Michael Cline’s Vinyl Envy — record store by day, concert venue by night

Michael Cline's Vinyl Envy - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

BY DAVID LENNAM

“There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colourful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.” From High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Michael Cline knows that world well.

“I was pretty happy as a 14-year-old going into a record store,” says the owner of Vinyl Envy. “It was one of those social vibes I really liked as a kid.”

Growing up in southern Ontario, Cline did a lot of hanging out at the flagship Sam the Record Man on Toronto’s Yonge Street where his sister worked. The wide-eyed experiences he had there, when he wasn’t booking bands to play at his school, entrenched the understanding of record stores as the distributors of culture. A proficient proprietor could curate your future listening experience (maybe your whole style) while you spent half your day going through every single record as fastidiously as a monk.

“One of the most fun things to do,” explains the 61-year-old, “is turn people on to really good records they probably wouldn’t know about. Say you’re into Marvin Gaye. Why don’t I give you the new Monophonics record? Because there’s so much history steeped there you’d probably be blown away. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. You just have to have the time to go through it, and luckily we do.”

In a recent piece in The Guardian, the playwright Mike Bartlett refers to his days working at an indie record store, observing that, “We weren’t stealing your money, we were helping you find something that would make your life better. Or, at least, a little easier to bear.”

When you walk in the Quadra Street record store-cum-performance space, which Cline opened in 2015, you’ll probably see guitarist Chris Lloyd behind the till, spinning records the Vinyl Envy way: one full side at a time (Emerson, Lake & Palmer when I was last there). It’s sort of Cline’s formula that records should be played, at least half of them, all the way through.

“You have to get a feel for what the artist is actually trying to get across,” he says.

I mumble something about building community because it seems like that’s what I took away from High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s entertaining novel of record store ownership (well, that and how to arrange your record collection by emotion).

“Yes, that’s it,” Cline adds excitedly. And that’s precisely where the other half of his business succeeds.

Perfect Little Showroom

Vinyl Envy passed the 400 live shows mark in the spring, often packing 80 people between the 129-year-old bricks. Cline likes that the room has a little magic with its three-brick-thick walls, tall ceilings and crucial sound-absorbing space beneath the floor under the stage.

“I’ve had musicians come to me and say it’s one of the coolest rooms to play, but it’s also one of the most intimidating rooms to play because everybody is watching everything you do and they’re up really close.”

Cline has made his store a safe space for musicians and those who come to watch. Every show is all-ages and alcohol-free. He calls it an artist-led venue.

“I’ve seen three- and four-year-olds watch their mums and dads on stage.”

Singer-songwriter Sarah Osborne has fronted her own band at Vinyl Envy and calls the cozy room hugely valuable in the community that’s been created there.

“I came up in my musical career playing house concerts and small listening rooms, so that kinda space really speaks to me, as audience and performer,” she says. “I’ve been to so many well-curated shows there and you can catch me hanging on the stairwell, loitering, when I pop in and visit.”

David Chenery, another repeat performer, both solo and with his group Black Valley Gospel, echoes Osborne’s thoughts on the value of the Vinyl Envy space — its intimacy and that it’s very much a listening room.

“And playing in a record store is awesome. There’s a feeling to being there — you’re surrounded by all this great stuff,” Chenery says.

When he’s not performing there, Chenery loves to hang out at Vinyl Envy and talk records with Cline — sharing thoughts on one of their favourite bands, Wilco, and getting turned on to new sounds.

“As I get older [music] is my favourite thing to talk about. Otherwise you talk about politics or something that’s just depressing. I’d rather just talk about music and Mike’s a total music nerd and definitely knows his stuff.”

Cline says the conversations he hears all the time at Vinyl Envy are the kind of banter that sounds like, “Oh, have you heard of that record? No? You like that record? You should listen to this.”

He adds: “But I think you have to help it along a little bit by creating the proper environment in the room that’s relaxed and open and not judgmental. We do that.”

While Cline and Lloyd won’t go full Jack Black (from the High Fidelity film) on their customers, they’re down for a bit of fun and occasional gentle razzing.

“One of the quotes we’ve used around here for quite a while is, ‘We will talk you out of bad records … in order to talk you into a good one.’ ”

Michael Cline's Vinyl Envy - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
Billy Joel – The Stranger.

Best Seller

Is there one record Vinyl Envy sells the most copies of?

Cline says the surprising record that has sold crazy numbers out of his store is Billy Joel’s The Stranger. “It’s just one of those records you don’t expect to be up there, but it is. And it sells like mad.”