Crate digging will be done with freshly sanitized hands. Masks are mandatory. Plexiglass sneeze guards have been installed at the checkout counter. Socially distanced shopping will be in effect. And that’s all good news for music fans who long to hold a new find in their hands: Record stores are getting ready to open again.
Stores like Repo Records on South Street (reopening June 8), Main Street Music in Manayunk (June 5), and the Princeton Record Exchange in New Jersey (June 15) have survived for decades despite multiple transformations of the industry, which now embraces a streaming model in which music is essentially given away for free.
Now those stores, as well as Philly shops that have opened in the last decade like Brewerytown Beats (reopened June 5) or Sit & Spin Records (June 13) have been trying to keep their businesses alive with their doors closed by a deadly virus. Several have been using Instagram and Facebook to advertise new arrivals available with curbside pickup, or are selling through the Discogs online marketplace.
But there’s no substitute for hanging out in your favorite record store. And that cherished activity will again be permitted — with strict guidelines — in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the coming weeks.
“Our store is built for browsing,” say Jon Lambert of the Princeton Record Exchange, the Central Jersey mecca that stocks 150,000 pieces of LPs, CDs, and DVDs. “That’s how we survive.”
“We’re successful because we’re a great place to hang out and spend a bunch of hours in,” Lambert says. And that’s exactly what we haven’t been allowed to do.” Now the store, which first opened in 1980, is getting ready to welcome customers back under Stage 2 of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s reopening plan.
Record retail’s many hardships are well documented. The last heyday was in the CD era of the 1990s. The bottom fell out with Napster and iTunes’ launch in 2003. Colin Hanks’ 2015 documentary All Things Music Pass: The Tower Records Story tells the tale.
But a new generation has now discovered the joys of analog music, of holding the sleeve of an Otis Redding or Joni Mitchell album and plopping a needle down on a spinning disc.
“If it wasn’t for vinyl, we’d be dead,” says Pat Feeney of Main Street Music, who opened Main Street in 1991. “Totally gone.” In 2019, vinyl sales in the U.S. increased to $504 million, rising for the 14th year in a row.
Feeney estimates that 80% of his business is vinyl, and while he sells his share of new Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, and Pearl Jam records, the great majority is used, like the 30 Miles Davis albums he purchased along with 5,000 other LPs belonging to a recently deceased collector in Pittsburgh in March.
Under quarantine, he’s been pleasantly surprised that after an initial drop to zero, he’s reached 30% of pre-pandemic sales, thanks to the social media savvy of his employee Jamie Blood and the loyalty of longtime customers.
“That’s been my main goal, to be able to keep paying her. Curbside has at least helped me keep the lights on,” and he plans to continue the option even after reopening. He’s confident the store is going to make it. It’s helped that his landlord deferred his May rent.
Vinyl has also been a boon to Repo, which Dan Matherson founded in Wayne in 1986, before opening on the 500 block of South Street in 1997. Then, in 2017, Matherson moved Repo from a 1,000-square-foot storefront to a new one twice the size down the street.
“That’s what sucks about this whole pandemic thing,” say Masterson. “Last year was our best since the mid-90s. We were just humming along. Every year since the last recession it’s been better every year."
He attributes that success to new vinyl, with rock and hip-hop releases that go for $25 and more. “The kids like the aesthetics of it, the way the records look, the whole feel,” says Masterson, who also does a brisk business in concert posters and T-shirts, moving lots of Billie Eilish but also vintage punk. “We sell so many turntables to 16 to 30 year olds.”
Since the shutdown, Masterson has also started online sales. It’s allowed him to hire two part-time employees back.
Though his windows are boarded up to ward off potential looters, he plans to be open this weekend as Philly move to the “yellow” stage, with large hand sanitizer dispensers at the door. With 2,000 square feet, 10 people are allowed in at a time, including employees.
He’ll keep the online business going, to guard against uncertainty.
“The pandemic could pop back up,” he said. “People are going to be hesitant to leave the house. There are so many unknowns. People have lost their incomes. With the last recession, you knew what the path back was going to be. Now there is no path.”
Sit & Spin, which specializes in punk, metal, and hard-rock, has been closed since mid-March. “It’s definitely been a struggle,” says Colin McMahon, who founded the shop with partner Leora Colby in 2013. The shop received a micro-enterprise grant from the city, but “the big question for us is if many of our regulars will have jobs after this.”
A further blow has been the postponement of Record Store Day, when labels make limited-edition releases available. This year’s music holiday was supposed to be April 18, then it moved to June. Now it’s planned for Aug. 29, Sept. 26, and Oct. 24.
The hope is for three bursts, rather than just one. (Feeney does about a month’s worth of business every annual RSD.) It’s also a day when shops typically stage in-store performances, although that seems unlikely this year.
Even owners with seemingly pandemic-proof business models have been affected by the fallout from COVID-19 . Val Shively owns R&B Records in Upper Darby — known as “the oldies capitol of the world” — home to an astounding 4 million 45s.
His store, close by a strip of 69th Street that was looted this past week, relies almost entirely on mail order. Business hasn’t fallen off significantly but his customers are fiscally anxious.
“Most people are a month, or even a paycheck away from trouble," he says. "They don’t know what’s going to happen. So you might think that I’d be doing great business, because everybody’s been mandated to stay home, and they’ve got nothing to do except listen to music. But that hasn’t happened.”
Max Ochester, who opened Brewerytown Beats in 2014, specializing in vintage R&B, funk and soul, has seen his business drop 80%. He’s been able to stay afloat thanks to a PPP loan, while working on releases for his Brewerytown label, including a reissue of one by Power of Attorney, the 1970s Philadelphia funk band who were Graterford prison inmates.
In any small business, he says, “you have things thrown at you, whether it’s city taxes, or big box stores. ... It seems like small business is nothing but setbacks and overcoming hurdles.”
Princeton Record Exchange’s Lambert says he’s cautiously optimistic about reopening. “My customers are so loyal,” he says. “The whole milieu of record shopping is so popular. There’s so many people who want us to survive that I believe that if we take precautions, everything will be fine.