Turnarounds Are Tough When You Can Only Go 331/3
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Middle-aged man walks in to price a first-edition vinyl Bob Dylan album. Young woman collects a John Prine LP for her father. Longtime customer and vinyl enthusiast browses the latest rock reissues. And then, in a busy midday hour at Orpheus Records in Clarendon, the phone rings: It's the landlord, and the news is good -- sort of. Orpheus, already displaced from Georgetown in 1999 after a couple of decades there, is still going to lose its storefront on Wilson Boulevard, but the date of execution may be delayed.
Owner Rick Carlisle greets the news with a shake of the head. He is psychologically prepared for the end; a going-out-of-business sale banner is already waving outside. But the daunting task of somehow unloading 120,000 record albums weighs on him.
At some level, he knows it's time. The very concept of a record store is alien to a generation of listeners who obtain music without leaving home. Yet 2007 was Orpheus's best year in the past six or seven, as boomers rediscover the music of their youths ("Their kids are off to college and now the boomers have more time on their hands," Carlisle surmises), and a smattering of young people conclude that vinyl offers a warmer sound and a more fulfilling collector's experience than downloading bytes.
Time and again, the last remaining independent record stores have survived new technologies that were supposed to put them out of business. CDs came along, and still the old shops sold vinyl. Big boxes knocked out national record store chains, and the march of real estate development sent rents soaring, but still a hardy few independents -- about a dozen in the Washington area -- held on.
Now, with CD sales plummeting nationwide, some of the area's few remaining record stores see new opportunities, even as they acknowledge that the end is nigh.
"It would be easier to sell the stock and store if this was still a vibrant business," says Carlisle, the bearded, barefoot, denim-clad music lover who has presided over Orpheus since it opened in Georgetown in 1977, when there were a dozen music stores in that one neighborhood. "If music was still a vibrant part of everybody's disposable income, it might be worth finding a new location. But for a record store to have a real future, you have to sell on the Web, which I don't do."
In downtown Silver Spring at Roadhouse Oldies -- which traffics primarily in CDs of R&B tunes from the '50s to the '70s -- owner Alan Lee has no immediate plans to move. He too faces real estate reality, as his landlord seeks to replace a row of small shops with a full-block office and retail development.
But Lee, who opened on Thayer Avenue in 1974, is adamant that he will stay in business, even if he must move, for at least 10 years. "My goal is to be the last buggy-whip dealer in Washington," he says. "When the big boxes put the big record store chains out of business, that was actually good for us because the big boxes tend not to have deep catalogues. We survive by specializing and offering service."
Overall, business continues to decline because of the Internet, and "our customer base is certainly getting older," but "we're seeing more of the boomer crowd because no one is playing this music on the radio anymore," Lee says. He saw a bump in business especially after the death of oldies radio stations in both Washington and Baltimore (both Lee and store manager Scooter Magruder are former DJs on WQSR in Baltimore and the old Big 100 in Washington, respectively) as customers sought a way to keep listening to the music of their lives.
Roadhouse Oldies and Orpheus share the slightly musty, library-like smell and feel of a used bookstore. At both shops, the clerks are the key to success, pale record fanatics who hold in their minds encyclopedic knowledge of their own stock and a Google-like ability to answer customers' questions.
Better than Google, sometimes: "You can't hum one bit of melody and get the computer to tell you what that song was you just heard," Lee says. "Most times, if you have anything -- a lyric, a tune -- we can figure it out and find you that record."
Neither Carlisle nor Lee cares to sell online; they're in the business in large part because it allowed them to build a social world around music -- personal relationships that they found lacking when they tried Internet sales.
Lee is trying to capture younger customers with two electronic kiosks that let listeners create and burn their own CDs from a collection of more than 200,000 songs. People holding scraps of paper with hand-scrawled lists of favorite tunes line up at the machines; sure, they could do this on their home computers, but here, they have the bonus of being able to ask Lee and his staff for advice.
Carlisle made fewer concessions to the ways young people obtain music. By sticking mainly to vinyl -- the record shelves are stacked five-high through much of the shop -- he has made Orpheus the mecca for those who believe the LP offers the richest reproduction of sound. But while people still come in every day wanting to sell Carlisle their record collections, he foresees a time when records will nearly vanish from the market.
"They're not making any more originals of albums," he says. "Vinyl may disappear as baby boomers disappear. The obvious collectibles will keep growing in value, but the things that don't stand out will be forgotten. As the age group that supported that music goes, so does the market: The '50s collectibles have really lost a lot of their value. Buddy Holly records used to sell as soon as they came in. Now they sit around for a year or two."
Carlisle laments the passing of the rituals of record-playing, "the whole experience of the album cover art and actually expending effort, cleaning the record, discovering the less famous songs on an album."
Even though he may close as soon as April, Carlisle still entertains offers from people who want to sell him their collections. "I buy if it's the right stuff," he says. "I don't want to go the next couple of months without Led Zeppelin records in the store."