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Out of the groove

Are mom & pop record shops an archaic idea, or can niche-carving fanaticism and community spirit save them?

Neptune Records: Closing at the end of May.
Brad Hales at Peoples Records.
Fifty years of Dearborn Music: Rick Leannais looks to be happy.
Windy and Carl at Stormy Records.
photos by Doug Coombe
A mirthful Mellow at Melodies and Memories.
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Published 5/10/2006

Mellow is an odd dude, a savant of sorts. He's thickset with deep, dark eyes and is, on one hand, a bit slow on the uptake. But on the other hand, he's sharp as an audiophile's needle-drop, sassy even, and can quickly rattle off the day, month and year of any star's birth or death you throw at him. If you give him your DOB, in fact, he will, in seconds, tell you the day on which you were born. He never misses.

Mellow's one of the jovial inmates at Melodies and Memories Records on Gratiot in Eastpointe, a store regular who rides the bus in from his southwest Detroit home two or three days a week, even on the bitter cold ones, to hang and shoot the shit, watch a music DVD, listen to soul or R&B sides, or, perhaps, spin his faves, the Go-Gos or Herb Alpert. He's one of a cast of characters here that could've found a home in the pages of High Fidelity.

At Memories today are owner Dan Zieja, manager Gary Koral and veritable music encyclopedia Bob Koski, one of a few other staffers. They're unaffected middle-aged guys upholding an idea of "community" here — that fading idea of human interaction and exchange that's evaporating at an alarming rate in all corners of our culture.

The store is a kind of museum, a peek at what once was and a dusty pop-culture one-stop that marches on, run by a "couple of Polacks" in touch with their inner-boy who are seemingly more concerned about their leaky roof than any death of any record retail store. They don't advertise either. That money was sunk long ago into stocking the store. Its selection is impressive, its clientele earned by word-of-mouth.

The interior of the two-decades-old shop gives the impression of a fairly concise human interpretation of a rabbit's den, or Peter Pan's dream basement. There's a musty looseness; rooms lead to other rooms, some nearly secret, such as the "folk room" in the back of one side of the store. There are more than 50,000 separate titles on CD here covering seemingly every genre ever invented, and as many or more on vinyl. It seems store employees have never bothered counting the 45s and 8-tracks stored somewhat neatly in boxes beneath the CD bins throughout the place. Want the Best of the Ukulele? That's here. The 12-CD Bear Family box set of Hank Thompson? It's there on a shelf with dozens of other limited-edition box sets. That rare and limited Count Bishops disc? Yep. The Coltrane section alone stretches maybe two or three arm's lengths. Motown has its own section, bins stuffed back-to-front with countless CD titles. There are 2,300 vintage lunch boxes on display along walls or strung over bins in the various rooms; it's the world's largest, store owner Zieja says, missing maybe 10 metal boxes total from all those manufactured. Thousands of rare 45 picture sleeves and album jackets, box sets and music artifacts devour every square inch of wall space. Stars — from ?uestlove to Al Kooper — have signed its walls; tales of Eminem stapling up show fliers with girlfriend Kim are not forgotten; and the pole affixed with album and CD jacket stickers from a good 30 local stores that've bitten the dust in the last 10 years isn't some kind of store boast. It's a sad, telling fact.

It's telling because, in Detroit and across the country, the number of record store closures is unsettling — scary even. In 2000, the country boasted 3,800 indie and 3,500 chain record stores ("chain" totals inlcude bookstore hybrids like Borders). Today there's roughly 1,300 less of each, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a California-based market research group. And we've lost about half of all indie record stores in the last decade. In greater Detroit — this weird, island-like area that, as history has taught us, is the unheralded pop music capital of the world — we've seen dozens of indie and chain record stores evaporate since 2000: various Desirable Disc and Repeat the Beat locations, Rockbox, Record Exchange, Coachman's, Tower, Fun House, 21 Harmony House locations (the one remaining Harmony House is now an f.y.e. store). And that's not including the closure of big-box stores that sold music, such as numerous Kmarts and Media Play locations. Minnesota-based Musicland Holding Corp. shut down its 226 Sam Goody locations this year. Royal Oak's Neptune is closing up shop at the end of this month because of waning sales. Its boutique cache of Euro techno, Kraut rock and sundry eclectic titles will be sorely missed.

