By Alicia Tkaczuk, Durham College Intern
Stepping into Wilson & Lee as a child I remember the awe and excitement that I felt, staring up at walls of beautiful, sparkling guitars in an amazing variety of colours and styles, and walking through rows and rows of CDs and vinyl records of every genre you could think of. The store had everything a music lover could want or need, and, if they didn’t, the Wilsons would go above and beyond to get it for you.
Being at Wilson and Lee was always an experience, even if you were just dropping by for something quick and simple. The friendly, helpful, and fun atmosphere of the store felt like visiting a friend more than a store. However, that friendliness didn’t detract from the professionalism of Wilson and Lee in anyway. It’s likely that the fact that Bill Sr., Bill Jr., and Dave Wilson all dressed in suits and ties every single day of their careers lent itself to their air of trustworthiness and expertise.
I was always so excited to go to the music store with my dad for many reasons, but in no small part because at the end of every visit, Dave would lean across the counter, conspiratorially, and open his hand within which would lay nestled a guitar pick or little music themed eraser. For most of my childhood, I had a mason jar on my dresser that I added to after every visit with a new colourful, shiny, or sparkling music store trinket.
The history of Wilson and Lee goes back long before my tiny feet crossed the threshold, but I am sure it had a similar impact on most of its customers over the nearly ten decades that it was in business. The store was opened in 1922 by William George Wilson and his sister-in-law Mary Lee and went on to be run by three generations of the Wilson family. Wilson and Lee had the distinction of being the longest running music store in all of Canada, having kept its doors open for an impressive 97 years. William came to Oshawa from Toronto to work at the Williams Piano Factory. William was blind and had trained at the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) to be a piano tuner.
William and Mary’s partnership had its very early beginnings when she began to drive him from job to job tuning pianos in people’s homes. Through doing this, William realized a business opportunity, and he began to purchase, recondition, and resell pianos from his own home. However, as one can imagine, he quickly began to run out of room, at which point he and Mary opened the first location of Wilson and Lee. In the new store, William and Mary added player pianos and piano rolls, gramophones, and record players to their inventory.
William’s sons all joined in the family business early on. His eldest son, Bill Sr., started in 1933 before leaving to serve in the Second World War from 1939 to 1946. The next oldest brother, George, came to work in 1938, and youngest brother Ed joined the ranks in 1942 when their father passed away. Mary Lee continued to work alongside her nephews after William passed.
In 1953, the brothers bought the lot at 87 Simcoe St. N. and built the store where Wilson and Lee remained until 2019. The three brothers ran the store together until George’s retirement in 1989; at this time, the torch was passed to the next generation of Wilsons. Bill Sr.’s sons, Bill Jr. and Dave, had worked at Wilson and Lee since they were teenagers. Bill Jr. came to work as a high school student in 1953, while his younger brother Dave joined the family business in 1967 at 14 years old.
In 1995, Ed Wilson retired, and in 2002, Bill Sr. hung up his hat – sort of. He would still come into the shop three times a week, in his suit and tie, to pick up his copy of Oshawa Weekly and maybe, just maybe, to check up on things. Bill Sr. was still calling his sons nine years after he retired to see if they needed his help down at the store. Bill Sr. passed away in July 2011 at the age of 94.
The Wilsons weathered the ebbs and flows of the economy over their ten decades in business, surviving the Great Depression, a World War, and numerous recessions. They showed great adaptability in their business model as the way we experience music changed so drastically throughout the 20th century.
In the ’50s, the store installed six record booths so that customers could sample their records before making a purchase. They also made the shift from pianos as their big seller to accordions, banjos, violins, and of course the electric guitar as rock n’ roll music took off in the ’50s and ’60s. Other shifts they witnessed were 8transitions through the era of gramophones to records players, the brief competition between cassette tapes and 8-tracks, the advent of CDs, and the resurgence of vinyl records.
Bill Sr.’s sons stayed with the family business for eight more years before deciding to retire and close the doors to Wilson and Lee in December 2019. The brothers were honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Oshawa City Music Hall of Fame in April 2020, a wonderful acknowledgment by the community for the dedication of the Wilson family to modern quality products and service with a personal touch, which will be their lasting legacy in the story of Oshawa.
Carter, Adam. “One of Canada’s Oldest Music Stores Shutting down Just Shy of 100th Anniversary.” CBC News, September 15, 2019. Retrieved on November 9th, 2022 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/wilson-and-lee-music-closing-1.5284620
Crimi, Crystal. “Saying Goodbye to a Long-Time Oshawa Businessman.” Oshawa Weekly, July 27, 2011. Retrieved on November 9th, 2022 from https://www.mykawartha.com/news-story/3452265-saying-goodbye-to-a-long-time-oshawa-businessman/
Myers, Jasper. “Oshawa’s Iconic Music Store Closes in on Century Mark.” The Chronicle. December 12, 2018. Retrieved on November 9th, 2022 from https://chronicle.durhamcollege.ca/2018/12/oshawas-iconic-music-store-closes-in-on-century-mark/
Szekely, Reka. “Music to Stop Playing at Oshawa’s Wilson and Lee after 97 Years.” Toronto Star, September 12, 2019. Retrieved on November 9th, 2022 from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2019/09/12/music-to-stop-playing-at-oshawas-wilson-and-lee-after-97-years.html
Williams, Jared. “Music Lives on at Wilson & Lee.” The Chronicle. January 25, 2017. Retrieved on November 9th, 2022 from https://chronicle.durhamcollege.ca/2017/01/music-lives-wilson-lee/
YouTube. YouTube, 2020. Retrieved on November 9th, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VbiJILe8fI.