record stores

#783: Take A Look at this Photograph

GETTING MORE TALE #783:  Take A Look at this Photograph

One day in mid ’95, Tom Morwood brought a camera to work at ye olde Record Store.  It was the earliest of days, and I was still working at the original mall store.  “What are you taking pictures in this place for?”  He snapped one of me flashing the devil horns behind the counter.  “Just for the memories man,” he answered.  I’m glad he did it.

He dug up that very same old photo recently, and a like a rush of blood, suddenly memories flooded my brain.  I barely recognised myself, but the store?   I’ll never forget it.  Let’s have a look at the anatomy of this picture and dissect it for details!

Detail #1: Handmade signage!

Before we went corporate, most of the signage was hand made.  Most was done by T-Rev, though “DJ Donny D” helped.  “NOW PLAYING”, “CD CASES”, “RAP/DANCE”.  It looks totally ghetto, like a real record store.  None of this professionally printed generic signage like today.  Now all the stores have to look exactly the same, like a chain.  Back then we could be artistic and do what we wanted.  The boss didn’t think I was very good at making signs so he let T-Rev do the majority.  He was probably right, though it wasn’t for lack of effort, just ability.  And it looks like an actual cool record store.  Not a video arcade or whatever they’re trying to be today.

There’s one sign that isn’t hand made, and that’s the “no smoking” sticker at the cash register!  Can you imagine needing that sticker in a store today?  Also:  cash register!  The first and last one I ever used.  Everything was done on computers after this store closed.

Detail #2:  The fuck is up with ma hair?

It looks black.  It was not black.  I dyed my hair dark once in 2000, but this picture is not from 2000 (as we’ll get to).  It must just be the lighting.  That’s definitely me though.  You can just make out my mullet.  I loved that Laurier sweatshirt!  I’m guessing it’s not summer; it must be a colder month or I wouldn’t be wearing a sweatshirt.  I’m assuming here, but I look really goofy and totally uncool.

Detail #3:  The front racks.

On the top left of the photo you can clearly make out CD and cassette copies of REM’s Monster.  That dates this photo to sometime in 1995.  The album came out in ’94 but Tom wasn’t hired until ’95.  There’s no way it was still front racked all the way into 1996, so it has to be ’95.  I can’t make out the other titles on the front rack.  You can see the plastic security cases that we kept the CDs and tapes in.  Anti-theft devices were not cheap, by the way, but a future chapter called “A Case For Security” will get into this in more detail.

Detail #4:  The magazines.

We used to sell Rolling Stone and Spin.  Funny enough, here we have them displayed in a rack for Vibe magazine!  We stopped carrying Vibe in 1994 but kept using the rack.

Detail #5:  The mirror.

If you glance over to the far right, you can see a vertical line in the wall slats.  That’s actually a corner; the back wall was a mirror.  As told in Getting More Tale #409, it fooled some people.  One day an elderly gentleman asked me if “that section back there is closed to cripples and old men?”  Nope, it’s just a mirror, not a secret room!  We must have kept it pretty clean if we fooled him!

Detail #6:  The CD cases.

Notice there are no clear CD cases there?  Just the ones with the black spines?  We didn’t carry clear cases.  If memory serves, our supplier didn’t carry them until a year or two later.  That meant clear cases were a rare treasured commodity to us.  I have a few memories of needing clear trays to replace broken ones, but not having any lying around.  We had to conserve them.

Detail #7:  Overstock.

See all those CDs behind me?  Those are overstock – additional copies of stuff that was already on display on the racks.  Generally these were titles that were not moving, and I can absolutely guarantee that there are multiple copies Motley Crue ’94 and David Lee Roth’s Your Filthy Little Mouth in this picture.

Detail #8:  Happiness.

Don’t let the metal faced scowl fool you.  This was my happy place.  I don’t care what ex-bosses and regional managers thought.  That store was special.  One of the bosses used to tell me that my nostalgia for the old store was warped by rose-coloured glasses.  I disagree.  Look at this picture.  It’s one guy working in a cramped little music store.  There is nobody looking over my shoulder, no “suits” wheeling and dealing.  We were free to make that store as cool as possible.  We could listen to music of our choosing with few but sensible limits.  Nothing like the spiteful “No Kiss” rule of later years.  (Although you can see here I didn’t display anything under the “Now Playing” sign.  I didn’t like the way the alligator clip could scuff up a case.)  We were responsible for cashing out, doing the bank deposit, and closing up.

