Brian’s Record Option marks 44 years in business on Record Store Day

As vinyl records enjoy resurgence thanks in part to Record Store Day, Brian Lipsin recounts 44 years of musical challenges and changes

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Record Store Day is always a special day at Brian’s Record Option, the iconic and old school record store that has been a staple in downtown Kingston almost as long as the limestone itself.

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Only this year, the annual day of vinyl appreciation -— which began in 2007 in a bid to keep the medium alive against the emerging digital music world — happened to fall on the anniversary of the day Brian’s owner, Brian Lipsin, opened his shop on April 20, 1980.

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Forty-four years to the day, and in many ways, for the last four-plus decades, every day has been Record Store Day for Lipsin, 72.

“I planned to open at 8,” Lipsin said on Saturday inside his shop, which was bustling with activity as customers scrambled to collect the limited edition albums that have become synonymous with Record Store Day. “I didn’t want a lineup.”

Alas, he did have one, albeit small at that hour. But before 8 a.m., the line had formed, with people packed inside his dishevelled but somehow perfectly organized shop. Folks were there to get copies of the albums, namely the limited edition release by Kingston’s own The Tragically Hip, who were also named Record Store Day ambassadors. The Hip’s Record Store Day offering was Live at CBGB’s and featured nine recordings from a 1993 performance at the New York City punk venue when the band launched their third album, Fully Completely, in the U.S.

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Unfortunately, by just after 8 a.m., the throng of early shoppers had scooped up all of the Hip albums Lispin had to offer, leaving many others disappointed, some even angry, he said.

“Some people were really pissed off because all the Hip went,” he said, noting that other releases by Olivia Rodrigo and Kirsten Dehaan were also snapped up quickly. “I suspected (I’d have enough to last) for a while, but they were all gone. Some people were really pissed off.”

In some ways, running out of the albums is a good problem to have, Lipsin said, noting that sometimes he gets stuck with leftovers, something that, if you’ve visited the location, which is literally floor to ceiling filled with music offerings, much of it vinyl, is a recurring issue.

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Record Store Day is an annual event inaugurated in 2007 to celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store. And judging by the hustle and bustle inside Brian’s on Saturday, the celebration has caught on. But it wasn’t always that way, Lipsin said.

“I wasn’t taking it very seriously (in 2007),” he recalled. In fact, he said that when people would come in and wish him a happy Record Store Day back then, he’d usually reply with an expletive, he said with a laugh. After being interviewed about Record Store Day a couple of years into the phenomenon, Lipsin said he realized he needed to give it better attention.

“I thought, ‘I’d better have something to talk about,’ so I started ordering,” he said.

Today, thanks in part to Record Store Day, vinyl records are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with more and more stores stocking vinyl despite the convenience and low cost of streaming.

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Forty-four years ago, when Lipsin came to Kingston to open his store, vinyl was king.

“I opened up with records and 8-tracks,” Lipsin said as he helped customers who were picking through crates of Record Store Day offerings.

Originally from Montreal, Lipsin said that as a young man, he was torn between a career in law or opening his own record store business, which, in 1980, was akin to opening a convenience store in today’s climate.

“I was travelling, spending $5 a day in Europe, I lived in Greece for a year,” he said, adding that he was travelling and earning degrees when he knew he had a decision to make.

“I had to make a choice between getting my criminology degree or this, so I decided to trade criminal records for musical records,” he said with a chuckle.

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Shortly after opening, Lipsin said, cassette tapes emerged as the next big way of delivering music, followed thereafter by CDs and, ultimately, the digital era.

“I bought my first cassette here in Kingston,” he said. “People were bringing in cassettes. I never had a cassette deck, so I had to buy a cassette deck. Competition was very fierce. There were like two or three record shops on every block. But I had nothing to lose. It was a recession; I could only go up.”

Vinyl record sales began to decline in the early 1990s, due to the emergence of CDs, Lipsin said, forcing him to make a choice that today looks genius: Whether to hang on to vinyl or concede to the emerging format of the day.

“I had to make a choice because most stores were getting rid of their records and deleting them,” he said. “I decided to keep the store like this.” Partly, he reasoned, because with CDs, people would just come, pay and leave, where with vinyl, they became a conversation piece.

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“In a record store, you hang out, you talk. I kept it like that, and things went down, but it was OK because you had collectors,” he said.

Through the collapse of the vinyl record industry and the rise of digital music and streaming, Brian’s withstood all challenges. A 2018 flood of the building that houses his store was his most challenging time, during which he was forced to rebuild his inventory and remain closed until reopening during the pandemic in 2021.

“Digital, it was the same people who taped (movies and cassettes),” Lipsin said. “The people who taped, who rented, I didn’t lose much there because it was the same people and they never came into the store anyway.”

For decades, Brian’s was the place to go to purchase tickets for nearly any local entertainment event happening in Kingston.

