Photo by Otis Caldwell
Buyers browse at Folk Arts Records in Normal Heights
It's been a rough year for record stores. In May, New York City’s Other Music announced its closure after 20 years of selling vinyl. One month later, San Francisco’s Aquarius Records shuttered after 45 years of business. San Diego, too, was the site of a handful of notable store closures, including Off the Record ending its business after nearly 40 years.
For as much press has been given to a supposed resurgence of vinyl, the increase in demand (and by extension, supply) has only added to the hurdles that record stores face. Pressing delays, rising prices, oversupply and arbitrary order limits— not to mention the fact that a lot of people simply prefer to stream music—are just a handful of the challenges that make up the business of doing music retail. Yet quite a few record stores continue to do business in San Diego. In fact, new ones continue to crop up—Normal Records just opened its doors in North Park.
Survival in the market isn’t easy. And what works for one store won’t necessarily work for another. But one solid rule holds true for every retailer: Know your audience. For a lot of brick-and-mortar vinyl emporiums, particularly those with a robust used record section, keeping bins full of classic rock staples—The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc.—is almost a guaranteed sale. Both Michael Schmid, owner of M Theory Records in Mission Hills, and Brendan Boyle, owner of Folk Arts Records in Normal Heights, say that people buy those staple canon albums on a regular basis.
New vinyl, however, requires more of a curatorial hand. Schmid is more selective about the kinds of new stock he’ll keep in the store as a way of setting it apart. “I try not to stock anything you can find at Target,” he says, noting that a lot of labels have developed a habit of reissuing albums that are already easy to find in used or bargain bins. Joe Virgilio, owner of Red Brontosaurus in North Park, says his store’s customers tend to seek out the punk and hardcore records that other shops in town aren’t likely to stock. But even with the advantage of unique supply, the overall demand for records have sent wholesale prices skyward, making it that much harder to turn a profit.
“The margins—you have to sell a lot to cover your bases,” Virgilio says. “Wholesale prices are crazy. There’s no way it’s going to keep going uphill like it is. Once you hit a peak, it’s going to go back downhill, and hopefully it’ll plateau somewhere.”
Price is just one aspect of the challenges facing stores that stock new vinyl. The other major issue is being able to keep items in stock or restock them in a timely manner. When the international record store release date changed from Monday (in the U.S.) to Friday in 2015, it meant a longer period of time between selling out of something and having it reordered, thus opening up the possibility of a customer opting to buy it from Amazon—the largest seller of vinyl in the U.S. by volume as of a report in 2014, with more than 12 percent of the market share.
“If I run out on Saturday I have to wait until Monday to reorder,” Schmid says. “Before, if I ran out on Tuesday, I could have it restocked on Wednesday.”
When Off the Record closed, owner Curt Peterson cited online sales as one of the biggest threats to his business. Other local sellers tend to agree, though for different reasons and from different parts of the online market. Boyle, whose store tends to stock a lot of vintage and rare records, says he essentially is competing with a vast network of sellers on eBay and Discogs, and that he, too, will move some inventory that way. But it’s not how he prefers it.
“Sometimes I’ll sell some valuable records online, but I go out of my way to not use this model,” he says. “I want people to come through the door.”
Virgilio points out that one of the more irksome complications of vinyl’s popularity right now is the limited-edition colored vinyl that record stores often don’t have the opportunity to sell. In essence, the store is competing with the very same labels it stocks.
“With mail-order records, a label will release 300 super badass looking records only through mail-order,” Virgilio says. “It’s a limited color, and you can’t go to the store to buy one. So they’ll preorder it. Why would they want to go to the store and get the same one everybody else has? That affects us. It’s really frustrating.”
Though the increased demand for vinyl and, as Boyle points out, sales of actual turntables presents its own set of challenges for sellers, ultimately the interest is a good thing. And the community of record stores in town is small enough that while they are in competition to a degree, they also have their own specialties and offer support to each other.
“It’s not a competition for me,” Schmid says. “Like with Record City in Hillcrest, sometimes I’ll send people their way, and they’ll send people here. It’s a great community. It’s nice to have other record stores around.”
Boyle also notes that nobody goes into selling records out of any get-rich-quick delusions. “You should never fool yourself that you’re going to make a lot of money selling records,” he says. It’s both livelihood and passion for these shop proprietors, who do what they do because they enjoy it. For how much of the market exists online, there will always be that particular person who prefers to walk into a proper store to find music.
“The record collector type can’t stay out of a record store,” Boyle says. “Come in and let the records find you.”