Vinyl Lives

Vinylives Background

Interviews

Here are the currently listed record store owner interviews excerpted from my book Vinyl Lives.

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The Vinyl Lives website includes several of the Interviews found in the book Vinyl Lives: The Rise and Fall and Resurgence of the American Independent Record Store (Aventine Press, 2010). New material--and additional sections not included in the book--will be periodically added to the website.

Bop Street Records

As of June, 2010, Bop Street Records has moved three blocks to their new location. Please see our resources page for updated contact information. Please note: the store pictures included here are of the previous Ballard Avenue store.

Bop Street

Photo by Milton Campbell

Laughing, David Voorhees --a quintessential record store guy-- tells me that he chose the name for his Seattle store from the Gene Vincent song with the same title.

"'Where ya' goin', cat? I'm goin' down to Bop Street!'"

"I always thought it'd be cool to use his voice on a commercial for me...Ya' know, 'Here's Gene Vincent, singin' about my store!'"

Like many others who started record stores in the 1970's --in Bop Street's case, 1974-- Voorhees traces his early influences back to the 1950's. Born in 1949, as an impressionable nine-year old, David's mom suggested he listen to music on the radio. Branching out from programs geared for kids, he heard the developing rock 'n' roll revolution currently carried on the air waves. Elvis Presley, Rickie Nelson, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Crickets, The Platters, The Everly Brothers..."these people were all on the charts at the same time," he says. For his tenth birthday, he got his first record album, The Buddy Holly Story.

Attending public school in Seattle throughout his elementary and high school years, David headed east to attend Hamilton College in upstate New York. Ohio governor Tom Vilsack was one of his classmates; other notable graduates include poet Ezra Pound and writer and critic Alexander Wolcott. A couple of years after returning home to Seattle, he was working at a record store called Honest Al's, on University Way, near the University of Washington. One day, a guy walked in carrying a shoebox of blues 45's. Examining the mostly Chess and Checker label artists --like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Otis Rush-- David asked, 'Where'd you get these?'

The man said, "'Well, my brother lives [near] Houston, in this little town called Angleton, Texas that has a jukebox place with probably a hundred thousand 45's --a dime apiece.'" David mentioned this to a friend of his, Jack Cook, a noted Seattle blues guitarist and "local blues guy...About a week later, he says, 'Do 'ya wanna drive down there?' So, I...chooo!...said, 'Sure, let's do it!'"

"So about two weeks later, we're down in Angleton, Texas, in this jukebox place, lookin' at boxes of 45's. There's...a little silverfish scurrying around...there's a dead mouse...At the end of the day, you blow your nose, and just, God! Dirt, mucus!, 'ya know...I ended up buying 3,000 45's, shipping 'em back. They cost me $300 bucks. The next thing you know, I'm selling 'em out of my parents' basement." Word got around quickly. And, Voorhees says, his having purchased multiple copies of many songs enabled him to generate more interest and keep word of mouth going --and kept prospective customers interested. For the next five years, he had a great time.

Bop Street 5

Photo by Milton Campbell

Leaving home and later getting married, David recalls his next important steps toward establishing a retail store. "I was livin' near this ratty paperback bookstore. The guy [who ran the store] had this perpetual crease in his forehead--he was angry all the time. He lived in the store --I'm pretty sure-- but he had a few records. I think it was called something like the Paperback Exchange. So, probably about the third time [I went there], he said, 'You wanna buy this store?' And it was like, 'ehhhhh'. So I said, 'Well, you know, let me talk to my wife and, uh...' 'Oh, you'll talk to your wife and she'll say, 'Don't do it!' So, of course --I was kinda' young-- I said, 'Oh, is that right?' So I said, 'What's the rent?' 'A hundred and eighty dollars a month.' I said, 'I'll do it.' Within a week, he gave me the key; I bought 3000 paperbacks from him for $300 bucks; I paid one of his overdue rents. For about $750 bucks, I got open."

From those fairly humble beginnings in 1979, Bop Street has kept the same name and moved five times to different parts of Seattle. Today, Voorhees explains that he doesn't get out on the town and keep up with all the different scenes, even to the point of saying "I'm not a hip guy." Hip or not, he has a ton of interesting stories about his ongoing adventures in the record business.

Bop Street 2

Photo by Milton Campbell

In 1987, another of those adventures came to him through his friend Leon Berman, host of "Shake the Shack", a wildly popular and widely syndicated radio program. "It's the best rockabilly show in the United States," Voorhees explains.

As the story goes, Berman came into the store and said, "'Man, you oughta' come on my show sometime and play your ten favorite rockabilly songs.' I thought, 'Well, that'd be cool', ya' know? Then he called me later that day and said, 'We need someone to do the blues show --you could do it!' [My] first thought was, 'Oh, man --I'd just get stage fright.' But then I thought, it'd be stupid not to do it."

The show he hosted, "Preachin' the Blues" ran from 1987 to 1992, airing Sunday mornings, from 9am to noon on station KCMU 90.3 FM (now KEXP). Today, KEXP is an extension of Microsoft founder Paul Allen's Experience Music Project, the world famous Seattle museum devoted to celebrating the musical art of local rock god Jimi Hendrix.

"Preachin' the Blues" is still fondly remembered, as is KCMU, back then a community run, not-for-profit station, funded through the University of Washington. "'Man, that was a great show,' people tell Voorhees, 'I don't listen to that station since you quit doin' the show.' All that love is fine, David notes, but he doesn't think of himself as a radio guy. "One time, a guy said to me: 'You're Dave Voorhees?' 'Yeah.' 'How long you been in radio?' 'I'm not in radio. I sell records, man, that's what I do.'" Just the same, in 1992, the Washington State Blues Society voted him Best Blues Disc Jockey in its statewide poll.

