Upon opening in 1991, the HMV on Yonge proved to be more than just a chain store, boasting a deep selection, knowledgeable staff and legendary in-store events. But after a decade of declining sales and increased corporate meddling, the 333 just ain’t what she used to be. We spoke to former employees about the rise and fall of a superstore.
Now half its once-formidable size and currently indistinguishable from any of the chain’s mall outlets, HMV’s flagship store at 333 Yonge has become a shadow of its former self. You can almost see the once-monolithic music retailer sigh under the weight of its own slow demise, its future all the more uncertain after HMV was sold off last June to a British firm that plans to radically restructure the business.
Fifteen years ago, however, the HMV Superstore was a mandatory destination for music collectors. Its staff knew more about music than you did, but wanted to share with you. It was where hundreds of people lined up for a Radiohead midnight sale, where Joe Strummer once performed, where Foxy Brown caused a riot and where Korn shut down Yonge Street so they could do something as stupid as park a tank in front of the store.
Before most of us stopped caring about record stores and started downloading, the HMV Superstore was an anomaly in music retail. It shouldn’t have been cool because it was part of a chain, but whether it was the latest DJ Qbert record, a Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble of Shadows box set or a cheap Mungo Jerry greatest-hits disc, you went to 333 Yonge to buy it. And anyone who worked there in its heyday—yours truly included—will tell you: it didn’t just feel like another retail job.
Note: at their request, some names of former employees interviewed for this oral history have been withheld.
THE EARLY YEARS
In May of 1991, the HMV Superstore opens at 333 Yonge.
Darryl Weeks (HMV marketing supervisor, 1997-2002; currently runs StageFright Publicity): I skipped school to go to it on opening day. I drove all the way from Barrie with a friend, and I was just losing my mind. I don’t remember seeing anybody, I just remember walls of records that I’d never seen before—walls of British import singles.
THE MONUMENTAL ERECTION
In 1995, the HMV Superstore doubles in size to 35,000 square feet.
Gary Robertson (systems/stock supervisor, 1991-2004): That was monumental—there was enthusiasm with the chaos. For the grand opening there was a huge party with industry people and journalists and bands. Everyone was really excited when the doors opened—they decorated the movie department with a marquee sort of feel.
Dave Murphy (indie-music buyer, 1993-2003): It was a very positive thing, especially for the people who were involved in country or folk and world music, and the video section. They were cramped in their little corners of the store. Obviously things were going really well.
The HMV-hosted concert is a tradition that dates back to July 5, 1991, when Alice Cooper performed on the rooftop of 333 Yonge. However, following the 1995 renovation, HMV welcomed a seemingly endless lineup of unique in-store performances, including a back-alley Green Day show, a 1999 Red Hot Chili Peppers set on Yonge Street and an Oasis acoustic gig. In 1996, Marilyn Manson met his legions and, after he tired of signing autographs, deigned to let people shake his hand; *NSync teenyboppers witnessed a daytime shooting in March 2000 while they waited for their hunks; and Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine threw a hissyfit because he didn’t have any hand sanitizer and didn’t want to shake hands with people.
Gary Robertson: Ozzy Osbourne would be signing autographs and there’d be a line-up going all the way to Ryerson. Same thing with Mariah Carey. We’d even get a Polaroid taken with Mickey Dolenz. And the Ramones were there signing, too. It seemed like every week there’d be something. It was almost like this was a stop that bands would do when they were promoting something—go do a session at 333.
Darryl Weeks: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros [in July 2001] was an amazing event. *NSync played there too, but Joe Strummer was somebody that the cooler, snobbier kids who worked there would identify with—me being one of those kids. Strummer showed up and was the nicest person I’d ever had doing an in-store there. He put on a great show—it wasn’t like three acoustic songs, sign some autographs and get out of there. It was a full-on gig and he spent a lot of time chatting with the staff and fans after. There was no big security thing or the “velvet rope.” He just hung out until everybody was happy. I smoked a spliff with him in the boardroom. I don’t think that would happen anymore.
Gary Robertson: Tony Bennett had this hundred-year-old piano player sitting at a grand, and the place was packed, but Bennett refused to use a microphone. So he sang not much louder than you’d talk and you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was silent for him.
Rosina Kazi (Bassment employee, 1997-2003; founding member of LAL): HMV had never done a hip-hop in-store, and they decided to do it with Foxy Brown [in 1997]. They didn’t ask anyone in The Bassment [HMV's hip-hop/dance-music section] what we thought. We were like, “you guys are gonna be fucked.” I think [the fans] ransacked the space, and there was this whole controversy at that time, and we had to call people within HMV and say, “you guys fucked up—you need to engage us in this conversation.”
Angie Flores (cash supervisor, 1997-2005): I think the Korn tank ride was the first event where they shut down Yonge Street. It was pretty chaotic and exciting, and more successful than most of the staff thought it would be. It was probably the biggest event I remember.
Darryl Weeks: Unlike Joe Strummer, Geri Halliwell didn’t make herself available to the staff for a meet-and-greet. It was all kinds of creepy, but then the showmanship happened when she went out. There was this girl in a wheelchair, and [Halliwell] jumped in the chair and put the girl on her and went for a ride. She came across as being very kind and giving when the cameras were rolling.
The most uncomfortable in-store I ever had was Gob. We decided to do an autograph session, and their label wanted the red-carpet treatment. By the time the band was ready, there were just three absolutely mental fans in line. Security outnumbered the actual attendees. The in-store lasted about 30 seconds. (Writer’s note: The staff that day—myself included—were asked to remove our staff shirts and pretend we were fans so that the band wouldn’t feel too embarrassed.)
Next page: The pride of 333—The Bassment, Indie Section, VJ Booth and commitment to gay-community outreach make HMV more than just a chain store