Goodbye to a Toronto institution

Other than a nearly one-hour wait to get inside, my final trip to Soundscapes was not unlike any of the innumerable visits I’ve paid to this tiny record store in Toronto’s Little Italy over the past 20 years.

I made my usual circuit, starting with the Reissues section, over to Staff Recommendations and then, following a quick stopover at Hot New Releases, over to the rack to the right of the cash register that houses an eclectic selection of “new” albums that might include everything from new indie releases, to Ace Records’ latest soul compilation, to yet another release in the seemingly unending string of Neil Young concert albums (I suspect we’re going to get one devoted to his much-maligned Trans period any time now).

After that I wandered over to the Soul/R&B section at the rear of the store (so many cool sets from the wonderful reissue label Numero Group there), and then down to the Americana section.

That’s when the “Hmm, I wonder if they’ve got…” thoughts that come flying into my head during every visit took over, and I began aimlessly zig-zagging from one section to another, any coordinated plan of attack completely forgotten.

While waiting in line outside, I had watched someone moving around the store in similar fashion. One moment he would be contemplating an album, and then he’d suddenly raise his head as if receiving a secret transmission before purposefully making his way to another part of the store. I watched him repeat this a few times before coming to the realization that the Record Store Fanaticus is, well, a peculiar breed.

Stalwart manager and clerk Phil Liberbaum was there, of course, wearing another of the impossibly cool shirts that fill his wardrobe. It was a red and white polka dot number, and its playfulness felt incongruous with the fact that I had essentially come to pay my final respects.

Phil was a little more harried than usual, but he still managed to make his way over to me as I browsed the reissues. We’ve developed a nice rapport over the years, and we chatted like we’ve done hundreds of times before. Our conversations are always rooted in music, although they’ve come to encompass everything from our professional careers, to family, to what we’d watched over the weekend.

Today’s conversation was rueful, the store’s impending closure after 22 years as a College St. mainstay impossible to overlook.

I told Phil that news of the store’s closure had hit me surprisingly hard; he commiserated, and then relayed stories of customers’ eyes welling with tears as they talked about what Soundscapes had meant to them over the years.

Popular culture has created a widely accepted stereotype of record store clerks as insufferably smug know-it-alls, and I’ve encountered enough of them over my more than three decades of browsing music stores to realize there’s a grain of truth to it.

But Phil, along with his co-worker Ernest Lavventura and Soundscapes owner Greg Davis, never wielded their knowledge like a weapon. Instead they are passionate advocates for music, committed to getting the good stuff into as many people’s hands (and ears) as possible.

Of course, there are still options available to the dwindling number of diehards like me who still care about physical media. And, if I’m being truthful, I can probably find music online for less than I paid at Soundscapes.

But here’s something you don’t get with Amazon: A non-algorithmic recommendation engine named Phil, pushing play on a song, twisting the volume knob hard to the right, and then shouting out his impressions over the music. Occasionally he would air-guitar to a particularly tasty riff, a rock star grimace momentarily transforming his face.

Phil and I share a fondness for guitar-based rock, particularly stuff that’s got a bit of “snarl” to it; a compilation by Australia’s The Master’s Apprentices (whose “Undecided” is one of the great forgotten ’60s anthems) ended up among my last batch of purchases today. When I handed it over to Phil to ring up, he smiled warmly and said, “I’m glad to see it’s going to a good home.” Let’s see Spotify give you that kind of positive affirmation.

It seems overly sentimental, perhaps even a little indulgent, to lament the closing of something as simple as a record store given the incalculable losses so many people have suffered in the past year. But Soundscapes for me — and so many others of my ilk — was always so much more than a mere shopping destination.

It was where a group of likeminded people got together to discuss and debate the finer points of popular music: The relative merits of the Beatles and the Stones; what was the Kinks’ greatest album (Arthur of course); the Ramones versus the Sex Pistols (the Pistols, and for me it’s not even close).

My visits to Soundscapes became so common that it got to be a bit of a running joke between my wife and me that, whenever she came home to an empty house, she’d immediately text to ask me what I was buying there.

Sure, the place was never going to win any beauty contests. Its ancient air conditioner meant it could be unpleasantly warm during July and August, and for years there was an unsightly hole in the ceiling tiles above the cash register. Behind the counter, dusty play copies of CDs stood in teetering piles. It wasn’t perfect, but then I’ve long thought that shabbiness is a hallmark of all good record stores.

