Don't Cry Over HMV, Go Support Your Local Record Store
"When you're at the cusp of a major boom in physical media you've got to jump on it. And they seemed to dip their toes very gently into it."
Richard Linklater must have been pissed that he didn't make Empire Records. The 1995 movie, written by Carol Heikkinen, is classic Linklater fare (in so much as it's a coming-of-age story set in middle-class white America). The film follows the employees of the titular independent record shop, scrambling to save the ill-fated business from bankruptcy and big-chain buyouts. Over the course of a steadily spiraling day, the workers seem destined for unemployment as mishaps pile up. At the 11th hour, Mark, played by a boyish Ethan Embry, grandstands in front of a news crew, inviting the town to a "Save The Empire" fundraiser; it's a smash success, and the store stays afloat, and out of the hands of 'the man.' Rooftop dance parties follow.
Except since School Of Rock, Linklater has tended for a sense of (relative) realism, eschewing grand Hollywood heroism for a focus on relationships cultivated, people changed, and lessons learned. Maybe, then, Linklater could pen a script for the death of HMV Canada. There won't be a "Save The Empire" moment for the doomed Canadian chain; it was announced on January 27 that it had entered receivership, which is a fancy word for saying they were broke and indebted as shit (HMV Canada owed $39 million to British restructuring firm Hilco UK). Across the country, HMVs have been slowly shuttering, their hulking frames hollowed out and falling into disarray. Stores like Toronto's Dufferin location are readying for the end of days.
Dufferin Mall is alive and humming with the sort of Sunday afternoon swing any mall could expect. By all accounts, it's a busy scene. HMV, draped in "80% off" signs, is an off-putting sight. Usually so well-manicured and painstakingly organized, the store is a barren shell of its former glory. The store is closing the next day. Daft Punk's Random Access Memories hums over the store speakers.
"You see the CD section?" Peter Sanfilippo, an employee at the Dufferin HMV, grins. He walks me over to it. It's no more than a couple shelves, maybe 2 feet across. "What's left of it," he adds. It's so shrunken that only one person can browse at a time. Elsewhere, people poke through overstocked Suicide Squad and Avenged Sevenfold t-shirts (not to mention 'souvenir' HMV staff shirts). Some shoppers are loading up their baskets with $6 copies of The Hangover 2 and Game Of Thrones novelty mugs. An untouched, expansive selection of Christmas DVDs (including an especially swollen collection of " Shrek The Halls") sits unvisited. Customers grab unclothed mannequins and ask to buy them. Peter and his coworkers are calm, usually unfazed, a touch annoyed. Closing the doors on years of business has its difficulties. No time for romantic nostalgia; someone is inquiring about buying the shelving units.
For Sanfilippo, HMV's drawn-out Canadian death rattle isn't necessarily cause for mourning. It's kind of like a New Orleans funeral; it's not about eulogizing HMV so much as celebrating the space it offered for music fans and shifting the spotlight onto the places around it.
"I don't think it doesn't suck," he shrugged and told me of the closures when we first met up a few weeks earlier. We're tucked in at a wobbly cafe table in our mutual hometown of Kingston, two and a half hours from Toronto down the shore of Lake Ontario. Sanfilippo explained he was a little tired of overly romanticized accounts of the Canadian chain shuttering. Not that he didn't think the store had its' merits; it did, and he reaped them. But his focus is on moving forward.
HMV bore all the trappings of a suburban-ready, corporatized multimedia store experience. It was a tightly organized affair; spotless, palatable, enamoured with a blunted, mainstream image of 'the alternative.' Set amidst a sanitized backdrop of glamourous, Sears-and-Hudson-Bay-bland shopping centres and strip malls, the dour black and neon-ish pink aesthetic of HMV at least gave the appearance of counterculture. It was dark, it was mysterious, they had ironic posters, they played Radiohead, and filled with food court Subway and fountain pop, you could dart into the sanctuary of Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs and Blu-ray DVDs and escape the mundane Cadillac-Fairview muzak. Its use as a tool chest with which young, impassioned music fans could cultivate an identity is undeniable. It was certainly the only spot I could get a Led Zeppelin t-shirt in grade 9 (which I did, on a field trip to Toronto). Peter started at the west end Kingston HMV in high school, some eight years ago.
"I started getting more interested in both music and money, and I didn't have enough of either of them," he explains. "And I didn't want to work in a grocery store." His older brother's friend managed the store and offered the inexperienced Sanfilippo a job. He started the job a loyal fan of punk rock and its' associates but working at HMV very quickly broadened his palette. "Beforehand, I figured I knew what I liked, and then within a few months I was into breakbeat and all this cool electronic stuff I didn't even know existed." That growth didn't happen independently; his coworkers exposed him to genres he would've scoffed at, and in turn he turned them onto the likes of Attack In Black and Against Me!. It was a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationship. The once-esoteric and strange became the norm, and HMV facilitated the exchange.
