All photos via Rob Whelan
I step into Brian's Record Option from a stale Friday afternoon on Princess Street. Princess is the main artery in Kingston, Ontario, a lakeside city that's a Venn diagram of Queen's University students and 'townies,' the slang denoting every resident that isn't a student. Running right down to the blocky waterfront Holiday Inn, it climaxes in the section known colloquially as 'the Hub.' The Hub, a prototypical, shitty students' boozing playground, is hemmed in by typical sleepy-town standards: an iconic street-corner Pizza Pizza, a kitschy, two-story Burger King and a now-vacant Boston Pizza. It's as unremarkable and cultureless as student hubs come. But Brian's Record Option, the city's premiere, musty used and new record store, is tucked in amidst this madness, between retro late-night diner Tommy's and post-bar staple Pita Grill. It's an entirely missable hole in the wall on a thrumming one-block stretch. The storefront is plastered with dilapidated, sun-faded posters and show flyers; Brian Lipsin, the owner, proprietor and sole employee, even notes that some people at first think it's a poster store.
When I walk in, Paul Simon's Songs from The Capeman, a record of Broadway songs written about Puerto Rican-American murderer Salvador Agron, is humming through the store, a used CD copy that Lipsin is checking out. He's been in the record game longer than most, arguably since before he could walk. "There's a picture of me, maybe six months old, on my parents' balcony in Montreal, and I had a record in my hand, which I used to call 'ecky,'" he chuckles. He's seated behind the counter, which is no less cluttered and claustrophobic than the rest of his 1200 square-foot shop. A couple of Queen's students rummage gingerly through a crammed shelf of used folk records, pulling out skeletal, tattered records and gawking at them. He and his shop are local icons; there's even a mini-doc on him called The Legend. Lipsin frequently has millennials come in and tell him their parents used to shop here: "It's bringing people together."
Brian's Record Option has been a stalwart Kingston institution since 1980 when Lipsin first opened his doors after studying sociology and criminology at McGill, University of Victoria, and University of Ottawa. He grew up in Montreal, where his father worked as a record distributor. "Records were very plentiful in our house. It runs in the family," he grins. He's a kind, unassuming man, draped in an oversized wool sweater with a cat knitted on it, gaping, frayed holes gaining territory across its' midriff region. Half-rim spectacles sit low on his nose, so it constantly looks like he's scolding you, save for the good-natured, toothy smile sitting beneath them. A wiry, bushy grey-black beard sifts down from his chin.
Here, he lives, breathes, works, chats, relaxes; nestled amidst, by his count, upwards of 80,000 vinyl records (it's astonishing such a count can be conducted, but he tells me he has a method and takes inventory once a year), supplemented by thousands of CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, VHS tapes, books, posters, music tablature, and art. And the store is just the tip of the iceberg: his farmhouse in nearby Harrowsmith houses a three-car garage full of records stacked on firewood and tires, and a room that's "floor to ceiling" full of records. There are VHS cases strewn across the floor of the store, which he gestures to: "someone dumped a whole bunch on me, and of course, I don't throw anything out."
It's part of the ramshackle, delightful shop's charm; it's admittedly overwhelming at first blush (Siplin admits he once lost a wedding ring amidst the monstrous collection, only to have it fall out of a Country Joe and the Fish vinyl cover two years later: "I didn't want a wedding ring to begin with," he chortles). It has the earmarks of a hoarder's den (and really, that's an indisputable observation); but what makes it the most unnavigable, inordinate space to type-A makes it the most wonderful, enthralling experience of a store to type-b. Therein a distinction must be made; it is not an HMV or Urban Outfitters, with a tidily curated, sanitized framework, a quick in-and-out utilitarian record experience. When Lipsin left the store (then in its formative days in the early '80s) in the care of his brother and father while he took a week off to attend a folk festival, he returned to find his store, to his utter horror, organized."[They] thought they were doing me a favour, and they turned my store into a Sam (the Record Man's) or HMV, and that's not what I had in mind," he grimaces. "I was really pissed off with them. I don't think I spoke to them for a year."
Naturally, he returned it to its former, and now present-day, catastrophic, unhinged glory. Through one lens, it's a grand social experiment; within that construct, Brian's is a perversion of how man ought to operate. It's illogical, challenging, detrimental. But that's operating from a specific sociological and psychological framework. From another lens, that's merely a populist scheme, an industrialized view of humans as well-oiled and emission-less, clean-cut and categorized. From this lens, humankind isn't inherently clean, or well-kept, or easily-sorted. From this lens, it's not a social experiment or a perverse diversion from the norm; it is the norm. "You have to start with the basis that man is not a rational being. He's irrational." The devil and god are raging inside us, and Brian's Record Option is a gratifying manifestation of this constitution, or perhaps, even, a lack thereof.
