Record shops weather the pandemic as vinyl popularity flourishes
The dark-haired young lady knew exactly what she wanted.
“What do you have by Minnie Riperton?” she asked Mark Methe, co-owner of Decatur’s Wuxtry Records.
“Come with me and I’ll show you,” said the genial, somewhat garrulous senior, leading his prospective customer through a small store that’s a riot of organized clutter, a process that rinses-and-repeats regularly.
You could say that Methe, pushing 70, has grown old in the service of vinyl, with his store having opened in 1978.
Wuxtry is one of a half-dozen or so Intown independent spots specializing in vinyl, most of which have been around since the heyday of arena rock and disco. The mainly modest enterprises have been subject to two centers of gravity pulling them in different directions. One is the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to multi-month closures (except for online and curbside service in some cases) last spring. The other is increasing interest in vinyl, with healthy pressings of new product as well as re-issues from the days when CDs ruled the musical roost and pressings were an afterthought. Think albums like Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
It’s made for a roller coaster ride akin to watching the gyrations of a long-neglected and warped album.
There’s Methe, who at one point used the term “scraping by” and points out “I never went to business school” while allowing that between his store and another location in Athens, they did about a million dollars’ worth of sales in 2020.
He adds that they were closed for a couple of months during the first wave of the pandemic but that Christmas brought them a burst of sales. There are some numbers that pump up the volume on that last assertion.
Billboard magazine, quoting Nielsen Music/MRC Data, says a record 1,842,000 records were sold in the week ending Dec. 24, buoyed by Christmas sales and easily eclipsing compact discs. That’s the highest number since Nielsen began tracking vinyl sales in 1991. The website Statista quotes Nielsen as saying vinyl sales grew for the 14th consecutive year in 2020.
On the less rosy side, Wax’ n’ Facts, a longtimer in Little Five Points, closed for almost three months and resorted to a GoFundMe campaign which raised some $12,000 to stay afloat and cover employees lost wages. The store is also only open half its former hours and had to let a part-timer go.
But not all of the previously pandemic-darkened stores are on an equal footing.
Open since 1976, Buckhead mainstay Fantasyland Records has seen vinyl sales rise considerably, especially that of new product, despite their spring in the wilderness.
“I would say for us it probably goes up 10% each year,” said longtime manager (since 1981) Mark Gunter, including 2020 in that skein. “We’ve been busier than ever since we reopened in mid-May. And we probably had our best in December in the past five years.” Not only were vinyl purchases robust he added—their sale of turntables scored a five—year high.
Gunter said a good percentage of sellers are those who stored their records away for a good long while, with many of them now downsizing. Rock is their biggest category.
At Criminal Records in Little Five Points, you’ll find folks like Sean Zearfoss. No greybeard, he’s in his mid-30s but loves vinyl and is firmly in the camp of those regarding it as a warmer and richer-sounding medium than digital.
“It’s kind of an experience,” he said. “Give me your best 40 minutes on a vinyl record and let’s see what you’ve got.”
Zearfoss explained that “We’ve sold a lot of hip-hop and R&B in part, I think, because Atlanta really is a hip-hop town.” Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, my Love!” is the top seller in that space, he noted.
Other stores said they’re sending customers out the door with plenty of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar albums and that with their status as local icons, it’s hard to keep anything by Outkast in stock.
But rock and classic rock is still a mainstay of theirs, said Zearfoss. “We still sell plenty of Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.” Jazz, soul, world music and country are also well-represented in the spacious, well-organized store.
Fans of those classics – both young and old – are among those re-upping on vinyl, said Methe at Wuxtry.
“Every week I hear a sob story from someone saying they sold their record collection in 1987 and now that stuff is hard to find.”
Re-issues of albums from the tail end of the 80s to the mid aughts – the vinyl dead zone – seem to be helping to fill that gap. And then there are others of a certain age who simply never stopped opening their wallets for vinyl.
Another significant buyer demo: much younger folks who have embraced vinyl and snap up product from current performers as well as those already-mentioned re-issues and even classic rock. Nobody’s blinking when someone totes both Imagine Dragons and David Bowie to the checkout counter. And there are the hardcore collectors methodically perusing the bins, their narrowed eyes missing nothing.
Co-owner Harry DeMille at Wax ‘n’ Facts has seen a plethora of them over the years.
“I can’t stress the avid nature of the collector enough. Some of them told me they all but died when we closed down for a few months,” he said.
He said some of them are not just serious “vinylphiles” but also canny collectors who mimic some coin and stamp enthusiasts.
“If they see something that’s desirable and even if they have five copies of it already they’ll go ahead and get another to use as ‘trade bait’, DeMille explained.
At Decatur’s Ella Guru record shop owner Don Radcliffe weighed in with “We all have our favorites we try to force on our customers. That’s my favorite part of the job. Everyone who works in a record store wants to do that.”
Despite COVID, Radcliffe said he saw heightened demand and overall “decent “sales this year at his cubbyhole spot.
There are other hopeful signs, with, believe it or not, the pandemic getting some credit. Music purveyors think that with many restaurants limited to curb service and takeout and movie theaters shut down, a visit to a music store has become an attractive and relatively safe-seeming-outing.
“I never have enough of the most popular stuff,” is how Radcliffe put it.
But Wax ‘n’ Facts’ Demille puts his finger on the groove of a couple of countervailing factors.
“Customers that I have had for many years – and we’ve been here 44 – some of those longtime collectors have literally died. And I’m not sure that they’ve been replaced. Plus, the new stuff is phenomenally expensive. It’s a lot easier to sell five $5 records than one $25 record.”