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For the record, music played on vinyl is anything but dead
By Thomas Crone - Photo by Thomas Crone
Posted On: 04/30/2006   


The past quarter of a century has seen a dizzying array of
challenges for record retailers, particularly those that stock a full-service line of titles in all genres. And those that sell new and used vinyl are the ones that have particularly been on
the roller coaster.

Cassette tapes came and went, with some impact on the music industry. (And who doesn’t have a few still floating around the basement?) The arrival of CDs dramatically changed the price structure all the way from retailer to consumer. But the last half-dozen years have been an even more vexing time, as national magazines have consistently mused whether music shops could even survive in their current form. Their competitors are mail-order options run directly by independent labels; file-swapping Web sites; the availability of purchases at e-retailers like eBay and Amazon; and the rapid rise of downloadable tracks on everything from your laptop to your cell phone.

Euclid Records, the venerable shop that long called the Central West End home before a move to Webster Groves, has adapted. While Euclid is in its 25th year of operation, May finds another thriving shop with a similar strategy for survival, Vintage Vinyl, approaching its 27th birthday.

Euclid’s owner of 23 years, Joe Schwab, noted that collectors of vinyl albums are still a bread-and-butter part of the shop’s business, with many of those purchases going out in mail order. “Anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of sales is mail order,” said Schwab. “It’s always been around 40 percent, but we’ve really been cranking it up lately. It’s just going to get bigger. We have a pretty tall ceiling when it comes to mail order.”

A good chunk of that business – fully half – is from international buyers. There’s long been a vein of purchasers in Europe and Japan who are particularly collectors of jazz, a staple at Euclid.

Said Schwab: “We sell a lot of European stuff from the 1950s and ’60s, very rare jazz stuff. But we also sell Beatles and Oasis and Kaiser Chiefs, that kind of thing. There’s still a big demand in Europe for American jazz, soul and blues.”

A combination of factors – including the relatively recent move to a larger shop not far from the busy intersection of Big Bend Boulevard and Lockwood Avenue and the continued loyalty of an album-buying base – has allowed Euclid to hang on as other shops have shuttered.

“We expanded at a time that [downloading] was just starting to hit,” said Schwab. “But because of more exposure, better visibility and parking, we actually had an increase in sales of CDs. How much that would’ve been 10 years ago … that would’ve been beaucoup business, a lot better than now. Vinyl is what’s keeping us in business; it makes us viable. But it’s so specialized that you really need to know what you’re buying. … The fact is, 80 percent [of albums] are junk, ready for the dollar bin or the landfill. It’s a matter of knowing that little section, that 20 percent.”

Vinyl has always been a key ingredient in the success of Vintage Vinyl, the two-store local enterprise with one location in Granite City along with the home base in University City.

Vintage Vinyl was founded by Lew Prince and Tom “Papa” Ray; the pair sold albums out of peach crates at Soulard Farmers’
Market – a story that almost seems too good to be true. Eventually, a pair of storefronts in The Loop was home to the operation before it landed in the old Varsity Theatre, 6610 Delmar Blvd., just up the block from its former haunts.

Like Euclid, Vintage Vinyl has expanded into the mail-order business, and it has increasingly stocked other complementary items, such as books, T-shirts, DVDs and magazines.

But what the larger space has allowed Vintage Vinyl is a nice opportunity to position itself against the competition, with bands regularly playing the back of the expansive store. It’s not a true stage; it’s just part of the store’s jazz section. But when the right band plays, the crowds form and snake through the racks of rock CDs and vinyl.

“Creating an atmosphere of being a ‘cultural epicenter’ for the city, as opposed to just another music retail outlet, has helped Vintage Vinyl over the years,” said Jim Utz, Vintage Vinyl’s advertising and promotions manager. “Be it unique in-store performances with touring national bands; CD releases in-store for local musicians of all musical genres; DJ, MC and break dancing competitions; or a series of gospel choir in-stores, Vintage Vinyl has tried to help give musicians and artists of all styles and levels a place in our store besides just a CD on the shelves, and this small approach has helped create a loyalty and a small sense of giving back to the St. Louis music community that has been paid back by our loyal customers thousands-fold.”

In May, Vintage Vinyl will host several in-store appearances, plus an all-afternoon music festival on May 13 outside the store.

Just as intriguing is this digitally based scoop, compliments of Utz, who wrote: “The love of digitally distributed music is not lost on Vintage Vinyl, and [we] knew to continue thriving that we had to create a way for our customers to have the choice to still be our customers even if they wanted their music in a nonphysical form. So the thing Vintage Vinyl is most excited about in our ‘future’ is later this spring, Vintage Vinyl will be launching a digital download service via our Web site that will function much like iTunes does, so people who want their music digitally can still be a loyal Vintage Vinyl shopper as well.”

Some of us, though, will still be digging through the vinyl racks all over town.

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