Sure, it was a little like working in caveman times to a certain degree.  We had no computer, just a gnarly old cash register.  If you look behind me, under the overstock shelves you can see boxes full of clear plastic baggies.  Each one had a CD inside.  If somebody wanted to know if we had a used CD in stock, we’d flip through the baggies which were in alphabetical order.  Not an exact science but we got the job done.

As the store got bigger, we became more sophisticated, had more buying power, and better stock as a result.  Yet it’s the original store that I’m nostalgic for, not the second or third one with the larger floor space and computerized inventory.  Those stores had their own perks and problems, but they didn’t have as much personality.  Some may disagree.  This isn’t a critique on the owner, either.  He had to do what he had to do in order to grow, put bread on his table, and follow his own dreams.  We understand.  He had a vision and it led him to success.  Together as a tight team, we ran a pretty cool music store.  We all contributed ideas and our talents, and did the best with what we had.  The fact that so many people tell me they have fond memories of that store means it couldn’t have been all that bad.

When I look at this photograph all I see are good memories.  Thanks for the foresight, Tom.







#549: E-Commerce Dawning

GETTING MORE TALE #549: E-Commerce Dawning

I had been trying to get out of the storefront for a while. As a manager you can only take so much retail in a lifetime, even in the Record Store. My reservoir for dealing with the public in a buy/sell situation only had about five or six years in it before I was running on pure fumes. Fortunately e-commerce was becoming a dominant force and I was chosen to manage our new website. It was a good website.  The boss knew what he wanted, and didn’t settle for less.  He listened to feedback and relentlessly tested the site.  It was a challenge since our inventory was changing minute by minute, and technology hadn’t caught up to our needs yet.  When it was finally ready to go live, it was a slow start.  It began as a one man operation.

I was sent out to do some research. The boss sent me to an e-commerce convention at the Waterloo Inn in mid-2000. I returned with plenty of notes and information about how laws would protect buyers and sellers in online sales.

When we first started e-commerce, the website was a part time job. I was still in the store most of the time, because we were only getting 10-15 orders per day. I would have time allotted to go in the back room and get the e-commerce stuff done: processing credit card orders, responding to customers, keeping the books. Customer complaints were infrequent but fun. Often it involved somebody whining that they couldn’t return something because they lost their receipt, or complaining that something was taking too long to come in. Then I’d investigate and get the other side of the story.  There was one guy we all remember that was a constant complainer.  He picked up his orders in-store.  He carried a briefcase with him, and inside that briefcase was a printout of every order he ever placed.


The boss told me, “This is your baby, run it however works best for you.” So I did and it went well until it was just too busy for one person to run alone. Then they decided to run the e-commerce thing full time. I was given a small staff of about three people, all people who also worked in store. We had a tiny office to work out of. It had a computer, printer, its own VISA machine and all the supplies needed to ship CDs by FedEx. We learned as we went.

I had a really good staff back there and it was fun juggling that with the store. I worked a lot of double shifts, but I was enjoying it. Things were going well, and over time we got busier and busier.  They decided they wanted a full-time manager for the position.  I was frozen out, and landed back in the store full time. I heard that oft-repeated mantra: “Your time is more valuable to us in the store.”

A couple years’ of work on that website, and suddenly it was pulled away and I was back where I didn’t want to be. My goal was to get out of the store, and I worked hours and hours above and beyond the call of duty to do it. I voluntarily came in on the morning of my Christmas Eve off (year 2000) just to process online orders, so we wouldn’t be slammed by too many when we re-opened. I poured all my energy into it knowing the goal of being out of the store was not far away. Then the floor fell out from under.

They had me transitioning into a new position of being a trainer for new staff and franchisees. That would have been fine except that was a small portion of my time.  The franchising stalled and that meant most of the time I was running a store. Promises of ever getting out had evaporated.

Like many things from the formative years, I had plenty of fond memories of toiling away on that website. Most satisfying was the feeling that I was climbing the ladder and working towards the goal of getting away from the front counter. Apparently the bosses felt that the front counter was the thing I was best at, and didn’t consider other factors such as morale and personal growth. It was like being kicked back to highschool after I’d already graduated and moved on to university.  The ironic thing was one person who eventually ran the website after me was fired for theft. Change isn’t always good.  Maybe they should have left things as-is.

The only song related to e-commerce I could find.

#444: “Can I Listen to This?”

GETTING MORE TALE #444: “Can I Listen to This?”

In the early 1990’s, the CD store in which I worked was just an ordinary music store that sold new product in a mall.  Later on, we did the switch to used discs which was the smartest move the owner could have done.  He was able to control his own cost of goods sold.