Since 1984, the store has been located in Ballard, a district of Seattle once known as a fairly non-descript neighborhood, home to aging people of Norwegian and Scandinavian descent. Five miles from the Seattle Center, site of the 1964 World's Fair, Bop Street is 8,000 square feet of record store pleasure. Voorhees estimates that his pieces of record stock number close to 750,000, which includes 45's (200,000) and 78's (30,000). His main thing is records, but he likes to stock different formats. He has about a thousand eight-track tapes, and 10,000 cassettes. "I still sell a lot of cassettes," he says.

By his own admission, he doesn't like to exclude much from what he offers in the store. "We're just trying to make as many different categories as we can. Because as soon as you say to yourself, 'No one is ever going to buy this Doris Day record, someone comes in: 'Do you have a Doris Day record?' I'm not kiddin'!"

People come into the store from all over the world, looking for things. "My demographic is mainly vinyl. I'll get people [that] come in from Sweden or wherever and they'll say, 'Oh, we know about your store in Sweden. Sure, we know all about Bop Street.' Then I get people who walk by my store in Ballard... 'I didn't know you were here.'"

In 2001, Bop Street moved to its current location --a paint warehouse. There's a first floor and a basement. By his own account, Voorhees says he couldn't fit much else in the store, other than what he loves most: records. He still makes it an important point to carry multiple copies of things. "For years, people would say to me, 'Why do you have seventy copies of 'It's a Beautiful Day?' 'Why do you have forty copies of [Fleetwood Mac's] 'Rumours?'" Another story illustrates the point.

Bop Street 3

Photo by Milton Campbell

In 2006, Voorhees says, some guys from Taiwan came in, representing themselves as record buyers for their boss, owner of 16 retail stores there. Explaining that they had just bought 20,000 LP's from Village Music [a famed Mill Valley, CA record store, now closed. Store merchandise continues to be available via the store's website.] They showed him pictures verifying their activity. Their boss wanted pictures of Bop Street and would very much like to visit soon and buy product for the stores back home. Getting the OK to take pictures, the men left. Soon, Voorhees heard back from their boss, who arranged for a convenient time to bring his son and another associate in to visit and buy product.

"This one main guy came over --he was in the store about a week-- ten hours a day. He bought probably 3 feet worth of Dave Brubeck; 3 feet worth of Ella Fitzgerald; 2 feet worth of Duke Ellington; every Billie Holiday record I had...He wanted to buy every Ray Charles record I had, but I said, 'Let me at least keep a few for my customers.' And then, the next day, he'd be using his laptop, and he'd say, 'OK, do you have any this-this-this-this?' This guy was buyin' for the store, ten copies of this, eight copies of this..." For all of those times he had answered his customers' puzzled question about multiple copies of stuff in the store, Voorhees says: "I sorta' felt a little bit vindicated."

As for where he gets his multiple copies and all the other things that complete his vast selection, Voorhees simply answers that it comes to him. He has terrific sources --people that bring in great items, mostly; and he no longer takes any big road trips to go treasure hunting. Having excellent local sources for product is a key feature of his strategy. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Seattle is a big music town.

Bop Street 4

Photo by Milton Campbell

The Ballard area is currently experiencing a big makeover. The days of its retired and retiring older populations are dwindling to a close. "It has become totally yuppified," Voorhees says, "There's just construction everywhere. They're thinkin' about building a four star hotel right across the street from where I am. [Ballard is] sort of the last bastion in Seattle that really hadn't been discovered yet. Now, the prices of houses is way up and condos [are] going up everywhere."

Though he rents the space and doesn't own the building he is in, Bop Street's owner doesn't feel left out of the real estate game. Selling records is what he loves doing best.

"I totally enjoy what I do. People say, 'You are the store.' With two other employees, he acknowledges the sentiment and his own constant desire to be in the store, to feel what's happening, to keep people happy and to be as helpful as he can be. "I never sit behind the counter. I'm usually giving people tours of my store. If you need any help, let me know. I actually give personal service to my customers and I want 'em to come back...I tell 'em, if you're not satisfied with what you bought, bring it back. I don't want to scam people or have them get upset."

Many musicians visit the store, including Marshall Crenshaw, Neko Case, Bill Frisell, Luther Dickinson,  ?uestlove, The Jurassic 5, Gram Parker and Steve Forbert. "Radiohead was in here for seven hours. They totally loved my store. They didn't play, they just looked at records."

Even though Radiohead didn't take the stage for an impromptu set, Bop Street has hosted about 300 in-store performances. The stage is there and ready, and they have a PA. Voorhees approaches any interested musical acts who want to play at Bop Street with an open heart and mind --just about anyone is welcome. Voorhees appreciates musicians and music lovers with the same spirit that he embraces records: with great affection. "Marshall Crenshaw wrote on my wall, 'I died and went to Bop Street.'"

Sounds like a good song title.

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Cheapo Records

Cheapo

Photo courtesy of Cheapo Records

A Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts landmark, Cheapo has been a familiar sight along Mass. Ave. since the mid-1970's. Wedged between the campuses of Harvard and M.I.T., the neighborhood has seen gentrification --they now have a Starbucks-- but retains its roots and gritty appeal.

Over the years, Cheapo has moved from its original location, where starting in 1948, it was known as The Cambridge Music Box and later, Albion Music. In 2006, longtime owner Allen Day moved the store two blocks east. "We've been Best of Boston in Boston Magazine, many, many times," Day explains, referring to the popular local glossy that conducts annual reader polls.

A classic record store environment, Cheapo's vibe is equal parts cultural crossroads and music industry time capsule, one that would be sadly missed by those who've depended on Cheapo for solid deals on music for all these years.

What record stores like Cheapo possess goes way beyond music. Not long ago, they were vital conduits for the flow of musical information within the culture. Trends --the rock 'n' roll revolution, for one-- owe their existence in large part to record stores. While digital technologies attempt to mimic the physical features of community, they are, sadly, empty substitutes. For true believers, the value of record stores can never be downloaded.

