Gary Abugan and Brandon Edward Hocura, the crate-diggers behind a new Toronto record store Invisible City Editions, know vinyl isn’t the biggest profit-driver in 2016. Reports suggest the vinyl resurgence is over, and announced closures of popular record stores, like New York City’s Other Music and Amoeba Music in L.A., have become major headlines. But they believe record stores are crucial to local music communities, and hope that rejecting nostalgia to create a distinct listening experience (supplemented, of course, with an online shop) will be the key to their long-term success.
The Invisible City Editions shop is located in a quiet, industrial area of downtown Toronto, away from bustling shops and crowded sidewalks. If there hadn’t been a photocopied sign on the door at 165 Geary Avenue, I might have wandered into a neighboring auto-repair garage or hydroponics shop. It's an unlikely setting for a precarious business enterprise, but then again, Toronto vinyl institutions like Play De Record and Sam The Record Man have been priced out of their neighborhoods. And after admiring the bright, cozy space and brand new DJ booth, they gave me the rundown of their history as Invisible City: being introduced at a dim sum dinner in Japan by Dan Snaith of Caribou and Kieran Hebden a.k.a Four Tet, throwing parties across the world that treat retro gems with contemporary importance, and using the profits to start a rarities and reissues label in 2013.
Abugan and Hocura hope the new brick-and-mortar store will become a hub. They plan to host biweekly streams from the recently shuttered independent Toronto Radio Project, and want the store to become a hangout spot like Play De Record was for a generation of Torontonians. “Record stores are crucial to that community vibe,” Abugan said. “Just come by and listen to music and you’re not forced to buy anything.” The FADER asked Invisible City Editions for some tips on how to start a record store business in the streaming age.
Buy a car and prepare to get dirty.
Hocura: Making the leap to travel for digging is a big, big leap. Having a car makes it a lot easier. [We’ve been in] basements, freezing cold garages… Looking through dollar bins below the top shelves was how we started find all this [older] music.
Dig for more than just records so your curation feels distinctive.
Hocura: People imported all kinds of music to Toronto. But it’s tough looking for older Toronto artists. We’ve found music made by Ghanaian expats, but the scene is so completely dissipated. Some people live here, some people have moved back home. There are little trails of crumbs we’re following all the time. Did these guys play live? Is there a centralized community? Was this music distributed? The more connections you make, the easier it gets. There are certain key figures in the communities who know everyone and can connect you. This started with chasing records and it’s turned into a musical map of Toronto. There are a lot of great record stores in Toronto, and we don’t need to carry the same stuff as those shops. I love Neil Young and classic rock, but it’s well-represented in the city.
Trust your instincts.
Abugan: Put stuff in the store that you want in your own collection. Don’t just put everything into it; make the store like a DJ set. Curate it personally, [thinking about] what you want other people to hear. Make it niche, a destination spot where you’re going to get a different experience. And it doesn’t have to be an expensive, obscure record: it could be the b-side of some dollar bin new wave record.
Work with, and for, your community.
Hocura: Our rent is very reasonable, which allows us to start up at this scale but a lot of it comes down to friendship… everyone’s pitching in to make [the store] work. Mikey [Apples, the building’s owner] built the DJ booth, and he’s been an amazing help. We owe him a lot. He came to us when he heard we lost our space [at City Beat Records], and wanted to work with us on something bigger.
The first space we had a loose involvement with, City Beat, we’d just price records and drop them off. They were running the register. The one lesson we learned from that was how important regular hours are. People would message us because they wanted to buy but the space wasn’t open, or coordination was difficult.
Let customers hear the music.
Hocura: A listening station is of the utmost importance in any record store. There are a lot of crusty old guys who don’t have them in their stores, and it’s like, How’s anybody going to buy that [obscure record]? You can’t listen to it and nobody knows what it is! That sense of discovery is important to a record shop, and actually being able to listen is part of it.