"Any record store attracts the type of person who's really passionate about music or movies," he articulates. "They know what they like, but they don't yet know that there's so much weird stuff that they're going to like just as much."
Most eulogies for the bloated, doomed music store seem to be tied up in personal connection and affection; for them, HMV really was as great as they make it out to be. And sure, Sanfilippo shares some of the same pleasantries. He and his coworker, Conor Barnes, sit around a food court table and swap stories. Barnes remembers going to HMV and asking them to order in a CD, and the sheer elation when getting the call that it had come in. "When I started working here, I was like, 'I'm that person now,'" Barnes intimates fondly. Sanfilippo concurs: "At the best of times, you were helping make that connection between someone and that thing they're really passionate about."
But Sanfilippo is skeptical that the store was ever really that effective in the first place, let alone as rosy as we'd like to remember it. He runs me through a series of company-wide fumbles, including poorly executed rollouts for turntables and vinyl (which, for some reason, occurred at different times). "HMV's interest in vinyl only went as far as, 'We'll carry some titles at our flagship stores,'" he says, annoyed. "When you're right at the cusp of a major boom in physical media, and you have a name that's recognizable and a brand that people trust with music, you've got to jump on it. And they seemed to dip their toes very gently into it."
Sanfilippo understands and emphasizes the importance of breaking out of your comfort zone as strongly as anyone; his life wouldn't be the same without that sense of exploration. He's understandably pissed when people treat HMV closing as a catastrophe (he's had to patiently field a number of distraught customers remarking that it signaled 'the death of music!'). Another Canadian music monolith, the 40-year old Sunrise Records, made news by announcing it would be taking over 70 former HMV locations, though not the Dufferin Mall store. Lots of customers inquire about whether or not they can expect a Sunrise in HMV's stead, but Sanfilippo dutifully informs them that no Sunrise will pop up in Dufferin.
The death of HMV is an opportunity for a shift. After collapsing under similar bloated, colossal weights that all but killed off fellow nationwide chains like Sam the Record Man (the lone survivor sits in Belleville, Ontario), the space that HMV leaves is a lovely, independent record store-sized cut-out. Unburdened by corporate clumsiness, these places can operate more nimbly and astutely (though it's not easy; most indie shop owners are still skeptical of the Sunrise takeover). Sanfillippo has been referring crestfallen fans to a grocery list of local independent shops to get their music from (he directs me to Dead Dog Records on Bloor West after we chat). To Sanfilippo's surprise and disappointment, they seem disinterested. It's a bewildering phenomenon, one that he chalks up to people being unwilling to stray from their trusted routines. He stresses the importance of people involving themselves in their local music and record shop scenes.
"If you're willing to go in and talk to one of these people, just one or two times, you're going to start building a rapport with them, which is the exciting thing," he explains urgently. "Go to these shops, talk to these people, get to know who's in your neighbourhood. You're saying to the store and to the label, 'I care about this. This matters.'"
The independent shop business isn't a glamorous industry. Sanfilippo and Barnes note that few, if any, of their coworkers, will continue working in record stores. "People are scrambling," Sanfilippo notes. But it's not all bad; change and new experiences are what gave him a love for his job in the first place. "There's a sense of liberation," he adds cautiously.
Sanfilippo pulls me over to the store's computer, ostensibly used to look up products and availability for customers. The computer is a jumble of Windows '98 iconography and now-ancient fonts. He runs me through the fossil's functions and, after some difficulty, pulls up a product. He exasperatedly tells me about how antiquated the store's cash registers are. These seem like relics of a company tripping over its' own shoelaces, early indicators of its' downfall for those who paid attention. And yet, amidst the lumbering, faltering confines of big-box music stores, there's a spirit of adventure, passion, excitement. Peter started in high school all those years ago with a penchant for punk music, and today he's bopping around the store to "Get Lucky." Beneath neon pink lights and "Closing Sale' signs, a flannel-shirted love of music and exploration thrived and continues on. The only sure and certain takeaways from the last days of the Dufferin store are that no one wants a Down With Webster t-shirt, and music will be just fine without HMV.
On my way out, Sanfilippo calls out, "Hold on!" He pushes a couple plastic chunks into my palm. They're guitar picks, punched like three-hole paper out of HMV gift cards. So, this is the legacy of HMV Canada: little bits of polymeric material, with flashes of black and pink and the letters "H," "M," and "V" disjointed and splattered across them sporadically. That's as close to a "Save The Empire" moment, and maybe as fitting, as HMV Canada is going to get. Don't cry for HMV Canada.
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Ontario. Follow him on Twitter.