Nestled between a bike shop and an animal hospital by the corner of Dundas West and Roncesvalles, you’ll find a bright, black and white shop called Tonality. From first glance, the shop doesn’t look like your typical record store, which is completely intentional; Tonality isn’t meant to be a typical record store. From the curated selection of records to its layout and design, Tonality doesn’t draw from the traditional record store formula, and in a time of change for music retailers in Canada, a fresh approach is what the industry needs.

Tonality’s owner Julian Seth Wong opened the shop on November 5th, 2014 when he was 17 years old, but this wasn’t always the future he saw for himself. Originally planning on studying classical piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Julian came to the realization that even though his passion lay in music, he could offer the world something different. He knew his passion, and found a new way to bring it to the world.

Carving Out His Own Scene

Tonality started as a joint effort between Julian and his father. The original concept was to open a musical instruments store with a portion of the space devoted to records. The first concept still lives on in the back half of the store where among turntables and amps, one can find a selection of vintage guitars as well, but what started as 10 bins of vinyl quickly evolved when Julian tried something new; Tonality started contacting indie labels directly. Inspired by the creativity and passion these labels were putting into their releases, Julian started carrying smaller-run releases and organizing the store by label rather than genre.

“With iTunes, Google Play Music, and that sort of thing, the label is lost in translation. It’s always just artist, title, and album. The label that puts out the music takes a back seat in all of that and they don’t get the recognition that they probably should,” Julian says as he flips a copy of Moderat’s III on a white Pro-Ject turntable. “As the receiver of the music, we don’t really recognize that as much anymore.”

Small-run releases are still represented in the store, and though the records are now organized by genre, independence is still key to the spirit of Tonality. For Julian, independence goes beyond just the types of labels and artists he values. Independence is a necessity required for true creative freedom, something that drives the model of the store itself.

“You’re not driven by ulterior motives,” Julian explains. “Art isn’t something that should be pushed by anyone else other than the artists themselves.”

Striking Up a Conversation

Tonality isn’t a one-stop-shop for every Top 40 record in the world. He will of course order you the LP you’re hunting for, but conversation and discovery is the lifeblood of the store, for both the customers and the staff.

“We’re stocking some stuff that people aren’t going to want to buy on the first listen. It’s something that you have to build up a rapport with the customer in order for them to trust your music taste,” Julian says from behind a desk covered in new arrivals and fresh branded slipmats.

Making connections with customers isn’t something Julian has left solely to himself. In hiring staff, Julian values not only what they bring to the store, but what they bring to the world of music in the passion they put into their own creations. Mac Calarco is a music producer who’s latest work will be appearing on a compilation from THA Recordz, and the store’s previous part-timer Sinead Bermingham is an expert in an electronic and grunge, and writes and produces dreamy experimental electronica as Animal Party. Regardless of who you run into on a visit, you’ll be running into an expert ready to talk shop.

In a time when major music retailers are collapsing, there will always be places to discover and explore new music offline. For the lost and disenfranchised music aficionado seeking out musical harbor, Julian has a message: “They will find a way, and when they find a way, we will be waiting.”