Bag from a&b sound, boasting about the chain’s ubiquity in Western Canada at its height.
Alright, this one gets a little personal.
If you really want to put things into perspective, there may be nothing better than looking at an old electronics flyer. The bulky, expensive, low-fidelity TVs and stereos. Computers at ridiculous prices with processing power a fraction of the average smart phone today. What may be strangest though is media, and music in particular. I’m sure kids today will find it hard to comprehend that there was a time when you didn’t have access to nearly every song ever recorded from wherever you like. Even the P2P services like LimeWire and Kazaa that were accessible, popular and ground-breaking when I was growing up seem so archaic now; no doubt YouTube and Spotify will seem ancient and strange in a few years as well. Of course I always preferred physical media and got pretty swept up in buying CDs in the early 2000s (and if I’m being honest they’re still what I prefer, although I have to admit, Spotify has been awesome). And if you really want some perspective and more than a little appreciation, look back at how much money we used to spend on things like that. Hell, I can barely comprehend the idea of spending $25 on a CD with one good song on it and I’ve actually done it.
It must seem like complete madness now. But back around 2002 that was still very much how the world was. Sure Napster had already blown up, but it was now a shell of its former self. And between the lawsuits and how sketchy and unreliable its successors were, record shops were still doing fairly well. HMV could still get away with charging the outrageous prices. This led me, a kid with a small monthly allowance, to look elsewhere. Wal-Mart and Zellers, to Future Shop, before settling mostly on Music World. The prices were a little better than HMV and it felt comfier. But still, I was mostly into classic rock stuff at the time and it was a bit of a struggle to find older albums. After complaining about this one day my mom recommended I try A&B Sound (stylized a&b sound; I use both) in Millrise. While I had been vaguely aware of it, I’d never been there before…maybe the building was too inconspicuous. Looking back I feel pretty stupid for not going there sooner, because it changed everything.
Look at that. It may not seem like much now. In fact, for a lot of people my age and younger, spending even that much on albums might sound crazy. But in 2004 I was amazed. You know what, in 2016 I still am. All three of those albums, 54 40’s Green Album and The Clash’s London Calling and Combat Rock, I still think they’re great. Here are links to all three on Spotify if you want to have a listen and really set the tone for this article:
And though they weren’t really that obscure, all of them were really hard to find anywhere, so to get all 3, in one store, for under $10 each? That was it, this was my new place.
I should probably talk about the building. It was a bit of an anachronism, since the store and parking lot were so massive for an electronics and home media store. It made more sense when I found out it had been a grocery store, Food Barn, which opened in the mid 1980s, and closed sometime in the early 90s. A&B Sound moved in shortly thereafter. Though you should also remember that the land would have been worth a lot less at the time, as well as how thriving the home media industry was in the late 90s and early 2000s, which could still have made it pretty profitable despite the overhead. I wish I had a really good picture of the building, which was drenched in purple paint on the outside. Inside were row after row of CDs and DVDs in the front, with hand-drawn signs for genres on the tops of the display gondolas; I remember at first the CDs were in free-standing shelves across the floor, with the DVDs against the wall, then they swapped. Filling out the rest of the store was home electronics, though I didn’t look around there too much.
Man, how much did I spend at that store? All the allowances and summer job pay cheques that went into building a music collection, all the time spent adventuring over there with my friends and family. And it really did feel like a small adventure, since the site was all alone on its block for so many years and it seemed like we always walked across the field and down the embankment into the parking lot rather than take the sidewalk. I became a pretty big fanboy of the chain, getting stoked to just get a gift card for the store at Christmas from my brother. I even travelled to their other locations in the city, at Sunridge Mall and Downtown, in the old Bank of Montreal building on Stephen Avenue (now a World Health). I’ve managed to find a decent photo of the Sunridge location, thanks to a French Wiki article, and this great gallery of the one downtown that I recommend looking at just to be in awe of the selection (a whole section of Caribbean Music?). Still, it’s too bad there’s not much record of the Millrise location with how everything turned out.
A&B Sound site, in 1993, 1999, 2006 and 2016, respectively. Note that the lot south of it had been prepared years before anything was built there; grass eventually covered the site and it resembled untouched prairie by the early 2000s. The 2006 construction of the Millrise Station shopping centre also led to the creation of a large drainage pond at the south end of the block. (Image credits: 1993 and1999 Aerial Photo, Foto Flight; 2006 and 2016 satellite photo, Bing Maps).
By 2006 change was clearly in the air. The next oil boom was flooding the city with money and growth, and the lot beside the a&b sound went from being a rough landscape to a good-sized power centre, anchored by Sobey’s and Shopper’s (along with numerous tenants drawn away from the Midnapore Mall, but that’s another story). One day in High School I was talking with this girl I had a crush on, and she said to me “You know what store I think is gonna go out of business? A&B Sound; I was in there the other day, and there was no-one”. I’m not gonna lie, that stung. But she wasn’t wrong. The chain had filed for protection in 2005, and was bought by Seanix computers. By August of 2006, the location in Millrise closed up. The last CD I bought there was Queen II. I still had 6 dollars of store credit.
