Just what the doctor ordered to keep Windsor’s downtown record store alive

Todd Shearon
By Todd Shearon April 21, 2018 14:06

Dr. Disc owner Liam O’Donnell helps a customer with their purchase. Photo by Todd Shearon.

By Todd Shearon

If a record is spinning, it can play beautiful music.

But sometimes the record needs to be changed.

Dr. Disc has been become a downtown staple for Windsor music buyers since first opening in 1986.

The local business has crossed multiple generations and survived constant and rapidly changing technology including downloading and streaming.

Before that even happened, Dr. Disc closed for eight months, when a young man changed the tune … for both of them.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Liam O’Donnell, 40, began working at Dr. Disc in London as part of a school co-op placement when he was only 18.

Five years later, in 2001, he and his brother Sean bought and re-opened the run-down Windsor location on the 600 block of Ouellette Avenue.

O’Donnell, who was working at Wendy’s before the purchase, didn’t know what he was going to do.

Andrew Atlin and Christopher Guard gave him a shot.

“My brother and I thought it would be a good idea and I was young enough and willing to do it.”

But it wasn’t without sacrifice.

He left his friends, family and moved to a town with no one.

“I was so young. It was awesome,” he said. “But that place (old location) was terrible. It had no heat or air.”

He joked they would get garbage bins and put wood in them and burn to keep warm.

“You’d sweat and then you’d shiver,” he said.

O’Donnell laughed at a reference to the movie High Fidelity, where John Cusack, who owns a record store says, “it attracts the bare minimum of amount of window shoppers.”

After a decade of dealing with the lackluster environment he moved the store to 471 Ouellette Ave., north of Wyandotte Street.

“I was scared about moving,” he said. “I was worried people had nostalgia for that building who have been coming here since they were kids. Now it’s way better. People come on their lunch breaks and stuff now. And downtown is looking great again.”

 

SURVIVAL

Nick Angelini has worked at Dr. Disc for almost 12 years and is currently the store manager.

He takes care of ordering, web site maintenance, internet, social media and buying.

Angelini means ‘little angel.’

“He’s my little angel,” O’Donnell said laughing.

“He (Liam) loves that,” Angelini said laughing. “I call him the Prince. We’ve all got nicknames for each other good or bad.”

With the dedicated work of Angelini, O’Donnell is now able to only work five days a week instead of seven.

“He bridges the gap,” said O’Donnell. “He runs the place when I’m not around. It wasn’t always like that.”

Signage from original Dr. Disc location now found upstairs in “Vinyl Heaven” of the new location. Photo by Todd Shearon.

O’Donnell and Angelini both agree every day can be different.

“In this job you’ve got to kind of roll with it. You don’t know what’s going to come through the door,” said O’Donnell.

He tries not to worry too much about the future, but says the place is always on his mind.

“It’s not a job where you clock out and you’re free,” said O’Donnell. “I worry about this place non-stop. And that’s okay. We just stick it out. No one is out here to get rich or anything. If we can get by, I’m good.”

He said, “you need the right people to work here. People who care and are proud to be here.”

Angelini says, “Liam is the man.”

“He’s been doing it since he was a kid, he said. “He loves music. He knows how to run this business the best he can and the store wouldn’t be what it is today without him. He’s been around it long enough that he has the motivation and knows how to sustain what we have and to build it.”

 

BUY AND SELL

The Windsor landmark sells vinyl, compact discs, VHS tapes, cassettes, DVDs, blue-rays, turntables and posters as well as other rare finds.

Dr. Disc is not just a retail store, it’s a buying store.

O’Donnell says they try to make it easy.

All you need to provide is government photo identification to sell.

Whether they will buy it or not depends on the product’s condition, their current stock and if they can move it. They pay cash for used items but will give more value on store credit.

O’Donnell will even to go your house if you have a lot of records to sell.

When it comes to what they pay for used items, he said, “that’s a secret,” with a sly eye and a smirk.

 

RECORD STORE DAY

O’Donnell says the resurgence of vinyl sales has been “pretty gradual” and not “all of a sudden.”

