By Stuart BermanSpecial to the Star
Sun., May 15, 2022timer5 min. read
In 1946, you could buy a house in Toronto for less than 10 grand, take a ride on the TTC for a dime, and find the finest audio equipment and servicing at the corner of Bay and Bloor, where members of the Mandlsohn family welcomed customers at their mom-and-pop shop, Bay Bloor Radio.
Seventy-six years later, one of these things is still true. Sure, the location changed long ago, from a small storefront on the northwest corner to a grand showroom a stone’s throw away in the Manulife Centre, and the business has since been passed down from founder Sol Mandlsohn to his son Mark. But Bay Bloor Radio is still very much dedicated to getting its clients — in the words of their inescapable radio ads — “the right sound for the right price.”
As Mark sees it, there’s a good reason why Bay Bloor Radio has managed to survive into its ninth decade through recessions, industry upheavals, and, most recently, pandemics — and it’s not necessarily because of the store’s carefully curated inventory of premier stereo components that sell for the price of a small sedan. “We were always somewhat quirky,” he says with pride from one of the store’s home-theatre testing rooms. “My father was a poet and actor before he was a businessman. He was a memorable character. He never gave out a business card in his life. He said, ‘If they don’t remember who I am, I don’t deserve the order.’ His goal was to offer the client more than they expected, for less than expected.”
That hands-on, customer-friendly philosophy helped Bay Bloor Radio expand beyond its humble repair-shop roots into a more robust home-entertainment hub in the ’50s and ’60s, with Sol’s wife, Peppie (“an equal partner from the very beginning,” says Mark), overseeing the shop’s vinyl department to complement all the turntables flying out the door. And after the store relocated to Manulife in 1974 — three years after Mark joined the family business — Bay Bloor Radio’s reputation for high-end hi-fis and friendly technical support would help set it apart from all the impersonal chain stores and big-box retailers that sprang up to cash in on the CD and home-theatre crazes of the ’80s and ’90s.
“My father’s fundamental — which we try to impress on the staff on almost a daily basis — is that there are no shortcuts to success,” Mark says. “It’s about hard work and dedication and doing unto others. He believed that making a profit was a byproduct of running a business — it wasn’t the be-all and end-all. It happens because of all the other stuff that you can’t measure.”
However, following Sol’s passing in 1998 at the age of 80 (by which point Mark had assumed his current role as company president), Bay Bloor Radio faced its greatest existential threat. Not only did the internet cause sales of CDs — and the stereos required to play them — to plummet, but it also spawned a generation of listeners content to play music through tinny laptop speakers and Bluetoothed smartphone earbuds. What’s more, through the internet, customers could buy their mp3 players, streaming devices, and TV soundbars directly from the manufacturer, effectively cutting out middlemen like Bay Bloor Radio.
And, yet, times of crisis can also bring new opportunities. Music’s digital age inspired a reactionary tilt back toward the tactile pleasures of vinyl, leading to a sustained uptick in Bay Bloor’s turntable business, while the explosion in online gaming has opened up a whole new consumer base for the store’s high-quality headphones.
What’s more, the popularity of interior-decor porn on Instagram and Pinterest has spurred demand for design-savvy specialty products — like Scandinavian-styled music systems from Ruark Audio, colorful portable speakers from Tivoli Audio and skeletal turntables from Rega — whose unconventional aesthetics appeal to the sort of urbane clientele Bay Bloor Radio attracts. More recently, the past two years of rolling pandemic lockdowns prompted many casual music listeners to rethink and enhance their home-entertainment setups, a development that’s kept the store’s consultation and installation teams plenty busy.
These shifts are reflected in Bay Bloor Radio’s recent renovation, their biggest overhaul since the late ’80s. Beyond boosting the store’s street presence on Bay with a striking glass-box facade, the new reno effectively transforms what was once a subterranean industrial-style space into a bright gallery-inspired boutique, complete with a central pyramid structure displaying the latest products from coveted brands like Binghamton, N.Y., stereo makers McIntosh and Italian speaker specialists Sonus Faber. There’s also a new vinyl-dedicated station that hosts a rainbow-like array of colour-coded Pro-Ject turntables next to racks stocked with starter-kit classics like the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Arcade Fire’s “Funeral,” as well as dedicated listening lounges for featured brands like the U.K.’s Bowers & Wilkins and Montreal’s Totem Acoustics.
“I just wanted to set up the right structure for my two boys to be able to do what is theoretically impossible to do: to take a company into the third generation,” says Mark, now 73. He’s referring to his sons Danu, 40, and Sam, 26, who joined the Bay Bloor brain trust in 2006 and 2017, respectively, and have helped usher Bay Bloor into the modern age with their e-commerce expertise and knowledge of emergent niche brands. For the younger Mandlsohns, the renovation was crucial to realizing their vision of a Bay Bloor Radio that still very much caters to serious audiophiles with deep pockets (including such celebrities as Elton John and Kiefer Sutherland), but can also educate budget-conscious neophytes on the importance of investing in proper gear and getting the best value. “It’s a more accessible store now,” Sam says. “Hi-fi stores have a reputation of being a boys’ club, where you’re expected to come in with a wealth of knowledge. But we’re seeing more and more people who you wouldn’t think fit the stereotype of a hi-fi buyer.”
To emphasize the point, Danu points to a key component of the renovation: the headphones section. Once tucked away in the back of the shop, it now comprises a sleek store-within-a-store with a glass wall that showcases its wares to shoppers strolling through the Manulife Centre concourse. It also features a private listening room where customers can test out the cans. “It’s astonishing to me that people will buy headphones without trying them on first,” Danu says. “We believe headphones are the gateway drug to high fidelity.”
And even if that gateway doesn’t guarantee a teenager buying a $65 pair of Sennheiser buds will someday shell out $45,000 for a pair of Bowers & Wilkins floor-standing speakers, the cornerstone of Bay Bloor Radio’s survival strategy is that both types of customers are treated the same way.
“The fundamental of doing business is that people will buy from people they like,” Mark says, “and I don’t think that ever changes.”