In 1979, Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats released “I Don’t Like Mondays” and instilled the idea that bad things happen on the first day of the workweek in an entire generation. But one particular Monday—December 11, 2017—wound up being a revelatory day for me. That was the day I first set foot inside The Record Centre, which is located in Ottawa, Canada, the city where I live. But I wasn’t there for the records—a friend had told me that the store was selling new and used hi-fi gear, so I wanted to see its stock for myself.
If you know anything about Ottawa, you’ll likely know that it’s Canada’s capital. It’s a government town, replete with drab government office building after drab government office building, each—at least, before the pandemic hit—filled with enthusiasm-whacked-out-of-them government employees. I know, because when I started the SoundStage! Network in 1995, I was one of those employees doing, for the most part, uninspiring, mind-numbing work in a sterile environment. As a friend who worked with me once said, “Around here, the walls are painted gray and so are the employees.”
The Record Centre, December 2017
So, walking in the front door of The Record Centre on that Monday morning was a bit of a culture shock. The whole place gave off a colorful, inviting, trendy vibe. There were music-related pictures and posters all over the walls, an operational DJ stand in one front corner, a small stage for live acts in the other with recording equipment nearby, vintage décor all around, and, of course, bins and bins of new and used records (and some CDs) for sale. The Record Centre was not only unlike any record store I knew in my own city, it was different from any I’d seen in any city. The place was also hopping, with customers continuously coming and going, most of them buying, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
As I walked through to the back of the store and found what I was looking for—the hi-fi gear I’d heard about—it was obvious to me that whoever owned the place must really be into music and the gear used to reproduce it. Every nook and cranny of the store was crammed with things musical or somehow related to hi-fi, either to buy or just on display. The way the store looked that day was the opposite of what you’d expect in a city like Ottawa—it was exciting, and it looked like it belonged in Montreal, a much more vibrant, life-affirming city that’s only two hours away by car.
Most of the equipment I saw that day was used stuff—there was an entire wall dedicated to it—though I also saw a Technics Grand Class SU-G700 integrated amp and Premium Class SB-C700 loudspeakers, plus many Technics turntables, all brand new and for sale, which tipped me off that there was something different about this store in the way equipment gets sold. The owner wasn’t there that day, however, so I left with little understanding of the store’s business model, but I knew that I wanted to go back and find out more.
More records and the equipment wall, December 2017
Shortly after that first visit, I took off to the Dominican Republic on a long holiday, so I couldn’t get back to The Record Centre until I returned home in January. John Thompson, the owner, was at the store this time. I learned that Thompson, who was then in his late 50s, had been collecting hi-fi equipment and records for decades. As for selling records, he’d begun doing so online in 1999, and became known as the Vinyl Canuck. Thompson opened The Record Centre in 2010, but back then it was right next door, where a video store is now.
Thompson moved The Record Centre into its current location in 2014, and at the same time became an authorized Technics dealer. He has an interesting story about that: He told me that, at that time, Technics Canada had never permitted any store other than a pure hi-fi retailer to sell the company’s products, so before they allowed him to do so, they came to check out his store. After seeing that he was the real deal and his store wouldn’t give the brand a bad name, Technics made him an authorized dealer. Within a few years, he had become one of Canada’s top-selling Technics retailers—often outselling traditional hi-fi shops.
Thompson explained that for those unable to afford new Technics gear—that’s many of the people who shop at The Record Centre—there’s the wall full of used gear. Instead of spending the many thousands of dollars that a brand-new Technics setup would cost, he can sell them a complete system for hundreds of dollars. Furthermore, Thompson told me that before equipment gets put up for sale along that wall, it gets serviced by a local tech who’s located just a few blocks away. The tech stops by each morning to pick up any equipment that’s come in and drops off what he’s serviced and is ready to be sold. Because of this service, The Record Centre offers a warranty for the used units, which is certainly a nice, reassuring touch.