Some Detroit-area stores hang on, depending on established niches for continued existence — including Hot Hits (Roseville), the Record Collector (Ferndale), Buy Rite (Detroit), Rock-a-Billy's (Utica), Rock of Ages (Garden City), Car City (St. Clair Shores), Dearborn Music (Dearborn, Canton), Flipside (Clawson), Tonya's (Detroit), Street Corner (Beverly Hills), Stormy (Dearborn), Peoples (Detroit), Record Graveyard (Hamtramck), Switched On (Novi), Damon's (Detroit) and a shrinking number of others.

Since Jan. 1 this year, 378 chain or indie stores have closed countrywide, says Clark Benson, the CEO and founder of Almighty Institute of Music Retail. "Generally, the first quarter of the year is when you'll find a lot of stores closing their doors if the year prior wasn't any good. And last year was definitely a really rough year for music retail in general. The entire year of 2005 we had 106 stores close. But 2004 wasn't a bad year; retail wasn't down at all."

For the walk-in indie music retailer, the competition is fierce. There are the online shopping sources, such as amazon.com, which, as the company says, is doing all it can to make its site your good old-fashioned "corner store." There's Web technology too: online file trading, MP3 player-fueled legal download sites numbering in the hundreds, and free songs available a click away. And consider the mass merchants and big-box chains, the Kmarts, Best Buys, Wal-Marts and Meijers that offer CDs cheap, often below cost. There's the disposability factor in new releases, particularly in hip hop — where an artist's catalog doesn't exist; unless it's old-school like Public Enemy, the shelf life is brief. And kids and consumers have a glut of media options now too, with video games, home theater, computer technology, blogging, ringtones and so on. True music fans — those who still care about music beyond what's in the Top 40 — still exist, store owners say, but they seem to be a dying breed.

"First we were attacked by those big-boxes where they were using CDs as a loss leader because they know that if you develop buying patterns, you'll be loyal to them for appliances and electronics, hopefully," says Mike Hines, owner of the two Record Time locations in Roseville and Ferndale. "Then we got attacked by technology, the Napsters and the Kaazas and the other file-sharing sites that came along. People had a bad taste in their mouths, and music was too high-priced anyway. It wasn't album-driven anymore. Radio was giving you less choice," he pauses, then he adds, laughing, "you combine all those facts and here we are trying to sell music and people aren't biting anymore."

If Hines sounds jaded, he's not, really. He's more of a cockeyed optimist who shields deeper anxiety with kidlike exuberance and laughter, aided by a business acumen born of owning record stores since 1983, and introducing kids and DJs to new music. He's optimistic, despite watching his business — which sells new and used vinyl and CDs, DVD movies and other music-culture accoutrements — drop "30 or 35 percent" in recent years.

"Music is kind of like Coca-Cola; you can get it about anywhere," Hines continues. "You can get it at the gas station. You can get it at a fountain. You can get it at Costco if you want to buy it by the case. You can get it at the record store. You can download it, or you can get it at one of the big stores while you're buying your deodorant with your CDs to burn music on."

Song downloading, according to Neilsen SoundScan — the information system that tracks sales of music and music video products — last year saw a 150 percent increase over 2004 digital song sales in this country, or 332.7 million legal downloads. And now, 10 million tracks are downloaded weekly, 50 percent more than this time last year. An average of 500,000 albums are downloaded weekly — up almost 120 percent from last spring. These numbers ring somewhat hollow for music retailers because actual hard copy album sales, which continue to drive the music biz, decreased by almost 9 percent, from 661.2 million in 2004 to 602.7 million in 2005. Year-to-date hard copy album sales are down from 2005 by a small percentage. The download revenues are lifting the industry out of its overall slump.

Keep in mind that these are SoundScan point-of-sale numbers and not all indie stores have SoundScan equipment; most of the independent stores contacted for this article don't. And used CDs and LPs aren't counted. Nor are illegal downloads. What's more, these numbers can't reflect those albums most indie bands and artists sell on the road, or rappers selling their label's releases out of Mom's basement. Nonetheless, SoundScan is a good macro stat to gauge the health of an industry where more than 90 percent of consumers purchase hard copy albums.

With no manufacturing or distribution costs, online digital retail is easy for an unheard-of artist or record company. But forget about a sense of human interaction; downloading is about closing oneself into the lonesome experience of collecting music off the Internet. These inferior-quality songs (MP3 compression spoils the sonic beauty of music) exist only in a digital file and are, essentially, invisible. Sound quality issues aside, there's a disconnect — no actual hard copy, no context of time and place, nothing for collectors or for a music fan to pull off a shelf like a book and dig the cover art, liners and credits while the music is playing. With downloads, there's nothing that can be touched or smelled, and there's no sense of ownership. The music becomes undersized; inconsequential and disposable, easily erased with a flick of the mouse, or passed like yesterday's burrito.

