Oshawa’s iconic music store closes in on century mark

Bill Wilson has worked at the store, which his grandfather started, since he was 13. Photo credit: Jasper Myers

Wilson and Lee has been instrumental to music lovers in Oshawa for nearing a century.

The independent, family-run music store, has survived the switch from vinyl records to digital downloads for 96 years. Ironically, they’re back to selling vinyl again.

Ken Perrier – who has been a customer at the store since 1980 – thinks he knows why the company is successful.

“They should be charging admission, because it’s just such an enjoyable visit,” says Perrier.

He says the service is great, explaining that they will get whatever he’s looking for, in store or not, no matter how hard it is to find.

Located at 87 Simcoe St. N. in downtown Oshawa, Wilson and Lee is owned and operated by brothers Bill, 79, and Dave, 65, Wilson, and sells musical instruments, records, sheet music, CDs and memorabilia.

Bill (left) and Dave Wilson of Wilson and Lee. Bill manages the records side of the store and Dave is responsible for the instruments. Photo credit: Jasper Myers

The store’s president, Bill Wilson, began working in the shop at age 13 and still puts in 55 hours a week. He says his grandfather, William Wilson, started the business in 1922 after working at Williams Piano Factory in Oshawa.

William quit the piano factory and started tuning pianos at people’s houses. Because he was blind his wife, Mary Lee (the ‘Lee’ in Wilson and Lee), drove him around. When he tuned pianos, sometimes he’d find people didn’t want them anymore.

“So he would buy them [pianos], take them back to the house, recondition them, and sell them,” says Wilson, adding his grandfather added radios, records, and sheet music a little later on.

The storefront of Wilson and Lee at its first location in downtown Oshawa. Photo courtesy of Bill Wilson

When the store originally opened, it was located at the corner of Wilkinson Avenue and Albert Street. Then around 1925-1926, the store moved to downtown Oshawa at a different Simcoe Street location from where it stands today, Wilson says.

The store moved to its current location when his father and uncles came back from the war.

“They came back into the business in the ’50s, there was prosperity,” says Wilson. “Because after the war, people needed everything.”

Business did so well Wilson’s father and uncles borrowed money from a few people willing to lend it to them and in 1953 built the store that stands today, according to Wilson.

He says business was so good at that time, he believes the building was paid off a few years later.

The storefront when Wilson and Lee moved to its current location on Simcoe Street. Photo courtesy of Bill Wilson

In the years Wilson and Lee has been running, there’s been a lot of change in music. For a while, records went out of style but the store continued to prosper.

“We certainly weren’t generated by records,” says Wilson. “We’re a music store. We’re also a record store, but primarily a music store.”

The store always sold instruments and even sold stereos for a while. Wilson says they also sold accordions in the ’50s, because of all the people moving from Europe. Right now the biggest seller is ukuleles.

However, Wilson says they stopped selling records for a while in the ’90s as their popularity decreased.

“At that point in time I had a store full of records I had to get rid of, and then, what, 20 years later I’ve got a store full of records again,” says Wilson.

When General Motors had a plant and its headquarters in north Oshawa, Wilson says GM employees were good for downtown business.

“People would come in at lunchtime and buy records, buy music, sometimes they’d buy guitars,” says Wilson.

With the recent announcement of the 2019 closing of GM’s south plant, Wilson says there will be an impact, but with the college, universities and hospital he believes the store will be OK.

The store has been his life and he’s seen the store continue to succeed.

“It’s an integral part of my life, it’s what I do, it’s what I know how to do,” says Wilson, adding it never feels like work to him.

As for competition, Wilson says they aren’t afraid of it.

“I have no problem with competition,” Wilson says. “[Competition] is what makes the world go round. It would be awful if there was no competition.”