In this month’s piece by former Montrealer and current Calgarian music and sports aficionado, not to mention author, Geoff Moore, we take a look at a dying ember of the 20th century; the local record store. Even the word “record” is something of an oddity in today’s paradigm dominated by digital downloading, where seeking out new sounds is only as far away as the click of a mouse.
But, in days of yore, a visit to the record store, especially on Tuesdays when records have been traditionally released to an eager public, was more than just one step in the process of music distribution. It was a religious act, an act of sheer devotion, and never to be replaced in exactly the same way …
Yes, there used to be a record store right here (with apologies to Ol’ Blue Eyes.)
HMV Canada, the last chain standing because it has so far negotiated the transition from music retailer to entertainment retailer, last week launched HMVdigital.ca, a frostback alternative to iTunes. The site is unique in that MP3 fans can pay for their song selections via debit card, great news for the earbud set. You have to suspect that the shrinking square footage devoted to CDs in HMV’s steel and glass stores will get additional Preparation H treatments.
Last week CBC Calgary reported that Megatunes, a landmark independent music store on the once infamous 17th Avenue SW Red Mile, will close its doors when summer’s lease expires. Its sister location on Edmonton’s happening Whyte Avenue near the legendary Commercial Hotel (Blues on Whyte) will shut too. A colleague allowed that a little part of him died when he heard the news even though he eventually got fed up with paying too much for albums “with just one good song.”
Three weeks ago I pulled the trigger on a banked Amazon.ca gift certificate. For $103 and change and free shipping I got: Bruce Springsteen: London Calling (2 DVDs), Stones in Exile (DVD), Cadillac Records (DVD), Hot Chocolate’s Every 1’s a Winner and remasters of Beggars Banquet, John Wesley Harding and Roxy Music’s Flesh + Blood. If I’d taken a century note into HMV I could probably have scooped the more recent releases at prices that may or may not have been competitive with Amazon, but I could not have spent all of my allotted money. On the other hand, Megatunes might possibly have had everything I wanted in stock but I would have needed much more than a picture of Sir Robert Borden to purchase all seven items.
The only goal for fans like us is the acquisition of music at a fair price. These days it’s more efficient to shop without leaving your house as retail inventory is hideously limited. (In June I swooped on three HMVs before I found the discounted Exile remaster. One store manager told me: “Complain, e-mail Toronto, the accountants. They sent us 12 copies.”)
As a cost-conscious consumer of soon to be obsolete media I made out like a bandit trawling Amazon, but clicking a mouse, especially a cleft PC one for a lefty, is no fun. There’s no tactile experience. You can’t pick a disc up, turn it over and examine it, linger over the track listings while you mull over your purchasing decision. Browse is the wrong freaking verb to describe looking at a web site.
The intelligent software that helpfully suggests complementary artists and products makes me feel like a character in a Philip K. Dick story. And when you proceed to checkout, there’s nothing under your arm or in your hand, no instant gratification (although you can offset this crushing disappointment somewhat by selecting the cheapest shipping option, thereby inaugurating a game of mailbox lottery in the days to come).
There was a time, long before Tuesdays were designated new release day, when record buying just wasn’t mere shopping; it was a ritual that was part and parcel of being a rock devotee. Haunting record stores was like staying out all night to buy concert tickets, the music was always the end but the means, the preliminary legwork, somehow enhanced and became part of the overall listening experience. Record shopping was my primary social activity and while it’s much more of a challenge now (or an unsatisfying cinch sitting in front of a computer), it’s never gotten old.
So forgive me while I remember. If you think I’m a sad sack crank now, meet me at age 20:
Montreal, July 1980: I am drinking a quart of Molson ale and smoking a cigarette in Toe Blake’s (legendary Montreal Canadiens player and coach) Tavern on rue Ste-Catherine priming for a serious record jaunt. My part-time job in the produce department of the nearby A&P store nets me $135 a week. The rent on my one and a half room apartment near the Montreal Forum is $135 a month plus telephone. Tuition for the upcoming year at Concordia University will run me some $750 plus books. I’ve have never been so flush with cash in my life and never will be again.
