mine' when it's sitting on a hard drive. It's being able to buy something you like and enjoy the ritual of playing instead of putting something into a dock and pressing play."

Photos by Hector Vasquez and Jesse Milns.

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