Ever since the transformation of CBC Radio 2, my listening habits have changed. At work from Monday to Thursday I tune in to ABC Radio (Australian Broadcasting Company) online and listen to its night and morning shows, enjoying the variety of classical music selections and Aussie accents. Fridays, (Saturdays in Australia when they play jazz) I move over to the classical band of CBC online. It's actually quite nice, but sometimes the music listings are out of synch with what's playing.
But most of all, I have started to buy more CDs for my home collection. I have purchased a few CDs online, but really prefer to discover recordings in person. This is no easy task in Winnipeg, with A&B Sound closing down some time ago and CD Plus and HMV really not offering much selection. Chapters Polo Park has a fair-sized classical section, about 90 per cent of which is on the Naxos label, which can be hit or miss.
For my money, though, I have found the best choice by far to be at McNally Robinson Booksellers, so when news of the closing of the Polo Park store got out, it struck fear in my heart.
Thankfully, it seems to be back on track. The Grant Park store is still going strong, even acquiring half of the Polo Park CD stock; so classical music lovers still have somewhere to go to find some of those more obscure recordings.
Much of the reason for the great classical assortment has to do with the music manager at the store, Michael Wolch. Wolch has been at McNally since 2001 and has shaped the department into a unique kind of music boutique. "Other stores are sent all the same selections," he said in a recent interview. "It's kind of a cookie cutter system. I go through magazines and catalogues and choose everything myself. It's the only way to do it."
And while space is limited, Wolch says the store carries over 7,000 titles, of which classical is the No. 1 seller. "I keep pushing for more space," he laughed. "In the last eight years, I've literally carved out the music section. At first there was just one wall with about 100 CDs."
Recently, I was delighted by a surprise find - a box set of Rostropovich playing the complete Bach cello suites. That is the mark of a discerning seller.
It's clear that this is more than a job for Wolch, who has a degree in radio broadcasting, studied music and has worked in retail for almost 14 years. It is an obvious passion. He reminisced about his start in a music store in London, Ont., before moving on to a year at the famous Sam the Record Man in Toronto and working at the first-ever Canadian Chapters music department in Kingston.
Now, he strives hard to meet the needs of customers. "Sometimes I feel guilty that I can't have everything," he says. "We rely a lot on special orders."
Wolch confided that the classical music customers are the most difficult, but not in a bad way. "It's not like they just want the latest Pearl Jam album," he says. "They want a specific recording of a certain piece of music, with a particular conductor, a particular orchestra and label."
It is Wolch's personal touch that makes the difference. "I micro-manage the section," he explained. "I don't rely on the computer. I hand pick the CDs."
How does he know what to get? "I listen to what people are asking for and feed off that. I get as many new releases as I can and keep the catalogue titles rotating, so our stock changes."
In this age of downloading music, sales of classical CDs seem to be surviving. "I'm amazed at how much music we sell," said Wolch. "It's grown about 150 per cent."
No small wonder with Wolch putting his all into the success of the department. He summed it up with one statement: "It's not my own store but I treat it like it's my own shop."