Patrick McKenna doesn't remember the last time he took a vacation.
He knows that he and his wife, Amy, visited Wrightsville Beach on the North Carolina coast for three days and two nights. They had a good time, he confirms. But he's no longer certain if they made the trip two or three years ago.
"I'm not sure you could call that a major vacation," McKenna softly says, offering a diffident smile. "But before that, I don't remember anything. It's been 11 years since we've had a real vacation."
But later this year, the McKennas hope to return to the beach, though this will be a bittersweet retreat: After more than a decade owning and operating Offbeat Music in Durham's Brightleaf Square, the couple will close the store at the end of February and strive to sell any remaining inventory online. McKenna, 59, says he might not miss the 60-hour workweeks and that he looks forward to getting out of town, but the end of Offbeat also means that the shopping center will be without a music retailer for the first time in a quarter-century. McKenna used to work in the chain shops that sat at the complex's corner.
"I wish we could stay," he says, his voice suddenly jumping in pitch. "I feel bad about being the guy that, after CD Superstore and Millennium Music and then us, ends that run. It's sad."
- Photo by Justin Cook
As profit margins in the music business have decreased, rent in downtown Durham, particularly in this sprawling brick complex, has steadily risen. When McKenna renewed his lease in 2012, he knew the two-year extension would likely be his last. He just didn't expect finding a new, smaller retail space would be so costly that he'd have to close altogether.
"Amy and I spent the last six or eight months looking for another location, but we didn't find anything. We would happily stay in business. We want to stay in Durham," he says. "We haven't completely given up, but I just don't know."
Given general trends in the music industry during the last two decades, another closing record store might not seem like news. During that span, online retailers, piracy, streaming and downloads whittled away the demand for physical copies of music, which, in turn, reduced the need for brick-and-mortar outlets of so much merchandise. An oft-cited 2008 study by the Almighty Institute of Music Retail reported that 3,100 such stores had closed since 2003.
The subsequent economic downturn didn't help. In the summer of 2009, the last of America's gargantuan Virgin Megastores liquidated all its stock, while the popular regional chain Plan 9 filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Locally, as shopping centers and strip malls discarded their stores, area standbys like The Record Exchange and Schoolkids shrunk from a half-dozen outlets to one or none at all.
In recent years, though, those once-damning trends have leveled and somewhat reversed, perhaps even inching from stability to profitability for music retailers willing to invest in a resurgent vinyl market and to focus on their inventory by limiting it. Record Store Day has become something of a national holiday for music collectors, and new record-pressing plants are opening for business even as another began refusing new customers last month because they were simply too busy to keep up.
Even when Offbeat closes later this year, the Triangle can claim six independent record stores that sell both new and used stock, plus a host of antique stores, head shops and second-hand-only retailers.
Those half-dozen stores unanimously agree that their profits are now sustainable and that their inventory is growing. They all worry about rising rent in their own bustling corners of the Triangle, and they fret over the inflated cost of records. They wonder, too, whether or not the surging vinyl market is a bubble that might burst. But two of them freely talk about expanding into new locations. No one talks about merely surviving.
McKenna and Offbeat, then, seem to be an exception that points out an unspoken rule: Despite continued gloom in the music industry, Triangle music emporiums are in the midst of a relative heyday.
"We've already seen the bottom. We've seen the worst," says Chaz Martenstein, who owns Durham's other primary music store, Bull City Records. "To me, this is an exciting time, and that's why we're all energized."
One of the very first things that we did when we bought the store was immediately invest in new stock," says Brian Shaw.
Alongside his old high-school friend Enoch Marchant, Shaw purchased Nice Price Books and Records on Raleigh's Hillsborough Street in October 2013. Shaw and Marchant had both worked at the store for several years and slowly convinced the previous owner to spend a few hundred dollars at a time on new vinyl. Each time they recouped those small sums, they'd ask to do it again.
- Photo by Justin Cook
- Meanwhile, in Raleigh, Nice Price Books' Brian Shaw and Enoch Marchant and Schoolkids' Stephen Judge say business is now thriving.
When they purchased the store, they no longer needed permission. It's been less than 18 months since they took over, but they've already made substantial changes by reconfiguring the layout so as to host rock shows, to serve as an after-hours recording studio and to limit the amount of dusty, old inventory that lurks for years in used bins. In turn, the mass of new records instantly grew by 500 percent and, as of January 2015, 900 percent.
That swell of stock—and traffic inside the store—hasn't stopped.
"More people are coming in and buying their first records," Marchant says. "And people who gave up on records now seem reenergized."
That growth comes in spite of what might be seen as increased competition for record sales in Raleigh. Only two years ago, Schoolkids Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014, was the only capital city store with a large amount of new stock. Now, though, between Nice Price's renaissance and the opening of the punk-centric Sorry State Records on Morgan Street, three shops operate within a few square miles. But they seem to have found, at least for now, a largely symbiotic relationship. Apart from its large used inventory and high wooden shelves of books, Nice Price loosely specializes in new indie rock and old soul and country—its corner of a surprisingly crowded market.
Across N.C. State's campus, in a three-store outpost at the Mission Valley Shopping Center, Schoolkids has persevered as the city's general-interest record store a year after leaving Hillsborough Street for the first time in four decades.
Owner Stephen Judge was initially leery of the move. He worried that old customers wouldn't find him and that N.C. State students simply might not notice him on that side of school, despite the addition of a six-tap bar and a series of regular in-store concerts.
