Unsung Toronto: The Annex Record Wicket
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Unsung Toronto: The Annex Record Wicket

In which we profile some of the unsung heroes and heroines of Toronto culture.

It’s the mystery surrounding the storefronts at Dupont and Bathurst that make them interesting, even when the businesses behind them are well-known. Apollo 11, for example, across the street from Vesta Lunch (a notable greasy spoon) is one of these places. It’s a 24-hour eatery, like its nearby competition, but the back walls are papered with newspaper clippings from the eponymous 1969 moon landing. Is there a connection? Did someone not make NASA’s cut and open a diner in bitter memoriam?

But no Dupont and Bathurst address tantalizes the imagination more than 1091 Bathurst Street.

Moore’s Pharmacy—once called the Mystery Bookstore, somewhat appropriately—doesn’t exactly look like a pharmacy from outside. And peering in through the front facade, it resembles one even less. Bins and clothing racks are strewn with oddities and knick-knacks—and in some cases, even clothes—while ancient posters depict a bygone Toronto. Until recently, it was hard to get in, and harder still to stick around long enough to know even this much: the store is open for only a few hours each Saturday, and only then when its proprietor feels like it.

On Record Store Day, though, we were fortunate enough to get in, look around, and find one of the best-kept secrets in Toronto, tucked away in what was once the store’s pharmacist’s wicket. The Annex Record Wicket, the brainchild of Matt Hodgman.

How Hodgman came to be a part of Record Store Day is a story in itself. It’s something that he didn’t initially intend to do. “I can recall a conversation I had on the subject with an obligingly helpful clerk at the now-defunct Criminal Records,” he recently told Torontoist. What he learned intrigued him. The exclusive albums offered at Record Store Day events, he told us, draw a pilgrimage of sorts. “The line-ups start early,” he said, reminiscing on his first Record Store Day experience, “and are often peppered with well-known scalpers and gear-heads, some who have dragged along in-laws to help skirt the one-per-customer rule. The line moves slowly; anxious addicts get to the front of the line and maybe find their record fix was sold to someone who’s been waiting in line since 5 am.”

“Record Store Day,” Hodgman added, “can be a harsh mistress.”

Listening to Hodgman speak is like being lectured by an academic of all things vinyl. Since his days as a student at York University’s Winters College, he has been amassing a collection that spans every period and genre from the early 20th century to today. Eventually numbering in the thousands, all painstakingly catalogued, his albums would become his Record Store Day offering.

“I came into vinyl quite late in life,” he said, “coming from a sports-centric family without much interest in music, and in my first years of university I started collecting cheap, beat-up records from a local flea market.” Much of this early exploration was done in North York, far from the competitive scene south of St. Clair.

“As my interests in vinyl traversed from casual enthusiast to committed hobbyist to, eventually, problem hoarder, I was very lucky to have such inlets and outlets as Toronto had to offer my musical tastes,” he said.

There were the MSTRKRFT pressings and Cadence Weapon EPs; there were the vinyl finds that introduced Hodgman to the likes of Do Make Say Think. But there were also the unknowns, some of which are anthologies of everything from early Sigur Ros to mid-’60s southern Californian soul. “I feel almost obligated to rescue these misfits from their sad existence just so they can be played again,” he said. Hodgman doesn’t claim to be a professional or even an expert, but as an enthusiastic student of vinyl himself, he feels a sense of duty to share what he’s learned with the city. But what was needed, he says, is the appropriate venue. “I can’t very well have records sit around my one bedroom apartment, not being played, so I’ve been looking for space for a year or more,” he said. “Somewhere simple, where I could release some pressure on my own collection and hopefully share some music knowledge with any interested or like-minded individuals.”

What resulted was a pop-up store, in which Hodgman and his wares would remain portable—and, most importantly, accessible. Moore’s Pharmacy is now a temporary home for Hodgman’s collection, where 800 records line shelves that once held aspirin and bandages. Noting the quirky, eccentric nature of the space he currently occupies, though, Hodgman admits that the nomadic aspects of his business model may take him elsewhere in the city. But a street address is beside the point. “The space may change, and so may the name, but the intention is always the same and always there,” he said. “My plan is to eventually carry a niche selection of new records that I don’t feel are being properly represented in Toronto’s record stores.”

That Hodgman and his Record Wicket first emerged this year is a bittersweet thing, underscoring the drama surrounding local record stores that defined much of 2011. First, Sonic Boom was forced out of its longtime location at Bloor and Bathurst. It moved across the street to Honest Ed’s to make room for a dollar store. Then, Criminal Records closed its doors in July of last year, without another address to replace its storefront at 493 Queen Street West. These are hard times for a start-up, but Hodgman isn’t deterred. With digital sharing as a now-dominant medium and vinyl bins becoming increasingly niche, the idea of sharing with as many people as possible, working around these conditions, is a driving force behind the whole idea of the Record Wicket—whether it remains the Annex Record Wicket or not.

“Ultimately,” he told us, “I’d like to shorten the gap between MP3 and vinyl releases, where records can still be showcased in a live setting before the digital copy has saturated the market.” He also has his eyes on a children’s section, convincing “hipster parents” to buy old, beat-up turntables for their kids. “With any kind of luck, I’ll still have a record store for those kids to visit when they’re old enough to begin their own music empire.”

And if nothing else, he says with a grin, vinyl will be a great cultural repository once the solar apocalypse wipes all MP3’s from the face of the Earth.