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.
Stolen CD-club-card stamps, a ridiculously flawed return policy that allowed refunds without a receipt and spectacular staff thefts—if you were the scamming sort, 333 was an easy target.
Mike Tull: When the whole “burn and return” thing became popular, we started to see a shift there where people were buying stuff, but they were also bringing it back like crazy. So profits were starting to go down.
Gary Robertson: You could go to the Classical department, grab a box set and pull the sticker off of it and take it up to the cash desk saying, “I don’t have a receipt—can I have my money back,” and they’d give you your money back. They used to advertise this hassle-free return policy that ended up costing them tons. Of course, they responded by going too far the other way, saying you’re never going to get your money back, even with a receipt.
Angie Flores: I remember reasons [for cancelling the returns policy] being thrown around like “no one else has a lenient policy” and that people could burn and return CDs. At the returns desk, cashiers would get really worked up about it, like they were invested in the store that much. I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore.
Sandy Miranda (Rock department employee, 2000-2004; now the bassist for Fucked Up): There was a staff member who was a [merchandise] buyer, and we noticed he was buying a lot of prog-rock, and whenever we’d do product audits, there was a bunch of missing prog stuff. This had been going on for years, but nobody had thought anything of it.
Gary Robertson: He carried the stuff out in his pants. He’d take all the CDs out of their cases and put them through a string and he’d hang them down his legs. He’d always be buying black jewel cases, so obviously he’d take the liner notes out. He hid the empty jewel cases in the air ducts in one of the back rooms. I think he went around to the back alleyway to take the stuff out of his pants and put it in a box or something, but it was actually security from [the nearby] Sam the Record Man who caught him [in 2001], which was surprising because our security at the time was doing bag checks and making everyone sign everything in. We figured [the theft] was comparable to the inventory of the jazz department at the time, and he basically opened his own record store specializing in Can and bands like that. We got a bunch of it back, and I remember the stock department had to spend a few days working on receiving this stuff. Boxes came in, like the size of a Christmas order from the warehouse. I don’t know how long he’d been doing it, but one of the managers was just shocked. He seemed like a nice enough guy.
THE SUITS COME MARCHING IN
Pointless storewide renovations, yes-men management, restricted rack access, layoffs and bizarre customer-service policies: how the Superstore lost its edge.
Sandy Miranda: With the  renovations, there was more pressure to be professional and approach your job a lot more seriously. Things just got bigger. There was more work to do. I think DVD sales were spiking but then after that, with the advent of piracy, things took a downturn. I remember [the store] wanting a customer-service rep just standing around, greeting people at the top of the escalators. It was a waste of time. Head office thought it would increase sales, but that’s something you do at Walmart. I think people who go into record stores have a rough idea about what they want and, if not, I’m sure they can ask.
Stu Ringler: Turning the superstore into a cookie-cutter HMV location definitely backfired, and the store lost its identity. There was no reason to go there. If you look at the changes that were made [during the renovations], every store at that time was changed to be the exact same. They’re set up like a 7-11—the same signage, the same sales. The renovation was to brand the store more, and the Superstore no longer sat outside of the brand. Beforehand, HMV used to be on the ball and have things as fast as the independent stores. They no longer did that. The special-order policy really hurt the store, when they started making customers put down a 50 per cent deposit on everything that you’d special order—even when there was a chance that what they were ordering was never going to come in. If that special order didn’t come in, you’d have to get a refund on your special deposit. Why would you ever want to order from someone who makes you do that?
Jasun Mark: This woman from head office walks in and says, “Sigur Ros? What’s that? You should have Creed racked here.” I think that ultimately destroyed HMV—they focused on casual buyers and let major labels bully them into racking shit you could get anywhere.
Rosina Kazi: It changed over from people who were music lovers to people who were businesspeople, and we noticed a shift in the culture of HMV, mimicking the American version—[major labels] paying for racking, [staff] wearing a uniform, only racking top 40 stuff. That’s what really changed the environment for most of us. It turned from a place of discovery to a place of business, and we were told to push product. The Bassment was paved over, so the whole culture was paved over. I just felt so hurt, even though it had nothing to do with me. They reopened it, and I think there are videos down there now.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
This past spring, the Superstore dramatically scaled back its staff and store size, opting to close down half of the retail space.
Name Withheld (employee, 2005-2011): CD sales kept going down. They’d make us tear down a box-set wall to put up hand-held Battleship games for $3.99. That store is a landmark for collectors—anyone who goes in there isn’t looking for Justin Bieber T-shirts. The games, toys, chocolate bars and crap they brought in—customers would come in and ask why we were selling that stuff. And it’s all just to grab another buck, right? Obviously everyone was overworked. We were given six weeks’ notice before severance pay, so everyone knew they were getting laid off.
BUT IT ACTUALLY WAS KIND OF LIKE WORKING AT EMPIRE RECORDS
That was the joke among 333 Yonge employees. And for a while there, it was kind of true.
Gary Robertson: It was absolutely special—it was more like Empire Records [early on] than in the later years, when they brought in staff shirts and stuff like that. I remember someone getting sent home once because he was wearing a shirt with holes cut out to show his nipple rings, but that was the extent of “dress code.”
Sandy Miranda: What I remember the most was when we’d have staff parties. I just couldn’t believe we could drink and smoke in the store, sitting with the product, getting stoned. I doubt you could do that now.
Darryl Weeks: The coolest thing about the Superstore was that it was like Rock ‘n’ Roll University for a while, and I’m convinced it’s not like that anymore. Thinking about all the people from the store who went on to work in the music industry, it was just an amazing place to be. You got to meet a lot of people that could help shape your career. You think about Chris Slorach, who’s a major player in the industry now, he manages Zeus and works for Arts and Crafts. Steven Himmelfarb is probably the most sought-after agent in Canada right now. And then there’s [former employees] I didn’t even get to work with, like Trevor Larocque, who owns Paper Bag Records.
Stu Ringler At one point in my life, that store meant a lot to me and I think it meant a lot to everybody who worked there. You got off work and there was going to be a group of at least five people going for drinks afterwards. It had a sense of community; even though you were working for a corporate chain, that location attracted a lot of different, interesting people. It was family.