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'Business has never been better:' Pandemic bringing customers back to Compact Music

Compact Music says the focus on 'shop local' has really helped the store thrive.
stock image of records
A collection of old vinyl albums. Photo/ Shutterstock

It's not all bad news on the local retail scene during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turns out the renewed popularity of vinyl records, and a pandemic-induced shakedown is, ironically, making 2020-2021 a record year for Ian and James Boyd's Compact Music.

After years of losing sales to online streaming giants like Apple, the little shop at 785 Bank St. is enjoying a renaissance. What was until recently a retro novelty, vinyl record sales have grown to become the industry standard, accounting for more than 90 per cent of Compact Music's total sales, while compact discs, the once dominant music medium, barely registers at the cash register with less than 7 per cent of the bottom line.

It was all good news, that is until 2020 when the pandemic protocols began temporarily shuttering big box stores and shopping malls. The future appeared grim.

But in Compact's case, its owners say less has become more.

By the fall 2020, the Glebe BIA launched a 'shop local' campaign which helped mobilize consumers to shop the Glebe's independent retailers.

“Shopping malls have had a tough time during COVID,” Ian Boyd, 63, observes. “Recycled air is not a healthy environment. Shopping in the Glebe is a healthy environment, lots of fresh air. Then, there was the push to shop local. We are as local as it gets. Jennifer runs J.D. Adams, the McKeens are in their store, Paul runs Glebetrotters. The owners are in the store.”

Gradually, many non-essential workers who were working from home and bored with Zoom meetings were looking for a new outlet and began visiting Compact, talking to the Boyd's about music, reminiscing about favourite concerts, and more importantly, buying vinyl records and building collections again.

Overnight, a new, local and loyal clientèle with money to buy Compact's artisanal musical catalogue was born.

“It's given us a new lease on life,” says Boyd. “Independents like me have a vested interest in ensuring we retain their clients. We depend on ourselves. I can ask you five questions and I'll know what to sell you. But it takes time to learn how to do that. People who work in shopping malls are making minimum wage part-time generally and don't work there long enough to learn how to do that and build their client base. I wouldn't run a store if I didn't own it.”

It's an astounding turnaround for the store that came perilously close to closing for good less than 10 years ago.

“Retail is a tough business anytime,” Boyd summarizes. “But around 2013, the writing was on the wall. The trend was to buy music online, and CD sales were declining. The industry was changing. But we had a loyal base of customers that kept us afloat. They saved us.”

“I've gone to work everyday with a smile on my face since then,” he adds. “My brother James and I will work until we're 80, but that's okay because it's not a demanding job and I love it.”

Boyd's love affair with recorded music began the first time he heard Petula Clark's “Don't Sleep in the Subway, Darling” when he was seven. It was was a transformational moment.

“That's when my addiction to vinyl began,” Boyd admits.

At 19, he opened an outdoor pop-up record store called Circular Motion. He sold seven records on his first day. He felt like he had joined the big league. Flush with success, he opened his first store, Record Theatre at Westgate Mall in 1979 and was there, off and on, for the next 11 years.

“We did really well,” Boyd says. “It was hard to run an independent retail business in the beginning, because there were many strong brands; Treble Clef, Sam the Record Man, Sherman's Music Land, A&As, and I was a nobody. But I had a great radio ad on CHEZ of a skipping record repeating 'Record Theatre click, Record Theatre click,' It caught the attention of the kids that buy records.”

A fixture in the Glebe since 1996, Compact Music's identity was to be a music shop for musicians and music fans, offering a wide array of curated and sometimes obscure recordings that often paired well with whoever was playing at Blues, Jazz or Folk fest.

“We thought of ourselves as an art gallery for music, with as wide a selection for as many tastes as possible,” Boyd explains.

They set up tents at the major festivals and sold records and CDs. Boyd remembers selling 700 copies of Xavier Rudd's first album in one hour following Rudd's Jazzfest concert. Hard work, but fun.

“I don't want to be a mover and shaker anymore. I just want to run one store. I want to come to work, listen to my tunes, do a good job and listen to the next 20-year-old who wants something new and then go home. The Glebe and the BIA have been great to us. We hope to still be here 15 years from now.”

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