10 Artifacts from the Era of the Record Store

It’s no secret that bricks-and-mortar music retailers are going through tough times.  As CD sales continue to slide and as the DVD looks like it’s out of breath, record stores are having to reinvent themselves.

Naturally, some people (like me) are going nostalgic for the glory days of record store shopping–which, when you think about it, wasn’t all that long ago.  Here are some things worth remembering.

(1) Separate sections for vinyl, CDs and pre-recorded cassettes:  People have forgotten that in the years after the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979 that pre-recorded cassettes were briefly the best-selling format for albums.  In the middle 80s, if you couldn’t find that album on one format, you merely had to walk over to one of these other sections.  Chances are it would be there.

(2) Specialty sections for MiniDisc and DAT albums:  They were small and only a few stores had them, but if you really wanted an album on one of these formats, you could get it.

(3) The longbox:  This was awful.  Retailers initially resisted stocking compact discs because they had spent millions and millions of dollars on shelving displays for both vinyl and cassettes.  Now the labels wanted an even greater investment?  A compromise was reached in the form of the “longbox,” a wasteful bit of paper and/or plastic packaging that was about as wide as a CD but 12 inches long.  This meant two rows of CDs could occupy the same bin space as one row of albums. 

The worst longbox packages were the all-plastic heat-sealed ones that required industrial tinsnips to open.  I can tell you the number of times I almost lost a finger trying to get at the CD I just bought. Fortunately, the longbox was protested out of existence within several years.

(4) Midnight Record Sales:  In the days before the Internet, the only way to be the first on your block to get a new album from your favourite group was to line up outside the record store on the day that the album came out.  If the album was big enough, stores would stay open past midnight and at 12:01am on the release day, they’d let everyone in to buy the record.  And yes, this was quite common. Seems quaint now, doesn’t it?

(5) The 45 section:  My sister took organ lessons every Tuesday in the city.  I didn’t want to sit through all that so my mom dropped me off at the nearest mall where I’d spend the hour browsing through the Sam the Record Man.   I couldn’t afford full albums–they were $5.99, fer crissakes!–but I could afford a 99 cent 45.  This store had rows and rows and rows of them.  I clearly remember buying Devo’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” this way and being very, very confused when I got it home.

(6) The big record catalogue:  Somewhere in these old record stores was a giant catalogue of available albums and singles across all genres.  Generally it was clamped to a heavy stand somewhere that the clerks could make sure that no one was ripping out pages.  This is where one would look to see if a record that wasn’t in stock was even available.  If it was, it would be listed and you’d order it by its catalogue number.  If you were lucky, you’d have the record in a couple of weeks.  Again, that sounds so quaint, doesn’t it?

(7) Loyalty programs:  Once upon a time, HMV had a loyalty program.  Buy X number of CDs and you’d get X number free.  Oh, and they exchanged CDs, too.  Naturally, the Internet killed both.

(8) Autograph sessions:  If a band came through town promoting a new album, their label might arrange for an autograph session at a major record store.  These still happen, but not nearly as much as they used to.

(9) Crazy sales:  Ever line up for Sam the Record Man’s post-Christmas sale so you could spend the money you got from your aunt?  I did.  Another favourite of mine was the Rocktober event at a chain called Crazy Kelly’s in Winnipeg.  Just about the entire store was on sale.  Much tuition money was left there.

(10) Buying phonograph needles and cartridges:  What better place to buy replacement needles and cartridges from the place where you bought records?

Any other things you remember from those Olden Days?


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

14 thoughts on “10 Artifacts from the Era of the Record Store

  • October 30, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    One thing I won't miss is being judged or laughed at for my musical tastes. I remember buying Gino Vannelli's Brother to Brother at an HMV in 2002 and being snickered at by the people behind the counter.

    A few things that I will actually miss:
    * Reaching for the same CD as someone else
    * Finding that one great album buried deep in the discount bin
    * Frantically struggling to rip the plastic off a new CD that I am desperate to hear

  • October 30, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    4 – so that's where the trail was blazed for midnight video game sales.
    6 – had to order Therapy? albums that way in the mid/late 90s
    9 – Our family's Boxing Day tradition was to head down to HMV for the buy 3, get 1 free sales. I have a lot of fond memories of that. Then one year it was gone and the discounts were pathetic. That's probably the precise moment I stopped buying CDs regularly.