Cheapo 2

Photo courtesy of Cheapo Records

Talk to Cheapo's Day for more than thirty seconds and you get the impression that he knows a lot of people. Mention an era of music and he might offer a story about a performer that he worked with when he was promoting a lot of Boston area concerts. Ask a question and you will likely receive a candid insight or thoughtful observation.

When asked about what we as a culture lose if record stores like Cheapo disappear, Day is quick with his response: "Specialized information. It doesn't disappear entirely, but there's no way to disseminate it. Perhaps the Internet's taken the place of all that."

Day isn't being sentimental or nostalgic --just matter-of-fact. To further illustrate the point, he adds: "If you wanted to know how to sew a shirt, fifty years ago, you went into the store where they sold sewing stuff. If it wasn't too busy, you said to the lady, 'I'm having trouble with these cuffs,' and she knew how to do it. It didn't matter whether you were in Huntsville, Alabama or Anchorage, Alaska. That person knew how to do it. And that's gone --because you buy that stuff in Wal-Mart now, or, the equivalent, and often you have your young minimum wage people there that never really learned anything. I find in that type of store, you look for somebody that's my age or older, and most of the time, they might look decrepit but they'll have useful answers."

Day, born in 1944, grew up in nearby Lynn. The world we find ourselves in now is vastly different than how it was then. Simply put, the mixture of small businesses is absent and the look and feel of many of our nations streets has grown colder and more sterile. In today's global, corporate business model, a bland sameness covers much of the world's urban and suburban streets. There's more upscale dressing on everything.

Not only are there very few Mom and Pop types of stores around, overall, there is less character. "When we were kids, we could take the bus and the subway into Boston and we could walk around to the stores and look in the windows. And you could walk around forever --just forever-- and it's all gone."

Cheapo 3

Photo courtesy of Cheapo Records

A keen observer and self-professed accumulator, Day can affably relay both what has happened and what is currently happening. A valuable resource in his own right, he can wisely put things in their proper perspective. Surprisingly, he is a little self-deprecating about it all too. His concert promotion days, his record store years, even all that experience he offers: "You put it all together, it doesn't amount to much." And yet, to hear him tell it, you know there's more. He's an interesting character.

His years of concert promotion were good times for Day. "One, two, three, four, five times a year we would do a moderate concert. Something that might bring in 500 to 5,000 people. And we'd always bring in oldies acts --depending on the time period-- because we could afford them. So, in the '60's it was more, 'Gee, who were the big groups when we were teenagers?' Well, The Five Satins, The Jive Five, The Chantells, The Harps. You know, something like that. They all lived in New York then. Not everybody, but it seemed that way. And, gee, you could get people for a couple hundred bucks --they'd drive up. So I'd get together with one, two, three friends. And, at different times, key disc jockeys --particularly in the '60's and '70's-- were friends. So we'd get a lot of free publicity. Whamo! It was always excitement. Bringing in The Dramatics; Ray, Goodman and Brown --soul acts of the '60's and '70's --I used to go see these people when I was in my twenties-- all the time. That's what I liked. It was great doing shows."

Famed Boston DJ Little Walter was a friend; and Day knew New York show promoters Ralph Newman, and the Marshack Brothers. He is also good friends with singer and writer Billy Vera. Through him, Day says, he met Ronnie Spector. "She's a very nice person. She knew Frankie Lymon when she was in Junior High --just full of interesting stories." And through Day, Vera met Richard Foos and Harold Bronson of Rhino Records.

"'Let's get together,'" Day suggested, explaining that, "Harold was a fan" of Vera's. The Rhino Records label, widely respected for their thoughtful and thorough product line, helped Vera re-package an album of his, then languishing on the Japanese record label Alpha. "Alpha didn't work in the U.S.," Day says, "So, Billy negotiated the deal for Rhino, who had a hit record." Day also helped Freddie Cannon, of "Palisades Park" and "Tallahassee Lassie" fame, put a deal together with Rhino.

Cannon, also born in Lynn, and four years younger than Day, was a well known entertainer. "He was a big star --locally. Before he had the national hits, he was the big guy in the surrounding towns where I lived." Even though he wasn't particularly a fan of Cannon's music, Day always appreciated him as a person and a very good entertainer. "He was a wonderful gentleman. He was calm, wouldn't make any demands --no limousine, no baloney. He was just a little, nondescript guy in the crowd. Then he gets up on stage and puts on a stupendous show."

Legendary Rhythm and Blues artist Jackie Wilson was a personal favorite of Day's. Wilson's career spanned from 1957 until 1975 and included such hits as "Lonely Teardrops" and "Baby, Workout." A master showman, Wilson's performances were known for their fevered excitement --he drove audiences wild. Day remembers him well. "He always struck me as a gentleman --he was good to kids, I'll tell you that. As a performer, he was as good a singer as any."

One of Day's mentors was Swan record label owner, Bernie Binnick. "He was my Godfather --a wonderful person. He didn't screw anybody. When Dick Clark got blown apart," Day quips, referring to the Congressional hearings regarding the Payola --or pay for (radio) play-- scandals of the late 1950's and early 1960's, "the Italian went to jail, the Jew [Binnick] lost his money, and Dick Clark came out clean." In a convincing show of just how clean, early on, Clark famously divested himself of many of his music related holdings (record labels, pressing plants and distribution companies, etc.) while maintaining his innocence. Many others, like Rock 'n' Roll pioneer Alan Freed, were not so lucky. "Bernie said [Clark] was a good guy --he stood by them.

"Bernie treated his artists respectfully. Freddie Cannon spoke very, very well of him. Bernie's the one who told him to own his masters. This, at the time, was unheard of. Bernie told me years later that he knew that Cannon's masters would have some value--although he didn't realize how much. But he said he still thought it was the right thing to do. Other people just spoke well of him."

The importance of those relationships, the connectedness that Day is talking about has a through line: stores like Cheapo have long functioned as gathering places, where musicians, music industry people and music buyers interact, creating the animated conversations that serve as another form of background music heard in active and well-liked stores. "Twenty years ago, all day long, seven days a week it would be like that. There would be different age groups and different interests represented." These days, he notes, the conversations in the store tend to be less animated. "It's a different world --there don't seem to be as many music people around."

