Founded in 1976 with a focus on soul music and mod subculture, Kops Records (229 Queen St. West) is Toronto’s oldest independent record store. It’s known for housing the largest selection of seven inch 45s in Canada and for an abiding dedication to musical roots. According to General Manager Patrick Grant, “[Kops] specializes in unveiling to people the roots of stuff that they like. We’re trying to provide [records] that elaborate on tastes you already have.” In this way, you can walk in listening to The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” (1995) and walk out – with two LPs under your arm – having learned that its memorable sitar riff is sampled from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” (1990) which sampled it first from Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” (1967).
Kops buys vinyl based on rarity and condition for a third to a half of what it’s sold for in the store, but like any art-centric business, its success rests on satisfying its clientele. “There are a lot of cats who’ve been coming here since Kops opened who are only interested in northern soul,” Grant says, “and it has to be the right track, and on the right label. But then we get our fair share of teenage girls looking for Justin Timberlake on vinyl. [Queen West] is really busy, so we have to stock everything someone between the ages of 15 and 50 would walk in and buy.”
On the first floor, you’ll find all the genres you’d expect plus less common fare like post rock, breaks, blaxploitation, and americana. There’s a turntable set at the back constantly spinning staff picks, which are proudly located near the checkout counter and sorted by name. Look up at the posters on the ceiling for a measure of the store’s open-mindedness – Eminem is next to Fela Kuti, Mos Def is by The Tragically Hip, and a young James Brown stands opposite a Nirvana smiley face.
The second floor is worth visiting for the at times unearthly silence. It’s where most of the 45s reside; a chart on the far wall explains how they’re priced and graded: from A=$3.99 all the way up to Z=$75.99. There’s less empty space than records. LP sections on display include Comedy, Rockabilly, Golden Age Rock and Roll, and the all-encompassing Canadian.
Besides maintaining a varied but demand-specific stock, Kops’s longevity is due to curiosity-driven customer service and an attention to detail. All records are brushed and, not counting heavily discounted ones ($10 and under), outfitted with plastic outer sleeves before hitting the shelves, and if a band is playing in town, staff will have a few of its albums for sale. Grant’s view on Torontonians’ unpredictable musical tastes is humble and shared by his coworkers. He says, “If a guy comes in looking for a particular record, chances are he knows more about it than I do, and I stand to learn something from talking to him.”