“Then record store day,” he said. “That was a real catalyst.”

Record Store Day is an annual worldwide celebration held on the third Saturday of every April since its inauguration in 2007.

The goal is to unite music lovers of all ages at record stores with special parties, in-store performances and special releases.

“It’s nuts. I hide because it’s so crazy (on Record Store Day),” said O’Donnell. “It’s lined up to at least Maiden Lane. It’s pretty stressful.”

With most of the shipments arriving on the Friday night, O’Donnell and his staff are at the store late preparing. “It’s the one day of the year we’re like a factory,” he said.

Angelini says it’s his favourite day.

Record Store Day flyers are spread out on a record player on Dr. Disc’s front counter. Photo by Todd Shearon.

“Record Store Day wasn’t our idea,” he said. “But we do try to take the fullest advantage of that day. It’s the most people you’ll see in here at any given time and it’s nonstop all day. I wouldn’t change it.”

Windsor musician and podcast host, Steve Lefave, has a special bond with Record Store Day because it occasionally falls on his birthday.

The last time being in 2015, when one of his favourite artists, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), was the ambassador.

As the front man of a band, Lefave says it creates excitement and it has been a dream of his for quite some time to do a pressing of his own music on vinyl.

Angelini offers a “tip of the hat” to stores who have been doing it for so long and giving artists a chance to say what they feel about the importance of those stores.

 

MODERN TECHNOLOGY

When it comes to old versus modern technology, people enjoy the option to use both sides of the coin.

For example, Dr. Disc utilizes Facebook and other social media to stimulate traffic, new customers and of course the sales of old music mediums.

Dr. Disc is essentially using modern technology to sell old mediums.

When it comes to Facebook, O’Donnell, who doesn’t have a personal account, made a point of mentioning “that stuff is gold.”

With the high cost of radio and newspaper advertising, O’Donnell likes Facebook because “you can see immediate results.”

“It’s pretty immediate and it’s low cost,” he said. “There are forums of collectors. Everyone’s got to have a hobby, right?

Angelini says social media has helped business because you can get a message out to thousands of people within a few seconds.

“We just try to stay relevant and keep up to date,” said Angelini. “We try to do at least something once a day or once every other day. That’s what has the biggest return. If an artist dies we’ll share an article about them and try to give them a nice little tribute. Anything music related, downtown or community related.”

Vancouver recording artist Skye Wallace says when it comes to downloading sites and streaming apps, the modern technology is good to have…and she makes the most of it.

As an artist who relies on selling merchandise at shows, she says the goal is to incentivize merch sales and try to make bundle deals where downloads are included.

“Honestly, the streaming is a good thing too,” said Wallace. “Spotify plays really do make a difference in terms of access to funding. People take them into consideration, those numbers now. You can use it to your advantage.”

O’Donnell jokingly compared himself to apps like Shazam, which can name a song and the artist after hearing only a short segment of the music.

“I can do that too,” he said. “And I can provide a brick and mortar location (laughing).”

Lefave believes if he didn’t have any of today’s modern technology in terms of streaming music, he would do just fine.

“There’s a little bit of romance lost in all that too,” Lefave said. “As convenient as all those handheld devices are, there is no mystery anymore.”

 

IN-STORE PERFORMANCES

Vancouver artist Skye Wallace sings an original song during an in-store performance at Dr. Disc during her “Other Spaces Tour in March 2018. Photo by Todd Shearon.

Wallace’s recent tour was called ‘The Other Spaces Tour’ and featured shows across the country at alternative venues like record stores, breweries and even a curling club.

Wallace says Dr. Disc has the perfect vibe for that sort of thing.

“(Dr. Disc) has this genuine quality and authenticity that shines through and a lot of people respond to it,” she said. “There is a draw. There’s this kind of magnetic field that’s here. I feel like record stores still have a place because of that feeling and the space that it occupies.”

“There’s an awesome one (record store) in Ottawa called The Record Centre that I like to play quite often,” she said. “They do a lot of shows. I played Zulu Records in Vancouver not too long ago. They (record stores) are definitely a bit of a hub for people to see things.”