Cheapo 4

Photo courtesy of Cheapo Records

But in addition to longtime Cheapo customers, some younger musicians and their friends like to visit, on their way to weekend shows or gigs at another nearby Central Square landmark, The Middle East, "a major A-, B+ venue for national acts," Day says. "Often, I'm impressed. They're interested. They'll stop and talk, either to me or one of the employees that knows more about new music."

Day's story of how Cheapo came about is the result of two formative experiences: getting drafted; and, a dream.

In 1965, Junior year courses at nearby Tufts University were going well --until a physics course put him squarely in the sights of Uncle Sam. The Vietnam-era draft was on, but that one pesky course messed up his chances for staying in school. Failing the course "for two consecutive semesters, dragging my already not-so-hot grade point average below a certain level and becoming 1A," --a prime candidate for the draft-- his academic track hit the skids. "The moral is, don't fail nuclear physics," Day quips.

After his tour of duty, Day returned to civilian life and soon started a small business selling flowers. One night, he had the dream.

As a way of illustrating the life changing transitions that lay ahead, Day mentions a famous Gahan Wilson cartoon that he saw which originally appeared in a February, 1967, issue of Playboy. Wilson's sketch showed "a desert diner on a highway --let's say Nevada. A desert setting --mountains in the background-- and the diner was just shown as a little teeny drawing with a sign that said 'Eat.' --and a couple of cars and people. On the horizon was a monster --drooling---a monster obviously as big as two Empire State buildings and his eyes were directed at the diner.' With that image in mind, he says, "That night, I had a dream that I owned a chain of gas stations called 'Cheapo Gas.'"

Contemplating graduate school on the GI Bill, Day's flower business included a couple of trucks. Somebody mentioned that he should start a moving business, which he then did, calling it Cheapo Movers. Coincidentally, a friend of his was a consumer reporter working on the Johnny Carson Show. Carson and company ended up using bits in their on-air routine that doubled as plugs: 'A tip from Cheapo Movers: Make sure you don't put breakable stuff in the boxes without first…' It was "a little silly," Day remembers. But he got good --and free-- publicity.

Day, who'd taken up record collecting, says he "kind of fell into selling 'cutout'" -or slightly imperfect-- records. "I had the idea that you could have an all cutout, all discontinued record store --which nobody was doing in New England. People were doing it in New York, but they were mixing --they'd have records and other discontinued goods. Beacon Hill Music was in existence then, so I wasn't the first 'used' store in Boston," he says. "We did well, and I decided to call it Cheapo Records because I had Cheapo Movers. That's how the name came about."

His first store was too small. Day wanted something bigger. He found it in Central Square. Negotiating a deal with then owner Sid Rivco, --who wanted to get into the restaurant business-- he opened Cheapo with "about 1800 square feet" of retail space. By adding a stairway into the basement, the store grew to just under 3000 square feet, the way the shop at 645 Mass. Ave. remained for almost twenty years. Then, the rent shot out of sight, the building got a facelift and Cheapo got pushed downstairs --into the basement. In 2006, Day moved two blocks east to his current location.

Cheapo 5

Photo courtesy of Cheapo Records

Known locally and worldwide for his all encompassing music selection, Cheapo remains, for many true blue music fans, their first stop when visiting the Boston area. With his current store site of just under 2000 square feet, Day always impresses with his knowledge and savvy. Though times are tough for independent record stores like Cheapo, Day perseveres.

Reflecting back on the period in his life when he was doing concert promotion, Day says, "We always tried to do things right. That was because we were fans --and ultimately, not businessmen. In the long run, you succeed by cheating people, and I just still see myself as --whether it's the retail store or the concert-- I'm looking people in the eye. I'm not going to look somebody in the eye and say I brought in a fake Dramatics or Five Satins. I'm just not gonna do it."

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Independent Records and Video: Colorado Springs, Colorado

Independent

Courtesy of Independent Records

"I think it's a great time to be in the music business and to distribute music and do all kinds of things like that because there's a model that's yet to be created."

Not the kind of thing one commonly hears in the music business these days. But this is the sentiment and deep conviction of Judy Negley, part-owner of Independent Records, a seven store Colorado chain. Judy describes herself as "an eternal optimist," someone who doesn't conform to what gets passed off as conventional wisdom--she doesn't subscribe to the sentiment that the sky is falling.

"As long as we remain culturally relevant to our communities, then we're gonna be fine. There's been a leveling out of the power game when it comes to the consumer versus the distributor or record label or whatever. That's awesome. You can hear anybody. Everybody has pretty much an equal chance of being listened to. You can go out and buy that music over the Internet or in a store or whatever. It's out there, it's available. Anybody can make a CD. It's cheap, it's easy. Anybody can put an MP3 on MySpace. That just has made everything much more in the fan's favor. That's really exciting. I think people are hearing more interesting things than they ever have before; they certainly have a voice in it, more than they ever have before."

For six of Independent's seven store locations, the buildings are owned by the company. Only one store is rented, which helps the business financially. Independent is always looking for other places in Colorado to open new stores. Negley mentions that Colorado Springs, where their main store is located, has grown tremendously in the last twenty years. With the increase in population comes the other side of the question about being centrally located. Now there are larger areas of town to cover, more market area to serve.

Independent Records Colorado Springs

Independent Records on West Colorado Avenue in Colorado
Springs.
Courtesy of Independent Records

For Negley, there is more opportunity--even taking into account the state of the music business, the costs of doing business, and the declines in CD sales. "We're actually looking for locations now and looking at opening other stores, if we can afford it. I should couch that in terms that I've never been able to afford to open locations, but we've done it anyway."

The Colorado Springs area has long been her home. Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1956, Negley was the daughter of an Air Force serviceman. The family moved frequently. When she was very young, her father built a vacation house in Colorado where she spent vacations and summers. When she was ten, her dad retired, moving the family west.

