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An interview with Jeff Barber, owner of Sonic Boom

Jeffrey Barber stands amidst the vinyl as Sonic Boom prepares to move

Vinyl records at Sonic Boom stretch wall to wall

Honest Ed's, present home of Sonic Boom

Signage outside of Sonic Boom

Record players and accessories are also available at Sonic Boom

Jeff Barber saw vinyl die and watched it be reborn again. Now he's preparing for the rise of a new phoenix: his own. After spending more than a decade in the Annex, the owner of record store Sonic Boom is preparing to move shop for the third time in as many years. He's been at the helm of an industry that's struggled to rise from the ashes, but he's one of the lucky ones who has remained fluid enough to survive. His rebirth comes not in the form of a resurrection, but in an entirely new neighbourhood. Sonic Boom is moving to Queen West. 

After being forced to relocate from the longstanding post near the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, barber approached and took temporary solace in a space within the iconic Honest Ed's building—the only spot he could find big enough to fit his 10,000 square foot record store. However, Honest Ed's fate was hanging in limbo and Barber knew it would not be a permanent fix. He opened a second smaller vinyl shop in Kensington Market, while he waited for the sale of Honest Ed's to be confirmed. When it was announced last year that Vancouver developer Westbank Properties scooped up the Mirvish property and its surrounding village, Barber knew it was only a matter of time before he'd have to move again. 

So he started looking right away and when the 13,000 square foot space in the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina just north of Queen was available, he jumped at the opportunity. The new store, due to its close proximity to Kensington, will fold the two existing locations into one. It is slated to open late September or early October. 

"My first choice would be to stay in the Annex for sure. It's been good to me and I like the neighbourhood," Barber says.  "It's always scary to potentially move and relocate." 

The Robertson Building is home to the Centre for Social Innovation and Dark Horse Espresso and is located just north of the fashion district and just south of Chinatown. New stores and eateries have been moving into the area and Barber is optimistic about his decision to be proactive about the move—the first Mirvish renter to take the leap. 

"The current location has these nice little funky weird things to it, but the new location is a cool palette to work with. It's vibrant," he says. "I would like to say that I'm spearheading part of the revitalization of the Spadina strip, but it's more that it's close to Queen, it's affordable, and it's a bonus that it looks like a lot of new, hip places are starting to move in along Spadina."

Sonic Boom is a bit of an anomaly. The massive shop first moved into the Annex in 2001 in the heart of Napster's prime. Its opening was naturally questioned. 

"I had customers coming in and going 'Have you not heard of Napster? Have you not heard of the Internet, dude? You're crazy.' And I truthfully thought I might have a six-year run at it. That's one of the reasons that I moved to Toronto was I wanted a large market to draw from because I knew it was going to become more of a niche market," he says.

And although he had these instincts about the market, he admits he never foresaw the revival of vinyl, which has become Sonic Boom's top selling point. The store places great emphasis on curated used vinyl, buying used records from customers while actively scouring for sought after collections. Up until recently, Sonic Boom's top sales were CDs and DVDs, but he likens vinyl's contemporary popularity as a "digital backlash." It stems from a desire to hold something tangible, to experience a physical medium.

It is perhaps by this logic that Sonic Boom exists in a world almost without Internet. Yes they have a strong social media presence and an updated website, but the store does not—and will not—sell anything online. 

"We never have. I see these stores that sell online and what happens is [the catalogue] gets cherry picked and then there's no reason to come in because the store stock is not as good as it could be.  Then you have this demise in your clientele. We keep it here. We wont sell as much as we could online because you're looking at a world market online, we could maximize sales if we did it, but again I think it pays off that we continue to just have a great selection in store."

Up in the annex, competition is low. Sonic Boom owns the area as the top record store, something it plans to do going forward. Now it's moving to a neighbourhood with several record stores. Nearby, there's Rotate This, Cosmos Records, and Kops Records. 

"Competition is a good thing, it's a very healthy thing. I got into this business because I am a record geek, that's all I've done since my early teens and even before that. If I was in a city, I would go to a neighbourhood that had multiple record stores. I could go to this neighbourhood that has one, or I could spend the afternoon in this neighbourhood that has three, four, five—well I'm going to go into that neighbourhood," Barber says. 

"When I first moved here 13 years ago, there was five record stores within a three block radius and that was part of the intrigue for me to move here. It wasn't as some people think to drive them out of business, most of that had to do with the fact that the record retail industry through the 2000s was a dying industry, over two out of three retailers across north America went out of business. But when I moved here I did see their shopping bags in my store and my shopping bags in their stores. I think it's a great thing to be closer to all of the stores down on the Queen strip."

One thing that truly sets Sonic Boom apart though is artist Tim Oakley's iconic window displays. Long time fans of Oakley's work will be happy to know the new space's large windows and corner location will invite larger scale pieces back to the storefront, giving rise to some of the history of the original Bloor Street location.

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor. 
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