The first record store I worked in (and eventually co-owned for a time) was located on a dead-end side street in a nondescript beige building with no signage. It was down a poorly lit hallway and inside a converted 90-square-foot bathroom. A CD hung from the still-protruding showerhead. Random promo materials — whatever a sub-tiny store could glean from tight-fisted distributors — adorned the ceiling and the few wall openings not holding makeshift racks. Boxes filled the floors. The lighting, a single bulb, cast strange shadows. It was hard to turn around.
Despite the oddity of it all, the place was always busy. Customers didn't mind literally rubbing elbows with each other while perusing the always-packed racks. Why shop here when the jumbo chain store was an easy five-block walk away? The answer is simple: atmosphere, knowledge, and a diverse, rotating inventory — some of the key components of a good record store.
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Atmosphere-wise, the shop was full of it. (How many stores ever boasted a showerhead?) Knowledge-wise, just sing a few words, explain a song concept or describe an album cover and we could probably discern what the customer wanted. (And this was pre-Internet, so no Google to the rescue.)
People came to us because we were music geeks, knew our shit, enjoyed what we did, played interesting albums, and most importantly, put customers first. The strategy paid off. The store gradually became one of the largest in the town, still going long after the chain store failed.
Phoenix is well stocked with record stores — more than a dozen when factoring in the multiple locations of a few — but not all stores are created equal. As the seventh annual Record Store Day approaches Saturday, April 19, it got me thinking: What makes a good record store?
Based on personal experience and conversations with vinyl junkies and newbies alike, there doesn't seem to be a single consenting viewpoint — everyone has different likes and dislikes, same as with any business. There is, however, one thing everyone agrees upon: There must be records — lots of records.
"The best records are in places that have lots of records," John Dixon, record collector and Arizona music historian, says simply.
New and used. Bins of 12-inch, 10-inch, and 7-inch LPs, EPs, and singles. Picture discs and picture sleeves. Commons and collectibles. It all needs to be there. As Robrt L. Pela accurately explained in "Back in Black" (March 27), the vinyl resurgence is under way.
Going shopping? Here are some record store attributes worth considering:
Atmosphere: Cold and sterile, or musty and dusty? Every shop has its own vibe. Some customers want the elbow room and bright lights of Zia Records (and all the non-vinyl accessories), while others prefer the confined space of Scottsdale's Record Room. Some shoppers want clean, organized record bins with typed divider cards and sleeved LPs. Others like to get down and dirty, watching fingers turn black from the endless scrolling through dusty album jackets.
"It's like Stinkweeds vs. Revolver. I went into Revolver a couple weeks ago and it looked like a dump," Dixon says. "I don't mind, but it just depends on the buyer. Stinkweeds has done well with everything nice and clean and records in [plastic] sleeves. The style of the store pulls in a different style of customer."
There should also be plenty of "more" to generate a welcoming vibe as well. Walls should be filled with posters, album covers, autographs, instruments, freebies — anything music-related to create a comfort zone.
Good pricing: An incomplete first edition of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is not worth $25. Yet, my exploratory journey of Phoenix record stores produced several such copies. Beatles doesn't equal expensive. Reasonable pricing is key to every record store's success.
"Used records in a store should typically be priced below what they sell for online," says Justin Keefer, a software engineer and avid vinyl collector. With phone apps, it's easy to compare while shopping, too.
True rarities, on the other hand, should be priced accordingly (and displayed on wall racks for added allure). Collectors expect and understand this.
Selection: Good shops constantly rotate inventory. Well-priced albums move fast, have customers purchasing more, and returning to buy — and sell.
"As long as prices are fair, the frequency at which a shop puts out records determines how frequently I visit," Keefer says. "Some shops put out records all day long, and some have the same tired records month after month."
A "new arrivals" bin should be the first thing a customer sees entering the store. Regulars always go here first.
Bargain bin: The bargain bin is essential. This is where those "tired records," and more common titles, reside. It offers customers a powerful lure to try something new, too. Dixon takes delight in digging through the cheapo section. "I might only keep a few, but they were only a buck," he says.
Adds Keefer: "Many records are worthless, but customers should get a crack at them before they get thrown away."
Knowledgeable and friendly: This seems like a given, but just because someone works at a record store doesn't mean they know anything about music. A good record shop requires passionate employees who live for music.
"The vinyl junkies who are working at a record store are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about it, and it shows. There are just certain people you [go] to because they know the music," Dixon says. "Most places, you just walk in the door and it doesn't matter" to whoever's behind the counter.
That said, just because you work in a record store doesn't mean you're cooler than me. No one wants to be treated like they know nothing. Think about how Jack Black's character rudely dismisses potential customers in High Fidelity and you get the idea. Leave the attitude at home, employees.
Keefer notes that employees should instead "be fun to shoot the shit with." Such interactions create a personal bond between store and customer — a budding relationship. A good shop will put "records of interest" aside for the regulars first, he adds, or offer "a nice discount from time to time."
Listening station: Every store should have at least one turntable at the ready for customers, who might spend more if they sample first. No player? The store should offer to play anything on the main speakers without complaint — even Barry Manilow.
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Good music playing: The music playing when the door opens creates that first impression. Shoppers at Asylum expect something harder, while entering the Record Room is a crapshoot: jazz, rockabilly, reggae, '80s pop — almost anything. The point is, what's playing sets the mood. Radio at a record store is a serious no-no, but it happens. Similarly, music that's too loud makes it hard to remember why I'm there.
And, finally, to the smug dude behind the counter playing too-hip-to-be-known-by anyone-else indie-something (you know who you are), remember: You're not alone. Anything goes in a record store, yes, but strike a balance based on customers. (Lose that all-knowing smirk, too!)
"Bad music choices won't necessarily keep me from visiting a store," Keefer says, "but will definitely annoy me."
Ultimately, no store is perfect in every way. Best try them all on for size — a good fit is definitely out there.