In the mid to late 1970s--her college years--she managed Misty Mountain Music in Salida, Colorado, then returned to Colorado Springs in 1981, three years after Independent first opened. Taking a part-time job there, she was contemplating going to law school when she realized: "I just couldn't give it up." After becoming manager, Negley says, "I just decided to make it my calling." Within a year and a half she became a partner, with one-third interest in the company.

Since there are more than one or two stores in the Independent chain, the company takes a bit of slagging from consumers--those who want their retail as music industry-free as possible. But Negley doesn't hold with the idea that small chains can't be vital to consumers. "This is an indie store," she says.

Independent Records Colfax

Independent Records on Colfax in Denver.
Courtesy of Independent Records.

Anyway, retailers aren't agents of the industry. For her, the music industry has always been mired in its own problems. At Independent, the approach to that dilemma means that they try very hard to overcome industry policies and tactics that effectively ruin music for consumers. "I think the biggest danger to the music industry has always been the industry itself. That's more pronounced now than it ever has been, but it certainly has always been a huge issue. The adversarial relationship that the industry has with consumers is unprecedented. It's so bizarre. If Toyota blamed their buyers for everything that went wrong with their cars, or because somebody bought some other car, it would be ridiculous."

At Independent, "We really try to appeal to a broad spectrum. Our foundation is in urban music and heavy metal, but particularly urban." The stores' demographics skew younger--meaning under 30. Unlike the music industry, predisposed as they are to force-feed consumers with the next platinum selling wish-it-could-be, Negley says, "We don't just choose the flavor of the month for our customers--we let the customers choose."

If they couldn't sell music anymore, there's plenty of other types of merchandise that draws people in. "If music was off the face of the earth tomorrow, that'd be a huge bummer for everyone involved. But we've always considered ourselves a lifestyle store, so we've always carried a lot of things besides music."

CDs are actually an expensive product for retailers to buy and sell, Judy explains. "So many new releases are selling at cost or below cost." Trying to compete and hoping that customers purchase quantity is a long shot, so other goods in the store offer better chances for profits.

Vinyl in the store

Vinyl in the bins at the Independent
Annex, Colorado Springs. Courtesy of
Independent Records.

"Smoking accessories, our boutique section, t-shirts"--these are good sellers with good profits. "We sell adult video, which the margins are astounding on. So we have other things besides music." If music were ever to be out of the equation, she says, "I don't think it would be nearly as much fun, but we would be able to keep going.

"At this store currently, new music is a little over 50% of our sales; used music, right around 30%; and smoking accessories and boutique lifestyle items would be about 20%. We've kind of gone against that downward music industry trend. Overall, our CD sales--as a percentage of sales--are holding pretty strong. We've dropped some percentage points there, but not phenomenally, so we're still running, overall, throughout the chain, about 55% new CDs.

Independent CDs

CD product at Independent's Colorado Springs (Platte Avenue) store.
Courtesy of Independent Records.

"We just went through Record Store Day [April 19, 2008]. It was such a positive event. We had so many people coming in just telling us how wonderful it was. We had stores that were up 78% on that day. We got this sense of…positive energy. People want to hear something positive. Why the record industry continues to get pulled out, selected as the failure of the decade, is beyond me because many things are threatened by many potential foes--not just the music industry. It's just like payola. I mean, you walk into any doctor's office and everything they have in there is given to them by someone, whether they're sending them on some junket or whatever--it's never about the drug companies.

"But we always have been on the leading edge of being responsible. That just means that the art form is more important--that people expect a certain threshold to be raised."

Independent's Platte Avenue store

Independent's Platte Avenue store in Colorado Springs.
Courtesy of Independent Records

The threat to brick-and-mortar stores posed by the Internet isn't one that gets a tremendous amount of her attention. Negley feels quite certain that people will always need actual places to shop. "I look out my window and there's thousands of cars going by on the street. I don't know about you, but I do look on the Internet--shop for things, research things--but I don't wanna be just sitting in my house all the time. I love to go out and look at stuff and get it in my hands--the whole instant gratification thing. There's something just not as fulfilling about that [sitting in front of the computer]. I definitely feel that resurgence--I hear a lot of people talking about that, a lot of our customers."

Younger generations--those Negley feels the music industry chose to overlook in favor of marketing almost exclusively to the baby boomers-- may not have the same feelings for physical stores that the boomers do. "There is a feeling of 'Oh, my God, this segment has totally dropped out.' There's no question that that's a part of it. But I think that it has always taken a tremendous amount of gumption to depend on a record store for your music--whether you own one or whether you work in one--it's always taken a certain degree of courage because it's never easy. I'm sure that maybe some people have done it better, and it's been easier for them, but for us, every day has been a little dicey. That's part of what I love about it. The record store business is always kind of edgy."

The Dresden Dolls

Brian Viglione and Amanda Palmer
of the Dresden Dolls with unknown fan at autograph
signing. Courtesy of Independent Records

Edgy or not, owning their own buildings has proven to be an essential piece of their business plan. "The smartest thing we did was get into the real estate aspect of it." The costs of renting, along with numerous other expenses, easily make the idea of operating a music store frightening--with good reason. "If I were signing a lease and it's twenty five dollars [or more] a square foot--that would have me freaked out a little." The associated costs of doing business in this day and age is "just enormous," Negley says. There's "a lot of overhead, tremendous inventories--it's very cash intensive, it's very labor intensive. There's a lot of things like that. I think there's so many things, yeah, that scare the living crap out of you."

Being a woman in a male-dominated field isn't one of those scary things. "I think most industry is male dominated. It's changed somewhat over the years, but not a lot. There's still a huge disparity between women in the workplace and men; and I feel it's more pronounced than possibly anything else, whether it be race, creed, color--whatever. I think the gender thing is a bigger thing. I wasn't raised that way, with those parameters, so I was never really intimidated by it.