Across the street is a massive A&A Records, aisles of bins and warped, creaky wooden floors. I’m a regular, in there about three or four times a week. One of the cashiers will give me a $2 discount from time to time because she once admired the Clash London Calling button on my jean jacket so I removed it and gave it to her; I had two of them anyway. I suppose the next logical step would’ve been to ask her out but my fear of public rejection is more powerful than my hormones. Beside A&A is a tiny Discus Warehouse outlet; most of the albums for sale have the corners of their sleeves clipped off making the store one giant, er, delete bin. Who is Clifford T. Ward?
Eastbound along Ste-Catherine to Bishop, Cheap Thrills is located on the second floor of what would have been a lovely greystone residence 100 years ago. Cheap Thrills is where I dump my mistakes and where I keep hoping some fool will unload the “Brown Sugar” maxi single with both “Bitch” and “Let It Rock” on the B-side. The next stop is Rock en Stock on Crescent Street, a store that has embraced punk and also specializes in European imports. Here is where I scooped a French pressing of the eight minute version of “Miss You” on pink vinyl. Around the corner, back on Ste-Catherine is Dutchy’s Record Cave: bootlegs and another fruitless search for the Stones’ Garden State ’78.
2000 Plus is one of those unique Montreal commercial names that works well in either French or English. The store’s address is 2000 Mansfield but despite its proximity to the McGill campus it’s a little pricey. The shop made local news a year or two previously when its graphic and gory window display promoting the Battered Wives’ first album was vandalized by protesters.
Continuing along Ste-Catherine I pass Eaton’s and The Bay. There is a morass of malls connecting the two department stores to the Metro system and there are a couple of Discus stores within but they’re geared to the weekday lunch crowd and not worth checking out. East of The Bay at the corner of Bleury is Discomanie, a retailer specializing in homegrown artists and English art rock – it remains an unfathomable mystery to me as to why Quebecers so whole-heartedly embraced prog. And Shawn Phillips. Discomanie is where I stock up on clear plastic sleeves to protect my album covers.
There is another A&A Records further east. Although it’s not quite as large as the one near Guy where I started my trip, it’s always worth a look because of its proximity to Sam the Record Man; competition is good. Sam’s is the biggest store in town. Smaller than its Yonge Street parent, but still three glorious floors of music. I’ll be here a while. Hang tough, you can find me in the blues or the reggae sections.
For the final store on the route I head north from Ste-Catherine to Park Avenue, Phantasmagoria beckons. There are no bins in Phantasmagoria. All of the albums for sale are displayed in angled wire racks or in wire baskets hooked into the pegboard walls. All trim and finishing in the store is polished blonde wood. It is simply a really nice store, my favourite in town. I bought two copies of the first Clash album here, the olive drab U.K. version and the blue American release.
What really makes Phantasmagoria special is actually across the street. Brasserie Henri Richard with its giant exterior wall mural of the Pocket Rocket and his older brother in action is a heavenly place to regroup before the long walk home. Five years retired from the Montreal Canadiens he sits in a rocking chair by the beer taps puffing on a giant stogie holding court with his customers. He wears one of his 11 Stanley Cup rings. I peel the cellophane from my purchases and examine the artwork and the inner sleeves. The beer’s delicious. Although I’m too shy to speak to him, me and Henri, we’re like this! And I’ve got an armload of new albums to listen to tonight. The world is a perfect place.
Home for a visit last May. I retraced my steps of 30 years ago. Amazingly, Cheap Thrills (cheapthrills.ca) is still in business although the store is now located few blocks east of Bishop on Metcalfe. Everything else, the hockey beer parlours and all of the other record stores are long gone. There’s a massive HMV at the corner of Peel and Ste-Catherine now.
Nothing inside grabbed me.