"I think character trumps organization," he continues after a pause. "Now, [the store] is organized." He concedes that he does have signage indicating sections, directing me to the tattered cardboard chunks hanging from the ceiling, written on in black permanent marker. "People have to sort of figure it out. If you're like those people that come in here that just think, 'A, B, C, D,' those people will never get it." Some would wonder why he doesn't upgrade to a larger space to accommodate his swollen collection. Why not move into a bigger room and de-clutter? "Then I'll fill that space," he scoffs. "Of course, the rents are really expensive." Downtown Kingston isn't exactly a sprawl; choices are limited, and Brian's real-estate is smack in the middle of where any business might want to be. "I'm here for better or worse, and I have to expand within the confines.
"But you know, it's worked," he states as he shuffles around the counter, digging through a stack of CDs to replace the now-finished Paul Simon. It has indeed. Brian is entering his 37th year of independent operation, with ever-growing returns; he tells me his totals are at an all-time high. "And if it's not broken…" He digresses, and indulges me when I ask the inevitable, cringe-worthy question: what do you love to listen to? Van Morrison, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the usual suspects. But his journey isn't locked in the '60s. Music is one of the great neverending stories; he'd never listened to Neutral Milk Hotel's vital, game-changing In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, until recently.
"I didn't realize how good it was until one of the CDs came in used and I put it on. There's just so much good stuff."
He's now spinning a bluesy album, leaned against the railing behind the counter. He interrupts me from time to time to joke with customers and ask if they need help. His congenial, laid-back demeanor is welcoming and familiar. This feels like a visit to a friend's house, a stay-a-while scene. Most people spend at least 20 minutes poking through the bowels of vinyl heaven.
An independent record store might sound like a coffin to some. Pop culture is riddled with romantic eulogies to the decline of analog media, from 1995's topical Empire Records, to Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind. But even as Sunrise Records closes its doors in Kingston's Cataraqui Town Centre, Brian's holds steady, weathering storms with blasé ease. He giggles at the idea of starting a social media account for the store, something a customer tasked themselves with on Brian's behalf a number of years ago, running a semi-functional Facebook page. Brian recalls being asked if he had a Facebook page: "I looked at him and said, 'what's Facebook?'" Considering most independent start-ups nowadays have a militant social media and online presence, Lipsin's airy dismissal of the internet as a business tool is surprising and endearing. "I have a store," he shrugs, indicating that that's all he needs.
Brian's has survived through perhaps all of the monumental changes to rock the music industry since the invention of vinyl: CDs in the '90s, the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing and downloading in the early 2000s, and now the ever-developing influx of streaming platforms (themselves undergoing tectonic shifts; keep an ear out for ads between songs on Soundcloud). It's no small feat to live and prosper as an independent record store in these times. And it's never done changing; now one of Brian's top competitors is Amazon, on which he's clear about his resentment. He often fields calls from people chiding him for delays in ordering records.
"Some people will say, 'oh I can get that from Amazon.' After that I say, 'I don't know why you bother coming into stores then. Why don't you just stay in your room and order online, and all of us will go under. You'll get your food online. What kind of a life is that, if that's the kind of world you want?' Some people will hang up on me," he laughs. It's probably easy for a digital-savvy/reliant generation to slough off his complaints as outdated, irrelevant, behind-the-times. But this is someone's fucking livelihood, that he's poured his life into; surely someone's life work being threatened calls for some frustration. Brian's Record Option is the Bailey Building and Loans of the music industry, and Lipsin makes a fitting George Bailey. It's not a new story; mass industrialization and homogenization is par for the course and has been for some time. Workers in industrial sectors have long felt the cold elbows of big-box competition and outsourcing.
"The chains that come to town, everyone goes to them, then all the independents go under. They kill all the competition and then they're the only ones left," he laments. "And it's the same thing over and over again. If it's not Amazon, then it'll be someone else. They're the ones that are gonna kill it, cause their heart isn't really into it." The way things are progressing, it appears Brian's Record Option is terminal.
And yet, amid ever-looming doom and obsolescence, he's characteristically zen. He's survived, maybe miraculously, despite guffawing at the music industry's steady march. He's a beacon of optimism, an example that the good guys can win, or at least last long enough to be a thorn in the side of corporate consumerism. "Even if it doesn't last, I'm having a ball right now. If it ever goes bad, c'est la vie. But at least I've seen this."
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.