The chain wasn’t gone though. The store in Millrise relocated to a strip mall “on 130th” in Mackenzie Towne. I went there a few times, but it wasn’t the same. With no car it was pretty far away, and I couldn’t just stop there on my way home from school. But it was more than that. The old purple, orange and green motif was now gold and blue. And the previously vast selection had gone way down. The last time I went there, I got eyed by the staff the entire time, and accosted when my new winter jacket beeped at the exit because it hadn’t been demagnetized yet. I get it, they were just doing their jobs, but looking back it was a pretty lousy send-off from a place that had meant a lot to me for a few years. Not that it mattered too much; by then I was saving money for college so buying endless CDs didn’t seem so important. A whole host of other things were about to take priority.
“It was the worst time to start a label”- Chris Taylor, of last Gang Records, reflecting on the year 2004 and the label’s 10-year anniversary. Maclean’s, April 28, 2014.
By this point the music industry had, if I can paraphrase Eminem’s pal Steve Berman, “melted the fuck down” (link to the track; obviously NSFW ). The economy followed suit by the end of the decade, and the mid-sized retailer was rendered virtually extinct. In 2008, about the same time Linens ‘n Things closed in Shawnessy, and a million retailers in the States fell apart, A&B Sound closed up right across the country. I think I had already said my farewell, and moved on to HMV which had become more convenient and ironically a bargain retailer, but it was still a sad thing to hear. And what about the building in Millrise? It had been bought by Medican, and was used as the site office for their Canvas development, even replacing the spinning A&B Sound sign with one of their own. The twin buildings were constructed within a few years of the a&b sound closing, but the story doesn’t end there. Because then this happened:
In March 2010, from a cigarette being put out in a potted plant. The fire got a lot of coverage, and the roof collapsing was used in a Global News montage for the next several years. Meanwhile, site builder Medican was pushed to bankruptcy, and I don’t think they ever really recovered…three failed businesses and a massive disaster, there’s really a lot of terrible history on this site, isn’t there? Though personally, some good actually came out of all this: I got employed the following summer as part of a group demolishing the building. I was grateful because that same economic recession that was probably part of A&B Sound’s demise was making it damn hard for students to find summer work in Calgary (the 2006 boom was long gone, and with it the days where everyone seemed to be hiring, at amazing wages to boot). It’s just too bad about everyone’s homes.
Canvas building in Millrise, circa 2016. The partially rebuilt building is the one on the right in the foreground; it sits on what was formerly the A&B Sound parking lot. The building to the rear, on the left was not damaged in the fire and was built on the actual site of the A&B Sound.
After we tore the building down to its frame, everybody got laid off, and most of us headed back to school, while Medican brought in their own guys to rebuild. It looks exactly the same as it did pre-fire now, but everyone involved still remembers, I’m sure.
Going back to a&b sound, sometimes I reflect on what the loss of places like this means. Beyond what place music has when it is so easily accessible (and I think Bob Lefsetz has written more than enough about that), what happens when we lose gathering places like stores? I read an article about Japan and Tokyo that wondered, “ As brick-and-mortar game stores, for example disappear, as everyone starts ordering all their clothing online, will this turn completely into a city of pachinko parlors and love hotels?” While I’m not really sure what the equivalent of pachinko parlors and love hotels would be in Calgary, the sentiment is much the same; when something is lost and replaced, what is the net result? But as much as I wanna point to the loss of physical media and the rise of e-commerce in killing communities, in this case at least, it’s just not true.
After all, the demise of a& b sound in millrise also coincided with the rise of the Millrise Station shopping centre next door. There are in fact more options for residents to go out, shop and socialize now than there were then. And the tenants have stayed pretty stable; I think the biggest change was probably Rogers Video being replaced by Kinjo a couple years ago. Really what my take on a&b sound boils down to is, I just miss the place. It was somewhere I enjoyed going and the CD hobby was something fun I got to share with friends and family for a few years. And all I hope for is that kids growing up in the area now can find someplace similar to enjoy. If I could go back, I’d snap a picture of the a&b sound and just soak it in a little more. Then I’d walk up a block and get another look at that damn elevator.
RIP A&B Sound. Photo of Regina location after closing in 2006. Photo by Eric Eggertson, taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/mutually-inclusive/247802030/in/photostream/
One last thing.
As a bonus, I got an old a&b sound flyer from 2004 to take a look at. Like I said, there’s nothing better for perspective than looking at something like this. There’s also an insert from it for various CDs they had deals on; I used it as a wishlist and checklist, so you can see the CJAY92-inspired tastes I had in the 9th grade…though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still listen to most of that. Enjoy.