Harry’s Hi-Fi, longstanding audiophile retailer, closed March 31. Now, we say farewell to a true Canadian Hi-Fi Institution!
By Bruno de Lorimier
We were all saddened by the loss of Harry about a year ago, and no person more than wife and co-owner Pat Sotropa. A little over a year after this tragic and totally unexpected incident, Pat came to the heart-wrenching decision to close the store at the end of the month. Pat isn’t exiting the business for financial reasons but after 40 years, she has earned a rest and is calling it a day.
I have personally known Pat and Harry for over 25 years and consider them friends. In Regina, Saskatchewan, Harry’s Hi-Fi was one of the first Canadian dealers to come on board with Nordost. Like everyone, I was extremely shocked and saddened by Harry’s passing which came so suddenly as he simply didn’t wake up on the morning of April 8th, 2022. One may find comfort in that he passed away peacefully in his sleep, but that doesn’t diminish how much we’ll miss him. Everyone who knew Harry will tell you that he was a truly unique and remarkable individual with a vibrant passion for life and for music (and gardening). Even today, we continue to love Harry!
Now, with the permanent closure of Harry’s Hi-Fi, the audio industry will also be losing a truly special and extremely supportive dealer that was devoted to providing the most comprehensive, attentive, and caring sales advice, quality products, and support to all its patrons.
Harry’s hi-fi obsession was rooted in his love of music “What’s better in life than music?”
The first thing you should now about Harry is that, although everyone referred to him as Harry (including himself and his wife Pat), his real name was Vern Sotropa! Here’s the story behind the name…
Custom Stereo is the name of the store where Harry got his start in hi-fi equipment sales in 1976. He was 26 and working the summer as a staff clerk for the Department of Labor and spending a lot of his student loan money — meant for University of Regina sociology studies — at Custom Stereo. He was in there often enough that the owners, Tom Clelland and Richard Grassie, offered him a job which he happily took.
Fast forward six months or so: the three are sitting in the bar of the Royal International Inn — formerly the King’s Hotel, demolished along with the store in 1978 to make way for the Cornwall Centre. As Harry told it, “Tom goes, ‘Custom Stereo is a lame f—–g name.’ He goes, ‘We should change the name of that place,’”.
Pat interjects: “You know this is all going to become public knowledge.”
“I don’t care,” Harry answers. He goes on: “We should name it Tom, Dick and Harry’s.” So they had a Tom, they had a Dick, and from the time we crossed the street from the Royal International to the stereo shop, the name stuck like s–t to a Hudson Bay blanket. And that was it.” Harry was born!
Through three Custom Stereo locations, to the founding of his own shop in 1983…Through sales of turntables, the players of those “unlistenable” early CDs, car stereos, home theatre, and the popular resurgence of record players — he’s been known as Harry. Not Harry Sotropa. “It’s like Prince or Madonna,” he says laughing. “It’s just Harry.”
Harry and I also a had funny ritual. Quite often, almost exclusively on Fridays, he would call me after 5:00 pm my time (3:00 pm for him) as sort of a joke. He would say “Am I too early to disturb you yet? I can call you later if it further disrupts your weekend”. We would then proceed to tell each other jokes for the first few minutes (sometimes more) before moving on to more serious business. I miss those calls.
It’s Pat who has the real Harry tales to tell. She told me: “I bought a stereo from Harry and I was married to someone else at the time. From that moment Harry and I were together for 44 years. We both listened to all different kinds of music, it was a passion for both of us that did not diminish.” Since childhood, Pat and Harry have been in love with music and it was no secret that both were huge fans of Nordost. They recommended Nordost cables to every customer who walked-in the door, and they practiced what they preached, since their entire home system was wired with Valhalla.
As a 50th birthday present to his wife, Harry had earrings, a bracelet and pendant made from a piece of Valhalla speaker cable!