    I guess the only additionally memory I have is the import sections. Crazy Japanese Ned's Atomic Dustbin compilation for $50, UK albums for $30+ weeks before they were released domestically, etc.

  • October 30, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Is that a pic of Amoeba in Hollywood? Love that place.

    I had forgotten all about the big record catalogue. I used to page through it all the time. The other thing I recall fondly was the big board behind the register where they would post release dates for upcoming releases.

  • October 30, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Most of the above can still be found at Sonic Boom here in Toronto. Open late, too. If I wanted to be "judged or laughed at for my musical tastes", though, I'd go to Rotate This…

  • October 30, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Record Fairs (is that a photo of one at the top of the article?)

    I used to go to those all the time in the 80s, but they seem to have largely died out in the early 90s. But you could find all sorts of awesome stuff there – limited edition singles, poster packs, shaped picture discs, rarities, mispressings, imports that you'd never see here, you name it. I really miss those.

  • October 30, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    – going to a music store (that sold instruments and sheet music) to buy my 45s on Saturday mornings when the new titles came in … Then asking shyly at the counter for number 7 on the top 40 list like it was porn or something (yah, no Sam's in small town Ontario)
    – speaking of Sam's, where did all the autographs go from the musicians on the walls? That was half of the fun of standing in line was to see who you could find scribbled on the walls

  • October 30, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Part of the appeal of record stores, especially local ones, was the quest of searching for something rare. It's akin to trading/finding rare concert VHS footage pre-Internet days. That whole experience is lost. Now all of that is on YouTube.

  • October 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Going up and down the stairs of Tower records while it lived briefly at Queen & Yonge pretending I was in Empire Records (the movie).

  • October 30, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I remember going into Sams on King St Kitchener when I went to HighSchool downtown to check on the Toronto Greyhound/Concert ticket packages…..Only place you could get them then. Fond memories of getting picked up at Sams for Van Halen in Toronto 1980! Cannot believe I liked that band,once?

  • October 31, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Skipping class in high school on Tuesday mornings to wait outside the record store! Then going to a few others to see which had the limited edition and at what price, and often going back to the first place to buy it. Fuck i miss that!

  • October 31, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    I do miss the hunt for the hard to find albums and imports. Making the pilgrimage to Peter Dunn's Vinyl Museum from Hamilton and spending the whole day in there with my buddies. There was a social aspect to it that you don't get with the Internet. Otherwise, I'm fine having my entire music collection in my hand on a device that's also my phone and my GPS and etc, etc, etc….
    Lugging albums, fixing cassettes with a pencil, cleaning vinyl, listening to scratches in the middle of my favourite song and all the other "nostalgic" stuff I don't miss at all. I don't know why anyone would. My 19 year old son says he likes the album art on records and I do miss that, but otherwise, give me digital. It's called progress. Deal with it.

  • December 10, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Like Alan, one of my favorites was going through the singles, though in my days of "couldn't afford an album" the singles were on CD. But just to get something that no one else would have, to have that b-side/remix/live track that none of your friends would even know about until you showed it to them. That and going through used cds and records and finding a discarded bootleg (or as the clerks call them "imports"– because all bands save their best releases for Malaysia).

  • December 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    -12" singles. The song you love, but twice as long, and two different mixes plus an instrumental version on the other side? I miss these terribly.

    -Playing 33s on 45 speed, and vice versa. Playing songs backwards.

    -listening to a tape so much you could start to hear songs from the other side, and/or accidentally getting a magnet near your tape.

    – forgetting a tape on the dashboard in a hot car.

    -Having your tape "eaten" by your tape player.

    -Taping a vinyl album so that your favourite song got played like four times and skipping the ones you don't like.

    -setting a ruined tape free by opening up the case and letting it unspool in the wind. Gobs of audio tape stuck in trees was not an uncommon sight in the days of my youth.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.