something old, something new

with the return of madmen next weekend, it seems like everyone’s feeling the ’60s. case in point: this recent post on apartment therapy on retro-looking (but new) audio equipment.

so i know a thing or two about retro — not just retro-looking — audio equipment. i’ve mentioned pierre and my 1961 rca victor victrola (“the prelude combination”) in posts before, but it’s just been this past weekend that we’ve finally got it working (just in time for madmen) so i thought i’d dedicate a post to it. after all, it’s been one of the more challenging of our decor projects, and we’ve just emerged victorious. victorious being kind of an operative word — victory costing us about 15 months and close to $1500. many might say we actually lost this round.

it all began with an abandoned storefront on woodbine, near milverton, shortly after we moved into our house. every day on my walk to the subway, i passed this store with an ever-changing window display of old radios, shoe molds, and — one day — a victrola record player. this store is never open; there’s just a number to call posted in the window, and each of the items on display has a post-it with a price marked in black sharpie. the victrola in the window had a $100 asking price, so we called and offered $80, and a guy named jeremy dropped it off at our house in his pick-up truck.


the store used to be a cobbler’s shop, and jeremy is the cobbler’s son. since his father’s death, he’s been using the shop to sell off his dad’s stuff, and the victrola had belonged to his parents. jeremy delivered the victrola with it’s instruction manual, and even with the danforth radio company ad that his dad had clipped from the toronto daily star on december 18, 1961 advertising the rca victor for “such a low price” of $249.95 (on sale from $299.95). nearly 50 years to the day after his dad bought it from danforth radio company, the victrola took pride of place in our dining room.


for the next year, we mostly looked at it — the turntable worked pretty well, but the am/fm radio didn’t, and pierre was worried about what a 50 year-old needle would do to our records. we had it in mind to restore it, eventually, but in the meantime it made a nice-looking credenza and we listed to records on a sherwood turntable i’d bought for $15 in high school from the re-use centre in burlington.

then, this past december, with our dining room all but done, we decided fixing the victrola would be just the thing to complete the room. we pulled out the papers jeremy had given to us with the victrola, because pierre remembered jeremy had also given us a name for a local repair shop. “butler’s appliance service,” the note said. “they repair tube radios / record players as well as modern equipment.” just after christmas, we took a $25 taxi cab ride to butler’s, which is at gerrard and coxwell, left a $25 deposit, and owner rick butler said he’d keep us in the loop, but warned us that sourcing parts for these old players could take weeks, if not months.

well, we never heard from him — not really my definition of in the loop — and after a month or so had gone by, i started calling at regular intervals. over the phone, rick promised me he had our record player “working beautifully,” and our am radio, too. he was looking for a new fm tube, and asked me to call back in a week or so for an update. so i did that (and kept doing that — the guy never seemed to master the art of picking up the phone) and finally, after about two months, we agreed to pick up our victrola with a working turntable and am radio. he’d been unsuccessful at fixing our fm radio.

the price tag on the repairs was $225, plus another $25 taxi ride back to our house. we got the victrola up our front steps, into our dining room, looking forward to a friday night with a bottle of wine and a stack of records and… it. didn’t. work. the turntable had played a bit slow before, but we’d never had a problem with it not functioning. but now the needle just skipped along, scratching the hell out of brand new birthday-gift 33s. a wire had come ungrounded and there was a persistent buzzing below a certain (very loud) volume. and the volume control was all off — it didn’t go much lower than moderately loud — great for cooking in the kitchen, not great for having a conversation over dinner.

you don’t need the whole rant-y story about how i called and called and butler’s was completely unhelpful and i had some sort of stand-off in my living room with the tech they’d outsourced the victrola repair to. just know you should not take your appliances to this place for repair.

after a month of trying unsuccessfully to get our money back / troubleshooting the victrola’s ailments with my uncle via e-mail and photos, we chalked the entire experience up to a $275 mistake. which stung, but more expensive mistakes have been made by people before, and we learned a valuable, two-fold lesson for $275.

  1. always check homestar ratings and better business bureau records before doing business
  2. sometimes things are just old and not worth fixing; new might not be as “character-filled,” but — good lord — new might actually work the way it’s supposed to

lessons learned, on friday pierre pulled the turntable, speakers, and tubes out of the victrola and put all the parts in a box for my uncle (if he wants them). on saturday, he went to bay-bloor radio and spent $1000 on a pro-ject debut III turntable and a denon receiver and speaker combination. he put all the new components inside the victrola’s shell, and now we have the best of both worlds — something that looks retro, but is essentially brand new.

right speaker

left speaker

pierre had to pull the five dials off the victrola (that previously allowed us to adjust volume, tone, function, etc) to make enough room for the turntable, but i saved them from the box for my uncle. look for them in an upcoming bathroom project!


besides its ability to play a record without skipping, the turntable has so many awesome features: a usb hookup for your computer, so you can turn vinyl tracks into mp3s (i’m so stuck in the ’60s i didn’t even know this technology existed); a counter-balance weight for the tone arm, so the needle sits exactly in the middle of the record’s groove; and a needle that’s guaranteed for seven years of daily use. the receiver fits snugly underneath the victrola’s top and has a usb outlet for an iphone, single cd player, and am/fm radio tuner, so we can listen to music in any form, all from the speakers we hid inside the victrola.


the victrola saga is finally over, and we’re enjoying some seriously high-quality sound. i think this calls for a martini.

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7 thoughts on “something old, something new

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