Gary Koral at Melodies and Memories says he could care less what people do with sound files. "When people come in here and talk to me about downloading, I say, 'Why are you talking to me? You're wasting valuable downloading time.'"

"One of the biggest things we've noticed is younger people don't have much regard for sound quality," says Windy Weber, who owns Stormy Records in Dearborn with her husband Carl. Stormy is a comfy den on Michigan Avenue that recalls the classic dusty used shop of yore; found furniture, bargain bins, racks of new and used, scads of jazz, soul, rock and indie vinyl and CDs. It's an aural equivalent to the corner old-man bar — by design, it's a place to go and hang, converse about music, politics, art or whatever blows your skirt up. You could crack a beer here and nobody would give a shit. Try that while scanning CD racks at Target. But on the day we're here, a Wednesday at 2 p.m., we're informed in not the happiest of tones that we're the "first customers" through the door all day.

For 33-year-old Weber, the seven-year-old store's more about community, the larger theme that plays into indie record retail. "One of our customers I've been working with since I was 16," says the woman whose only job in life has been record retail. She knows other regulars well, of their families and jobs and life. "We've ended up with some very good friends who were customers here."

Weber started purchasing records at Woolworth's as a pup and took a Blondie 45 to show in her third-grade classroom. Records are in her blood. "I have huge emotion wrapped up in this," she says, with a slight shrug. Her words about the state of record retail are often bracketed by shrugs, and hints of nostalgia: "I loved going to record stores; it was as important as seeing a band live."

These days, Stormy "employs" two part-timers who are "a couple of friends that come in and work for trade." It's not unusual for Windy and her hubby to hump 60-hour workweeks because, she says, "neither of us wants to work for someone else."

If there was a decisive downturn in Weber's years in retail, she says, it was the "iPod Christmas 2004." She lifts her hand and pulls it down at an angle to make a visual of her store's decline.

"Christmas '04 led to a really down '05," says Almighty's Benson. "When people saw just how iTunes downloads increased, that's what it took for them to see the writing on the wall. But the reality is it's hard to say when things will flatten out and where things will go because we saw some really negative trends in 2003 that leveled off in 2004. So this might be another valley and the worst might be over. The numbers so far are down in 2006, but they're not down as much as they were a year prior. It's hard to say where consumer behavior is going on a truly quantifiable level. You can try to predict it but we've been wrong before."

Though business is limping along, there's a passionate desire to keep Stormy kicking. The store is moving to a smaller Dearborn location soon that sidles up to a comic book shop, which offers the benefit of a cross-pollination of customers, among other things. And, for survival, a good portion of Stormy's business is done online. Their shop — like other local retailers such as Record Collector, Car City, Peoples and Record Graveyard — doubles as a kind of purchase counter for used records that are sold online. Online sales, particularly through Amazon and eBay, are now key to the success of indie retail. Staffers at Encore Recordings in Ann Arbor say they might be out of work if not for the Internet.

But, as many store owners explain, as much as online sales can be key to survival, it's getting competitive. Rare vinyl, even out-of-print CDs, found everywhere from estate sales to pawn shops, are hot commodities for the savvy online "dealer" out to turn a buck on eBay.

"With eBay, there are many people who can deal without the overhead of having a store or employees," says Brad Hales, owner of Peoples Records in Detroit. "That makes the game a lot harder for us. I think the thing that's getting harder is that we're only a secondhand shop. There's only a finite number of records out there that haven't been discovered. I have a real passion for music so I don't mind working really hard at it. We're in no danger of going anywhere. Things are going well. It's definitely a struggle, but a fun one."

Peoples was founded in 2003 on deep-rooted music fandom and sweat. Theirs is more than a devoted customer base — some of whom they see every day — it's more like a devoted fan base. Hard-to-find country, jazz, R&B and soul records from Detroit and everywhere entertain bin-diving tourists and their dollars from the UK and Japan. Vintage vinyl is Peoples' market cubbyhole, which sees zero competition from the mass merchandise stores. And Peoples contributes to the greater good and quality of life in inner-city Detroit with this old-fashioned idea of area unity and, again, community. Old Detroit musicians, such as soul-shouter Cody Black, come in to talk and reminisce. "Another one is Nathaniel Mayer," Hales says, referring to the Fortune label R&B singer who had his big hit in 1962. "I've given him all his old records back. We find that most old artists don't have copies of their stuff anymore because of the lifestyles that musicians lead and all the changes they go through."

