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ARTS AND CULTURE

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'This S--- Doesn't Grow on Trees': Inside Ottawa's Least Predictable Record Shop

Birdman Sound's sonic range is as eclectic as the tastes of its owner, local personality John Westhaver

Like a lighthouse when you’re stranded at sea, there are flashes of the familiar in Birdman Sound, Ottawa’s premier and ultra-niche downtown record shop. Check out the wall-mounted editions of Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd LPs, so life-blasted they’re not even for sale. Or have a look at the Derek Hess-drawn concert posters heralding long-ago shows by The Jesus Lizard and Guided by Voices. Even consider, at least briefly, a gently used, $100 first European edition of Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

You can hold onto this stuff. You can use it to get your bearings and return to it if you start floating away. But this is Birdman Sound, not HMV. You're going to encounter unfamiliar stuff here, and getting lost in the waves is half the fun.

“In all honesty, [the selection has] never been based on what the market dictates,” says John Westhaver, the store’s spikey-haired owner, who got his start in the music-dealing business decades ago at Sam the Record Man. “A lot of people that bought into the chain record stores, they weren’t deep into music – they were interested, and they thought it would be cool to own a record shop.”

While it may have been cool, it wasn’t always sustainable, at least not in the advent of file-sharing. And even in these days of vinyl resurgence, you’d be forgiven for thinking a business so far removed from the mainstream isn’t all that sustainable either. Ottawa does have its fair share of record shops – Vertigo, Compact, The Turning Point, Legend, The Record Centre – and each of them does its own thing, but still within certain parameters. Birdman, located on Bank Street in The Glebe, grows most of its culture outside that standard Petri dish, but it’s as much an institution as any of its competitors.

You can probably chalk that up to Westhaver himself. Before you understand the shop, you need to understand the man, because the store is every bit an extension of Westhaver: his tastes, his experience, and his passion.

Now in his fifties, the East Coast transplant has spent 30 years banging around Ottawa’s music scene. He plays drums in a psychedelic jam-band called The Band Whose Name is a Symbol, which has 10 albums to its credit, each one pressed exclusively on wax and recorded in a studio under the store. He used to curate an eclectic and much-celebrated stage at Bluesfest, one of the city’s annual music hoorahs. He volunteers at the helm of Friday Morning Cartunes, a weekly, 3½-hour show on CKCU FM. And he’s something of a local media attraction, appearing in mainstream publications like The Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Magazine, as well as in underground productions, like over here on a vinyl-themed blog or over here in a short-form documentary.

Grind away like that, and you wind up with a bit of profile. And while he swears he keeps his different duties separate – little to no “cross-pollination,” for example, in what you hear on Cartunes and what he’s got for sale in the store – he’s been around long enough for people to connect all the disparate dots, which can make for some pretty interesting stuff in the used section of his shop.

“This s--- doesn’t grow on trees,” he says, flipping through his secondhand stock. “You don’t get this stuff traded in on a daily basis. I’ve had a guy unloading like an amazing collection since last July. Every week he brings in stuff. It’s not all from him, but that’s been really making the used section way more interesting and diverse than it normally is.”

'Spiritual jazz records to '70s afro-funk psychedelia to blistering modern-day stoner-rock psych-bands, '70s funk bands, Turkish psychedelia, Moby Grape …'

Imagine a $250 original edition of Dave Mathews Band’s Before These Crowded Streets alongside a $125 pressing of Mars Volta’s debut, Deloused in the Comatorium, also a first edition, and both in mint condition. He’s got a tiny stack of Jimi Hendrix rarities, from the three-LP Live at Isle of Wight to the two-volume Axis Outtakes. These are some of the titles you might recognize, and if they seem expensive, consider this: According to Rolling Stone, the priciest vinyl ever sold at auction was Ringo Starr’s own version of The White Album, which went for almost US $800,000 in 2015. Westhaver’s used catalogue is much more blue collar than that, and it runs a lot deeper, too.

“If you look through here, you’re going to see everything from spiritual jazz records to '70s afro-funk psychedelia to blistering modern-day stoner-rock psych-bands, and you know, to '70s funk bands, Turkish psychedelia, Moby Grape from San Francisco, a great '60s psychedelic band, to ultra-rare and extremely expensive Iron Maiden records in near-perfect shape. You know, that kind of thing. That’s what I look for.”

But the trade-in game keeps getting harder and harder. Up until the 1980s and 90s, records were produced in huge quantities. Later, to make room first for tapes and then for CDs, consumers jettisoned their vinyl in correspondingly large numbers.

Today, there just aren’t as many high-quality collectibles left for people to trade as there were early in the 21st century, and much of what's still kicking around doesn’t typically wind up in stores. “There’s more of a demand to buy them than there is to sell them,” Westhaver says.

Accordingly, most of the shop, like the bulk of its peers across the city, is devoted to new material. And that’s where the Birdman experience can tip into the overwhelming. Westhaver’s display walls are more likely to hold Earth, Hey Colossus, Acid Mothers Temple, and The Body than any Led Zeppelin reissue, and the in-store stereo could be roaring with anything from long-form psychedelic garage rock to blistering doom.

John Westhaver again

Westhaver says he doesn't seek out the rare and valuable vinyl – the rare and valuable vinyl comes to him

He breaks his regular clientele up into groups: weekly shoppers, monthly and bimonthly crowd, and those people he only sees a few times a year. For the most part, these folks are music ferrets. They’re deep into multiple genres. They sniff out the latest, the weirdest, and the most interesting.

But you can be a pond-skimmer and still get something out of the experience, because Westhaver is an encyclopedia. What you don’t know, he can shine a light on, with equal parts profanity, knowledge, and good old-fashioned passion. And even if that freaks you out, stick around and you might find an original pressing of Creed’s Human Clay to grab hold of. But those '90s pseudo-alternative collectibles – be careful, man – they don’t come cheap.

Published Wednesday, November 29th 2017

Header image credit: John Westhaver / Courtesy John Westhaver

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