There’s a vinyl gold mine in Toronto’s library stacks
On the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library, an older woman sits at a listening station that comes equipped with headphones and a record player. But she’s not grooving to Glenn Gould or hearing Coleman Hawkins. Her coat and scarf are bundled atop the turntable. She’s reading Baudelaire, and the corner of the library that holds a who-knew collection of 14,995 LPs is the quietest spot she could ever find.
But that could change. Last month, the library – on Yonge St. near Bloor St., a stone’s throw away from the long-gone but accurately named Incredible Record Store – held an event called Vinyl 101, an introduction into the rabbit-hole world of record collecting and turntable love. It was well attended, populated by an earnest mix of novices and fanatics, young and old, men and women, and vinyl nerds and those who wish to be.
At a panel of experts – a DJ, a librarian, a hardcore record collector and a hi-fi store rep – they lobbed a steady volley of questions: What’s better, a belt-drive turntable or a direct-drive one? How best to clean vinyl? What’s the deal with 78s?
Organizers of Vinyl 101 hope it was the first in a series of events that will not only educate music lovers on listening the analog way but illuminate the public on the library’s impressive hold of vinyl LPs.
“We’re trying to expand our audience,” says Eric Schwab, the library’s manager of digitization, preservation and arts. “A lot of the young people don’t know about the resources we have.”
The stacks of LPs are behind a counter, not accessible to the public. People can search by title online though, with records retrieved by library staff.
Mr. Schwab, along with Ajene Griffith (a.k.a. DJ Agile) and writer David Sax, spoke to The Globe and Mail a few days before hosting the Vinyl 101 event. They chatted as they perused the library’s eclectic stash. “There are so many people hearing about the vinyl revival,” says Mr. Sax, holding a copy of Music for Subways: Toronto’s Subway Musicians in the Studio, from 1982. “They want to access it, but they don’t know how.”
Well, somebody must know how to access it. For the eighth straight year since Nielsen began tracking music sales in 1991, more vinyl albums were sold than in any previous year. What’s even more interesting than the steady vinyl growth is that young consumers might be the strongest demographic.
MusicWatch, a U.S.-based company dedicated to marketing research and industry analysis for the music and entertainment industry, recently reported that 18-to-25-year-olds made up 13 per cent of people it surveyed but represented 22 per cent of all vinyl buyers, and that the 26-to-35-year-old group accounted for 17 per cent of those surveyed but 26 per cent of vinyl purchasers.
Of course, the hard numbers that reflect the vinyl resurgence have to do with new records. The real aficionados of the world of dust and grooves aren’t the type to pick up the new Arcade Fire album at Urban Outfitters. Neither are they likely to shop online for whatever wacky vinyl product that rocker Jack White is hawking on his Third Man Records site.
No, the hardcore enthusiasts are flea-market maniacs, secondhand-store shoppers, indie-store bingers and estate-sale swoopers. They dig into the crates, and they dig the hunt.
“It’s an activity, it’s a passion, it’s an intentional thing,” says Mr. Sax, currently at work on a new book, The Revenge of Analog. “Vinyl looks good and it feels great, and the act of going out to acquire it is a pursuit.”
Adds DJ Agile: “It starts with the turntable. Once you acquire it, you have to feed it.”
Pawing through the library’s collection – mostly jazz and classical, but not limited to those genres – they’re kids at a candy store, with eyebrows raised by a copy of something like Electronic Music, a rarity recorded at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio in 1967. The LP, issued by Folkways, lists cuts that include Dripsody, Pinball and, perhaps inevitably, The Orgasmic Opus.
Strange finds, from back in time. “It’s not about the sound,” explains Mr. Sax, who says he’s no audiophile. “It’s about the process, the serendipity.”
Apps and online streaming services employ algorithms to assist music listeners in discovering new and old sounds, but there is no adventure in mathematics and mouse clicks. If record collecting is an infinite journey backward, as has been said, it is a trip best made on one’s feet.
Follow Brad Wheeler on Twitter: @BWheelerglobe