"But there were certain things back in the old days that were much more obvious. Sony, for example, as a distribution company--they were blatantly sexist. It was always a good old boys club--lots of sexual innuendo and that kind of stuff. It doesn't bother me. I think it's ridiculous. I think we have a lot bigger concerns than somebody making an off-color joke. I'm anything but politically correct. There's a lot more hideous things happening than that.

"My partners and myself, we like young people. If I had to go to work somewhere where everybody was my age, I don't know, I think I would just slash my wrists. I like working around a youthful environment. It's fun and it's creative and it's innovative--they generally have more open minds."

Butch Walker     Sick Puppies

Butch Walker (l) and Sick Puppies (r) at Independent Records on Colfax in Denver.
Courtesy of Independent Records.

Negley sees more positive steps for Independent in the upcoming years. "We don't know how to do anything else. So, one way or another, we have to keep it going."

Independent Logo 2

Courtesy of Independent Records.

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Louisiana Music Factory

Photos and text apply to the former location for the Louisiana Music Factory. Their new address is: 421 Frenchman Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70116.

Louisiana Music Factory Logo

Logo courtesy of Louisiana Music Factory

Many of us know that New Orleans is the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and jazz. Most of us also know that this fabled city is home to two of the biggest ever annual parties: Mardi Gras, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. And almost everyone who's ever been to New Orleans knows about Bourbon Street and the decorative wrought iron and stone of the French Quarter.

At 210 Decatur Street, just two blocks from the Mississippi River, across from the House of Blues, there's another great independent record store: the Louisiana Music Factory.

Well appreciated by visitors to this great city and residents alike, the store enjoys the distinction of being one of a few stores of its type in the French Quarter. Unlike some of the other area shops, at the Louisiana Music Factory, the accent is on local musicians and bands who live and work in this music rich city.

The store first opened in 1992, on North Peters Street. At that time, Jerry Brock, a locally known WWOZ radio personality, writer, and producer had the initial idea. In 2001, current owner Barry Smith, born and raised in the Crescent City, took on the full responsibility for the store when Brock left the area. Later, Smith moved the store one block to its current location on Decatur, where it resides in one of the few five-story buildings left in town.

Much like everywhere else, the musical landscape in New Orleans has changed. These days, not only is it difficult to find a record store, it is also difficult finding a music store, where musicians can get supplies or buy instruments. How ironic, that here in the birthplace of jazz, the home of much of America's own music, it is difficult for musicians to find a store that caters just to them.

Louisiana Music Factory owner Barry Smith explains that after Werlein's, "one of the oldest music stores in the country", vacated its longtime location on Canal Street, it moved right next door to him on Decatur. Though Smith is not familiar with the specific problems they faced at the time, a few years ago, Werlein's closed and is no more. "With all the live music and all the musicians here in town coming to the general area to play, it's kind of crazy that there's no instrument shop right nearby for people to get just basic things," Smith says.

Louisiana Music Factory

Photo by Linda Abbott

So, in an effort to fill the void left by Werlein's, the Louisiana Music Factory stocks a limited amount of music supplies, "like guitar strings and drum sticks --just a basic selection," Smith says. CDs, Books, DVDs, and t-shirts are also part of the product mix at his store, as are vinyl records. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina finding local sources for that format became extremely difficult.

What was once "the vinyl room" has been downsized. Overall, Smith estimates, his current floor space for vinyl is about 20% of the store's total, with yearly sales no more than 10% of the store's total.

Louisiana Music Factory

Photo by Linda Abbott

Since many local bands and musicians are on small, independent labels, their favored format is CD. This format comprises about 70% of store sales. Locally based musicians depend on the Louisiana Music Factory to promote them. Smith actively and enthusiastically supports them and stocks a multitude of locally made music.

"When we opened...we just really felt that there was a need to highlight the local music and focus on it. We definitely wanted to develop as many direct relationships with musicians as we possibly could --and we certainly have done that over the years. So I'll get a lot of musicians that come in and not only shop, but, of course, place their independent CD's in the store on consignment and play concerts in the store. I definitely have had an ongoing relationship with the local musicians from the moment we opened." With a hundred distributor relationships and 2000 local consignment accounts, there's never been a music shortage.

Louisiana Music Factory

Courtesy of Louisiana Music Factory

Born in 1960, Smith has his heart in the right place. He knows his store has an important economic role in the community.

But he is also a realist. Keeping the Louisiana Music Factory alive in the digital era, he says in his soft spoken manner, is "definitely a challenge."

"Unfortunately, the general trend tends to be against us...I want to remain a traditional, hands-on record store with physical product, where people can come in and listen and get advice and touch the CDs, which I used to enjoy so much growing up, as a kid going to stores."

In his early years in New Orleans, Smith remembers a number of locally owned stores where he could visit and find records. In the 1970's, there was Leisure Landing --with one location in New Orleans and another in Baton Rouge. In the 1980's, there was Metronome Records, Smith recalls, uptown. "That was a good store, then the oil bust came to the region and they wound up moving the store to Atlanta or somewhere.

"For the most part, I hate to say it but there weren't that many great places to buy music in the city, it was more just typical mall stores and chain stores, until Tower Records came along in about 1990. When they finally came to town, that was definitely exciting news for the music buyers, because at that point, there was just really a poor selection." At that time, Smith says, there were also a number of smaller shops for used vinyl in the French Quarter.

Later, Virgin Records came to town too, but left after Katrina. Tower is now gone as well, but there are still a few locally owned shops --in addition to the Louisiana Music Factory. "There's another store that just finally got reopened called Odyssey Records, on Canal Street downtown. In more recent years, [they've] dealt a lot with the urban market --rap and hip-hop. They [also] carry local music and oldies."

Uptown, there's Jim Russell's Rare Records. "He's primarily more in used merchandise and [rarities]. He does have a lot of vinyl and 45's and 78's."

Within the last year and a half, a new Peaches opened two blocks away from the Louisiana Music Factory, in the former Tower store location, on North Peters.

