A press release went out late this morning announcing that Sonic Boom, the venerable CD/Vinyl/DVD retailer and sometimes concert venue at Bloor and Bathurst, will be pulling up stakes and moving around the corner. “It may be viewed like we’re struggling,” says founder and manager Jeff Barber. “But that’s not the case.” Sonic Boom won’t go down as a casualty in the ongoing war between brick-and-mortar record stores and digital downloaders. But it may go down as another tenant unceremoniously ousted by landlords eager to bolster their bottom line.
“The thing is,” says Barber, “we’ve never had a down year in sales. The community has embraced what we were trying to do, even as the industry’s gone to shit.” With 9,000 square feet on its street-level housing mostly racks and racks of CDs, filling the air with a familiar “click-clack” soundtrack, and 3,500 more square feet in the basement given over to vinyl, cassettes, and a tucked-way concert stage, Sonic Boom is Canada’s largest independent record store. Known for its lively in-store performances and lavish window displays, it’s also become a cultural hub of the Annex. After 10 years in the building, Barber’s landlord expressed an interest in “redeveloping” the property. And even though Barber expressed interest in paying more rent, or even purchasing the parcel, he and the rest of the Sonic Boom gang have been told to beat it. In their place, Annex residents can look forward to—wait for it—a new Dollarama.
“There’s a dollar store right down the street,” fumes Barber. “It dumbs down the neighbourhood.” Indeed, the intersection is flanked by bargain shops. And the new businesses moving in on that stretch of Bloor (including new high-end bike shops, poutineries, fro-yo merchants, and a new resto called Guu in the space formerly occupied by one of T.O.’s more hellish Burger King franchises) make a Dollarama east of Bathurst seem, well, out of character with recent developments. And, west of Bathurst, the granddaddy of low prices, Honest Ed’s, is already perched kitty-corner to Sonic Boom’s current digs, dominating the dollar-store/bargain-shopping milieu.
But now Sonic Boom will get even friendlier with Ed Mirvish’s carnival-o’-bargains, taking up shop in the Honest Ed’s complex in late August. Barber has worked out a “very favourable lease” with the building’s owners and will be taking over approximately 11,000 square feet on the east side of the building, “right where the [Bathurst] streetcar stops.” In-store performances will still be a staple. And with 60 linear feet of street-facing windows, Sonic Boom’s massive, eye-catching dioramas will still be a feature of the store, though they’ll have to be scaled back a bit. Barber also plans to open a satellite store in Kensington Market, though he hasn’t yet signed the lease and remains hush on the details. He did say that the new outlet will be “vinyl focused” while also selling “vintage casual wear and curios.” And if you’ve ever spent half-a-second in Kensington Market, you know the curio market simply cannot be saturated.
Despite the setback, Barber remains confident that Sonic Boom will be a touchstone of Toronto’s music, and retail, culture. “I’d like to say I had a crystal ball that told me what to do,” he says about opening the store in 2001. “But I didn’t. The staff does a great, creative job, making it an entertaining place. We try to make it an event to walk in the store. And we’ve stuck to our guns, where a lot of places, like HMV, have abandoned selling CDs altogether… and the vinyl resurgence has been astronomical. We’re still selling vinyl hand-over-fist.”
With the recent announcement that the neighbouring Bloor Cinema will be closing its doors for an indeterminate length of time as of June 30, it seems as if the eastern edge of Bloor and Bathurst is losing two of Toronto’s major cultural institutions. Three if you count the Burger King.