After 43 years, Creative Audio continues to hammer high-end hardware

Boxing Day has long been synonymous with door-to-door sales in places selling electronics, as local bargain hunters happily line up overnight, almost always in sub-zero conditions, for make a deal on a new pair of headphones or a big – screen TV.

That said, if you’re reading this shaking outside Creative Audio, 353 Provencher Blvd., you absolutely want to come home immediately and crawl under the sheets.

“We have never been open on Boxing Day and never will be,” says Jeff Kowerchuk, owner of Creative Audio, an audio and video store that opened in Osborne Village in May 1978, the same month he was born.

“It’s not like we don’t have a few specials this time of year, because we do. For us, however, Boxing Day has always been about spending a little more time with it. family and friends, rather than another day at the office. ”

Kowerchuk puts a turntable needle on vinyl as he tests out a speaker setup. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kowerchuk, 43, cannot point to a point in his life when he was not drawn to music. Give it a second, he says, and he’ll find a photo of himself as a baby, kneeling in front of a set of living room speakers, bowing towards this or that. (If anyone has a used copy of an album called Introducing the Care Bears, which came out when he was four, they’d love to get their paws back on it.)

He grew up listening to records and CDs on a working model 1970s system owned by his parents. By the time he was a grade 9 student at John Taylor Collegiate, however, he had come to the conclusion that he was not going to cut it anymore, and what he really needed to do was put together a superior sounding unit. of its own from scratch.

The 14-year-old did his homework browsing copies of Hi-Fi Choice magazine, taking notes and prices in the margin. He then got on the horn and called store after store to ask if they were selling a certain brand or model.

Most of the people he contacted treated him like “a teenager,” he says, with the exception of a salesperson at Creative Audio, which after opening quickly became a destination for music lovers who did not hesitate to lose thousands of dollars. on advanced components. The person Kowerchuk spoke with patiently answered all of his questions before inviting him to the store, which at the time was located inside a converted house at 214 Osborne Street (he turned then expanded into a second house next door, with a makeshift hallway joining the two), to listen to what they had discussed.

A vintage radio from the 1930s that has been refurbished and reworked with modern electronics and technology.  (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

A vintage radio from the 1930s that has been refurbished and reworked with modern electronics and technology. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

“It really impressed me how every last employee there made me feel like I was as important as everyone else in the room,” he said, speaking loudly enough to be heard on an album of the great jazz Charlie Haden playing on a turntable. in its Saint-Boniface showroom. “The amp I was interested in, a NAD 304 model, didn’t cost much – around $ 400 – compared to a lot of the stuff they were storing, but it was an absolute fortune for me. treated with respect and honesty, and creative Audio became my go-to place, whenever I managed to raise enough money to buy something else. ”

Kowerchuk was a 22-year-old student at the University of Manitoba when he approached Creative Audio founder Dan Scrapneck, whom he had come to know, to ask if he needed part-time help with the sales. Of course, came the answer. Kowerchuk laughs, noting that working there has turned out to be somewhat counterintuitive; instead of filling up his bank account, he endorsed his paychecks to Scrapneck, pretty much, because of the plethora of new “toys” he was bringing home.

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Kowerchuk successfully applied to the education department at U of M. The thing is, he had always been interested in business too. One day he took Scrapneck aside to inform him that if he ever considered retiring from Creative Audio, he would be interested in buying it from him.

In short, Kowerchuk never obtained his teaching certificate. With two partners, he became the new owner of Creative Audio in November 2007, six months before the store’s 30th anniversary.

Now you can't go wrong with this set here.  (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Now you can’t go wrong with this set here. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kowerchuk used to hear all the time, how ideal operating a store in Osborne Village must be, with the number of pedestrians in that corner of the woods. This was probably the case if you were selling clothes or gifts, he replied, but not so much if your area of ​​expertise was high-end audio and video equipment.

“A new amp or receiver isn’t exactly an impulse buy, so no, we didn’t have a lot of people coming in for a bite to eat or anything,” he laughs. “Plus the parking was terrible. We had two designated spots behind us that I always had to tell people on their way to somewhere else to move their vehicle. So yes, in 2015 when we came here it was definitely time for a total change of scenery. ”

Another reason for the move was a change of management, says Kowerchuk, who has been the sole owner since 2018. The Osborne location was jam-packed with stock – you could barely move from room to room without say “Excuse me” a dozen times – but the intention of him and his partners was to focus their gaze more on custom installations and smart home automation, rather than retail sales.

Of course, you can always buy a new turntable or compact disc player, or have the staff order something from one of their flagship suppliers such as Focal and Naim; but it wasn’t like the ‘good old days’, with loudspeakers resting on loudspeakers and miles of wire seemingly everywhere.

“About three years ago the trend started to change a bit, however, with more and more people coming just for shopping,” Kowerchuk said. “I reacted by bringing more than what was normally available, and it gradually built up from there. I even put the finishing touches on a dedicated sound room, where those interested can relax on a sofa and listen to what will be, without a doubt, the most premium system we’ve ever had here, where the speakers alone will be in the range of $ 25,000. ” (Is there a tune he leans on, over and over again, to present something from this elite? Don’t tell the dude to The great Lebowski, who said how much he hated the “f ——- g Eagles”, but it’s a live version of Hotel California.)

A Grado helmet on display.  (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

A Grado helmet on display. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

It might sound funny to hear, but Creative Audio is reminiscent of a longtime hamburger or pizza place, in the sense that its clientele has become multigenerational. Likewise, a person who first went to, say, Mrs. Mike’s house with their parents 30 or 40 years ago, now comes forward with their own children, the sons and daughters of people who made their own. shopping at Creative Audio in the 1970s and 1980s, also pass by there, confident they will find what they are looking for.

Still, there are those who shyly admit to Kowerchuk that they were initially reluctant to shop there because, as they say, “it’s not like I’m an audiophile.”

“I swear I would be rich if I had a dollar every time I hear this phrase, and I always respond the same way, ‘You don’t have to be. All you need to know , that’s what sounds good to you, ”he says, even noting that some of his closest friends apologize before selecting a drive, telling him that they are aware their system probably isn’t. (Hey, it’s not like he owns the best stereo system in the world either; at the end of the day, he’s “just a store owner, not a multimillionaire,” admits. he.)

“I reassure people that the best way to find out what they like and don’t like is to go downstairs, and let me offer them a few tips. Understandably, speakers that cost $ 5,000 will sound better than a tenth of that price, but that doesn’t mean the $ 500 isn’t for you. ”

One more thing ; If there’s one downside to being a business owner who prides itself on offering top-notch merchandise, it may be a while before you see a satisfied customer again.

“I joke about that with customers who come and tell me they bought me this or that amp 30 years ago. ‘I know you did,’ I said. ‘Where the hell were you. you ?'”

David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.

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