Angelini takes care of all the in-store bookings and said he would love to have her back.

Over the years, Dr. Disc has had numerous local and national artists perform in their store including Mother Mother, Dick Wagner (Alice Cooper), Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar) and Sam Roberts.

O’Donnell said, “Sam Roberts was awesome and a gentleman.”

“He had a huge line,” he said. “His manager was telling him he’s got to go and he wouldn’t leave. He spent time with everyone and wasn’t rushed at all.”

“People who normally wouldn’t come here, come, and think maybe they would want to come here again,” he added.

Angelini says bands love playing in record stores and record stores love having bands play in them.

“I’m a huge fan of live music so if a band wants to play here we always try to accommodate them.”

 

NOSTALGIA

“Record stores are not dead because people still value them and keep it alive,” said Angelini.

“I think there’s more to it. People like a place to go. This place is amazing,” said O’Donnell with a smile and a smirk. “I think they like the experience (of hard copy music).”

Call it nostalgic, but music lovers tend to have a love for the tangibility of a physical package, a piece of art and it’s collectability.

Windsor musician and podcast host Steve Lefave searches to find a record he can buy at Dr. Disc. Photo by Todd Shearon.

Lefave says he absolutely hates coming to Dr. Disc.

“The mission when I get here is to buy one record,” he said. “But I’ve been known to leave here spending $250 to $300. I come with the intention of buying a single record and leave with many more.”

Lefave is sure other people spend more than he does in a visit, but to him $300 is a lot of money.

“It’s not a waste of money. But I can still hate coming here,” he said with a smirk and a laugh. “In a good way.”

Like most fans of hard copy music, O’Donnell likes to have the product in his hand.

“I like the idea of a package,” he said. That people are behind this thing. I like to listen to the thing the way it was meant to be listened to. If it’s an album, you listen to that song, then that song. The songs are in order for a reason.”

Angelini says when you look at what is culturally important to people, it makes sense to have a record store as part of the community.

“There’s a little bit of history when you’re shopping around for music,” he said. It’s a different kind of experience as opposed to going shopping for clothes or shoes. It’s a different outlet for people to come together and talk about things they love and maybe learn something new.”

 

CUSTOMER APPRECIATION

“The customers are the best part,” said O’Donnell.

“I think it’s just loving music,” he said. “And it’s fun to get people what (music) they want. It satisfies the need in me to help people.”

He believes you have got to be more hands on and listen to the people who are shopping.

Angelini says Dr. Disc’s success reflects the great taste people have in this city.

“There’s a great sense of music community here and a really tight music scene, he said. “Windsor is a big part of why we’re able to stay open and do what we do.”

Dr. Disc manager Nick Angelini completes a sales transaction with a customer. Photo by Todd Shearon.

 

CLOSING

Lefave says he doesn’t know O’Donnell very well, but can tell “it’s not a job to him. It is a passion. He will go down with the ship if he absolutely has to.”

It is safe to say O’Donnell has earned his stripes and he agrees it could always be worse.

What if his record stopped spinning?

“I couldn’t imagine working on the line. I don’t know what I’d do,” he said.

O’Donnell insists he does think about it, but tries not to.

He used to think he wanted to be a mailman. “Because my name backwards spells mail,” he said with a laugh.

“But every mailman I’ve talked to has got bitten by a dog. Everyone,” he says.

There are two sides to that coin as well.

“If you’re a roofer, you fall off a roof,” he said. “If you’re a mailman, you get bit by a dog. And if you’re a record store owner you get…really bitter and resentful. Nah, I’m just kidding.”

When asked to describe his career in one word, O’Donnell immediately and humourously said “love.”

“I don’t know man. One word? Commitment. How about that? Passion. Anger (laughs).”

O’Donnell says if Dr. Disc were to come to an end there would be some writing on the wall.

“And if it does, I could maybe build a house out of CDs,” he said laughing.

But how does he balance the good and the bad?

“The people that shop here are pretty awesome. I hold up a counter,” he said.

Clearly, he does a whole lot more.

He keeps the records spinning.

Todd Shearon
By Todd Shearon April 21, 2018 14:06

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