This Junction-area used book and record shop is thriving on the strength of its ambitious stocking sensibilities.
For the past 12 years, Neill Cunningham has been running Pandemonium (2920 Dundas St. W.), the Junction’s prime destination for used books and music. This past summer, Cunningham renewed his investment in the neighbourhood, moving his shop a few blocks west to a significantly larger, more ambitious location.
How he got started: Cunningham’s initial inspiration to open Pandemonium was a result of knowing what he didn’t want to do to make a living. “I didn’t like working in an office,” he says. “My friend who owned She Said Boom! let me work in his store for a while to see if I could handle retail, and I found that I was quite good. I’d been a waiter before, so I could handle people. And the idea of dealing with books and music was great. So I just stole the She Said Boom! idea, which five other people had done already in Toronto.”
Junction dysfunction: With the number of record stores already dotting the downtown core, staking out unique territory was important to Cunningham. “The two toughest things are coming up with a name and looking for a space,” he says. “The name came to me on the subway—it just popped up and it stuck. The location was really tough, trying to find a neighbourhood that didn’t already have what I was doing. There were only a few. I loved [the Junction] back then—12 years ago it was kind of like the Wild West. It reminded me of Queen and Bathurst in 1980, which was a scene I liked.”
While the Junction’s population was always large enough to support a retail scene, Cunningham has found it a challenge to convince area residents to shop locally. “The demographic was here 12 years ago,” he says. “But they didn’t shop in the Junction. It’s taken [a decade] to get the people who live a block away to shop in the neighbourhood.”
While that attitude has changed for the better, the area’s commercial boom has made way for a corresponding rise in rent, a challenge to smaller retailers. “There’s a knife edge with all neighbourhoods,” says Cunningham, “where there’s a sweet spot where rents are reasonable and the neighbourhood is reasonable. In the Junction, that was two years ago, and now it’s gone somewhat beyond reasonable. The rents are high and the landlords’ expectations can be a little high, although I’m pretty lucky.”
Size matters: The need to move Pandemonium to a new location was a wholly practical one: Cunningham had run out of room. “I actually put an offer in on this space three years ago. The old space was too small—it was much too small. I remember when I moved in, I thought it was so huge and I had even curtained off the back part of it. And then it just started really closing in on me. The basement was stockpiled up to the ceilings. For years, I was probably buying 100 records for every 10 that I sold, and then when I moved in here and I built all the new shelving, I got all the records out of the basement and off the floor. I’ve hardly added anything new since I’ve been here.”
Not wanting the same situation to develop at home, Cunningham has imposed strict guidelines to curtail his collecting habits. “I have a 400-record rule,” he says. “If I take 10 home, I have to take 10 back to the store. But I have some very nice records that I would find it hard to part with.”
The format wars: Though Pandemonium is strongly rooted in its neighbourhood, its formidable vinyl inventory tends to attract customers from across the city. “So many people are enjoying vinyl now,” says Cunningham. “But you still get the collectors coming around looking for the jewels. The hard-to-find things.”
Many shops have begun downsizing the CD aspect of their business and, in some cases, have even eschewed it entirely. “Not me,” he says. “I’ve actually [planned to carry] more of them. My rationale is that I still sell them—I sell as many now as I [did] two years ago, which is maybe bizarre. But it’s just another format. Both vinyl and CDs can last.”
The difference for Cunningham is the kind of CDs he’s currently stocking. “What I’m willing to buy and stock is changing in terms of CDs—I want to have more interesting stuff. It’s always been the case that what people sell is often Top 40, but that’s really not what I want to stock in terms of CDs. In vinyl yes, but not CDs.”
One genre in particular stands out as a surprising leader in CD sales. “I sell a lot of heavy metal CDs,” says Cunningham. “It’s the luddites, right? That’s what’s always kept the used record stores going—collectors and luddites. And now you’ve got the same thing with CDs, where the luddites are like, ‘I don’t want a computer.’”
Survival strategies: Cunningham feels that the key to surviving in a tenuous retail climate is by offering expansive selection, rather than narrow specialization. “I want to become known as one of the better places you can go to get music, and once you’re there, it’s one of the better bookstores,” he says. “In a way, one of my motivations to move was that when I look in my crystal ball and look ahead at this industry, what I see is a smaller number of stores. I don’t know if one neighbourhood [will be able] to handle four used record stores, and the last man standing is going to be someone who offers a lot. So by expanding my book selection, expanding my record selection, I become a serious contender.”