Canadian Record Stores Brace for the Long Road Back to "Normal" as the Grand Reopening Begins

From masks and plexiglass barriers to delivery and curbside pickup, record buying is getting a whole new rulebook
Canadian Record Stores Brace for the Long Road Back to "Normal" as the Grand Reopening Begins
Photo: Audiopile Records
As parts of Canada have gradually begun to lift lockdown restrictions, many record stores have once again opened to the public. That's good news for shops whose revenue has been devastated in the last couple months — but as many stores across the country are now finding out first-hand, reopening doesn't mean things are going back to "normal" anytime soon.

"I think the days of jam-packed Saturdays are gone for the time being," Mark Richardson, manager of Vancouver's Audiopile Records, tells Exclaim! "Most customers arrive with masks, some with gloves. Everyone gets it and has been following the rules. It's still pretty quiet for foot traffic on Commercial Drive, so it's not exactly like there is a constant lineup."

As Toronto record store Sonic Boom demonstrated upon reopening this week, welcoming customers back into physical storefronts comes with a multitude of special social distancing measures. In most cases, listening stations are closed, staff are wearing masks and shops are using (or are in the process of acquiring) plexiglass barriers for the tills.

Only a limited number of shoppers are being allowed inside of most stores at a time, and hand sanitizer and gloves are available. The delivery and curbside pickup options that many stores instated during lockdown are also still being offered.

"We are aware that we have to be mindful and cautious as we take these first steps forward," Sonic Boom said in a statement upon reopening its Spadina storefront. "We have made some temporary changes, as the safety of our staff and customers remains our paramount concern."

Grant McDonagh, who owns Vancouver's Zulu Records, similarly anticipates a difficult road ahead, estimating it could be two years before record shopping resembles the "normal" of pre-lockdown.

He's run the shop in the city's Kitsilano neighbourhood since 1981, and he tells Exclaim! that coronavirus is the latest in a long line of watershed moments for the record store industry: the turnover from vinyl to CDs, the rise of illegal file-sharing, the advent of iTunes, and the explosion of streaming services. This time around, the stakes are higher than ever, since COVID-19 is literally a matter of life and death.

"It will definitely be a long hill for some stores to re-climb," McDonagh reflects. "That is to get back to an acceptable level of business. It's just another situation that makes it difficult for all record stores nowadays — but a few like us, record stores of our era, have seen so many impacts."

It's proof that, as precarious as running a record store can be, owners have become experts at rolling with the punches and adapting to the times. Even during full lockdown, there were silver linings.

Audiopile's Discogs page, for example, became "essentially a full time job to maintain" and the store will soon launch an online store. Ben Frith of Vancouver's Neptoon Records, meanwhile, says the store was "pretty overwhelmed with curbside orders," with Zulu being able to organize its stock of used records, meaning that the selection is now better than ever. 

Perhaps most importantly, physical distancing reaffirmed the importance of championing local community businesses. The notion of a "new normal" doesn't have to be a bad thing — rather, the new reality can be one in which we prioritize neighbourhood institutions like the local record shop.

"I think lots more people are realizing the importance of supporting small and local through all of this, and that's pretty amazing," says Frith. "The last thing Jeff Bezos needs is more of your money."