Switching to 99% used stock attracted customers to the better prices.  Before too long, the used selection was better too, because we would see many deleted and rare titles that you couldn’t buy new anymore.  Ebay didn’t exist yet.  It was hard to find those titles on CD.  Another benefit to the switch was the ability for customers to sample music before they bought it.  It was harder before.

In the earliest days, if a customer wanted to hear something, we had to crack open the disc and play it on the store player.  We didn’t even have a re-sealing device.  The way around this was to carefully (carefully!) cut the cellophane off the CD case, along the spine of the disc.  Carefully (carefully!) slide the disc out of the cellophane.  When done, you can carefully (carefully!) slide the disc back into the cellophane, and “seal” it up with a piece of strategically placed Scotch tape.  This did the trick well enough for us.  We made due.

The annoying thing wasn’t the fact that we had to crack open a disc for people to listen to.  The real irritant was that we didn’t have anything for them to listen to it on, except the store CD player.  If a customer came up and said, “Can I listen to this?” it meant stopping whatever you were playing, and putting in their disc.

This happened one Saturday afternoon, sometime in the spring of ’95.  Radiohead had just released The Bends, and we only carried three copies to start.  A guy came in curious what it was like.  The Bends may be critically acclaimed by fans worldwide, but that spring afternoon in 1995, it did absolutely nothing for me*.  Skipping from one track to the next, then back, at the customer’s command, I hated what I heard.  To my ears it sounded too mellow and I was ready for a nap.  It was definitely not what I wanted to hear while I was trying to work.  To date I still don’t own The Bends.  This guy stood there listening for half an hour before declining to buy it.  It was annoying for both myself, and the other customers, to have to listen to this disc skipping from track to track at the guy’s hand signals or nods.

But we didn’t have anything else, and we were customer service oriented, so what are you to do?  You listen to (rather, skip back and forth through) The Bends.

A year later I was managing a bigger store, with the 99% used format.  We had a store player, plus several other units hooked up to headphones.  With an entire store of used stuff to listen to, and a pair of headphones to do it with, it was a vast improvement over the old way.  Once again the owner had a great idea.  Even though there is no question they were a huge popular feature for our stores, the “listening stations” as we called them were still ripe for abuse.  Customers would make you run around retrieving 20 (or 30 or 40) discs to listen to, only to buy none.  They’d complain about the sound quality.  The headphones were constantly busting due to overuse and abuse.

“These headphones suck.  I can’t hear the nuances in the music.”  That was a real complaint.  Since there wasn’t much I could do about it, I explained that the listening stations were there just so you could hear a song and decide if you liked it or not.  Not much thought was given to hearing the nuances.  But this guy insisted he couldn’t tell if he liked a song without the “nuances”, so no sale was made.

Other folks would want to listen to an entire CD – the whole thing! – to make sure it didn’t skip before they bought it.  Even though we offered a guarantee.

Even though we had gone through the effort and expense of providing these listening stations, there are some people you can never please.  More than one fellow (yes, it was only guys) asked to listen to something, only to complain, “No, I don’t want to hear it on those headphones.  I want to hear it on the big speakers!”  Yeah, but nobody else in the store wants to.

Music fans:  Although you can now listen to almost anything you want in the comfort of your own home, please, if you want to use the listening stations at a CD store, don’t be a douche!


*I do have Kid A in my collection.  I love Kid A.  

#409: Mirror Mirror

#409: Mirror Mirror

Our original store was my favourite.  It was this teeny tiny little CD shop in the middle of an uncool mall.  It was small and the rent was too damn high, but it was a cool place to work. It was the best place to work.  There were only three of us back then:  The owner, myself and T-Rev.  Because we had to make due with such a small store, space was a commodity that we were constantly trying to make the most of.

One clever thing the owner did to make the store appear larger was install big mirrors on the rear wall. The mirrors started about waist-high, from about where our CD shelves were also placed, and went to the ceiling. If you looked in, the illusion was a store that was much deeper than it appeared.

The crappy thing about mirrors or any glass surface in a store is that they attract fingerprints and smudges like a magnet. Kids with sticky, dripping hands love to touch anything. The mirrors looked good, and that was the main thing. In fact, when they were clean it was enough to create an optical illusion for some shoppers….

I was working one evening as an old man in a walker was browsing our easy listening section near the back. After letting him browse for a few minutes, I approached him to ask if he needed any help.

“Yeah!” he responded swiftly. “Is that section back there closed to cripples and old men?”

“I’m sorry?” I responded, confused at first what he was talking about. The isles between our shelves were narrow but accessible. Maybe he thought we had a back room with washrooms he can use.