Harry was inspired by one of Pat’s stories about Valhalla Interconnect that she had been regaling a customer about the merits of Nordost cables in a system. At the end of the conversation Pat mentioned that it sounded incredible, but that it was also so beautiful and that one could wear it as a necklace. That clearly didn’t fall on deaf ears. When Harry asked our North American V.P., Michael Taylor, for a foot of Valhalla and Michael passed it on to Nordost’s owner, Joe. At first, Joe was suspicious of Harry’s intentions. He had never heard someone make such an unusual request. However, Joe finally did agree, and Harry worked with a local custom jeweler to get it made. Pat wore the set regularly, especially when attending Hi-Fi shows. Harry always pointed out that Pat was wearing audio jewelry!
Harry’s Hi-Fi was known for creating a welcoming and inviting environment. Walking into Harry’s Hi-Fi on Rose Street, their location since they moved from 1239 Albert St. in 2000, was like walking into a music lover’s home: Brick walls, wooden floors, music-themed artwork on vibrantly coloured walls. There’s a listening room to the right, a pseudo-living room. Comfortable leather armchairs face a window that’s flanked by awesome-sounding and expensive Bowers & Wilkins stereos wired with Nordost cables.
Adjacent to that space, there’s another similar setup.
Both rooms have stacks and stacks of vinyl records on shelves — you can’t very well test the analog players without records to play. (It’s not the 5,000-strong collection they have at home — which, according to Harry, is “not that crazy” a number.)
From Elvis Presley talking his way through a Sun Studio recording, to a British pressing (i.e. higher quality recording) of Patsy Cline, to Dave Brubeck’s smashing piano — there’s a decent array. On rotation lately, they’ve had The Franklin Electric, The Avett Brothers, The Barr Brothers, Case Lang Veirs, The Lumineers, GoGo Penguin … The list goes on.
The point of their work was to give people a music experience as close to live as possible. According to Harry, you can’t actually have a live band in front of you…as he was known to say, “Nothing beats live music,”.
The music at Harry’s would switch from The Killers to The Band, Tracy Chapman, to Classical and Jazz as they demonstrated the equipment’s sonic diversity.
A song at a time: “It’s not the usual way someone would listen to a record. Usually you’d clean the record, clean the needle, sit down and listen until the arm lift signals Side A’s end, flip the record over, clean the record, clean the needle, sit down and listen …” Harry said.
Harry and Pat were big on vinyl. They witnessed vinyl’s comeback in their store, and even in their own house, although they had never completely abandoned it. They had a very strong opinion about the importance of a properly set-up, good-quality turntable, which didn’t have to cost a fortune. At Harry’s Hi-Fi, prices ranged into the tens of thousands, but a decent turntable could be bought for only $400.
“When people say, ‘You know records are back, right?’ I’m like, ‘Man, records didn’t go anywhere.’” But for a lot of people, they did. The rebound has been strong, maybe detrimentally so. “It’s just silly right now. Everybody has to have a turntable just cause…,” says Harry. “It’s trendy.”
Having a record player has “become a cool thing, and that doesn’t mean that it’s good,” says Pat. One of the problems with this trend is cheap turntables. “That’s one of the reasons why we try and tell people, ‘Don’t play your records on your great-aunt Dorothy’s console,’ ” says Pat. “You might think it’s a cool piece of furniture, but it’s not good for your records.” Quality counts, and here’s why: Turntables need to be aligned to properly play a record. Even an expensive turntable can ruin a record if it’s not set up right. “We’re talking about a diamond here, and a piece of vinyl,” says Harry. The groove of the record is engraved soundwaves, tinier than you can see. That diamond is the needle (a.k.a. stylus), which traces the groove and vibrates, making the sound when amplified. “The information that’s in the groove of a record is smaller than the pit of a CD. It’s microscopic inside,” says Pat. “We’re still amazed that a technology that’s 130 years-plus is still the best sound quality we have.” At least, when they’re set up for quality, which Harry estimates 99 percent aren’t.
A market full of “groove grinders,” as Harry calls them — a bad needle, improper geometry and weight — are literally chipping away at records as they play. That’s how records get a hissing and scratching sound. Like tires on a car, they’ll eventually wear out — but they wear out faster if you don’t take care of them. When they are taken care of, they sound fantastic. Before any turntable leaves the store, Harry makes sure it’s set up correctly: The stylus is correctly angled, right down to the micron. He uses a microscope in the process.
