Written and edited by Thomas Johnson.
There’s something about a cassette tape. It’s unpretentious and quaint, hardworking and whimsical and romantic. There’s no tricks or manipulations in its sincere, honest low fidelity sound. It fits snuggly in your palm, as if it were a friend's hand. It warms and whirs in reminiscence to a more innocent time when music, even the smallest forms of music, could be seen and felt and held dearly. The imperfections, the pops and clicks and its peaceful hum, themselves are a warm solace, an approximation of nostalgia-as-sound. In its humility, the cassette continues to reward as one of our truest marriages of form and function.
Similar things can be said of Waltz. Tucked away in the Nakameguro district of Tokyo’s Meguro ward, behind four navy sliding doors, hides the most unique of locales. At Waltz, analog reigns. Boomboxes line the far wall. in the back are vinyl and tape listening stations so customers may preview their purchases. The right wall is a veritable library of back issue magazines and books. In the corner, behind an understated desk, sits owner Taro Tsunoda, replacing a record on the turntable or switching out a tape. There is no digital media sold at Waltz. The shop’s website proudly, maybe even defiantly, declares:
In an age where digital media products were growing rapidly, we dared to focus on vintage merchandise.
Amongst such an impressive feast of records, literature, VHS tapes and assorted vintage audio equipment, the cassettes are special in their ability to take your breath. Thousands in all, seemingly crammed into the modest space without a single one looking out of place. Columns of them, spines out, each one flawlessly stacked in rank along shelves that look as if they were made to shelter however many tapes need a home at any given time. Row upon row of them, face up, neatly laid out on wood grain tables, and the rest fitted in small cubicles. Most have tiny cards bearing relevant info like the album in question’s country of origin, label, genre etc.. Each one typed by Taro himself. Tsunoda’s passion and esthetic sensibilities are as pronounced as the store is understated. Waltz is arranged so as to be clean without feeling sterile. It feels like a home you could find on the other side of the globe. In it’s humility — such that even capitalizing the name could spoil the mood — simply experiencing the shop is a reward. It would be anachronistic were it not a material dream.
We caught up with Taro to talk about his shop, his favorite music and, of course, cassette tapes..
When did your serious interest in music begin?
I think it was when I was five, and started learning the piano.
Are you yourself a musician?
No. I’m just a shop owner.
What kind of music were you into when you were young? What kind of music now?
I used to like new wave bands like The Cure, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins and The Monochrome Set when I was in junior high. Then, I began listening to hip-hop when I was in high school. Now, I’ll listen to anything. I always play the new releases on cassette at my shop to promote the music, which stirs a lot of positive reactions from the customers.
Do you remember the first cassette you ever owned?
I think it was a Gundam soundtrack when I was a kid.
Do you have a personal favorite album?
There’s too many to mention. Come visit the shop — all the tapes on the shelves are my favorite albums.
How did you come to open Waltz?
After graduating from university, I got a job at a domestic record chain. After that, I worked for another company before switching to Amazon. I worked there for fourteen years, and though I learned a lot about online business — which was exciting — I had begun to tire of work. One day I thought ‘I want to do something no one else in the world was doing.’
I had privately been a keen collector of music media like vinyl records and cassette tapes. Especially cassette tapes. In 2005, I read Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture by Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth). As digital music grew, in contrast, this book inspired in me an addiction to tapes that got deeper and deeper. I used to listen to my favorites in an old boombox. It was a totally fresh music experience, which made me recognize the great sound quality. Before long, I had 15,000 tapes at home.
I wanted to do both what no one else was doing, and what only I could do. The answer was the cassette tapes. That was in 2014. It took me a year, but in 2015 I retired from Amazon and launched Waltz using my collection.
You have a distinct aesthetic both for the shop and the shop's marketing. What were your influences in this regard?
From a retail standpoint, I’ve been involved in the music business for many years. I have experience with both physical and online stores. I’ve seen the rise and fall of the industry. At this point, I’m not influenced by anything. I’m thinking about how to succeed based on past experience.
Why did you choose the quieter residential Nakameguero ward, as opposed to a more commercial district?
I didn’t want my aesthetic sense for the shop to be disturbed by uncontrollable factors — what if a noisy pachinko parlor opens up next door? That can happen in commercial districts. I wanted my store to feel like an art gallery, and thought a quiet area would be more suitable. There are so many map apps, anyone can come if they know the shop’s address. And Nakameguro is my hometown. I live near the shop and know the area very well.
The idea of operating a cassette store in Canada in 2020 seems crazy. Why do you think it is able to work in Japan?
Fundamentally, operating a physical music shop in this era is difficult. That is true in any country. From that perspective, the idea of opening a physical cassette shop seemed to be insane to everyone except me. That’s why no one else in the world was doing it. I took a risk, accepted the challenge and did it. I didn’t know if it would succeed, but I was confident it would be a hot topic if I could make an attractive store.
And I was right. Two weeks in, I received my first interview request. It was with a fashion magazine. I’ve done more than 300 interviews now. TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, online from around the world. In 2018 Waltz collaborated with Gucci because the shop was chosen as a source of inspiration for their brand, with Tsunoda curating a compilation tape that featured a song by Kazumi Kaneda from the Inner Ocean catalog. I don’t think this all happened because the shop is in Japan. It’s because what I’m doing is very unique.
How did you get in contact with Inner Ocean Records, and what does it say about the state of music retail that a Calgary-based label can have success in a brick-and-mortar cassette store on the other side of the planet?
I contacted Inner Ocean via email when I found them on bandcamp. The shop is the media. I think labels or artists in any country can succeed if they catch the eye of a good curator. That’s what Inner Ocean is doing — discovering great Japanese producers and introducing them to the world.
What is the interest level in western-music? Do you sell it as much as local or national music?
Japan is the second largest country in the world in terms of music media sales. The J-Pop market is very big domestically, but western music is also popular, despite the fact that many Japanese people don’t understand the lyrics. Beat tapes fare well because they have no lyrics. There’s a lot of western titles that sell more than Japanese titles at my shop.
What are some of your favourite labels/artists right now? What about them do you like so much?
I’m fascinated by labels that not only release great works, but also pursue their own style. Other than Inner Ocean, I like Cold Busted, Leaving Records and Keeled Scales in the U.S.,, tsss tapes in Italy and Z Tapes in Slovakia.
What do you hope for the future of Waltz?
I don’t have big ambitions. I want to continue this business as long as possible, and increase the value of cassette tapes. I’ve learned in the past five years at Waltz that interesting things definitely happen when I do something valuable and unique.
What advice would you share with other people who have small businesses or are thinking about starting a small business?
There is more than one way to succeed. I don’t think my own way is necessarily the right one. However, from my experience, I can say three things: Don’t chase the trend: Do what no one is doing: Opportunity exists in businesses where no one is successful.