The small Cass Corridor store opened in 2003, and employs two full-time and two part-time employees. But Hales certainly isn't padding any bank account; his profits go directly back into the store. "I'm not living high on the hog, but I'm able to pay my way in order to keep the store open."

Hamtramck's Record Graveyard — whose owner Jeff Garbus was partnered for years in the Desirable Disc stores — is, in a way, similar: huge amounts of vinyl but with collectibles, magazines and what-not. He sees Asian shoppers, out-of-town bands on tour and vinyl fan bin-divers. His is a niche he's contented with, but he says he'd probably be gone too if not for the Internet.

What about shopper loyalty? "There's no loyalty these days," Garbus says flatly. "Detroiters are paid by the hour. But I'm not worried. People will always want records."

Stormy's Weber has seen high school kid record buyers grow up, join bands and then come in and sell their band's music in the store. But even that hint of loyalty is disappearing. "We sold a ton of stuff to a ton of kids," she says, her voice rising. "They don't come in anymore. Where do people in bands buy their music?"

The Troy-based Handleman Company is one of the biggest suppliers of music — to such large retailers as Wal-Mart and Kmart — in the country. Handleman services a third of all American Wal-Marts, as well as those in Canada and the UK. Such stores have continued to grab market share in an overall market that's declining. Mass merchants controlled an eye-popping 40 percent of retail recorded music in 2005. Handleman's overall share was nearly 26 percent last year.

Best Buy dealt another blow to the indie retailer when it stepped up its independent label category, which Handleman manages. Gary Mize, a Handleman spokesman, says the company's demographic research allows the stores to stock accordingly. So a Best Buy's indie inventory in Salt Lake City would vary from the same store in Southfield.

"Each store would have a different demographic of the consumer," Maze says. "For example, the hottest grossing music right now is Latin, so it would be about identifying where the Latin consumers are."

When queried about what Handleman thinks of the troubled climate for indie stores, Haze pauses. Then he says, impassively, "Any weekend you can see new releases for under $10. It's a traffic builder for the retailer. And the mass merchants provide value to the consumers."

But for indie stores, used vinyl and CDs is where the dough is. A shop can make upward of $5, maybe $7, on a used CD. An indie store might make $3 on a new disc. Stores like Best Buy, for example, can afford to undersell the indie by huge margins (often below cost for an individual CD) on new releases, which are, to the corporate behemoth, loss leaders. And major labels often pump marketing lucre into the store — for promo placement; circulars, end-caps, etc. — which can offset the reduced prices.

"When the new Cat Power came out, Best Buy had it for $7.99," Weber says. "We can't compete with that. We should have sold 15 that first week, and we haven't sold a single CD."

It's this formula that helped finish off Wendell's Music.

When Lee Rosenbloom opened Wendell's seven years ago he had no idea the record retail marketplace would bottom out. He had no choice but to shut his doors last fall.

"I had loyal clientele, but it wasn't enough to keep the business," Rosenbloom says. "It's so tough for an indie record store. It got so bad that I couldn't pay myself. I don't know how Record Time does it."

Rosenbloom, who is a huge fan of music, a self-described "music junkie" and a regular at area club shows, wanted a community-minded store for local, national and international music. He's done his time in record retail, was a partner in Royal Oak's deceased Off the Record in the 1990s. But a long-term run for Wendell's wasn't in the cards, even with a killer foot-traffic locale on Washington in Royal Oak, where kids with cash amble by daily. He began to rely solely on the loyal customers — fans of indie rock and hard-to-find rock imports as well as import pop magazines — a group whose size was dwindling. He could barely pay his few employees. One day he just said, "Fuck it." His lifelong dream gig as a shop owner was over.

"One day last September, I woke up and I didn't want to do it anymore," he says. "It got too tough." He pauses, takes a breath and says, "It's funny, my landlord even offered to lower my rent."

After closing, Rosenbloom moved much of his leftover stock to Young Soul Rebels Records and Tapes in Detroit. The move was fraught with sad irony: "A month or two later I had to go get all my stuff because Young Soul Rebels closed."

