Your local independent record store is in danger. Weakening sales, the proliferation of digital downloads and the general apathy of the local record-shopping public are squeezing the fragile industry toward a breaking point. The gradual downturn has already claimed a Triangle victim: Durham’s Radio Free Records will close its doors for good on July 31.

Owner Ethan Samsky recently arrived at the tough decision, coming three years after he relocated his San Jose store, which he operated for four years, to its current Hillsborough Road home. He and his wife chose the Triangle for its famously strong local music scene, since Radio Free specialized in the DIY/college end of the record spectrum. The brick building, a former frame shop, is regaled in posters and paraphernalia, from funky concert playbills to classic vintage album covers. It’s a love letter to independent music, a playpen for anyone on the prowl for just-below-the-radar gold. But three years into his Durham venture, Samsky says it hasn’t worked out. “I’m losing money, and I just have other priorities I need to take care of,” he says. “I worked hard for the last six years doing this store, I worked really hard and it’s not working. It’s both a personal and financial decision.” A serious theft at the uninsured store last summer, when over 4,300 records were taken, didn’t help matters. Samsky says he has no plans as of yet to reopen at any location.

Ric Culross, general manager of all the independent Schoolkids Records locations (Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Cary and Athens, Ga.), understands some of the business challenges Samsky has experienced. “I think that the demise of their store has a lot to do with the way that the business is now, rather than how it was 10 years ago,” he says. “The actual value that people place on music these days, I believe, is far less than what it once was. I’ve been in the business for 28 years. When I was a student in college, the hippest place to go in town was the music store. We had bars and clubs, but it was the music stores that kept people going. I think that getting it free has lowered the value of music in people’s lives. It’s a very personal thing. I think if you were offered free beer, each time you went into a restaurant, at that point you’d find less value in a drink, and you wouldn’t pay for beer if you had to.”

National music sales have dropped in the last half-decade, prices have gone up and store inventories have gone down–in both independent and larger chain stores. To combat sagging sales, many stores have begun to order fewer diverse genres and releases, relying instead on Top 40 and major sellers. Some have even resorted to literally shrinking their store (to the dismay of regular customers), such as Durham’s Millennium Music, which recently downsized listening stations, its classical section and others in lieu of a smaller inventory, and to make room for more DVDs–a lucrative market into which most all music stores have had to expand, part of the never-ending struggle to drum up more profit. In addition to free file-swapping, major labels are beginning to sell music downloads straight to consumers to cut out the share that middle men, like independent record stores, normally earn.

But in addition to the digital disease, local independent record stores have had to combat giant chains more and more. “The true stores in the area, I’m afraid, are Best Buy and Barnes & Noble,” Culross says. “We get a good amount of people, but if you look at the number Wal-Mart sells in regards to what we sell, it’s ridiculous. If you shop there you’re awash in someone else’s censorship,” he continues. “We believe that the majority of music buyers believe that’s all that’s out there. I can’t tell you how many times people walk in our store and say, ‘We never knew you were here.’ We’ve been here 25 years.”

When Radio Free Records closes shop at the end of the month, Durham will be without an independent, non-chain record store to call its own. (Millenium Music is headquartered in Charleston, S.C., and has five stores on its roster, including its Durham location.) Schoolkids closed its own Durham store last year, but Culross says the reason was actually that the owner of its Ninth Street space dramatically raised the lease’s rent, with neither business nor taxes increasing as well. Culross calls it a ridiculous situation, and adds that he’s actively looking for a new location in Durham–which he says is a prime spot, and will be a huge vacuum come July 31.

Some thought that the closing of the Ninth Street Schoolkids would boost Radio Free Records’ business, but Culross says that when a competing record store closes, it doesn’t automatically benefit the remaining stores at all. If anything, there’s no change in a surviving store’s business. “We have to work harder every time a store closes,” he says. “The last thing a store wants is to see a competing store go out of business. People perceive that there are less places to buy, so they may go to a Best Buy or a Target rather than a true record store. The infrequent shopper, buying five to 19 discs a year, they’re now more apt to start buying at a big chain.”

It’s not just the records stores that have to work harder, but also the local artists who sell albums there. Bob Pence, of local band Defenestrator, which carries a few of its discs at Radio Free and other independent stores, says carrying albums there makes it easier for fans to find them, especially new fans who catch a song on WXYC or WXDU. Pence adjusts to losing stores as other local acts do, by hawking discs himself. “I just don’t rely on selling them in stores at all,” he says. “I have to sell more at my shows than at record stores.” Culross predicts that, more and more, bands will have to find those other means of getting music to the masses.

Independent music stores’ futures are troubled, but not doomed. Shoppers will always want to leave the house, and the sheer diversity of an independent store will likely maintain its appeal, however limited. But Culross says he’s already ordering fewer and fewer major releases, and he expects that independent stores may eventually be nearly completely divorced from major labels. With companies like Clear Channel controlling radio stations, ticket-vendors and venues, and selling package deals in major chains, the independents will face a fight to keep the customers coming.

For Radio Free Records, the struggle is soon to end, an unfortunate turn of events for Samsky and his aficionado clientele. “I think it’s a great place,” Pence says. “I think Radio Free has a great variety, and they definitely have a lot of crazy stuff, especially vinyl. Usually when I go to Radio Free, which tends to be once a month, I end up buying something–and see lots of other stuff I’d like to have.” But after July 31, Pence and other regulars of the beloved store will have to take their business elsewhere. “It’s practically obscene that something like [Radio Free Records] can’t be supported by the record-shopping public,” Pence says.

Non-regular visitors to Radio Free, before the end of the month, should look for the modest brick building and note the hand-painted, warm welcome sign. That’s just the kind of worthwhile human touch to music retail that’s slowly becoming seriously endangered. EndBlock