An ear for sound
After 43 years, Creative Audio is still pounding out high-end equipment
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2021 (523 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Boxing Day has long been synonymous with door-crasher sales at places peddling electronics, to the degree local bargain hunters willingly wait in line overnight, almost always in sub-zero conditions, to score a deal on a new pair of headphones or a big-screen TV.
That said, if you’re reading this while shivering outside Creative Audio, 353 Provencher Blvd., you definitely want to scoot home immediately, and crawl back under the sheets.
“We’ve never been open Boxing Day, and never will be,” says Jeff Kowerchuk, owner of Creative Audio, a specialty audio-and-video shop that opened in Osborne Village in May 1978, the same month he was born.
“It’s not like we don’t offer a few specials this time of year, because we do. For us, though, Boxing Day has always been more about spending a little extra time with family and friends, versus another day at the office.”
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Kowerchuk, 43, can’t point to a time in his life when he wasn’t drawn to music. Give him a sec, he says, and he’ll find a photograph of himself as a baby, kneeling in front of a set of living room speakers, grooving to this or that. (If anybody has a used copy of an album entitled Introducing the Care Bears, which came out when he was four, he’d love to get his paws on it, again.)
He grew up listening to records and CDs on a serviceable, ’70s-model system belonging to his parents. By the time he was a Grade 9 student at John Taylor Collegiate, however, he had come to the conclusion that wasn’t going to cut it any longer, and what he really needed to do was piece together a superior-sounding unit of his own from scratch.
The then 14-year-old did his homework by poring through dogeared copies of Hi-Fi Choice magazine, jotting down notes and prices in the margin. He then got on the horn and called one store after another, to ask whether they carried a certain make or model.
Most of the people he reached treated him like “some teenage kid,” he says, excluding a sales person at Creative Audio, which, after opening, quickly became a destination spot for music lovers who didn’t think twice about dropping thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art components. The person Kowerchuk spoke with patiently answered all his questions before inviting him down to the store, which, at the time, was situated inside a converted house at 214 Osborne St. (it later expanded into a second home next door, with a makeshift corridor joining the two), to give what they’d discussed a listen.
“It really made an impression on me how every last employee there made me feel like I was as important as everybody else in the room,” he says, speaking loudly enough to be heard over an album by jazz great Charlie Haden playing on a turntable in his St. Boniface showroom. “The amp I was interested in, an NAD model 304, didn’t cost much — about $400 — compared to a lot of the stuff they stocked, but it was an absolute fortune to me. They treated me respectfully and honestly, and Creative Audio became my go-to place, whenever I managed to scrape up enough money to buy something else.”
Kowerchuk was a 22-year-old University of Manitoba student when he approached Creative Audio founder Dan Scrapneck, whom he’d gotten to know, to ask whether he needed any part-time sales help. Sure, came the answer. Kowerchuk laughs, noting working there turned out to be somewhat counter-intuitive; instead of padding his bank account, he was endorsing his paycheques to Scrapneck, pretty much, owing to the plethora of new “toys” he was bringing home.
After completing his B.A., Kowerchuk successfully applied to the U of M’s education department. Thing was, he’d always been interested in business, too. One day, he pulled Scrapneck aside to inform him that if he was ever considering stepping away from Creative Audio, he’d be interested in buying it from him.
To make a long story short, Kowerchuk never did get his teaching certificate. He together with two partners became the new owners of Creative Audio in November 2007, six months shy of the store’s 30th anniversary.
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Kowerchuk used to hear it all the time, how operating a store in Osborne Village must be ideal, what with the amount of foot traffic in that neck of the woods. That was probably the case if you sold clothes or giftware, he’d reply, just not so much if your area of expertise was top-of-the-line audio and video equipment.
“A new amp or receiver isn’t exactly an impulse buy so no, we weren’t getting a lot of people popping in, on their way for a bite to eat or anything,” he says chuckling. “Plus, parking was terrible. We had two designated spots behind us that I was forever having to tell people on their way somewhere else to move their vehicle from. So yeah, by 2015, when we came over here, it was definitely time for a change of scenery.”
Another reason for the move was a shift in direction, says Kowerchuk, who’s been the sole owner since 2018. The Osborne location was packed to the gills with stock — one could barely move from room to room without saying “Excuse me,” a dozen times — but his and his partners’ intention was to focus their gaze more on custom installations and smart-home automation, versus retail sales.
Sure, you could still pick up a new turntable or compact disc player, or ask the staff to order something in from one of their flagship suppliers such as Focal and Naim; but it wasn’t like the “old days,” with speakers resting on top of speakers, and miles of wire seemingly everywhere.
“About three years ago, the trend started to shift a bit, though, with more and more people solely coming in to shop,” Kowerchuk says. “I reacted to that by bringing in more than what had normally been on-hand, and it’s gradually built back from there. I’m even putting the finishing touches on a dedicated soundroom, where interested parties will be able to kick back on a couch and listen to what will be, without a doubt, the highest-end system we’ve ever had here, where the speakers alone will be in the $25,000 range.” (Is there one tune he relies on, again and again, to showcase something that elite? Don’t tell the Dude from The Big Lebowski, who famously opined how much he hates the “f——-g Eagles,” but it’s a live version of Hotel California.)
It may sound funny to hear, but Creative Audio isn’t unlike a long-standing burger or pizza joint, in the sense that its clientele has become multi-generational. In the same manner a person who first went to, say, Mrs. Mike’s with their parents 30 or 40 years ago now shows up with their own children in tow, sons and daughters of people who shopped at Creative Audio in the 1970s and ’80s drop by there, too, confident they’ll find what they’re after.
Still, there are those who sheepishly admit to Kowerchuk that they were initially hesitant to shop there, because, as they put it, “it’s not like I’m some audiophile.”
“I swear, I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase, and I always answer the same way, ‘You don’t have to be. All you have to know is what sounds good to you,’” he says, noting even some of his closest friends apologize before cueing up a record, telling him they’re aware their system probably isn’t up to snuff. (Hey, it’s not like he possesses the world’s greatest stereo system, either; at the end of the day, he’s “just a store owner, not some multi-millionaire,” he allows.)
“I reassure people that the best way to find out what they like or don’t like is to come down, and let me throw a few things on for them. Naturally speakers that cost $5,000 are going to sound better than ones a tenth of that price, but it doesn’t mean the $500 ones won’t be right for you.”
One more thing; if there is a downside to being a business owner who prides himself on offering first-rate merchandise, it’s that it might be a while before you see a satisfied customer, again.
“I joke about that with clients who come in, saying they bought such-and-such an amp off me 30 years ago. ‘I know you did,’ I’ll say. ‘Where the heck have you been?’”
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.