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The Doctor Is In

Photo by Jon Evans

Q+A
Mark Furukawa’s Dr. Disc has been a downtown mainstay for more than 30 years. Furukawa recently sat down with Marc Skulnick to talk records, rebirths and why he’s a “Hamilton lifer.”

You’ve been surviving, and thriving, in the core for 30 years and have witnessed first-hand the rebirth of Hamilton’s downtown. In your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between the downtown then and the downtown now?

“The biggest change that Hamilton’s downtown has experienced, in my view as a bricks-and-mortar retailer here for over 30 years, is the long overdue shift from downtown Hamilton being a “scary place” that one should avoid, to becoming a welcoming locale full of unique, independent businesses that offer a refreshing change from the big box stores. The downtown should be the heart of any city, and I think Hamilton, at least from a retail perspective, gained its heart back."

What’s been the key to your survival during such turbulent times for the city’s downtown?

“My favourite personal one-liner response when I’m asked this question is that I’m too dumb to quit! Quite honestly, the key to Dr. Disc’s survival rests primarily on two things: tenacity, and denial. The tenacity part consists of digging in our heels when times were tough, reassessing things, and then redoubling our efforts. The denial part came into play, for example, when I would ignore my long-time business consultant when he would look at my books occasionally and not-so-subtly say things like, ‘Perhaps you should consider another career option.’ I obviously just ignored that advice! I suppose you can also add to this a never-ending hopeful optimism that Hamilton’s downtown would improve. And it has.”

Has downtown finally turned that elusive corner? If not, what’s an important next step in the ongoing evolution of our downtown?

“This is a very difficult question to answer as there are so many moving parts and facets to the whole downtown dynamic. Simultaneous with the downtown once again becoming a destination for things like shopping and dining comes increased demand for property which has driven rental rates way up. More opportunity for business has made it increasingly unaffordable for vital segments of the population, such as artists and musicians, to be able to remain in the core to create, work, or even live. For most businesses and the real estate industry it’s been a dramatic step forward, but for others who have been forced to leave, I’m sure that they wouldn’t call it an improvement. Quite the opposite. 

The question of an important next step in the ongoing evolution of the downtown is perhaps one that is being asked a little too late. Hindsight is always 20-20, but I believe there should have been more proactive initiatives to try and keep more artists and creators downtown before they were forced to leave, whether it be in the form of affordable or subsidized housing; changes in zoning to protect certain properties or blocks from overdevelopment; or even grants or funding to help sustain artists, galleries and live music spaces, and also protect long-time residents of the core from being forced out. The city may have regained its heart to some extent, but I think it has also definitely lost some of its soul.”

Was there ever a point where you doubted that Dr. Disc would make it?

“Of course! There was at least a solid decade, and also quite a few other odd years, where I was making no profit at all, and just paying myself to have a job. The era of Napster and the rise of illegal music and media downloading was where the wheels fell off! Literally, the only thing that has helped ensure the store’s survival is that when we had some good years, my former business consultant, Herb Boehm, told me to buy the building we are in, and I managed to scrape together all my resources (and had to pull in some favours) to do just that. We would not be having this discussion otherwise.”

Did you ever think you’d see the rebirth of vinyl? In your opinion, what made vinyl such a hot commodity amongst music fans? Did you see it coming?

“I don’t think anyone foresaw the rebirth of vinyl to the extent that it has come back to dominate all other physical musical formats sales-wise, myself included. The resurgence, in my opinion, is due less to the sound quality of vinyl records versus digital formats than it is to the fact that we as humans form emotional attachments to physical things -- things that we can touch, hold, and collect. Many people have realized that while downloading is a convenient way to consume music, it’s missing not only the emotional and social aspects that music affords, but I think it has actually devalued music and the listening process as well. Listening to music alone and isolated with headphones on is something entirely different than sitting around with a group of friends choosing what album to play next. And in regards to the emotional significance that a record can have, ask anyone who collects them what the first piece of vinyl was that they ever purchased, and the person will no doubt be able to not only instantly name the album, but also recall where and when they bought it. But ask anyone what the first piece of music they downloaded was, and more than likely you’ll just get back a blank stare. Downloading is arbitrary and soulless.”

Bet you never thought you’d end up selling records in the middle of a global pandemic?! What’s been the biggest obstacle to getting Dr. Disc through such an unprecedented and ongoing challenge?

“If there was one thing that was more off the radar than the resurgence of vinyl it was a full-blown global pandemic! It was such a paradigm shift, and the only thing I can compare that to is when my parents both passed away. At that time, my whole world changed, but in the case of the pandemic, everyone’s world changed.  

