Shopping at Bull City Records requires some degree of intention. Though the store sits just off Ninth Street in Durham, it's perched on the second floor of 1916 Perry St., above Avid Video and CCI Photographics and next to Cosmic Cantina.
The store, in the Perry Street loft since it opened on Nov. 12, 2005, is marked only by the word "Records" printed on the overhang of a small black awning and painted on the two separated halves of a sandwich board, which frame the narrow doorway leading up the flight of old wooden stairs to the record shop. The only reason people walk through the door, says Chaz Martenstein, Bull City's 30-year-old proprietor, is because they love music.
But the level of commitment shopping at Bull City Records demands isn't without its benefits. "Conversations start pretty easy," Martenstein says. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm too talkative, but a lot of my customer base has become friends, regulars, people that I know their tastes when they walk in the door."
Between customer service and an ample supply of nearby music fans, Bull City Records has managed to stay afloat for five years. On Jan. 31, Martenstein mailed the final payment on the small business loan he took to open the shop. On Saturday, he celebrates the occasion by hosting a party at Fullsteam Brewery.
"That's why we scheduled the party for February instead of November," he says. "I wanted to be done with my loan; that's my real celebration."
The dialogue is the core of Bull City Records' success.
"I love going over there because it's always a conversation," says Ben Carr, frontman of Chapel Hill garage trio Last Year's Men. "I don't think there's ever once been a 10-minute trip to Bull City Records. I'll just drive over there and it'll be a four-hour experience. It's just always a good time."
Carr, somewhat famously, spent the twilight of his teens in Bull City Records, sitting on the well-worn couches against the wall doing homework between classes at Durham Technical Community College. Martenstein enjoyed the company, and Carr's open ears. It was the steady diet of Martenstein-curated garage rock, bands like rock 'n' soul heroes Reigning Sound, which inspired the origin of Last Year's Men. "As soon as he started turning me on to his tastes, my tastes kind of grew into the shit he really knew," Carr says. "I started buying a ton of records over there."
Despite having options closer to home, Carr still journeys to Perry Street, from Carrboro, at least weekly, by his own estimation. "[Chaz] has always just been a fuckin' stand-up guy," Carr says. But that's just part of what inspires loyalty in his customers.
"Being a regular at a record store is similar to being a regular at a bar in a lot of ways," says Kyle Miller, co-owner of Durham's Churchkey Records, which released Last Year's Men's debut LP, Sunny Down Snuff. "You see and meet other regulars there, and half of the experience is talking to the guy behind the bar, or counter. Chaz and I talk a lot. He even has to throw me out when it's time to close, sometimes."
In a small independent shop with limited inventory, the customer service isn't just a perk, it's a prerequisite. "Chances are, a lot of times, I'm not going to have exactly what you want in stock, if you came in looking for something specific," Martenstein admits. "But I also know I'm going to have a lot of stuff similar to it, or something new I can turn people onto. The last stand for us record stores is going to be our customer service."
Bull City's regulars (which include yours truly) often compare Martenstein to a bartender, a drug dealer or a pharmacist. Katie Haworth, 30, compares him to a therapist, too. "I'll come in to the store and barf out a bunch about my personal life," she says. "Like, 'It's winter, and I'm going through a breakup. I need something dark,' or like, 'I'm turning 30, help me relive the '90s,' or maybe 'I'm about to drive 12 hours and I need something summery,' and he'll recommend what bands I should check out to fit my mood. Chaz has literally spent hours with me narrowing down what I want to hear and recommending stuff I've never heard of."
Another regular Bull City customer, Nathan McKinney, 33, says, "If (Martenstein) were hawking goat gland transplants, I would buy two. He's made me financially poorer but musically richer. And my vitality is through the roof."
But even with such loyal customers, it's something of a wonder that Bull City Records, or, for that matter, any of the Triangle's five independent record stores, have managed to keep the lights on. They compete for slim margins with used bookstores' shelves of inexpensive secondhand LPs and CDs. They compete with big-box giants selling CDs to consumers at prices below an indie shop's wholesale price. They compete with the Internet. All for only a couple dollars' profit per album sold.
Record stores also face dwindling sales averages, industry-wide. In January the record for the lowest-selling No. 1 album was broken when Cake's Showroom of Compassion scraped the ceiling with a paltry 44,000 units sold in the first week.
The recession, too, impacted record stores. "I don't know how the store stayed open then," Martenstein says. "Good lord."
At Bull City Records, at least, the recession arrived accompanied by a sudden drop in demand for CDs. The demand still hasn't returned. Today, his CD racks are mostly half-full. Vinyl, on the other hand, has started to fill some of the gaps left by CDs' unending slump. "It's very easy to say, 'Hey, look at this limited press with the silver foil and embossed logo on it,'" Martenstein says.
It helps, too, that the genres in which Bull City Records specializes—punk, garage and psychedelic rock—tend to court a record-collecting audience. Nick Williams, 30, plays guitar in Free Electric State, co-owns the Durham bar The Pinhook and buys records from Martenstein. "He always has the best obscure psych records from labels that print approximately one copy of every release," Williams says. "Usually that copy winds up in my hands."
Six local bands (or, in the cases of Des Ark and Megafaun, pared down iterations of them) will play at the store's celebration beginning at 7 p.m. Most have performed in the record store and/or at Bull City Headquarters, the volunteer-run venue and community space Martenstein helped organize. All are friends. Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan played at Bull City Records on its first day of business; Martenstein had begun e-mailing drummer Dave Cantwell months before he moved to Durham in 2005. He and Midtown Dickens' Kym Register were roommates before they worked together, with a handful of local musicians and activists, to launch BCHQ.
Martenstein regularly repays the commitment it takes to find and shop at Bull City Records. In return, it's paid off through the response he and the store receive from the local community.
"If we had a Chaz in every single town in the United States, we'd have a really great country," says Carr. "You don't really need to look at Pitchfork or whatever to see what new music is. You just go in and say 'Hey Chaz, what's good this week?'"