Once Upon a Record Store

Browsing the History of Independent Record Stores

Illustrations by Melanie Coles & Lindsey Hampton
Illustrations by Melanie Coles and Lindsey Hampton

There’s really no record stores in malls anymore,” Grant McDonagh, Zulu Records’ owner, pointed out while discussing the state of stores in Vancouver—so unless you have a record store in your neighbourhood, you may have forgotten about the time before mp3s when hanging out in the record store was the way to learn about and collect music.

According to Scratch Records’ Keith Parry, record stores still fill this niche. “We’ve had dozens of in-store performances … and those … are [the] things that feel like you’re part of the community, you’re a cultural ambassador,” he said.

“You can usually learn something from someone that works at a record store,” Rob Frith, owner of Neptoon Records pointed out. “They may not be into the same music you are, but it’s usually something they have heard, or they sell enough stuff that … they can say, ‘Oh, well everyone is talking about this record’ and they can recommend something.”

And the snobbery once associated with record store staff is rarely a problem today. Although Parry admitted elitism has been part of Scratch’s past (“When Carl Newman worked at my store [he] wouldn’t sell someone a Bad Religion record.”), today, record stores simply can’t afford to turn people away. McDonagh agreed, “There’s a lot of dedicated people who have supported our store and other small stores. … I give them total credit and I thank them so much,” he said.

Nevertheless, when you walk into an independent record store, the music you find will be the music the people who work there like. Parry pointed out that, unlike chain stores that make decisions at a head office on the other side of the country, the staff at a small store have the freedom to bring in their favourites.

For Red Cat Records, an artist owned shop, carrying local bands is a priority. “Having a connection with touring and making records yourself and understanding how much effort it takes to make an album, [you know] that it is worthwhile to come in and purchase an album on vinyl and support a band,” said Dave Gowans, Red Cat’s co-owner and member of the Buttless Chaps and Cloudsplitter.

Speaking of vinyl, another favourite that many record stores have never given up on (“It looks good. It sounds good,” McDonagh said.), dealing with format changes over the years has been trying.

“I remember that period, and it wasn’t a very long period, maybe it was two years I guess, but cassettes were king,” McDonagh recalled. To prevent theft Zulu kept cassettes in a tube and a stick was used to pop out the album a customer wanted.

When CDs started appearing in the late ‘80s, many stores in Vancouver were renting them and the players out, but soon major labels were pushing CDs as the only format. “[They] did everything they could to kill vinyl, … putting 10 extra tracks on the CD, by making the vinyl available weeks, if not months after the release day,” Parry said. And while replacing all your vinyl with CDs made for good business for a short while, “in retrospect, it sucked,” McDonagh said.

What made things extra difficult for independent record stores [ed. but arguably great for consumers] in Vancouver was A&B Sound’s policy of pricing music below cost. “I could walk in into the A&B store and buy new sale records cheaper than I could get them wholesale,” Parry said. The Province even ran an article in 1994 about A&B Sound keeping CD prices the lowest in the world.

Vinyl started making a resurgence circa 2004, partially due to the rise in DJ culture, which has helped independent record stores. “I don’t think that it’s the saviour that a lot of people would like it to be,” McDonagh lamented. Nevertheless, he was happy when he recently converted CD bins back to vinyl bins. “It felt kind of good, ripping these CD bins apart and turning them into vinyl bins. I have to admit, that’s the truth … [I] got even with the industry a little bit.”

The future of record stores may be a bit shaky, but their place in music’s cultural milieu is unquestionable. And with the opening of Zoo Zhop, a brand new record store, last February, perhaps we can be hopeful that these sources of knowledge and community will continue providing unique stories and connections.

Illustrations by Melanie Coles & Lindsey Hampton
Illustrations by Melanie Coles and Lindsey Hampton

Red Cat Records

Dave Gowans wanted to open a record shop back in 2000, but he was focused on his band, the Buttless Chaps, so instead of opening a store, he took a job at Red Cat when Amy Honey and Andrew Pearson opened it in 2002.

When Pearson and Honey moved to Nova Scotia in 2007, Gowans reconsidered his dream of owning a record store. “I just didn’t want to see the store close or go out of business,” Gowans said. “So I said to my friend, Lasse [Lutick], ‘Well, do you want to do this five or six years later than planned?’”