Echoing the sentiments of many store owners, Smith says he has difficulty envisioning a world where everything relating to music is computerized. "I've just been kind of stubborn about embracing some of the new formats and new technologies --especially the downloading, which is totally unappealing to me. I just feel, if it comes down to everything being computerized and electronic and download[ed], then I don't think I really want to be a part of it anymore."

Saturdays in the French Quarter are big in-store concert days, featuring local and nationally known bands. Mardi Gras in February is, of course, a big, rollicking time in New Orleans. But a little later on in April, when the city's annual Jazz and Heritage Festival happens, "That's our Christmas," Smith says --his yearly, big selling time.

Louisiana Music Factory

Rockin' Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters take the stage for Jazz and Heritage Fest 2009. Photo by Linda Abbott

With the arrival of hot and humid weather during summers, the number of visitors to the area dwindles. It's also Hurricane Season throughout much of the tropics --and in Bayou country.

Facing overwhelming devastation and loss of life in Hurricane Katrina --one of the most notorious tropical cyclones to ever come ashore on the continent-- New Orleans has been a city slowly rebuilding and coming back to life. In contrast to many who lost everything in that summer storm of 2005, Smith recounts that he was fortunate, and his store spared.

"I actually had two employees [John and Allison] who decided to stay [in the store] for the hurricane. They didn't have a way out of town and weren't comfortable staying at their house uptown, so they wound up staying here. Fortunately, when things really started happening and water started coming through, they were able to cover records and move product. They were able to board things up from inside and keep any potential people from breaking in. They were trapped in here for at least a week." Shaken by their experiences during Katrina, the couple has since moved away. "They really helped me out," Smith says.

Oddly, phone service to and from the store --during the storm and in it's aftermath-- went mostly uninterrupted. "Communications were down in so many places." Smith says. "For some reason, I could call the store and get through on a pretty consistent basis, so I was able to stay in touch with them [from] where I was evacuated to and just make sure things were OK."

The Ninth Ward, one of the most heavily flooded and ravaged communities, "took one of the biggest hits," Smith recalled in January, 2008, as did the mid-city and Lakeview areas. But, he said, there are also a few "bright spots scattered around."

Musician's Village --Habitat for Humanity's' Ninth Ward community rebuilding effort-- is one of those. "Musicians Village is definitely starting to help in bringing people back home. It's a great thing, a great idea. They [recently] broke ground on the community center that they're gonna build there, under Ellis Marsalis' name, where musicians can get together, play, practice and teach the younger kids. It's a great project. I'm really happy it's coming together."

Well known music clubs like Tipitina's, The Maple Leaf, and House of Blues are doing OK, Smith says. Many re-opened soon after the storm. Sadly, others --the Saenger and the Municipal Auditorium-- were still inactive by the summer of 2008. At that time, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and Orpheum were undergoing renovations. Smith estimated that the Jackson and Orpheum both might reopen within a year.

The slow return to life after the storm could've stopped the city's lifeblood cold. By pitching in and helping get things going again, locally run businesses gained a tremendous amount of good will from the citizens of New Orleans. For their efforts, many business owners experienced a huge surge of appreciation. Included in that honorable light was the Louisiana Music Factory.

The big chain stores, Smith says, were "just nowhere to be seen. Mainly, local people and local businesses were buckling down and doing whatever it took to get back open --whether it was restaurants or hardware stores or just basic things that you need each day."

For many residents of New Orleans, the ordeals of Katrina have been slowly replaced with the daily challenges of rebuilding and reclaiming what once was their former city. The return to normalcy includes a return to the rhythms and melodies of life in the Mississippi Delta.

As one of only a few record stores currently operating in New Orleans, the Louisiana Music Factory continues on.

"We're kind of the only store that truly focuses on the local music. We have won Best Record Store I think, 12 or 13 years in a row, mainly [by reader polls in] Offbeat Magazine, [and] other publications like Gambit Weekly."

But even with an audience of enthusiastic supporters, it remains unknown whether younger people coming up will join the ranks of devoted record store visitors. "I don't know. The younger kids just definitely seem to be way more interested in purchasing online and downloading and don't come to record stores."

Louisiana Music Factory

Photo by Linda Abbott

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Mr. Peabody Records

Mr. Peabody Header LeftMr. Peabody Header Right

Courtesy of Mr. Peabody Records

The name "Mr. Peabody Records" was something co-owners Mark Grusane and Mike Cole thought up while walking down the street. "We just thought of somethin' professional, something clean," Grusane says. It was also a name that referenced the past, that was even "a little nerdy soundin.'"

Both DJs, Grusane and Cole got to know each other through area record shows. Realizing that finding rare music was going to be easier by joining forces, they decided to work together. "We figured we could cover more land--and as far as the different things goin' on--we would be more effective as a team."

Peabody Wall

Record fairs, DJ gigs, going on the road to acquire collections--trips that would cover hundreds of miles by car--all led up to the store, which opened in February 2004. Located in Chicago's Beverly Hills/ Morgan Park neighborhood, Grusane says, "It's a historic district--a prominent area. We're in a location where we are at the central point, where we get the different flavors of urban all around us. Our intake is pretty good, as far as getting records in."

New City Ad

Courtesy of Mr. Peabody Records

Mr. Peabody Records is situated in "an old style strip mall--there's other businesses around us," Grusane says. The store's 1500 square feet holds "maybe 80,000 items.

Eldee Young

Eldee Young, Ramsey Lewis Trio

"The way we approach our business plan is to always try to have a supply of stock for our market that's outside of the downloading and the re-issues and stuff like that--we really don't deal in a lot of that. We deal with the hard-to-find--you won't find it unless you grab it here. Or, you're going to be very limited in where you're going to find the item.

"We do a lot of Internet sales--a lot of mail order. Most of the time, we have people here bringin' records, but if we have people through town that we ship to a lot, they usually come to see where they get the product from. Usually when they come from distances like that, we add 'em to the gallery online, take their pictures so people can see exactly the traffic we deal with and how much of an influence we are on the rare vinyl market."

