How To Run A Record Store

Joy Convenience Store “A”

I once happened upon a record shop that was, upon opening the door, a non-stop horrorshow. This isn’t the first craptastic record store I’ve visited (by the way, by record I mean vinyl moreso than CD’s), but it has led me to reflect on the good stores I’ve been to, and what makes them successful.

But first, a brief account of my poor experience at that store. Walking into the store, the first thing I noticed was the reek of tobacco. Not the occasional-cigarette smell, but full-blown chain-smoking-grandma smell. After leaping over boxes of comic books and assorted junk, I’m in the record section. There’s a huge wall of records, and a fair number of boxes littered around the section that I would assume have records as well. It’s dim - there are no lights. Searching through stuff I couldn’t quite read for five minutes, the clerk watching Star Trek first notices me. I couldn’t have been hard to find, since I was the only person in the shop. Spying a Psychic TV remix record with no price tag on it, I ask the clerk the price, with him answering 6 bucks. Fair price, but I was a university student with little cash at the time, so I passed. Going through the records I find that roughly 1 in 30 records have a price sticker. The records aren’t in any discernible order at all.

I struck a conversation with the clerk, who it turns out owns the store (?!). He brags about the amount of records he has (25,000, a number I found dubious), telling me that there used to be an organizational system when he opened the shop seven months ago. Since then, his stock of records exploded (“I’ll probably have twice as much in another 7 months!” he gushed).

Searching for a good 20-25 minutes, I come out with Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” and Gary Numan’s “The Pleasure Principle.” Both look in worse condition than the stuff I get at the Salvation Army for 50 cents. There’s no sticker on either of them, but I figure they shouldn’t be too much. “I’ll give you 3 for the both of them,” I said.

“Heh, they’re not all 3 dollars each,” the owner says. I scratch my head, wondering if he had heard me right. “I’ll give em’ to you five dollars each.” I take the records from him, return them to the shelves, and leave without a word.

This store owner is a clown. He doesn’t know what he’s selling, and had he only been dealing in records (he also sold video games, comic books, and action figurines), he’d have been cooked by then.

Fast forward a year, and I returned to the store. The records are all gone; not a single one left. The owner has liquidated all the records, and he’s using that space in the store to sell video games and comics at ridiculous prices.

The store is now out of business. He could have made a pretty penny off of his vinyl stock, but instead he took a beating for it.

I made a list that a person can apply to their own own record store (this is for vinyl, but can really be applied anywhere):

  • The first five seconds you spend in a store sets the impression of the place. If your store smells disgusting, then it might be worthwhile to remedy that situation. My favourite store burns incense which covers up the musty record smell while simultaneously loosening the grip on my wallet.

  • No one cares how many records you have. What they do care about is A) do you have what they want and B) how do they get to it. Even basic categories (country, rock, classical) can expedite the customers task, and will increase sales of like records. Going through 50 Patsy Cline records to find a single Miami Sound Machine album is pretty stupid. Another way to sort your records is alphabetically. Doing both is a great way to shift product.

  • Take care of the stuff you have. Stop acting like Wal-Mart and start reinforcing your shelves. Those bends in the shelves from all the weight puts pressure on the record grooves, which isn’t kosher. I’ve seen record avalanches because of poor shelving, and that damages the inventory.

  • If there’s not a blanket price, then tag every record. It doesn’t matter if it takes time: it has to be done. While that store owner was watching Star Trek, he could have been pricing a box of records. In one 45 minute episode you can get a good 100 records tagged. There’s no excuse, especially if you’ve been open for 7 months.

  • Have a dollar bin. They’re great for getting rid of merch which is piling up and isn’t selling (hint: stores full of junk don’t often scream “we’ve got decent stuff!"), and alert cheapskates to where the bargains can be had. If a record is torn up to hell and isn’t some rare/exotic/import release, toss it in.

  • Have a record player with headphones, in case someone wants to check out something before buying it. People tend to buy stuff when they have a better idea what it is. If you’re afraid that customers will waste your time or damage equipment, make them put down a non-refundable deposit toward their purchases - it’s free money, and the kind of people who will pay for this are often the high-value impulse shoppers.

  • Unless you’re selling those Star Trek DVD’s, TURN THEM OFF. Learn about the stuff you have. Better yet, play your cool records on the in-store sound system, and watch them fly off the shelves.

  • Have a website. Seriously people, it’s stupid easy these days. You only need three things on your website: your store address, your phone number, and your hours. That’s all a record junky needs to make their way to your store.

Doing these simple things will bring you much more repeat business. The businesses I’ve seen who do these basic things have far better longevity and sales, as well as a coterie of loyal patrons.

One of my favourite stores is Strange Maine, on Congress St. in Portland, ME. They have this formula down, and in turn have a fiercely loyal following. They’re over 5 years old, and are thriving despite the pressure many record stores are feeling. Another good record shop is Sloth Records in Calgary. I highly recommend going to them if you’re ever in the area.