Lutick said, “Yes.” Although the store has moved three times since its original inception, it’s always been located on Main.

The store was named for Buddy, a rescued cat that lived in the store. “He wasn’t the most friendly cat and he hated children,” Gowans recalled. At the original location, Buddy lived in the back room and didn’t have to deal with the public much, but he was an icon that appeared in Red Cat’s advertising. When Buddy died in 2005, Discorder created a eulogy that emulated Red Cat’s ads. “[It] was an image of Buddy’s head photoshopped onto Led Belly holding a guitar. And that caught the attention of Ry Cooder,” Gowans explained.

“Ry contacted the store and became interested in the cat and started writing a concept album about a big orange cat that travels across, you know, ‘30s depression era America,’” Gowans said. “[Cooder] never met the cat in person but asked for a lot of photos and got really inspired about the cat. That record came out right when we bought the store.”

When asked if the business ever considered getting another cat, Gowans pointed out that, “Cat hair and records just doesn’t go … especially with a 35-pound orange tabby.”

Neptoon Records

Rob Frith had been a big album and music poster collector for a long time before the recession in 1980 affected his construction business. He’d even been organizing bi-annual record swap meets since the mid-‘70s (which continue today at the Croatian Cultural Centre). He struggled with the decision, but finally decided to open Neptoon Records on Fraser Street in January, 1981. And it didn’t take long for him to decide it was the right thing to do. “I thought, ‘Man, this is the life! I can’t believe I listen to records all day! And people come here and buy stuff!’” Frith explained.

After a methadone clinic opened nearby, however, the business took a turn for the worse, instigating a move to Neptoon’s current location on Main. Today, Frith works with his son Ben (the drummer in Thee Manipulators), who had an interesting encounter with Tom Waits in the store.

According to Frith, Ben noticed a man in the store that looked incredibly like Tom Waits. “He kept coming up and asking like, with a record with a price tag on it: ‘How much is this record?’ [imitating Tom Waits]. ‘Well, it’s right there, it’s five dollars.’ ‘Oh, ok.’” The man did this repeatedly. He finally went to pay, handing Ben his credit card. “So he looked at the credit card, and it says ‘Thomas Waits’ on the credit card. So he says, ‘Are you the Tom Waits?’ And he says, ‘No, no, I’m not Tom Waits.’ So anyways, [when] he leaves the store, my son goes back, walking down the aisle where the records are and [the man’s] pulled out all the Tom Waits records and stuck them all in the front of every row!”

Neptoon has had had other celebrity shoppers as well. When Peter Buck of R.E.M. came in, Frith didn’t recognize him. Frith asked Buck what he was doing in town. Buck replied that he was recording an album. Frith asked what band he was in and Buck replied, “Oh, R.E.M.”

“I felt really embarrassed,” Frith said, “[I’d] even seen [them] live for crying out loud.”

Illustrations by Melanie Coles & Lindsey Hampton
Illustrations by Melanie Coles and Lindsey Hampton

Zulu Records

“When I was a kid I found [Quintessence Records] to be kind of unusual. So I used to hang there and just eventually got a job and I worked there for a couple of years,” Grant McDonagh explained. The store went out of business. “I needed a job,” he confessed when asked about the decision to open Zulu. 1981 was an interesting year to start the store. Experimental avant-garde music was coming out of New York, hip-hop was breaking into mainstream culture and MTV hit the airwaves. By the mid-‘80s Zulu was a label and a distributor. Eventually, McDonagh found that collecting money from stores was too difficult and he decided to end that aspect of the business.

McDonagh found a new source of income when movies started being shot in the relocated Zulu, which had just expanded to include the building next door. When Life or Something Like It, starring Angelina Jolie, was filmed in the shop, it turned out to be a godsend. “I had this major bill come my way with these fire doors that separate the two stores. And I didn’t budget for it,” he explained. “It cost a lot of money. … The Universal cheque came in one hand and went to the fire door people. So I’m really grateful to that terrible film.”

When Billy Bragg played at Zulu last year, he reminded McDonagh about gratitude as well. “[Bragg did] this great little spiel about how when he was a kid, how important record stores were to him and if it wasn’t for them, god knows what trouble he would have gotten in,” McDonagh recalled. “It was just a place where he found refuge while he was going through difficult times, and I guess you could say that we provided that for some people, including ourselves!”