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“I didn’t have many challenging years,” Lipsid admitted. “And that was OK because I had no expectations. I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to be a millionaire, so once you get over that, then it’s chill.”

Even today, with streaming dominating the music world, Lipsin plods along, still going strong into his 70s.

“The streaming sort of helped me, because in the old days, (I served) one person at a time,” he said. “They would say, ‘Oh, I want to get turned on to blues,’ and I would spend an hour with each person playing records and then turning them on. With streaming, I don’t have to do that. They do their research and then later on, if they are going to buy anything, they’ll buy a record. You can’t censure technology. Once it’s there, you can’t boohoo it or whatever. You have to adapt. The Stones, they adapted to the disco era, they adapted to all the different changes, and they were successful.”

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However, things have been changing again, Lipsin said, with vinyl enjoying a resurgence, helped by the nostalgia of it, combined with influential artists like Taylor Swift, whose music is released in special editions targeted to her monstrous fanbase, who scoop it up in huge numbers.

“The kids are buying this, and they’re young,” Lipsin said of Swift, who released a new album one day before Record Store Day to huge fanfare.

“She really knows how to do it; she’s copying KISS,” Lipsin said. “That’s pretty amazing. It’s sending more people to buy the physical album, and younger, and they’re getting into the idea that physical is better than just the streaming. You’re holding something in your hands.”

And don’t look now, but Record Store Day, Lipsin said, is his busiest day of the year in terms of sales.

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“It’s the best day of the year, definitely,” he said. On Sunday, he posted that Saturday’s Record Store Day was his best day of sales in the store’s 44-year history.

As he scoured through boxes and bags of orders he has on hold in search of an order, Lipsin even noted that Swift’s new album was available at Costco, highlighting just how popular she is.

Heading toward his 50th anniversary as a small-business owner, Lipsin, by and large, has always operated Brian’s by himself, having had a few employees here and there along the way, he said.

“I have had employees doing different jobs,” he said. “But I’ve always been a loner. I like to do things myself, for better or for worse. I like running things on my own. I find with hiring people, I have less freedom. I’m too lenient. And everyone wants to be behind the counter.”

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Besides, he said, if he wasn’t working, he’d miss out on so many of the fabled stories he’s been able to enjoy over his career, stories he readily shares to his social media, much to the delight of his friends and followers.

“I don’t recognizes faces, and sometimes names, which is better because if you’re famous and you come into a place and people go, ‘Oh,’ and they run out,” Lipsin said, before recounting a visit to the store by legendary Steve Earle, whom Lipsin himself didn’t recognize at the time.

“I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall, even though I had a ticket for his concert across the street,” Lipsin said, recounting how Earle came to the cash carrying a bunch of independent albums from indie record labels like Rounder and Flying Fish. “I almost blew the sale because I said, ‘You could probably get these things cheaper in the States because you sound American,’” Lipsin said. “And he said, ‘No, my ex-wife took my collection and I find them here.’”

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Eventually, two customers came into the store and immediately asked Earle for his autograph, which he signed before heading off on his way.

Years later, Lipsin recounted the day in one of his Facebook posts, only to be contacted by the couple who were the beneficiaries of the Steve Earle encounter and autograph that day.

“The guy messaged me the picture and said that was the thrill of a lifetime that they saw him in my store,” Lipsin said with a smile.

He also recounted a visit by a woman while Kids in the Hall cast members were in the store. As fans flocked to see the cast members, Lipsin said, people began to suggest that the woman there that day was none other than Canadian music legend Alanis Morissette.

“She looked like Alanis Morrissette,” Lipsin said. “People were going, ‘Oh, God, Alanis Morissette and Kids in the Hall are here.’ All of a sudden she came out with an Australian accent and people went, ‘Oh, s—,’ and everyone left.”

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Eventually, it was just Lipsin and her left.

“I said to her, “Those guys thought you were Alanis Morissette until they heard that Australian accent. If you want to be famous, you should scratch that accent.’ She shrugged her shoulders.”

As she left the store, Lipsin said, she stopped, turned to Lipsin and shot him a wink.

To this day, Lipsin remains convinced it was, indeed, Alanis herself.

As he approaches 75 years of age, Lipsin is showing no signs of slowing down. In past interviews with the Whig-Standard, Lipsin has been quoted as saying he plans to work into his 80s. That’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“As long as my memory is intact and as long as I’m having a good time,” he answered when asked how many Record Store Days he has left in him. “It’s not the money anymore. I love it. I love it. I’ve noticed people who’ve retired from places because they’ve had a business for so long, and they miss it greatly. It’s the people. It’s not the retail. It’s the people. It’s all of you guys. If I didn’t have this, my stories would be about boring me.”

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Brian Lipsin, owner of Brian’s Record Option on Princess Street, inside his longtime location, which turned 44 years old on Record Store Day on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Photo by Jan Murphy /The Whig-Standard

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