Wilson and Lee may be Canada’s oldest music store but after 97 years in business, the family-run downtown Oshawa store is preparing to close its doors.
The store is co-owned by brothers Bill and David Wilson, and they’ve sold the building to the Holiday Inn hotel next door.
The business, on 87 Simcoe St. N., will offer regular services until the end of November. Shoppers can expect to bargain hunt until mid-December, when the store will be closed.
“We’re sorry we have to go, but all things must come to an end at some point,” Bill said. “We appreciate everybody, all our customers old and new over the years. It’s incredible.”
Bill and David have worked at the store for 67 and 52 years respectively, and they’re both ready for retirement.
The atmosphere at Wilson and Lee hearkens back to a bygone time in the music business. The Wilson brothers show up to work every day in suits and they have an extensive knowledge of the full line of products they sell, including instruments, print music, books, records, CDs and DVDs.
Customers can easily entice the brothers into lengthy conversations about instruments or favourite records.
They don’t have a computerized inventory system, relying instead on personal knowledge of their products.
The store was started by their grandfather William George Wilson who came to Oshawa from Toronto.
“He was a blind piano tuner and he had been trained by the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) and he came here to work for the Williams piano factory, which was in Oshawa,” Bill said, adding that his grandfather ultimately decided to go into business on his own.
“My great-aunt, who was his sister-in-law, Mary Lee, started to drive him around to tune pianos. At that time in the ’20s, pianos were really popular, there was no TV. He started buying used ones and reconditioning them.”
When he ran out of room in his home for the reconditioned pianos, William George Wilson and Mary Lee opened Wilson and Lee in 1922 on Simcoe St. The store has been its current location since the 1950s.
Business flourished during the 1920s, until the stock market crash of 1929. Although William George Wilson suffered businesses losses in real estate during the Depression, he hung on to the store.
Bill and David’s father, William Sr., became involved after returning from serving in the Second World War in 1946. During the war he was stationed in England, where he was in administration, running an office of 100 men.
“He came back to the business so things flourished with him and his brother Ed who was a piano tuner and this other brother, George, came in,” Bill said.
Mary Lee continued to work with her nephews.
Bill began working at the store in 1953 as a high school student and was later joined by his brother. They became the owners in 1989.
As pianos fell out of favour, the business transitioned into selling other instruments — Bill pointed out that in the late ’50s and ’60s accordions were the big instrument, a favourite in immigrant communities from Italy, Germany and Ukraine.
“In the ’50s we had a record department. We had five booths, people could come in and try the records, this is one of the fond memories people have,” he said.
The store would ultimately move to newer technologies selling CDs and DVDs. But with music sharing and streaming services, sales of CDs fell dramatically in recent years.
“Vinyl is selling fairly well, but that is not enough to carry a business,” Bill said.
Ultimately the brothers decided to close the business as they did not have family members interested in running the store and they did not want to pass on the name to new owners.
When the brothers announced they would be closing via social media they received more than 1,000 notes online and via email.
“It was well-wishers people saying I wish you weren’t going and congratulations, you deserve it,” Bill said.
As for what’s next, Bill is planning on knee surgery while David will be spending time at the cottage.
Both brothers say they’re looking forward to travelling.
Reka Szekely is a reporter for DurhamRegion.com. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Vinyl is still selling fairly well, but not enough to carry a business, said Bill Wilson, co-owner of Wilson and Lee music store.
© Sabrina Byrnes