A pair of Tannoy Westminsters are used to provide sound for the store
That information about the used gear intrigued me, but I was more curious about the new Technics equipment he was selling, so I asked, “Are your Technics customers coming to the store to shop for records initially? And then seeing the gear, inquiring about it and auditioning it, and then buying, if they can afford it?”
“Yes, in many cases,” Thompson replied.
At that point, a light bulb went off in my head as I realized what was happening to make this place unique. Unlike the few remaining hi-fi shops in my city, which usually have no customers in them when I drop by, The Record Centre, on any visit I’ve ever made, always has customers. Lots of them. Regular hi-fi stores normally just sell equipment, so the only real reason to be there is if you are already in the market for something. In contrast, Thompson’s store caters mainly to record buyers coming to The Record Centre to shop for music, who then discover the audio equipment that’s on display—stuff that they probably wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to—and perhaps purchase it.
Taking a break while shooting record-cleaning videos, February 2019. In photo (left to right): Carlo Lombard (interviewer), John Thompson, and Chris Chitaroni (SoundStage! chief videographer).
After my visit that day, I told my contacts at several hi-fi distributors and manufacturers about the store, but the only one who seemed to see the opportunity that a place like The Record Centre presented was Lily Luo, owner of Motet Distribution. Her company is located in Toronto, which is about four hours by car from Ottawa. I’ve found her to be forward-thinking in the way she conducts her business, and she believes, like I do, that to expand hi-fi on the retail front requires non-traditional thinking—and The Record Centre certainly offered that.
I later learned that Lily Luo wasted no time after my tip. She hopped into her car to visit Thompson’s store and was, like me, instantly impressed by what she saw. She showed Thompson the Music Hall line of turntables and electronics, which he then began carrying at The Record Centre. And to get the products properly established there, she later brought up Music Hall’s founder, Roy Hall, from Great Neck, New York, to meet Thompson at the store. Thompson was well on his way to becoming a bona fide new-equipment hi-fi retailer, even if his main business was still selling records.
Lily Luo and John Thompson, December 2020
Although I’d been to The Record Centre several times since January 2018—we even filmed a record-cleaning series that’s on our YouTube channel there in early 2019—my most recent visit was in December 2020. I met Lily Luo and John Thompson at the store for a couple of reasons. One was to find out how their business relationship was progressing. The other was because I’d seen on his Instagram page (@therecordcentre) that he’d been renovating the store so he could better present all the hi-fi gear he’s now carrying. I wanted to see what had been done.
When I first walked into the store that day, it looked the same as before, except for the addition of a lot of clear-plastic barriers for COVID-19 protection. It was still busy, but COVID-19 restrictions meant that only five customers were allowed in the store at a time, so when I arrived I had to wait in the line outside.
The Record Centre, December 2020
As I walked to the back of the store, I saw the changes. On my previous visits, there was a storage area at the back that customers couldn’t access. Thompson renovated that area into a 22′ by 14′ listening space and display area for the equipment he now sells. It’s sectioned off from the front part of the store by a counter with a removable part that acts as a gate and a small workbench for the tune-ups he and his staff perform for customers who bring their turntables in. What’s more, at the very back of the new hi-fi area, about 10′ up from the floor (the store’s ceiling is about 20′ high), Thompson had his carpenter build a small stage so that—when the pandemic subsides—he has even more space for live acts. (Thompson also records music in his store and presses it on vinyl under his own label, Record Centre Records, which you can of course buy. Thompson told me that the label has over 40 releases.)
In addition to the Technics and Music Hall gear, Thompson now sells the following Motet-distributed brands: PMC speakers, iFi Audio electronics, Atacama racks, and Accuphase, which mostly makes electronics, but has a turntable cartridge in its line. Yes, Accuphase Laboratory, Inc., that venerable brand founded in Tokyo, Japan, in 1972 that audiophiles around the world love—it’s now sold in a record store in Ottawa, Canada. He’s also carrying Wharfedale speakers, MoFi Electronics and Kuzma turntables, Koetsu and Grado cartridges, and probably some other brands I missed because I only took a quick glance around.
