ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MARCH 23, 2021
By Steve Newton
Rob Frith knows exactly where and when his lifelong love affair with vinyl started.
From the basement of Neptoon Records, where he sits surrounded by thousands upon thousands of albums, Frith recalls how, when he was four years old, his mother owned an old flip-top record player. The machine could only play 45s, which was just fine with the wee tyke because he reveled in the sounds of Elvis Presley and a mix of long-forgotten country acts.
“There was a little light in the front that showed that it was on,” he recalls. “And I remember leaning against this counter that it was on and just staring at this light and this music would be playing, and I was just overtaken.”
Sixty years later, music still holds a magical power for Frith. And that’s a good thing, because he’s celebrating four decades as the owner of Neptoon, the Main Street record shop that’s been a treasured destination for scores of Vancouverites in search of a music fix.
Frith now runs the place with his 33-year-old musician son Ben, who currently plays drums with local bands Storc, Hidden Trip, and the Vicious Cycles. The elder Frith got into the business as an extension of putting on record swap-meets with his friends in the ’70s.
“The first one was at the J&S Deluxe Hall near Broadway and Main,” he remembers. “We printed up flyers and didn’t know anyone would show up, but when we opened the door there was a lineup down the street. The guy who ran the hall showed up and said ‘You can’t have that many people in here!'”
Frith’s early entrepreneurial exploits also included putting up the money to record a single by a band called Pictures, which included his best friend, Scotty Hall, on guitar. That’s when he came up with Neptoon Records as the name for the label. Shortly thereafter, when his usual construction work became harder to find in 1981, he opened the first Neptoon Records store on Fraser near 41st, across from John Oliver High School.
By this time Frith had become seriously addicted to the lure of vinyl, and opening a store seemed like the right thing to do considering the many piles of albums he had clogging up his East Van residence. He figured he could sell enough of them to cover the $350-a-month rent on the place.
“When I opened my store I had to make a decision to not be as obsessive a collector as I had been,” he points out. “If I had a favourite band I’d have six or seven copies of the exact same record–but from different countries, with a slightly different cover or something. I’d have to go through them and find out which one sounded the best and then just keep that one.”
In the mid-’80s Frith opened a second Neptoon Records outlet on Yew Avenue in Kits, which he says was “probably the worst mistake I ever made”. The expansion just split his clientele in half rather than adding to it, but he got out of that lease before too much financial damage could be done. Then, but by the end of the ’90s, he found that the glow had come off the Fraser Street location as well. A methadone clinic opened nearby, drawing drug dealers and hookers.
“It got bad,” he recalls. “Plus I needed more room. I was looking to rent on Main Street forever, and then one day I happened to be driving by and I saw the For Sale sign on this building. It was during a bit of a lull in the market, so I picked it up really cheap. And 20 years ago, who’d have thought that Main would become such a happening place.”
It’s been mostly positive vibes since Neptoon moved into 3561 Main nearly 20 years ago. The students from John Oliver who used to frequent the old Fraser store on lunch break now visit with their own kids. The bigger location also means the Friths can put on live concerts, like the one by Jack White’s group the Raconteurs that happened in July of 2019.
The store has also served as a set for three seasons of the locally shot TV series Loudermilk, and was recently used for the feature film Honey Girls. Gonzo music-journalist Nardwuar the Human Serviette has recorded conversations with such celebrities as Seth Rogen, Terry Jacks, Tommy Chong, and late rapper Juice Wrld there. His interview with Tyler, the Creator in Neptoon’s vinyl-packed basement has garnered over five million views on YouTube.
“It’s an amazing environment,” says Nardwuar when asked why he likes doing interviews there. “Not only have I found treasures there, so many cool records that I’ve been looking for, but Rob is so welcoming. And he’s got that cool place downstairs with a bunch of records. In that Tyler interview, Tyler even notices a record on the wall. He appreciated all the records packed up in there.
And also my band, the Evaporators, we’ve done quite a few in-stores at Neptoon Records, one we did with Andrew WK, and for Record Store Day we played a couple of times. They do so many in-stores that they have a built-in P.A., which is great. So for me it’s not just doing interviews, and it’s not just buying records, there’s live bands there!”
Looking back on the 40 years, Frith describes working at Neptoon–which he does seven days a week now, with no plan to retire–as “the best thing”.
“Music’s everything to me,” he says. “And you also meet lots of people. Tom Waits has been in here, the Flamin Groovies. The Sonics. Eric Burdon from the Animals–one of the bands I loved when I was a kid. In fact, my old band played ‘House of the Rising Son’ at my Grade Seven graduation, so when I met him here it was just so exciting for me.”
For Ben Frith, having a dad own a record store for his entire life has been pretty cool–even if they do have to fight over which music gets played during work hours.
“The second he steps away from the counter I change it,” notes Ben with a chuckle, explaining that he’d just made the switch from whatever his dad had on to the new box set of Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4. “But it’s always been great being able to grow up around music, just getting to hear all kinds of things I wouldn’t have heard otherwise.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s still going on,” he adds. “This time last year I was worried whether we’d be here for the fortieth year, but after the initial closure of the first few months [of the pandemic] it’s been really busy. Everyone was cooped up at home, not going to shows–probably not going out much at all–and listening to records at home is a nice thing to do.”