The "Wall of Fame and Personalities" is the in-the-store-version of the gallery. "The wall is just somethin' different we wanted to do also. We wanted the store to be colorful and a little eccentric, a little different. The concept for the Wall was like the old Gino's East, back in the day on Superior Street, down in Chicago. That used to be a pizza place where people etched their names in the wood and the wall and stuff like that--a legendary Chicago-style pizza spot.

Dimitri from Paris

Dimitri from Paris (Playboy Mansion, France).

"The store itself is a music store. We have jazz, rock, blues, funk, soul, house music and we're prone to play any of it. It's just a certain style--every DJ has their style." Inventory includes rare and hard-to-find vinyl, from popular artists of past decades--including the '60s and '70s on up--with an accent on dance, boogie and groove music from the late '80s to early '90s.

Slum Village

Slum Village, Priority, Capitol, Barak Records

Ironically, Grusane acknowledges that brick-and-mortar stores like theirs aren't likely to be able to maintain their presence well into the future. "Everything's going Internet global--it's at that point now anyway. I mean the thing is, you gotta race against the clock also because the records, they're going out of the areas where the guys are usually getting 'em." Balanced against this harsh reality is the fact that their store still gets plenty of local and out-of-town visitors--the online and mail order customers who visit to check out the store.

Mr. Scruff

Mr. Scruff, Europe.

With records, he says, "It's just like any resource--like oil. Eventually, it's gonna run out. Now, what I would like to see happen is the major labels and distributors get back into distributing what I call quality music. Which is good arrangements--sophistication--and not just the same stuff they think is gonna sell and keep their pockets fat."

Grusane and Cole have begun establishing ways to distribute their dance and groove music product overseas. There, a new--possibly more receptive--audience exists, eager for what they offer. "Here is like, highly competitive with the radio stations and the major labels--even to certain ears, you know, they got so much comin' out of 'em already.

"We'll be throwin' more things over that way, 'cuz we're linin' up some distribution deals where we're gonna do compilations of rare groove--early '80s, late '70s dance releases. We're basically contacting these people and getting these releases back into the market--that kind of sound."

Frankie Valentine

Frankie Valentine.

Since both owners are DJs, there isn't much that doesn't get played in the store. Through the store, Grusane and Cole can bring recognition and exposure to the music that they care about. Both collectors, they can shape tastes and, to some extent, drive trends, but the main thing is still the music. It's an engaged-with-the-audience feeling.

Like performers, when they present themselves and their music, it's communication and bringing people together. With the accent on party-ready grooves, they've built a wide audience for material that not everybody is familiar with. Some of that will change with forays into the market overseas. At the same time, they strive to represent rare material, music that doesn't always hold sway in the mainstream.

For example, Chicago house music. "It's like New York with a lot of the disco--really limited--because the guys [the artists] are pretty much pressin' 'em for Chicago. They mighta did five hundred and the record mighta got played, and it went everywhere it was supposed to go here. But the thing is, now you have the entire globe that likes that Chicago house sound, but the record's only here in Chicago. You got stuff like Modern Soul and American Soul Music from the '60s and early '70s--that stuff still went to different major cities. Chicago house music, for the most part, only stayed here. So it's kind of unreal to see a house record that's priced at a thousand dollars. But when you think about the demand for it, versus how many copies were made, you can understand."

"Honestly, here in Chicago, they probably know the least of what we do here." Places like Atlanta, Grusane says, would be better acquainted with the store's product, much of which is on their own label: MPR (Mr. Peabody Records), which has some major label distribution.

Rush Hour

Christian McDonald and Saba, Rush Hour Recordings.

"For me, the early '90s hip-hop sound is a good sound 'cuz it shows creativity, sampling and makin' different kinda beats. The lyrics, they were really talkin' about, in a way, teaching, you know, versus today everything is like a lullaby, mostly. But ya got a lotta good artists. I like Nas--I'm a Nas fan. But it's just a lot more you gotta go through. And there are artists out there that should be in those distribution databases, but they aren't."

Solanista

Soul Sister, New Orleans.

Rediscovery is a big part of what Mr. Peabody Records is all about. In addition to running the store, spinning records, putting things together on the record label, orchestrating Internet and mail order sales and coordinating global distribution, Grusane doesn't rule out other avenues for getting the music out--even the idea of doing a satellite radio show appeals.

With all the time and all the plans--with everything that really goes into making a record store succeed--it may not be too surprising to hear Grusane reveal that he and Cole almost decided to close. As recently as December, 2007, on into January, 2008, black paper covered the front windows. "We had gone private," Grusane says, "I had sent the notices out and we had gone private for maybe a week."

One day, two out-of-town visitors came in and helped them change their minds. "We were in operation, but we were closed to the public. I'm walkin' up to check emails and there's this guy in a cab with the door open. You know, he's like lookin' kinda panicky, like: 'I wasted my time comin' out here,' ya know? He asked me as soon as I walked in the door, 'Hey, you open?' I almost told him 'No' and I saw the cab.

Home Panel

Courtesy of Mr. Peabody Records.

"I'm like, 'Nah, this guy just came from the airport.' So I let him in and we got to talkin. I'm, like, 'What kinda stuff you like?' 'I collect a lot of everything.' Okay, he collects, you know? So, we're pretty much hangin' out. He tells me his name and, just by his name, I really didn't recognize him, who this guy was. Because I'm not really in the gist of everything that's comin' out--we're more into the store and what we do.

"And another friend of his came from Midway Airport and met him here, I think maybe six o'clock. They were playin' down at Sonotheque in Chicago. Turns out it was Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw Records. He was a cool guy. I mean, we were all music lovers so it was more like a fraternity thing, but I woulda hated to have missed 'em. They gave us some pretty good business that day. So that kinda turned us around from doing the private thing 'cuz we probably would be missin' out on a lot. Then I think we missed a big collection that week too, so we decided not to go private. And that was one of the smartest things that we ever did."

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