1978 witnessed debut albums from such future rock heavyweights as Dire Straits, Van Halen and The Cars, not to mention each of the four original members of Kiss. Yet, the year also marked a musical milestone for the city of Hamilton: the opening of Cheapies Records and Tapes on King Street East.
Owner Brian Jasson had only recently graduated high school at the time, making him younger than most of the artists that his store would soon be stocking. “I started working in a record shop in 1977 after completing Grade 13,” Jasson recalled. “I was offered my own store by the owner of a small chain in Burlington, which I opened in 1978. My second store opened shortly after in Hamilton.”
More than thirty years later, classic records from this era fill teeming used bins at Cheapies, alongside an immense selection of newer and older releases across several formats. Indeed, Jasson notes that Cheapies has withstood decades of flux in the recording industry, with music moving “from 8-track to cassette to CD to free, with vinyl surviving all.” Today, the store also stocks video games, movies and collectibles. The sight of discounted, previously owned Blu-Ray discs further testifies to how rapidly entertainment formats come and go.
Despite changes in the listening habits of its customers, however, Cheapies has always refused to turn its back on the turntable. “Vinyl has never left Cheapies,” said Jasson, “and yet it has been a steadily increasing percentage of sales since 2005 after bottoming in the mid-‘90s.” While few young music enthusiasts start record shops these days, as Jasson did in 1978, they do buy a lot of vinyl. Jasson credits “kids between 18 and 25” with having the biggest impact on vinyl sales.
While vinyl records kept turning in Cheapies over the years, so did the world outside. The store’s neighbourhood, near the intersection of King and John, is markedly different today than it was in the late 1970s. In Jasson’s words, “it’s gone from suit and tie to crack heads, from Woolworths to bingo.”
This blunt assessment reflects the pragmatism with which Cheapies operates. It is easy to romanticize the importance of independent record retailers to their communities. Such stores are sometimes idealized as buzzing, Bohemian hangouts for members of the local music scene to come together and collaborate, whether they are actually buying records or not.
Jasson removes these rose-coloured glasses and runs Cheapies with a more matter-of-fact philosophy. “If you don’t have the stuff people want to buy at the price they are willing to pay for it, you are out of business, and the ‘community’ doesn’t care,” he explained. His words make the idea of a community-based record store sound as sentimental as all the Christmas albums currently on display at Cheapies’ entrance.
Despite Jasson’s claim not to “understand connecting with the community,” however, Cheapies does make some attempts to extend itself beyond its doors. In the summer months, there are regular sidewalk sales. Employees also manage an active Twitter account that fields constant questions about whether certain items are in stock
These efforts reflect the personal touch and knowledgeable staff that Jasson believes keep people coming back to Cheapies in the iTunes age. “There is something about coming home, being comfortable, touching the product and having 60-plus years experience anytime during the day,” he said.
Given the transformation that the recording industry has undergone since 1978, it is difficult to imagine how people will be listening to music three decades from now. Yet, whether Hamilton music fans of the future use iPods or direct line-ins to the brainstem, it seems likely that Cheapies will be around to meet their needs. If so, the store’s continued success will surely be based on ordinary business savvy, just as much as nebulous notions of “community.”