How an Ottawa record shop is surviving the digital revolution

Glebe’s Birdman Sound fills niche as mainstream music stores close
John Westhaver is owner of Birdman Sound.
John Westhaver is the owner of Birdman Sound. Photo by Courtney Edgar

When John Westhaver watches some of his customers grimace while listening to a new song, he often thinks of brussel sprouts.

The owner and sole employee of the Birdman Sound record store in the Glebe says even serious music lovers often gravitate to what’s familiar, believing the only good songs on a given album are the singles.

He begs to differ. Most of the time, Mr. Westhaver argues, people simply don't like what they don't know.

“It's kind of like the people who say they hate brussell sprouts,” he says. “What, because you had it once when you were 10 years old? Your mom probably boiled them and you got salt and pepper on them. Trust me, man, that is gross. That is not the way to eat them.”

At a time when many music shops that stock their shelves with top-40 singles and albums by mainstream artists are struggling to survive, Birdman Sound has been filling a niche for more than a quarter-century by focusing on the obscure.

He refuses to stock anything “popular,” “popular in the last 20 years” or anything “mainstream” or “vacuous.”

Instead, he rifles through crates and stacks of records looking for psychedelia, noisy jazz, traditional blues, experimental, electronic, reggae and dub music records that catch his ear.

This results in customers coming to Birdman Sound to learn about – and buy – previously undiscovered music.

“There's no dead weight at Birdman Sound,” says David Aardvark, a former employee of the store and CKCU radio DJ. “Turning people onto new music is really great and that happens a lot there.”

Personal collection exceeds 8,000 records

Even before the age of 10, Westhaver was starting to build his record collection. His parents would drive him to K-Mart to pick up his childhood favourites, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival's Pendulum – his first purchase – as well as albums by The Beatles and Kinks.

However, one would never find those albums inside Birdman Sound.

“I've done my time with them,” Westhaver says. “I know them intimately. I had their catalogue. I know the words to all their songs. I just don't feel the need to carry their records because I would never feel the desire to actually sit down and critically listen to those records. I don't need to any more.”

His personal collection sits at roughly 8,000 records, but he estimates that he has had seven or eight times that which he has since sold off. He says it is easy for him to flip albums once he’s done with them and “played the shit out of them.”

After years of working at other people's record stores, Westhaver decided he was “tired of making money for other people.” He opened up his own shop in 1991, naming it after the Australian punk band Radio Birdman.

Today, the Bank Street store is lined with long rows of record shelves with walls covered in silkscreen show posters and the smell of incense in the air.

Westhaver, clad in his signature patched-up and stencilled jean jacket during a recent interview, says he’s faced several challenges along the way. It starts with the very premise of his business model: The people with the keenest interest in music – who should be his biggest customers – typically don’t earn the most amount of money.

For even the most devoted music lover, buying records is typically a luxury purchase. That means that a change in life circumstances, such as a layoff, the purchase of a new house or the arrival of a newborn baby, can result in Birdman Sound losing a customer.

Nevertheless, the music store relies heavily on repeat customers, many of whom are drawn in by Westhaver himself.

“He is so knowledgeable about music, really great, obscure music,” says customer Candace Nelson.

His expansive knowledge of bands, how they're connected to other bands or musicians, makes the shopping experience enjoyable, she adds.

“He is quite an animated character,” she says. “He loves his job and it shows in his selection of records at the shop.”

Who buys records?

 

Records actually never really went away, Westhaver says.

“All through the ’90s, thousands of records were manufactured, made and sold all over the world. Most people got rid of their records because they were told by rich people (and) stereo-making companies that CDs were the way of the future. So a lot of people jumped off the cliff and got rid of their records – but not everybody. There are always new formats coming along. It's not good, bad or indifferent. It's just different.”

The people buying records today are people who never stopped buying records.

“(There) could be a bit of nostalgia but ... I also know people who stored their records, raised a family and then once they got rid of the kids took them back out,” he says.

Just don’t call it a comeback.

“Resurgences and comebacks don't last for seven years,” Westhaver says. “Most people still just don't buy records. Most people just steal music from the internet.”

What was your biggest sale?

Nirvana's Bleach. “I sold it for $250,” Westhaver says. “But I know it is worth even more now.”

Weirdest customer request

“'I don't know what it's called or who it's by, but I'm looking for a record by this guy in a cowboy hat and one of the lines of the record goes something like this...' and they hum you a line from the song. Or (they’ll say) on the phone, 'If I sang you a couple bars from the song would you be able to tell me if you have it in stock?' Likely not.”