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.
TALES FROM THE BASSMENT
With the exception of Play De Record up the street at 357 Yonge, 333’s Bassment was the first place you went to buy hip-hop and dance music. But it was more than that: it was a meeting place, a virtual pre-party joint for the weekend and ground zero for all the new shit you should’ve been listening to.
Rosina Kazi We were able to play anything that we wanted, which was never anything mainstream. We did what we wanted to do. Urban music at that time hadn’t even hit Canada yet, so  was one of the first stores here to push for the sound—reggae, house or hip-hop. We were all really connected to the scene, through DJing or producing. Whether it was drum ‘n’ bass, techno or hip-hop—everybody in the scene passed through.
At that time, The Bassment was considered really cool—even though we were in retail—so we got to go to everything for free. I would just call up different promoters; you’d get invited to everything. We only cared about playing good music, and so because of that attitude, and for turning people on to new music, we weren’t forgiving about it. We weren’t trying to kiss ass. We weren’t rude… well, we were rude, actually [laughs]. That was part of the fun, ’cause we were total music snobs. When we connected with the local scene, it wasn’t about kissing ass.
Mike Tull (former Bassment employee; DJ): There was this kind of family vibe—it felt really community-based. It felt like it was this indie shop within the retail world. Everybody knew that The Bassment was the place to be to get the scoop on what was going on, and what was coming up, whether it would be releases or events. It was just the place to go to get the news. Even for politics and gossip—when something happened in the hip-hop world, the first place people would come was down there to say, “Yo, what’s going on with that? What do you all think?” Even when Aaliyah died [in August 2001], I don’t know how many people must have come down and picked up a copy of the album, saying, “I can’t believe it” and this and that. Sure enough, when it was a Friday or Saturday night, people would come down to see what was going on. And Sundays were a great day, because people would party all weekend and then come down and talk about the DJ they heard. People would come down, bringing their cassettes and CDs for us to check out, find out what we thought. Even artists who were putting out stuff, they’d come by with demos to see what we thought.
333 AND PRIDE
By the turn of the millennium, HMV had become a go-to destination for gay music collectors thanks to its European import selection, its proximity to Church Street and the community ties it created through the store’s Pride-related promotions.
Jasun Mark (import buyer, 1997-2002; now a porn actor/director): I realized there was no record store in the gay area—three or four blocks from [333 Yonge]—and that we’ve got this huge gay community here looking for imports. They were into their Kylie, their Madonna, but someone like Kylie wouldn’t have records in Canada. We were the only store carrying them. So we wound up being the destination for the gay crowd. We were one of the few stores willing to put the Queer As Folk soundtrack right up front.
At Pride, there was no other gay employee willing to take on [the promotional tie-ins], so I did it. I encouraged the staff to get into the spirit—it’s Pride Day, it’s all about putting on a show and making yourself part of it. If you want to show up dressed as a policeman or in drag, you do it. We didn’t want to be a big corporate entity, we wanted to get into the spirit. Another employee, Rex Baunsit, came down with his guitar and played acoustic covers of Alanis and Madonna songs. People just loved it. We wound up selling six or seven hundred copies [of Queer As Folk] in the tent.
THE INDIE SECTION
HMV’s Indie Section helped the Barenaked Ladies break out with their 1991 Yellow Tape cassette, and was always a good bet for a Grasshopper or Hayden album. In an era before online promotion was everything, the Indie Section gave the local independent scene a voice in retail.
Dave Murphy: The section came about when indie artists like the Barenaked Ladies and Loreena McKennitt had albums that took off, so we said, “Let’s open this up.” For indie bands, the most they’d sell would be from the stage—you didn’t think, “I’m going to HMV tomorrow to pick it up.” People wanted to save their money for another drink [at the show], but the bands could mention that you could go into HMV and ask for it.
I think it was important, on a practical side, for bands to have their product available, but it was in some ways a good way to legitimize their music, to get the word out there. Artists would come in and they’d be excited to get their product on the shelves, especially when we started the Indie Nation magazine—they were eager to get reviews or a profile. It became a pretty established part of the indie scene in the city. A year before HMV closed it down [around 2002], I was able to get Kurt Swinghammer to create a really cool display. It looked authentically Toronto. A year later, they ripped it down and put up a T-shirt display.
Rosina Kazi We supported local music—we had an Urban Independent section. We really made an effort—whether we liked it or not—to have it in the store at that time, to get your stuff heard or located or distributed… there wasn’t Facebook or MySpace at that time. We had a standard and we tried our best to keep it high, instead of being convinced we had to rack this particular music because the label told us to push it.
Darryl Weeks You could bring your record in, and Dave would sit with you on the stage, you’d fill out your form and hand him five discs or tapes or whatever and he’d call you back when they sold out and you’d take more down. [When it closed], he was the one who had to be like, “Hey, we’ve got three of your tapes left and we’re not doing this anymore. Come down and pick them up.” That was kind of the first indication that things were starting to suck.
THE VJ BOOTH
Before it was closed down in 2002, it wasn’t hard to figure out why the VJ booth was the most coveted job in the store: you could spend your days picking cool product off the shelves to spin, talking shit into the mic and giving the store its voice.
Stu Ringler (employee, 2000-2006, and the last VJ host): I think it made a huge difference, knowing there was someone in there playing things that they cared about, talking about things—I’d do theme days where—for example, on Valentine’s Day—I’d just play songs that all had the word “love” in them, or something stupid like that. But it set a vibe in the place and made people know that they were having a unique experience that day instead of just hearing the exact same five CDs that every other store put on random. The booth gave that store its identity. It sounds stupid, but at one point I’d say that it was probably my dream job. Until I realized how much I got paid. There’s a guy in the booth getting paid to share his love of music—it was like how radio used to be. When I went up for it, there were ten other people at audition time. We had an interview—there was more music testing for the DJ booth than the rest of the store, so there was another quiz and an on-air shift in the booth.
Next page: Burn-and-return policies, employee scams, increased corporatization and the decline of the 333