“No you can browse anywhere you like, is there something I might be able to help you find?”

“Just a way to get back there!” he responded testily.

“Back where?” I asked. I was still confused.

The man pointed towards the mirrors, apparently not noticing our reflections in them.

“Oh!” I said finally cluing in. “These are just mirrors, there is nothing back there at all. See?” I waved to myself and showed him.

“OH!” said the old man, quite embarrassed. “I’m sorry to bother you!”

“Not a problem sir!” I said to the man with a smile. “It happens, it used to confuse me too when I started shopping here,” I lied. I felt bad for the old guy. Just another day in the life of the Record Store!


Part 281: People of Walmart

RECORD STORE TALES Part 281:  People of Walmart

You know what I really hated?  (No, really this time!)  Customers who went out of their way to tell us that Walmart or Future Shop or Best Buy had something cheaper.  Much of the time, the customer wasn’t looking for a better deal on a CD.  They just seemed to relish letting me know that somebody else in town had a cheaper price.  Most of the time, I couldn’t have matched a rival’s prices anyway.  Big box stores’ prices were often below our cost, because of the sheer quantities they purchased.  Or, they sold a CD below their cost as a “loss leader” – getting somebody in the store to buy the new Backstreet Boys and taking a loss on it in hopes that they also buy other stuff.

I remember one obnoxious lady, in the store with her three kids.

“Do you know that Walmart has your Backstreet Boys CD there for $3 less than you have it?  HAH!

Really?  You needed to throw that “HAH!” there at the end?


Play with friends!

The truth was, I couldn’t have cared less.  We had a pricing structure that allowed us to be competitive with other record stores.  Walmart have it for $3 less?  Then buy it at Walmart.  I’m not going to be able to compete with them on the price of the new Backstreet Boys CD.  Also, those big release sales were generally just for the first few days of release.  By the weekend, their prices would be closer to ours.

Essentially we only carried new stock so we’d have those titles when customers asked for them.  We made all the money on the used stock and accessories.  If a customer came into my store and bought the new Backstreet Boys, great.  If they came into the store looking for the new Backstreet Boys but also bought two or three used CDs with it, then that’s what we were aiming for.  Sometimes we tried the “hard sell” at the cash register.  “Now don’t forget to stock up on blank CDs and CD cleaner while you’re here!  We have this CD cleaner for $5.99.”

You want cheap new releases?  Great!  Who doesn’t?  If that’s what you’re after then by all means, go to Walmart.  But if you wanted fair prices, lots of used CD selection instead of all the new releases, knowledgeable staff and a more personal touch than Walmart?  Come to us.  Put your name on a waiting list for a used copy of the new Backstreet Boys.  When it comes in, it’ll be cheaper than Walmart’s new copies.  As an added bonus you don’t have to look at the “People of Walmart” or be treated to their impersonal style.  Not good enough?  Then support Walmart and big megacorporations.  No skin off my sack!

VIDEO: Mike and Aaron Return to Toronto

Making these videos is a lot of work (a lot more than it looks like, thank you Winblows*) but it’s a labor of love.

Aaron and I did very well on Toronto Record Store Excursion 2013.  We used modern technology, such as smartphones and GPS, to maximize our time.  The weather was gorgeous (absolutely perfect) the whole day, and boy, did we buy a lot of music.

If you wanna check out the 2012 Record Store Excursion vid, click here.  If not, enjoy this year’s videos embedded below (two parts)!



* Need to move on from Windows Movie Maker.  Its glitchiness made this way too hard.


Part 199: Hooray! Hooray! It’s Stock Transfer Day!

RECORD STORE TALES Part 199:  Hooray! Hooray! It’s Stock Transfer Day!

A couple weeks ago, I was out driving, rocking to Kiss’ Hotter Than Hell.  Suddenly I realized the car in front of me was being driven by my former boss at the record store.  We happened to be going in the same direction.  I followed him as he pulled into the old record store, where he turned off.  He didn’t see me wave but from the stop lights, I could see him go to the back of the vehicle and pull out a big box of discs for the record store.

This brought back a vivid memory — Stock Transfer Day!  STD!

Twice a week, the local store managers were required to travel to a central location to pick up stock from the other stores.  This stock could include special orders being transferred from store to store.  The majority of the boxes were full of stuff for our shelves, and fresh jewel cases since we went through hundreds a week.  These would fill the trunk, pile up on the back seats, and once in a while the passenger seat too.

The managers decided to do stock transfer on Monday nights, and Thursday afternoons.  I hated Monday nights and Thursday afternoons.  The only good thing about stock transfer was the chance to see some of my store manager friends, such as the eternally interesting Joe.  It was during one of these stock transfers that I witnessed the immortal Open Door Piss.

