After establishing itself as a source for quality used books, this Danforth shop is now attracting record collectors from across the city.
Danforth and Jones may not be the first intersection that comes to mind as a bustling retail destination. But for Ron Duffy, who took a something of a gamble opening Circus Books and Music in a long-vacant storefront here in 2008, it couldn’t have worked out any better.
How he got started: Duffy managed to land his first job at a record shop—Driftwood Music at Queen West and McCaul—with no real qualifications other than a good taste in music. “I had never really bought and sold stuff before,” he says. “I hadn’t worked in a used[-product] environment before, I didn’t have much retail experience and I didn’t even have much experience as a music consumer—as a listener, yes, but not so much as a buyer.”
When Driftwood closed in 2000, Duffy went on to work at She Said Boom, which served as a source of inspiration for his own shop. “It seemed to fit [with my interests] reasonably comfortably,” he says, “I really liked the mixture of mediums—I thought it all worked really well together. It’s really fantastic to have Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and have Iggy Pop’s The Idiot in the record bin—just the fact that it’s all part of the prism of culture.”
But while he enjoyed his gig at She Said Boom, it didn’t immediately occur to Duffy to strike out on his own. “It wasn’t anything that I ever expected to do, really,” he says. “I did work in this kind of environment for a number of years, but even three quarters of the way through that timeframe I never even conceived of doing it on my own. Randy [Harnett, owner of She Said Boom] actually encouraged me a few times. He just said, ‘When are you going to do one of your own, Ron?’ And I distinctly remember: I said, ‘Really? I consider myself more of an artist.’ And he said, ‘Well, T.S. Eliot was a banker.’ That was his response and it’s always stuck with me.”
Location, location, location: The first iteration of Circus Books and Music was in Cabbagetown. “It seemed like a good place,” says Duffy. “It has a bit of cash and a bit of culture—it could work. But the only place available was in South Cabbagetown, so I started this place in 2006 at Berkeley and Gerrard. That worked for a little while, but it never really happened, because Cabbagetown is a hard animal, especially being off Parliament Street. So all the while I was there, I thought to myself, ‘My next best step is to get on to Parliament.’ But once I started looking, with the rents there, it was just completely impossible.”
In the meantime, Duffy had moved his home to the east end and regularly found himself passing by the shop’s current location. “I saw this place was for rent and it stayed for rent for a long time,” he says. “It was for rent before I got it for about 10 months—the landlords were just being picky, they didn’t find anybody they wanted. But they knew the neighbourhood and where it was coming from, and they loved the idea of a bookstore.”
Duffy was immediately impressed by the new location and one nearby neighbourhood in particular. “It was instantaneously better,” he says. “We get fed a lot from The Pocket,” referring to the area tucked south of Danforth and north of the train tracks between Jones and Greenwood. “It’s been a great resource. I didn’t quite realize it was there, even though I live right beside it, actually. It’s one of those things—you don’t really get there unless you really want to go there, because there’s no thoroughfare.”
Despite some signs of development—there is a Starbucks only a block away from the shop, not to mention Duffy’s own Circus Coffee House at Danforth and Woodbine—there isn’t an overwhelming sense of gentrification, which suits him just fine. “It’s in this nice state,” he says. “The more it changes, the more it stays the same. It doesn’t have the rent scenario that happens on the west side of Pape, so there’s a little bit more individuality here.”
What’s in-store: Books are the mainstay of the shop, but vinyl sales have been growing, attracting a steady stream of collectors from all over the city. “It was always happening a little bit,” says Duffy. “But we’ve put a little more effort into that in the last year and a half. Record buyers will go all over the city—it seems far [to get here], but it’s not that far.”
The reasonable price point likely helps to bring customers out. “You don’t try to get $12 for a Gary Numan record,” says Duffy. “You really have to hit that place where people get a few little deals and then they’re willing to spend $35 on a Replacements record or something.”
Circus deals strictly in used vinyl and Duffy can’t see that changing any time soon. “There’s nothing like finding the original,” he says. “I’d rather have $40 on a Stockhausen record than $18 on a reissue of it. It’s tempting, because the [reissued] titles look great, but there’s nothing like the original.”
While CD sales are on the decline, there is still a market for them with the shop’s older clientele. “So the buying aspect to that is about depth,” says Duffy. “Why [should the store] buy Carly Rae Jensen or whatever her name is? There’s not going to be any 20-somethings who’ll come in for that around here. But you get a decent little bit of jazz and that stuff will always sell, because you can’t get it a lot, and you don’t want to download Sun Ra, necessarily, on MP3.”