The first obstacle that I had to face when trying to navigate through the pandemic was a mental one. We went into the first and complete lockdown slightly prior to the actual government closure mandate because my staff and I knew it was the prudent and safe thing to do. I’m very routine-based, and suddenly having no workday structure really threw me for a loop, so after a few days of staring blankly at a once energetic and interactive retail space that had become just a lifeless room full of records overnight, I decided to just try and keep looking forward and create tasks for myself. (We have to reopen again sometime, right?!) I busied myself organizing, cleaning, and renovating. I even painted the inside of the store a bright red because I thought when customers eventually came back in the store, I wanted it to look warm, vibrant, and alive.

The other ongoing challenge to navigating the pandemic was a logistical one. It was such a challenge just to keep up with and satisfy all the different government health and safety regulations to try our best to maintain a safe shopping environment for staff and customers alike. Dr. Disc, along with every other business out there, had to reinvent the way we did business almost weekly. We made more changes to store procedures and protocols in the past two years than we did in the previous 28 combined.”

Time for some rapid-fire fun:

Max Kerman or Max Webster?

“I don’t think there is a better example of a prominent local musician who is such an overall positive influence and quintessential “face of Hamilton” than Max Kerman, so he gets my vote! He is so genuine, down-to-earth, and giving. I remember once I texted him, after he and Arkells performed a sold-out concert at Tim Horton’s Field and did a full day of promoting around town, and let him know that there were three “super fans” of his at The Mule where I was DJing that night, and I asked if he could pop by to meet them. Sure enough, after what was no doubt an extremely exhausting day, Max made an appearance at close to 2 a.m. to chat with his elated fans. Who puts in that kind of extra effort and consideration? Max Kerman, that’s who.”

Terra Lightfoot or Gordon Lightfoot?

“While I greatly respect Gordon Lightfoot and his legacy, I absolutely love the honest, rootsy flavour of Terra’s music, so Terra is my choice for this round. Her strong work ethic, sheer talent, and lack of pretension to me perfectly reflect the true spirit of Hamilton. Also, the foundation of Hamilton’s popular music roots is based on the blues-rock tradition, and Terra and her superb songwriting and performance skills continue to further this tradition.”

Tom Wilson or Tom Petty?

“Tom Wilson, no question. I have so much respect for him. Tom has experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of the rock and roll lifestyle and has come out the other end intact and with the battle scars to show for it. He’s a true survivor. Tom also recently discovered his true Mohawk lineage and instead of downplaying it, he embraced and championed it. He stands up for what’s right and doesn’t take any bullshit. Tom’s evolution has also seen him become an accomplished, multi-disciplinary artist. Plus, he always smells great.”

Teenage Head or Teenage Fanclub?

“If you have detected a Hamilton-centric bias by now, you wouldn’t be wrong. So, obviously I’m going to go with Teenage Head for this last rapid-fire round. They are the most iconic Hamilton band to emerge out of the punk era, and their influence and place in the history of punk is undeniable. The band has such chemistry, and the on- and off-stage antics of original frontman Frankie Venom are stuff of legend. Fun fact: Teenage Head were the first band I ever saw live way back when I was in high school. And they blew my pimple-faced, adolescent mind! It’s not a stretch to say that they helped play a role in me doing what I’m doing right now.”

Which Hamilton artists are you most excited about these days?

I’ve been really excited about local hip hop emcee LTtheMonk since he started making waves in the local music scene a few years back. I can’t mention him enough. He’s the epitome of the “new generation” Hamilton musical artist: a U.K. immigrant who brought his roots and personal history to Hamilton and fused it seamlessly with influences he absorbed from his new home. I also really like the new Basement Revolver self-proclaimed “dreamgaze” album, and the new material from Ellevator.”

What do you hope the next 30 years will bring for you personally and professionally?

“I’m in the twilight of my retail career, but I know that I will always have music in my life whatever I do. And I can’t really see myself retiring and sitting around doing nothing, so who knows? I’m certainly open to suggestions! Regardless, I’ll most likely stay in Hamilton since I consider myself an adopted son of the city. A “Hamilton lifer,” if you will.”

When it’s all said and done, how would you like Mark Furukawa and Dr. Disc to be remembered?

“I think that Dr. Disc has become more than just a store over time and has taken on a life all its own. Many consider it a Hamilton institution of sorts where you can not only get your fill of music but can also find out about local culture and all the great things that Hamilton has to offer at the same time. And I truly consider myself an ambassador to the city, so I hope that I’m remembered synonymously with the store as being someone who not only made a difference in people’s lives through music, but also nurtured an inclusive, creative, safe space that is proudly and uniquely made only in Hamilton.”

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