Yet it’s one thing to stock products and another to sell them. But, from what Thompson said, the products are selling well. He also told me that he still sells a lot of it to customers who come in shopping for records and look at the back and say, “Hey, what’s that?”
Accuphase, in particular, has been a really good seller. Thompson has only carried the brand at The Record Centre for a couple of months, but several pieces he had in stock had already been purchased when I visited and Lily Luo was dropping off more items, which I understood were mostly presold. Because of the demand, he ordered even more Accuphase products from Luo while I was there. Thompson told me that he’s also sold several Technics SL-1000R turntables—which, in Canada, sell for more than 20 grand. As for the Koetsu cartridges—the ones he’s stocking sell for over $10,000, so he’s catering to serious shoppers. I knew there was potential for hi-fi sales at that store in my boring government town, but even I didn’t know there was that much potential.
Kuzma and Accuphase on an Atacama rack
Of course, the store hasn’t turned into a high-priced hi-fi emporium. Some of the brands, such as Wharfedale and iFi Audio, are very affordable. And there’s still the wall full of used gear that people can buy to get started. Thompson is simply able to cater to a wider range of budgets with his expanded emphasis on new products, all the while maintaining the used-equipment sales and the raison d’être of The Record Centre—selling collectible records.
As Lily Luo and John Thompson were writing up his newest Accuphase order, I remarked that it was obvious this relationship between The Record Centre and Motet Distribution has worked out well. John nodded in agreement, and then unexpectedly said, “You know what’s strange? When Lily first came here, in 2018, she didn’t even do a credit check before she processed my first order.”
I half expected Luo to be put on the spot with a comment like that, and maybe even a little embarrassed, but she quickly replied: “I didn’t have to. When I walked in the store and saw all the customers coming in and out and that most of them were buying, I knew that this was a good business.”
This also led me to wonder aloud why more record stores hadn’t followed suit and why some of the struggling hi-fi stores in the city hadn’t considered transitioning into a record and hi-fi shop. The records would draw customers in, and if they were at the back of the store and the gear was at the front, record buyers would walk by and be introduced to hi-fi equipment the likes of which they may never have seen.
Thompson jokingly replied, “Shhhhh, don’t tell them.”
Then, in a serious tone, he added, “To do this right, you have to be into the music, the records, and the equipment. Not that many people can do them all. I’m 60 now and I’ve loved these things for almost as long as I’ve been alive.”
I replied, “You can’t fake hi-fi or music. If you do, people who know will immediately see through you.”
John Thompson isn’t faking it, and what he said isn’t unique to his endeavor. I studied business in university, and today I’m still studying businesses as a hobby. I enjoy it. When I look closely at why some companies are successful and others don’t achieve that level of success, or flat-out fail, it almost always comes down to how passionate and dedicated the person behind the company is about their product. Do you think that Tesla and SpaceX would be the corporate forces they are if Elon Musk wasn’t invested in the brands, pushing his people to push the envelope? In hi-fi, could Bowers & Wilkins have succeeded the way it has if John Bowers hadn’t put his heart and soul into that company for all the years he ran it? Where would KEF be if not for Raymond Cooke? The success or failure of a company has a lot to do with the person behind it.
The passion Thompson has for music, records, and hi-fi shine through the moment you walk into his store, so it’s not that surprising that The Record Centre is such an inspiring place. And although his formula might not be easy or even possible for someone else to replicate elsewhere because of the energy and breadth of experience he has, I still hope that others will be encouraged to try. What the hi-fi industry needs is more stores like his in cities everywhere. After all, there are many music enthusiasts, whether they’re buying records or CDs, who have no idea what great hi-fi is and could be introduced to it while shopping for the music they love. In my opinion, a record store selling hi-fi gear has a promising future, if it’s done well. Drop by John Thompson’s The Record Centre sometime and you’ll see why, the moment you walk in.
. . . Doug Schneider