But for me it was the brick-and-mortar manifestation of a ferocious passion for rock music that dates back to the first time I ever heard The Who’s “My Generation” as an 11-year-old (it was the live version from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, featuring “Roger from Oz” and “The guy who plays the sloppy drums.” I was transfixed). My tastes broadened and shifted over the years, yet there was always something on Soundscapes’ racks capable of sending me further down a genre wormhole.

I sometimes feel that to be a music junkie is almost akin to being an actual junkie, both characterized by an unquenchable desire for the next fix. In this analogy, Soundscapes was my dealer, and it always had the best shit. Every time I opened its door I felt a sense of anticipation, a frisson of excitement about the discoveries waiting for me inside.

It’s almost impossible to convey this to generations raised on the immediacy and accessibility of YouTube and Spotify, but there was a time, not all that long ago, when certain albums were almost mythical. You’d read about them in Rolling Stone or some other music guide but, for whatever reason, you seldom encountered them in the wild. For me and so many others over the years, Soundscapes was the place where these mythical creatures became manifest.

I first went there in the early 2000s, sent by Gord, the grumpy clerk at Vortex Records in midtown Toronto with whom I’m developed something of a mentor/mentee musical relationship. Gord said I’d probably find a lot of the stuff I was looking for—punk and power-pop were particular favourites—and he was right. Boy was he right.

Even a perfunctory scan of its trademark wooden shelves on that first visit revealed so many titles that I’d read about but never seen. Look, there’s Radio Birdman’s Radios Appear, and Penetration’s Moving Targets and…wait is that really The Celibate Rifles’ Roman Beach Party?

I haven’t travelled extensively, but there hasn’t been a single place I’ve visited — from Boston to Barcelona, Picton to Philadelphia — where I haven’t sought out the local record stores. My obsession doesn’t always sit well with my family, but the monkey on my back (and in my ears) doesn’t care about any of that when there’s music to be discovered and acquired.

I made it a point to “pop” into Amoeba Records in Haight-Ashbury for a couple of hours when I visited San Francisco; and then of course there was the (now-closed) Bleecker Bob’s in New York, and Newbury Comics in Boston. One time while attending a conference in Winnipeg, perhaps 15 years ago now, I trudged through deep snow to find an out-of-the-way used record store. Left there with a collection of Danish punk I haven’t seen in any store since.

I would put Soundscapes up against any one of those stores. And best of all, none of its clerks, in all of the years I visited, were sneering assholes.

The past few years have seen physical media sales crater, not just music but also movies and books. Toronto was teeming with record stores when I first arrived in the late 1990s, but I’ve said goodbye to several regular haunts in recent years: Not just the well-known stores, like Sam’s and HMV, but the scrappy independents like Vortex and Ed’s Record World too. Sometimes, I’d see Facebook friends lamenting the total absence of record stores in their community, and I would think “Thank God I still have Soundscapes.”

But it wasn’t hard to see that the end was inevitable. I would occasionally ask Greg how things were going, would he keep hanging on? Invariably, he would respond in the affirmative, but there were clear signs the new digital landscape was exacting a heavy toll.

His store never fully embraced vinyl, and its once stuffed CD shelves started looking a little threadbare as demand for a suddenly passé product plummeted (when the inevitable resurgence comes 10 years from now, I’ll be sitting pretty). The pandemic would prove to be the death blow, bringing an end to the ticket sales that helped ensure a steady stream of revenue even when CD sales were in the toilet.

It was heartening to read such an outpouring of love and support in the days after its closure was announced. There were several wonderful obits in blogs and magazines, and even the CBC had a lengthy story about its demise.

I expect it will be replaced by another goddamn cannabis store; but for as long as I remain in Toronto, I will look wistfully at 572 College St. whenever I pass by.

Soundscapes will remain open for a few more weeks, but to use a vinyl analogy, its needle is now tracking across the runoff groove. One day in the not-too-distant future it will lift one last time, and yet another Toronto institution will fall silent.

*Oh, and one other thing I loved about Soundscapes that I’ve haven’t seen mentioned in the countless eulogies: The silver bags to hold your purchases. They might have been a literal throwaway, but for me they were synonymous with the store.