Making It

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, February 25, 2007

When Sam Lock met his wife, Chris, in Cleveland, he was a roadie with long dreadlocks and torn jeans who would earn the nickname "Ragtag" from his future in-laws. A British native touring the United States with an indie group called the Swans, Sam says he fell in love with the country: "How big it was, how easy everything seemed. If people wanted something, they just got it. It just seems like the land of plenty."

Sixteen years later, that first impression turned out to be right on the mark for Sam, who now owns five D.C. area used-record stores, where folks come to buy and sell records, tapes, CDs, DVDs and games. "This is a country where, if you're willing to work hard, you can get so further ahead than anywhere I've been," he says.

After meeting in 1991, Sam and Chris traveled around Europe together and visited each other on visas before they decided to marry and settle in Cleveland. Chris pursued a master's degree in English, and Sam found a job clerking at a used-record store called the Record Exchange, making $4.15 an hour.

At first, Sam, 39, considered his record-store position a temporary thing. But he kept moving up at the chain, which was renamed the CD/Game Exchange, and eventually became a manager. Employees who were "loyal and had worked hard in Cleveland had the opportunity to go out to new markets and open stores," Sam says. So he and Chris moved to Washington, which seemed like a good growth area and would allow them to easily visit family in Ohio or England. Sam established the first store in Tenleytown in 1997, then opened locations in College Park, Silver Spring, Adams Morgan and Rockville.

When the parent company ran into financial difficulties, Sam and Chris used equity from their Laytonsville home and a couple of investment condos to purchase the five D.C. area stores, now called cd.gamexchange, in August 2005.

"Real estate is the key, and I don't really think I'm a real estate guru. I've just been lucky," says Sam, who notes that the couple was fortunate to move to the region in time for the run-up in home prices.

In 2005, the stores grossed $1.7 million in sales, he says. Last year, it was $1.8 million. The stores are doing well enough to provide him and Chris a comfortable life with their four children and allow Chris to home-school the kids. For now, Sam says, any profit goes back into merchandise and investing in new ideas, such as selling snacks or serving as a Tickets.com agent. "We make $1 a ticket, but it brings people in," he says. Because the stores need trades to prosper, getting a wide demographic in the door is key.

That's not as easy as it used to be, now that people can buy CDs from online retailers or download individual songs. The new competition has affected the large chains, such as the bankrupt Tower Records, but, being smaller, Sam says, "we can adapt and change a lot faster than they could." Among his ideas are adding coffee bars at a couple of stores and hosting open mike nights at Tenleytown.

Sam thinks there is still a market for CDs, noting that they have better sound quality than downloaded files and that not all music is available on sites such as iTunes. For now, he says, cd.gamexchange is in good shape. "If we can ride the wave of our competition, which is slowly disappearing, we'll be the only place left to get a CD."

How have you decided to spend a windfall or inheritance? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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