- Photo by Justin Cook
- Schoolkids' Stephen Judge
At first, that fear seemed prescient: First-quarter sales in 2014 sagged 20 percent compared to the same period in 2013. But when Record Store Day arrived in April, his figures suddenly bounded higher than they'd been since he purchased the store in 2012. The summer wasn't slow, either, and new customers arrived. His end-of-year sales statistics actually eclipsed those of the previous term by 8 percent.
Most exciting of all, he says, might be the arrival of fresh clientele—not only the college students who disappeared for a decade but also high-school students who asked parents for a turntable for the holidays.
"In the three years I've owned the store, the biggest growth has been in teenagers. It's a percentage of our sales that's much bigger than it was three years ago. Vinyl is the sole reason," Judge says. He initially worked at Schoolkids from 1990 until 2002 and seems stunned by the about-face.
"The only thing I miss about Hillsborough Street is nostalgia," he says. "We'd been there for 39 years. It's like selling your house."
Judge's lease ends in four years. He worries not that he won't make it that long but that, in the interim, perhaps he'll need more space. He may even open a second shop before that time is up.
Daniel Lupton, the local musician and record label owner who opened Sorry State just as Shaw and Marchant purchased Nice Price, understands those space woes. Housed inside a 550-square-foot storefront in an ostentatious downtown Raleigh condo building, Sorry State fits a lot of records into crowded confines. Still, after this year's Christmas rush, Lupton took advantage of a lull to rearrange the store and bring in even more inventory.
Sorry State's success is perhaps the most noteworthy, considering that it's a niche shop devoted mostly to hardcore, punk and heavy metal. It sits two blocks from the State Capitol in a recently red state.
Sorry State has never sold a CD, either, but Lupton's ability to wrangle high-end collections and sell them to eager audiences is an envy of other area record-store owners. He regularly sells albums for a few hundred dollars each; in early 2014, he moved a test pressing of Slave, a 1988 LP by aggression icons Infest, for $750. And he mostly opts to sell those platters in his store rather than online, working to build a loyal customer base at home rather than be just another username on eBay.
- File photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Daniel Lupton of Sorry State Records
"People who come in the store are the people who are going to come back," he says. "People like seeing those expensive records, and that attracts other records."
Lupton started the store with funds from his label, and he now operates Sorry State in the black. He uses positive cash flow to pay for new records and takes out lines of credit only to manage label logistics. He takes home records but not a salary, opting instead to have a small, dedicated staff and his own steady job teaching at N.C. State. That's the way he wants to keep it.
"I don't think I could resist the temptation to put profits back into the store," Lupton says, laughing. "And there are always more records to order."
Like Sorry State in Raleigh, All Day Records in Carrboro has thrived since 2010 by finding a few specialties and embracing them. Located within Main Street's row of restaurants, bars and tchotchke shops, All Day has become an international hub for electronic music retail. They import albums from around the world and then ship them to shops and individual customers every day.
Co-owner Ethan Clauset estimates that three-quarters of the store's business stems from mail-order. When All Day opened, Clauset expected to sell used rock and experimental LPs to customers in town, but the store responded to the market that demanded it most. He's now looking to either expand into any neighboring space that becomes available or open an offsite annex to handle that aspect of the inventory. Sure, they still sell plenty of rock records and reissues through their storefront, but it's no longer the core of their business.
"Two things that are very apparent now but that weren't then was that we were going to sell mostly new vinyl—I thought we'd do more used records—and that we'd sell mostly house and techno vinyl," Clauset says. "We still carry a lot of other stuff, but that's what's really driven our business and our growth."
Two years ago, Ryan Richardson thought that All Day might become the only remaining music outlet in Orange County. In 2006, he'd purchased CD Alley on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street. Sales slumped and then rose again in 2008 when another Schoolkids Records down the street closed. But in 2012, for reasons he still doesn't understand, sales all but vanished. A dismal Christmas ended a slow year, and he was worried he might not see the next holiday from his preferred side of the counter.
Several months later, Record Store Day helped save him, becoming one of his best sales days ever. The store emerged with renewed vitality. Shelves that once held discs that had sat untouched for years hold more albums. Now, he's delighted to sell lots of classic hip-hop LPs to college students with new turntables.
"I am glad that major retailers are selling vinyl. The more mainstream it goes, the more it will help people like us," Richardson says, speaking of places like Barnes & Noble and Urban Outfitters, which have started to carry LPs. "I don't think we would be here without the growth of vinyl."
Patrick McKenna thought that approach might work at Offbeat, too.
Though he was a CD salesman in the '90s, working in a massive store at the height of the era of shiny discs, he had added a large, eclectic vinyl section of indie rock and country, jazz and folk to Offbeat. His inventory of box sets on wax became one of the most impressive in the Triangle.
Though Offbeat was one of only two area shops to sell much classical music (Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh being the other), McKenna wasn't afraid to update the store's image, either. And for a while, that worked well for Durham. Across town Bull City Records served as his feisty younger brother, resulting in the sort of mutualism that Raleigh's three stores enjoy.
Martenstein opened Bull City Records just a year after McKenna launched Offbeat. Closely tracking the desires of his customers, Martenstein shifted his inventory until, now, he sells vinyl almost exclusively and focuses on raucous rock, wild-eyed experimental music and pastoral folk. Having Offbeat nearby allowed Martenstein to limit his inventory and to point customers to McKenna when it made more sense. Come March, he doesn't know if he will need to adjust his stock to compensate for the loss—not of a competitor, but of an ally.
"In my experience, the more record stores that are in a general area, the more people come and hit all of us, as opposed to hitting one and going home," Martenstein says. "This isn't happening because things aren't selling, and we all know that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Steady spin."