Vinyl rules at The Record Centre, the musical heart of Hintonburg

John Thompson in his store. Photo: Peter Robb

In 1999, John Thompson made an important decision.

He’d been working as a papermaker at the old E.B. Eddy plant for some 20 years. It was well-paid but dangerous work and it was getting to him.

“I hated the shift work at Eddy’s. It was dangerous. There were all these things; the chemicals and all this stuff. So I left when I was 39.”

He looked around for other work and started learning about software programming but he soon realized that was not for him. But he did have another option, in fact, it was his passion.

John loves vinyl records. He collects them by the dozens. He also picks up audio equipment and is fond of repurposing it.

At that time something new was happening online. It was the beginning of eBay, the online auction house.

Ottawa-based singer-songwriter and standout harmonica player Catriona Sturton, during a performance in The Record Centre. Photo: Peter Robb

“I had been a record hoarder and I was into vintage audio. That’s my specialty, vintage audio, fixing it up and selling it.

“I’m a picker just like American Pickers. What I love about that show is the guys really know their s**t about certain things. I know records, vintage audio and vintage toys and cameras.”

John put an ad into a PennySaver that said he was buying record collections, large and small, vintage audio and other collectibles. Pretty soon, “I was getting more calls than I could go to.” At that point he needed a new storage unit.

The PennySaver ad turned into a viable business and pretty soon John was off the 9 to 5 treadmill and he was his own boss. But he always wanted a store.

“I just couldn’t see how I could get one. There seemed to be too many obstacles.”

So he kept working his online enterprise.

“It’s my core business. It still exists today. You can find me on eBay.” He was adept at using the business opportunities available on the internet. He set up his own YouTube channel where he posted “goofy videos I made of the turntables I was listing on eBay.”

Then Workman John approached him. The CHEZ-FM personality was running a CD store in Hintonburg and he asked John to take over the business.

By 2011 Thompson was running the store. He and a friend named Jeff Crosier worked together to come up with a plan for the operation.

“It involved selling nice records and reconditioned audio equipment and being nice to people. That is still today our mission statement.”

By 2015, however, Thompson was ready for a move. He wanted to focus on just selling vinyl and audio. And he wanted his own outlet. That’s when another door opened. The owner of the Character Hair Salon came to see John and asked if he would take over his lease.

“I said yes right away.” And The Record Centre, as it is located today, was born.

Anyone who has been in the story at 1099 Wellington St., knows it is jammed with vinyl records and audio gear. Thompson says he has some 100,000 albums in the basement of the store and he has about 250,000 in all. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”

People wander in a browse through the record bins or they carry in old turntables and offer them for sale.

But it’s more than that.

The Record Centre has become a place where musicians and music lovers congregate to  exchange stories and to connect and to perform.

Over the years, he said, hundreds of shows have been played in the tight confines. The performers range from folk singers to rockers to experimental jazz ensembles to classical players. And those shows have been recorded on some of the store’s vintage recording equipment.

One day Mike Dubue of the band The Hilotrons approached Thompson.

“He was in the store a lot. I started talking with Mike and” one thing led to another and they decided to make a vinyl album.

Thompson contacted Quality Record Pressings in Kansas City run by a guy called Chad Kassem to physically produce the record.

“He is my hero. He started selling records in his basement. We both started doing the same thing. At the time he had one of the best pressing sites in the U.S. They made that record for us. Phil Bova Jr. mastered it for vinyl and a local guy did the artwork on the record.”

The recording was done in the store and John “had so much fun doing it we started making a couple of others. As a vinyl guy I was always fascinated by how the sounds was made.

“I hold records a lot and I have loved them and listened to them and wondered, ‘How does that little needle pick up so much detail and convey the emotion of the original performance?'”

Thompson said he believes vinyl works because it conveys that emotion so much better than a CD or any digital version of music does.

Just after The Hilotrons release party at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Thompson was talking to Holger Petersen of Stony Plain Records and Tony D of MonkeyJunk.

“We started talking about making a vinyl record with MonkeyJunk because they hadn’t done vinyl before.”

Petersen said he didn’t want to make a vinyl record, but, he added, if Thompson wanted to make the record he’d buy half of them.

With that commitment, “we made a MonkeyJunk record. That was the second album on the label. That was a big success.”

Others started to hear about these records and more artists came knocking.

Next through the door was the Ottawa-based jazz innovator Jesse Stewart with an experimental trio known as  Sonoluminescence Trio with William Parker, the free jazz bassist and David Mott, a composer and baritone saxophonist. Stewart was on percussion.

Thompson invited them to perform in the store and the session was recorded on a quarter inch two track reel-to-reel.

The trio performed with a painter named Jeff Schlanger who would paint live while they played. That became the third release and Schlanger’s artwork became the album cover.

“We weren’t really a label then. We were just making records. We still think of ourselves that way. We don’t have any machinery, we don’t have a budget, we don’t get grants. I fund everything with the bands. We are winging it.”

That doesn’t mean the label Record Centre Records is a non-profit. The company remains selective about the recordings they do.

But the jazz record proved “we could do anything and everything from straight up indie rock to blues to experimental jazz.”

They’ve recorded Merganzer, an experimental pop project started by violinist Mika Posen, who is also connected to Timber Timbre, Agnes Obel and Forest City Lovers, Oh Susanna, Sparklesaurus and the LyNNES, just to name a few.

“Because we have so many shows in the store, we have made records with people who are connected to the store. If you just walked in off the street and had no connection to us there’s no way we’d make a record with you. But we support the community that supports us.”

It’s his honest curiosity that has propelled Thompson into different ventures.

“I own the store. I don’t have to answer to anybody. I have a partner who has been with me since Day One. We have a way of analysing what we do. There are other ways to measure how successful different things are than just how big our sales are.”

“You can’t just measure project by success at the cash register — that’s been the case with the label and that’s been the case with our support of the community.

“We’re playing the long game.

“It sounds so hokey to say this, but there isn’t a single day when I cannot wait to get into the store.”

Thompson believes vinyl, which is undergoing a renaissance that seems to be enduring,  works because of the connection people have with the music.There is something about the sound.

There is also “the ritual of cleaning a record, of dropping the stylus onto the first track. The bottom line is I am also an audiophile and I spend a lot of time fussing. I just know  vinyl sounds way better.”

These days, Record Centre Records has a distribution deal with F.A.B. Distribution.

“Once we started to have 15 releases we needed to find a way to get them distributed.

In the end the deal will make it easier to get sales because of this established pipeline.

But it doesn’t mean the records will sell.

“It just means when I help someone make a record now, it means the record can get into record stores. We make small runs of 300 to 500 albums and when they are gone, they are gone. But even so bands make more off selling one vinyl record than from thousands of streams,” he said.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.