Young Soul Rebels was started by Dion Fischer and Dave Buick, two pals who'd toured together in bands. They were keen on opening a record store that resembled the good ones they'd hit while on the road.

"There was no place like those, like what we wanted in the city," Fischer says. Young Soul kick-started with much hoopla on July 4, 2003, in a prime spot near Wayne State in the Majestic complex, and specialized in vintage rock 'n' roll vinyl. It died last fall.

"The day we opened we had 250 people show up," he says, "and we kept up the quality of records, but they didn't come back. The first year was not bad. We paid ourselves a little bit. Paid all the bills, pretty much no problem."

Buick and Fischer made a point to lure and develop a loyal customer base that, alongside the Wayne State kids, should exist in a town like Detroit.

The idea backfired. The students didn't show, and neither did the local music fans.

It would be an understatement to say that Fischer was disappointed in the overall mindset of the kids. Where was their sense of discovery?

"When I was kid and I heard that Sonic Youth was into Sun Ra, I was like, 'What's this Sun Ra all about?' I feel like, but I could be wrong, that kids aren't like they used to be. 'You love the White Stripes? Well, you should be looking for Blind Willie McTell records. ...' That's how I ended up with a 5,000-LP collection: 'Oh this is what influenced that? I gotta hear that.' I don't really see that with 'the resurgence of popular music that doesn't suck' — not that there was much of it, but, look, the Strokes don't suck. That should've inspired a whole generation of record-collector nerds." After a short pause, he adds, laughing, "Aw, it might just be Detroit. I think that store was so nerdy that it almost would've worked better in a New York or L.A. I don't know what our niche was. ... Maybe that's what our problem was."

Bob Setlick has owned the storied Car City Records in St. Clair Shores for 16 years, which he purchased from Peter Dale, who now runs Ann Arbor's Encore Recordings. The wealth of used vinyl and CDs and obscure imports here is substantial. Setlick's store, like Peoples, is an anomaly — his last few years have actually been good.

His means of keeping afloat are simple: "You just had to realign what you were doing. You had to thin out your staff a little bit, cut your overhead. Or maybe we just got lucky. But there's ways that you try to hold your cost down. You keep aggressively trying to buy good quality used. I would agree the walk-in business would be down, but we've hung in there with the reliable, steady customers. And then, like any store to survive, there's the Internet. The Internet takes away, but it also gives back. I haven't sat down and figured out what percentage of our business is over the Internet, but I'm guessing maybe 20-25 percent. We've used that more. Our cash situation is better now than it was three or four years ago."

Nearly all the store owners interviewed agreed that to stay afloat they must stock deep catalog that the big-box stores can't touch, give people an actual atmosphere and a well-versed staff, and nurture the loyal customers. "If you know what you're doing," says Zieja from Memories, "there's no reason to go out of business."

Bruce Springsteen's version of "We Shall Overcome" plays over the sound system at Dearborn Music on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn. There's a handful of middle-aged shoppers, a couple punk rock kids with bored girlfriends, and a few snow-haired guys flipping through classical CDs.

There's no stale breath of executive attitudes here, and no stuffy-shirted kid with a mandatory smile that barely conceals what little interest he has in you while asking if you "need help finding anything." The store has millions of dollars invested in its stock, which includes T-shirts, DVDs and action figures. From its jazz and rap to its rock 'n' roll and indie, the choices outweigh any Borders or Best Buy. It's clean, organized at right angles. There are show fliers on counters manned by people who know and love music — some who've worked here more than 10 years.

The store is owned by Rick Leannais, who, along with his brother Kevin, purchased this store and the one in Canton from their father "four or five years ago." It's the archetypal indie store, family-owned, an integral part of the Dearborn community.

Leannais, who has his own family, has had no reason to lay off any of his 23 full- or part-time employees. "Not yet," he says, half-mockingly.

The shop's best years came in the late-'80s and early-'90s CD-boom time, before the mass merchandisers moved in. "At one point we counted 12 or 13 stores in a five-mile radius, including Best Buy, Borders and Kmart." Leannais says, ruefully. "Now there's less than five."

Dearborn Music is celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year. That's 50 years. But will it hit 60?

"If [the record store industry] lasts 10 or 12 more years, you have to ask yourself, 'What are you going to do?' I have six employees with 10 or more years' experience. You worry about that. What are they going to do?"

He shakes his head slightly, smiles, and adds, "I'm almost 40. I might have to go out and find a real job."

Brian Smith is Metro Times features editor. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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