A musical museum

In a new world of digital downloading, Brian’s Record Option and its vast vinyl collection, stand the test of time

Brian Lipsin opened Brian’s Record Option 33 years ago. The store currently has over 40,000 records, among other items.
Brian Lipsin opened Brian’s Record Option 33 years ago. The store currently has over 40,000 records, among other items.
Brian’s Record Option moved to its current location in 1983.
Brian’s Record Option moved to its current location in 1983.

Kingston’s Brian’s Record Option isn’t all about records — it’s a lot about Brian.

The 33-year-old downtown fixture, located at Princess and Barrie Streets, is home to about 40,000 records, 15,000 CDs, 5,000 cassettes, 5,000 books and 3,000 posters — and it’s all housed in no visually-discernible order within the 1,100 square feet location.

When I walked into the shop, Brian Lipsin, the owner, was sitting behind a counter made of cassette tapes wearing a burgundy knit sweater.

He was talking with a customer about how he doesn’t really understand the point of Facebook.

The storeowner serves clientele all the way from Ottawa, who keep returning for a good gab.

In fact, our conversation was cut off three times by customers who chatted with Lipsin about their musical tastes. Each conversation lasted over 20 minutes.

Using a hands-on and personable approach, Lipsin chats with customers to determine what they like. Sometimes he’ll even play records for them at the store.

“[For example], someone came in and wanted to be introduced to jazz and I spent a few hours with them,” he said. “I took out a bunch of compilations and put them on in the store and they got an idea of what they wanted.”

He recounted a time when a woman came into the store and thought it was HMV, to which he replied, “It’s not HMV, it’s HIV!”

Everyone started cracking up in the store, he said.

“The point is I have a lot of fun here and other people do too,” he said. “At the end of the day I’d rather … have people come in and hang out and we talk and we have conversations and they don’t have to buy anything but just have that experience.”

This is part of the process of discovering good music, he said.

After stepping over a yellow footstool that was probably white at some point, I came across a particular gem: a copy of Rolling Stone magazine, left open on top of a Liza Minnelli record.

The magazine, stained and hardened with time, was dated May 10, 1973.

Lipsin’s collection, amassed throughout the years, isn’t just the alternative genre-lovers’ Treasure Island. It’s also a museum of musical history, in all its messy glory.

That’s because, in over 33 years, Lipsin has seen a lot. Classified as a “used and new” record shop, Brian’s inventory originates from anywhere like music distributors to elderly women looking to sell their jazz cassettes.

In spite of its disarray, Lipsin said his shelves were “at their best.” He recently hired a student to come in once a week to reorganize his records, cassettes and CD’s.

“The thing I’m trying to [achieve] here is character,” he said. “Character, as in you see things on the floor, it’s not neat and sparkling, but I’ll admit it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”

The original Brian’s Record Option was housed on the second-floor of what is now Wallack’s Art Supplies, located near Princess and Barrie Streets. It moved to its current location in 1983.

After graduating with a degree in sociology from McGill University in late 1974, Lipsin took up graduate work at Carleton University.

Finding school work unsatisfying, he moved to Kingston, then a town of “white-bread conservatives,” where he bought his first cassette deck.

His interest in music, though, didn’t come out of the blue, he said.

His father was in the music distribution business while his brother also owned a Toronto record shop. After deciding to move shop to California in the early 90s, a time when CDs were growing in popularity, Lipsin’s brother passed on nearly 20,000 records.

“That’s kind of when my store started to look like it does now,” he said.

Since the store’s inception, Lipsin has seen music culture evolve from widespread eight-track tape deck sales to handling the pressure of a popular digital market.

“You know, the [eight-tracks tape deck] I started off with is all in the bathroom,” he said.

“The whole online thing has really changed everything to do with music.”

For owning a record store, however, Lipsin said he didn’t really have to change.

“I kept things the old fashioned way,” he said. “But now, instead of being the antihero I’m the hero … I’ve become a new store [in disguise].”

Lipsin attributes his success to a revolution in music listeners ignited by a new generation — the one born into the digital market.

“Kids these days, which grew up listening to CD’s and then downloading, are getting more and more into records,” he said.

“They check things out online and if they’re going to buy anything, they’ll buy a record.”

The popularity behind YouTube and iTunes has also changed the focus from albums to singles, creating a disservice to listeners, Lipsin said.

“They were meant to be played, the whole thing,” he said. “You were curious who was this guy playing bass and you found out he had a record on his own and it would be a journey.”

Despite this, he doesn’t think that any music listening device is better than another.

“Whatever you listen to as long as you listen to music — a tape deck and eight-track — music is music,” he said.

“There are some people who come in now who are boggled by technology who need the best this and that,” he added. “I don’t think those people are into music. They’re into technology and there’s a difference.

“They’re all very cerebral and music is from the heart because you have to feel it.”

Though rock is the store’s most popular genre, Lipsin’s customers vary in age.

“A lot of the stores only carry Top 40 now,” he said. “I’m the only place that carries a lot of the early stuff so I do attract a lot of older people ... it’s really for everyone.”

Variety has been key in building the store’s success through time, Lipsin added.

“It’s really a place where everyone can come and find whatever they want and it’s affordable,” he said.

At the end of the day, Lipsin hopes the store’s one-of-a-kind factor will keep it around town for the long haul.

“I could still be doing this when I’m 80.”

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