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"I might go really big, with mountains of vinyl, or concentrate on smaller quantities and less categories," said Dave James, talking about his nebulous plans for a new Costa Mesa record store. "I am still messing with a few ideas."
It's a strange time to be thinking about opening an independent record store, isn't it? CD sales are down, downloading is up, and stores big and small—from Costa Mesa vinyl institution Goat Hill Records, which quietly closed in June, to Tower Records, which declared bankruptcy (again) this month—are, in James' own words, "dropping like flies."
And he should know.
In late July, James closed his own Costa Mesa record shop, Noise Noise Noise, a charmingly grimy place for those happy to step (sometimes trip) over boxes of $1 hair metal records for some rare punk gems. He'd been in business for 15 years—the last few of them particularly tough. "The downloaders are really killing the music scene right now," he said, sounding tired of hearing—let alone parroting—the music industry's favorite gripe.
So is James crazy to attempt a comeback in this climate?
"I don't think it's crazy by any means," said Rand Foster, owner of Fingerprints in Long Beach. "I don't know that it's the most sane thing either. But you've been able to say that about opening a record store for as long as there have been record stores."
Foster, who is also on the board of the 70-member Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), believes the oft-told story of "the death of the record store" is an exaggeration. Several high-profile closures—including Rhino Westwood and Aron's Records in LA—have overshadowed the indie stores that remain strong.
"At a time when the industry is hurting the most, we had our best year ever last year," said Foster. He cites in-store performances and product lines like T-shirts, magazines and books with helping to keep his and other stores alive.
"I think, like anything, you need to constantly reinvent yourself," he added. "The stores that are doing that are the stores that are doing well."
Of course, "well" is a relative term. Darren O'Connor, owner of Vinyl Solution in Huntington Beach, agrees that products like T-shirts have helped him stay in business ("Kids would rather buy two different Johnny Thunders T-shirts and not even own the damn record!"), but still adds that it's "a big deal" to have four customers in the store at once these days. "That does not happen that often anymore," he said. "It's pretty rough."
And it's getting harder for indie music shops to sell their main product: music. With big-box retailers and discounters able to sell CDs for lower prices than indie stores can even buy them, smaller shops typically must focus on vinyl to make a profit.
Third Eye Records in Costa Mesa caters to DJs and collectors with its carefully chosen selection of garage, psych, experimental noise and even classical vinyl.
"I don't think we'd have a store if we couldn't carry as much vinyl as we do," said co-owner Gary Farley.
Which is why when James closed Noise Noise Noise, he sold off most of his CDs and almost half his records so that he could concentrate only on high-end vinyl in his next shop.
"For people who like digging through vinyl, they will just have to be patient for a few months and then they will have new stuff to dig through," James said. "I don't have any plans to go away."