“Part of it has to do with a point of pride, that when every table, every cartridge walks out of here, it’s the best it could possibly be,” says Pat.
“We try really f—–g hard,” Harry says “and we will for as long as the store is open” … and they did
In his teenage years, Harry’s parents never had a turntable; they’d borrow a neighbour’s for a few weeks at a time.
Pat and Harry bonded over their love of music more than 40 years ago. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, it’s how they met.
“It was a pair of Klipsch Heresy’s with Luxman L30 amplifier,” Pat says, remembering her first Custom Stereo purchase from Harry. She was working downtown too, a block away, managing T-Shirt City. After seven years working for someone else, in 1983 Harry became an entrepreneur. They remortgaged their house at an obscene 19-per-cent interest rate to make it happen. “The economy was in the toilet and we’re opening up a new store,” says Harry. “Not sure if we were stupid, (or) young,” says Pat. “I know it’s just what I wanted to do,” says Harry.
“I was kind of along for the ride at the beginning,” says Pat. “I didn’t sell anything, I just sat back and listened to him, and that’s the best way to learn how to sell is being mentored by somebody who’s really good at their job.”
When their son Dylan was old enough for daycare, and daughter Alicia was in Grade 3, Pat quit her jobs at Bi-Rite Drugs and the Pasqua Hospital to work alongside Harry. “We work together extremely well,” says Pat. Their love of music united them for 44 years.
Pat is thankful for the customers who helped put mac and cheese on the table of her Normanview bungalow for the last 40 years. She could have tried to sell the business, but as Harry once said “anybody who has the knowledge to do it has got a better paying job right now, though some of the gear is pricey, there’s little profit in hi-fi sales.”
“Selling the business to someone else isn’t an easy alternative”, Pat said. “High fidelity equipment requires a level of expertise, knowing how to put systems together, figuring out what works with what; the devil is in the details.”
That part of the job is where Pat and Harry found joy: educating customers about the products and talking about music. Through those conversations, a connection with the customers was formed. “You have to give people a reason to buy better quality goods. Just because it’s expensive, doesn’t necessarily make it better,” said Pat.
Harry always described the business as a three-person operation run by two people. With Harry’s death, it became a one-person show and Pat is just tired.
“In addition to helping customers who walk through the doors of the Rose Street location, I was handling the books, ordering, shipping, receiving, providing technical support for customers, setting up turntables — everything.”
Throughout decades of selling sound, Pat has witnessed technological advancements in audio and entertainment, as well as changes in perception of women working in the field. “It’s been an interesting ride. For me, as a woman, there’s very few women in our industry that are in my kind of position — way more now than when I first started,” she recalled. “I remember when I first started on the floor selling, guys would always refer to Harry and Harry would say, ‘I don’t know. Ask her,’” Pat said with a laugh.
Looking back, she remembers feeling frustrated at points and wondering why no one would talk to her. Nowadays, she says the men who walk in do not question her knowledge or ability. The people she did speak with over the years have made lasting memories, as customers of all ages have purchased audio equipment from Harry’s, including the children and grandchildren of customers of years past.
Although Pat recognizes that Harry’s Hi-Fi still has a lot of loyal customers — including ones from out of province, who make a shopping trip every few years, Pat says. “It’s too much. I’m going to be 68-years-old. It’s time to wind it down,” “I’m really emotional. It’s hard because I will miss the people. I won’t miss the business end of it, you know the paying of bills…”
Pat has no plans to jump into another venture any time soon. After four decades of working, she is going to do some thinking instead.
“I need to sort of figure out who I am as a human being, without my life partner, without my business partner and without my business”. “It’s going to be an adjustment for me, but we made such good friends. Our best friends have been customers and they still continue to be.” “It’s still for me a great joy, it gives me a real giggle, when I can do a good demo for somebody and they go, ‘wow, I’ve never heard that before”.
It’s time to enter a new era for Pat and for each one of us. It will be quite different without Pat and Harry, of that I’m certain. Thank you for your generous contribution to the Hi-Fi world, your friendship, and for all the fond memories!
(Thank you to the Regina Leader-Post for some of the material included in this homage)