Believe it or not, Alleycats Music & Art owner Mike Rothwell isn’t a huge music guy. But his passion for being a key player in the community has prompted him to collect more than 10,000 records which he sells at his 95 Mississaga St. E. location in downtown Orillia.
The Kitchener native formerly worked as a health, safety, and environmental professional for most of his life after studying science at the University of Toronto.
In 2007, Rothwell and his wife Krista decided to move up north to start a new chapter of their life.
“It’s my wife’s hometown, so we wanted to re-locate and move up here; we’ve always liked it here,” Rothwell said.
In 2012, Rothwell and his wife opened up Alleycats as a hobby business to give them something to keep them busy.
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial, so this is the first time I really got to do anything with my own business concept,” Rothwell said.
“I’ve dabbled before, but we decided we wanted to try and do something additional to get a little more involved in the community. So we decided to try this small low-cost adventure downtown in the little alley.”
Rothwell grew up as a fan of musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. He remembers owning a small collection of about 50 records at one point.
“I’m just an everyday guy that likes music like everybody else. We found a great location, it was inexpensive, and there was no music store at the time, so we decided we wanted to sell records and CDs,” he explained.
Ever since Alleycats opened their doors the business has grown every year.
“It grew right from day one, and since, we’ve had two expansions," Rothwell explained.
"In 2015 we expanded the original store from 300 square feet to 1,000 square feet, and that’s when I dedicated myself full-time to the business,” Rothwell explained.
In 2018, the store once again doubled in size, expanding to 2,000 square feet. Today the store sells much more than records; they also sell posters, t-shirts, buttons, stickers, patches, and more.
“I'm surprised and pleased that it’s grown, and there is lots of interest and support for it,” Rothwell said.
The best part of the store's growth for Rothwell is seeing it become a part of the community. Alleycats has become a destination-type experience for both local residents and tourists.
“I think it’s become a bit of a downtown fixture, it’s a bit of a destination spot for Orillia, similar to places like Mariposa Market, Gilbert Guitars, Webers, that type of thing where people know about it from out of town,” he said.
“We get people from all over coming to visit us when they are in town. Orillia has a lot to offer, and we feel like we are a part of that.”
Despite the success of Alleycats and the joy Rothwell gets out of it, he says there are some challenges of running a record store in a time where most sought-after records can no longer be ordered from a manufacturer.
“You have to acquire interesting stock which means sometimes you have to travel to buy used record collections from people in different cities, you might have to go to record shows across the province, and then you are ordering brand new records and products from regular wholesale suppliers,” he explained.
Another challenge for Rothwell, like every other small business, has been navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s also kind of been about adapting,” Rothwell said.
“Things are always changing and this is just one major change. One thing it did was it accelerated the e-commerce part of the business which made us work really hard on our website," he explained.
Since the pandemic began, Rothwell and his staff have been working on making their website more user-friendly, which has brought in some extra business.
“It’s developed us some online business, nothing huge, but a nice little amount,” he said.
Challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic are almost welcomed by Rothwell; adapting, making changes, and being challenged are some of the reasons Rothwell enjoys going to work every day.
“I like the challenge of drawing people in and giving them a good experience, having a nicely laid out store with interesting products for everybody, and also being able to give them great customer service and making them feel really welcome when they are here, that’s what I enjoy most about it,” he said.
Rothwell also enjoys meeting new people and the conversations he has with music fans who visit the store.
“I will jokingly say I live vicariously through my customers,” he said.
“They tell me about all these cool concerts they go to, and I don’t get to go to many because I am always too busy. But I always get to hear about interesting things other people are doing, which I enjoy.”
While Alleycats has come a long way, the now 57-year-old Rothwell still has high aspirations for the growth of his business. He hopes it can become one of the most popular record stores across the nation.
“We want to keep growing through working in the virtual store and making the website an interesting place to visit,” he explained. “Just like it is in the store, we want to make our website an experience, and also put more products online and sell across Canada.”
Away from the vinyl business, Rothwell likes to spend time going for walks with his wife, as well as supporting local restaurants.
“We spend time working on the house, and I like to longboard a bit,” he said.
“My wife and I really enjoy being a part of the downtown, having a great staff, and contributing to this community.”
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