Photo: The iconic Sam the Record Man on Barrington St. R.I.P.
Halifax’s modern musical history was built on vinyl.
Sloan’s Jay Ferguson developed his musical tastes when he started working at Ol’ Dan’s Records at the age of 12, later working at the Barrington Street location of Sam the Record Man. DJs and hip-hop performers like Rich Terfry, a.k.a. Buck 65, and Jorun Bombay would spend hours sorting through the stacks at Taz, or scrounging the archives of campus radio station CKDU. Many credit the 1986 compilation record Out of the Fog with kickstarting the city’s underground music scene. (Yes, I have a copy of the rare LP and, no, you can’t have it.)
With one exception, the stores where the pioneers of Halifax’s music scene built their record collections no longer exist. HMV is the last chain standing, but they have no locations in the downtown core. Long-time institutions like CD Plus, Urban Sound Exchange, Random Play and the iconic Sam the Record Man all bit the dust, done in by market trends, buyouts, landlord disputes and other all-too-common maladies. But with death comes rebirth: two of the three major record outlets in the downtown area have only sprung up within the past five years and report growing business as the vinyl revival broadens the record-buying audience.
Like Halifax’s music scene itself, the city’s record stores are small (in number and, in some cases, size) but mighty. You’ll find ample support for the scene’s emerging artists, with nearly all stocking a solid selection of local releases. You’ll find super knowledgeable staff, many of whom have been around the Halifax music-store scene for years.
But there are downsides. If you’re looking for new vinyl, you’ll also find high prices: though they try their best, Halifax’s outlets struggle to keep costs down in the face of shipping costs and other factors, meaning you can probably find the new Black Keys or Beck record a wee bit cheaper in Toronto or Montreal. Still, though, there are plenty of gems to be found hidden among the city’s stacks.
If you find yourself in Halifax looking for records, here’s a guide to get you started:
A record shopping excursion in Halifax shouldn’t end with Taz, but it probably starts there.
Atlantic Canada’s largest record store is also the city’s oldest, with more than 30 years in the business. Started in 1983 by Bob Switzer, a figure that long-time scenesters still wax poetic about (he passed away in 2005), the store has survived the twists and turns from vinyl to cassette to CD and then back again. In its stacks, you’ll find tens of thousands of LPs, 7-inch singles and CDs, with a healthy mix of new and used material.
Taz has moved through several locations over the years, setting up at its current location on Grafton Street just over a year ago. Co-owner James Donnelly says it’s the best location yet, and it’s hard to argue: though a bit smaller than the previous store, it’s highly visible (just off of Spring Garden Road, the city’s busiest pedestrian street) and still has plenty of room to spend an hour or two rummaging around the stacks.
“It’s about selection and price,” says Donnelly, when asked what sets Taz apart. “I try and keep the prices as low as I can, at least for Halifax, and we try and always keep Taz fresh. Every time someone comes in here, they’ll find new stuff that’s arriving every day.”
The store also sells turntables and supplies and, like many record stores, has seen a big surge in younger customers in recent years. (As you’d expect, artists like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver are big sellers; Beck’s Morning Phaseis currently the hardest to keep in stock.) The store posts a list of new CD and vinyl arrivals weekly on Facebook, and will readily place orders or items on hold via social media. There are regular in-store performances, and with a staff of six between two locations—their other location is in the Halifax suburb of Bedford, but more on that later—there’s plenty of expertise to help find what you’re looking for.
For Donnelly—a music geek who explains the resurgence of records with a simple exclamation of “vinyl is so damn fun”—the store is truly a passion project.
“You can’t leave a record store unhappy,” he says. “It’s not possible.” (1521 Grafton St.)
The two other major record stores on the city’s peninsula share two things in common: a neighbourhood (Halifax’s north end, around Agricola Street) and selection that plays to the owner’s personal interests and expertise.
Obsolete Records‘ owner Ian Fraser is a familiar face in the city’s music-store scene. He worked at Urban Sound Exchange until it was bought out by CD Plus, then worked there for another decade before the company wound down its Barrington Street location in 2010.
“It gave me the push in the direction of trying it on my own,” says Fraser. “I’d kept the contacts I’d made, the distributors, and I eased into my own business.”
While it features a solid suite of used CDs and a couple small racks of used LPs, Obsolete’s main focus is new vinyl. The store’s tastes line up with Fraser’s, skewing heavily towards indie and alternative rock—the sort of acts you’d find on Matador, Merge, or Touch and Go—with a healthy smattering of hip hop as well.
“I don’t have a huge selection, but it’s quality over quantity,” says Fraser. “The vast majority of the stuff I carry here is stuff that I would like in my personal collection, stuff that I’m really passionate about and can definitely recommend.”
