June Records taps the vinyl revival, but can a niche Toronto market pay the rent?
Ian Cheung and Dennis Reynolds
662 College Street, Toronto
Less than 1
Vinyl records, record players and audio equipment
Imports hundreds of hard-to-get titles from European distributors, independent Canadian and U.S. labels
Before Ian Cheung hung the “OPEN” sign on his store, June Records, he was already facing stiff competition.
Toronto’s home to a slew of independent record shops, there were several other bids for the prime College street location, and the entrepreneur’s proposal was met with some skepticism from the building’s owner.
“I said, ‘I’m opening a vinyl record store’ and he replied, ‘Is there a market for that kind of thing?’” says Cheung, “He was kind of concerned.”
It was a legitimate worry, the store — which opened in June, once Cheung won the location’s former owner over with his business plan — is making money, but has yet to turn a profit.
Still, this doesn’t surprise Cheung. The past five years haven’t been kind to record stores in Toronto. On June 30, 2007, the flagship Sam the Record Man store on Yonge Street closed. Last summer, the much-loved Criminal Records on Queen Street West followed suit. And while there are still about a dozen record stores in the city, such Sonic Boom and Kops Records — where Cheung spent almost three years working as a managing employee — survival has meant serious shifts in retail space size, employee numbers, and the makeup of inventories.
And inventory is what Cheung uses to set his store apart from the competition.
“There’s nothing in this store that we wouldn’t consider good enough for ourselves,” he says, “We’re not going to carry a product that we don’t stand behind.”
June Records stocks between 50,000 and 70,000 vinyl releases, as well as a small selection of record players and audio equipment. While customers can expect to find The Beatles’ Abbey Road and other classic rock staples, Cheung tries to concentrate on rarities, such as a box set by German minimalist electronic artist John Bender, Los Angeles’ power-pop band The Quick’s 1976 album Mondo Deco, and various other imports and small-label offerings.
“Every title that you pick reflects what kind of store you are,” he says, “by choosing those titles, you’re already setting yourselves apart.”
And a record store can also make its name with what it doesn’t carry. June Records sells no CDs, DVDs, books, or music-related merchandise, with the exception of artist designed art and clothing. An unusual, but deliberate choice, says Cheung, and one that he feels reflects the changing landscape of how people buy music.
“Vinyl is the only format that’s never really gone away,” he says, “It’s had its ups and downs, but vinyl’s just kind of always been there.”
Mazher Jaffrey, president of the Canadian Business College in Toronto, isn’t convinced that sticking to just one main product will yield successful results.
“My gut tells me that, as a business, they’re limiting themselves,” he says, “I’m afraid I’m not optimistic.”
While Cheung declines to provide specifics when it comes to June Records’ sales, he says they haven’t yet reached the cost of the store’s rent. This means hiring additional staff isn’t yet a possibility — Cheung’s only help is his co-owner, Dennis Reynolds — even though he admits running the entire operation with such a skeleton crew is exhausting.
“It can be overwhelming,” he says, pointing to the owners of Criminal Records. They closed shop, not because of money issues, but because, as Cheung says, “they wanted their lives back.”
Still, Jaffrey says more work may be needed to get the store turning a profit. He suggests building a lounge area or selling coffee and other refreshments. Cheung has no such plans, but says he does want to up his business’ value proposition with live in-store performances, film screenings, and by featuring limited-edition, artist-created merchandise for sale.
But, even though he knows the business needs to eventually turn a profit, he didn’t open a record store for the money.
“Once we reach a point where the store is self-sustaining, we can shift our focus more to the extracurricular stuff that supports the community,” he says, “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
It’s this sense of community that Cheung believes will bring him lasting success.
“For me, a record store isn’t just where you get music, it’s a place where people with like interests gather,” says Cheung. “We’re just trying to create a vehicle and see what happens.”