What bugged me most about the stock transfer arrangements were that the time, gas and mileage on our cars was considered to be “part of our salaries”.  This part of it really sucked, as you could spend a good chunk of your night hanging around doing nothing, waiting for someone.  Sometimes a traffic accident or tie-up on the highway could screw somebody’s route home.  That’s just the way this city was(n’t) planned out.

So while you’re waiting for someone with some orders that you absolutely need, you’re sitting doing nothing, burning your own time.  This happened frequently in winter, but in the summer too.  While this is ensuing,  at home your porch is unoccupied and lacking in beverages.  And that is a shame.

Next time on Record Store Tales…

200th episode!!

Part 197: What’s on the Menu?


RECORD STORE TALES Part 197:  What’s on the Menu?

Record store people have a wide variety of paletes.  We had omnivores.  We had vegetarians.  We had some like myself that subsisted on pepperoni sticks and Red Bull.  Some of them did come to work with healthy snack choices, such as fruit or carrot sticks.  But carrot sticks aren’t very rock n’ roll.

Some places in the world are known for their cuisine.  Nebraska, for example, is known for its “Hot Beef Sundae”.

The hit single “Hot Beef Sundae” dedicated to Nebraska’s state food

Likewise, record stores have their own cuisine.

Tom enjoyed a hearty dinner of baked beans and KD.  I’ve also seen him eat chicken bones, but I don’t think that was for nutritional value.  Here are some more record store classic dinners:

  • T-Rev and I had differing tastes.  I liked fish, his slogan was “nothing that swims”.  We could always agree on Taco Bell.  But no tomatoes for T-Rev.
  • I will always remember that Lemon Kurri Klopek taught me how to eat sushi.
  • One of our store managers enjoyed “taco sauce sandwiches”.  Take any meat (he liked roast beef) and add Taco Bell mild, or hot sauce.
  • Wiseman learned as a Subway Sandwich Artist.  He liked a two-meat sandwich:  turkey bacon with lots of onions.

You didn’t want to be working the same shift as Wiseman on turkey bacon onion night.  Believe me.

Next time on record store tales…

Promos…Part II.

Part 190: The Early Bird Drops the Discs

RECORD STORE TALES Part 190:  The Early Bird Drops the Discs

I hated the mornings.  What I really hated were people banging on the door to get in before we opened.  I don’t know why it bugged me so much.  I guess I was just peeved that somebody wanted to cut into my last few moments of unpaid time.

I rarely let people in early.  Usually I would go about my business, sometimes I’d let them know I’d be open in 10 minutes, or whatever.  My journal records one instance when a fellow didn’t check to see if we were open yet.

Date: 2004/05/19

This one dude was outside the store at 15 minutes before open, trying to get in. The door was locked and when he tried to open it, his bag of CDs fell down to the ground and smashed. He was cursing up a storm out there!


Next time on Record Store Tales…

Let’s talk about classical music!


Part 185: Staffing 2.0

A sequel of sorts to Part 92:  Staffing.

RECORD STORE TALES Part 185:  Staffing 2.0

It’s amazing sometimes how clueless people are, when it comes to looking for a job!  I’ve seen everything.  I’ve had people hand me resumes that were folded up into teeny tiny squares.  I’ve had kids apply that were so quiet, their moms had to do all the talking for them.  Friends, too.  Who am I hiring?  You, or your friend?

When we hired new people, we’d put ads on our website and do a cattle-call for applicants.  We did that in May 2004.  Here’s a memorable candidate:

Date: 2004/05/14

Tonight I have to work a little later than usual, til 6, to deal with all the incoming resumes. Here’s a hint to people who apply to jobs: If you drop off a resume, and then decide to shop in the store as a customer, don’t be an asshole with the staff. Don’t complain about store policies, don’t come in with a group of loud roudy friends, and don’t be a smartass. How can people be so stupid? Do you want a job, or not?

Needless to say, that guy did not get the job.  Instead we hired a guy named Kam.  Kam started about two weeks later:

Date: 2004/06/02

Today I start training new boy K. Should go well. [Name deleted] said she had good vibes about this kid. I sure hope she’s right because I don’t want to be overworked right now. K looks like Chad Kroeger, if Chad Kroeger cut off his hair, but that’s not K’s fault.

The good vibes about K were in fact correct.  He worked out great!  So great in fact that a few years later he served me by being a groomsman at my wedding!  Thanks, man.


Who put these fingerprints on my Van Halen tin?