The store just marked its four-year anniversary, and Fraser says business keeps improving. While he could see adding perhaps another rack or two of vinyl, for the most part he wants to keep things concise and focused on his devoted clientele, many of whom have stuck with him over the years.
“There’s a lot of people in this city that have similar tastes to me that, unless I carry the stuff, they’d have to order from the labels direct. I have a lot of really loyal, really great customers that are really in tune with the things I’m into.” (2454 Agricola St.)
Black Buffalo Records
Kevin Beal isn’t just the owner/operator of Black Buffalo Records: he’s also the co-organizer of the Halifax Record Fair, which happens twice each year in the spring and fall. The city was without a regular record fair for years, until Beal attended a vinyl liquidation sale hosted by local rock radio station Q104. He was inspired.
“I was like, ‘Look at all these people: there’s a real demand in this city for records,'” he says. “A light bulb went on in my head. I talked to my buddy Phil MacDonald and we decided to just go out and do it.”
There have been six record fairs since that first one, and soon Beal was selling extra records from his collection out of his garage under the name “In Vinyl We Trust.” (When he found a store in the US with the same name, he came up with Black Buffalo by combining his favourite colour and animal). The business has grown since then, and it’s about to grow again: this July, he expects to move from his current spot on the upper floor of a warehouse on West Street to a street-level location on Cornwallis Street. While the store features some new vinyl, its primary stock is used LPs.
“We’ve always got the classics that everybody will carry—Floyd, Zeppelin, Beatles—but also things that align with my personal tastes. What I have, more than the other stores, is probably the harder heavy rock, and a lot of used jazz and soul.”
Currently there are about 5,000 or so records on the shelves, but Beal has another 10,000 at home that he could flow through the stacks at any given time. His collection earned a huge boost earlier this year when he came into possession of about 20,000 or so records from the local CBC archives that had been donated to Feed Nova Scotia to sell. Beal made an offer for the entire collection and, bit by bit, is assessing them and adding them to the stacks.
“The personal aspect I like to bring,” Beal says, when asked about his approach to the store. “We’ll play anything you pull out here in the store. We want to be a place where people can come in, discover and talk about music.” (5687 West St., Ste. 250)
Photo: Via Selectsounds.ca
If you constrain your Halifax vinyl shopping to the city’s peninsula, you might be missing out.
Select Sounds has been selling used records, CDs and tapes in Bedford, a former town that’s now part of the city’s regional municipality, for 20 years, and it could be well worth your while to make the trek. The store, co-owned by David Eisener and Michael James, focuses predominantly on used records.
“We have pretty much everything except children’s records,” says James, estimating their collection at about 20,000 LPs or so. “We offer a huge selection of used vinyl. We have an inventory that’s been built up over 20 years so we have a lot of stuff.”
With LPs mostly located on the bottom shelves, your knees might get a bit of a workout, but you’ll find everything from new wave to jazz to indie. James says, by and large, most customers tend to be looking for the standard 60s-70s classic rock canon: Zeppelin, Floyd, Sabbath, Young, Stones, Beatles.
“Everybody’s looking for the same bands,” he says. “When we first started the store, it seemed like the scope of what people were looking for was broader, now it seems to have narrowed down more. You can sell lots of particular types of bands, but [for some other] bands, there isn’t much interest anymore. Even ’50s rock like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, there isn’t much interest in that, probably because it doesn’t get played on the radio much.”
If you want to check out the store’s selection for yourself, it’s approximately a 15-20 minute drive from the downtown, depending on traffic, and about 50-60 minutes by bus on route 80. (1475 Bedford Hwy.)
Photo: Lost and Found, via Courtney M. From Yelp.ca
Taz Bedford: Select Sounds isn’t the only vinyl game in Bedford. Taz opened a second location there just last year, focusing more on new vinyl and turntables but with a used collection that’s been growing steadily. Clearly, there’s a healthy vinyl appetite among the region’s suburbanites.(1270 Bedford Hwy.)
CD Heaven: As you might expect from the name, the bulk of CD Heaven’s stacks focus on those shiny plastic discs, but you’ll find about 2,000 or so used records there to sort through as well. (118 Wyse Rd.)
Lost and Found: This cool vintage shop located in the city’s north end stocks new records from the Divorce Records label, including artists such as JFM, You’ll Never Get To Heaven and Jerry Granelli. (2383 Agricola St.)
HMV: You pretty much know what to except in terms of vinyl at HMV’s two mall locations in Halifax: a small rack or two of new records, sometimes surprisingly affordable, sometimes egregiously overpriced.(Halifax Shopping Centre and Mic Mac Mall)