As the full scope of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming clear in March, Chaz Martenstein sat down with the staff at Durham’s Bull City Records to discuss the way forward. With so much unknown about COVID-19, he decided to close. He figured he could manage without regular business for a month or two at most.
“We still don’t know what’s going on, but we definitely didn’t know what was going on then,” Martenstein says more than three months later.
Some types of retailers were well-prepared to pivot online, but the point of independent record shops is that they’re not websites. They sell an experience, not just a product. The tactile and social nature of record shopping is central in its appeal, which almost certainly contributed to the resurgence of vinyl over the last decade.
Spending an hour in a record shop means flipping through rows of LPs and crates of used albums and having face-to-face interactions with staff and other customers. This is a serious hurdle to limiting the spread of a virus whose mode of transmission is not fully understood, and record shops have had to find new ways to engage customers and pay the bills during the shutdown.
“Our business model is that someone has touched everything we have,” says Enoch Marchant, co-owner of Raleigh’s Nice Price Books & Records. At the start of the pandemic, Nice Price didn’t even have a proper website. Now, in addition to a new site, the store is doing a lot of its selling through Instagram Stories, much to the surprise of the technology-averse Marchant.
“Do we even need this stupid-ass [Instagram] store?” he recalls thinking.
Others, like Bull City Records and Raleigh’s Sorry State Records, have taken the opportunity to expand their web stores, filling holes in their online inventory, while Durham’s Carolina Soul has turned to sites like Discogs and eBay.
At first, Bull City Records shifted to mail-order purchases to make up for the closed shop. Martenstein went there every day to fulfill orders and add to the online inventory. Before long, though, regulars began to ask whether they could simply stop by the shop to pick up their orders, and backdoor pickup was born.
Martenstein says that’s how he’s been doing most of his business for the last several weeks. The system has allowed him to keep the shop running while getting to resume conversations with customers from a safe distance of 20 feet. He still isn’t sure about a timeline for reopening the shop floor, but the backdoor system has allowed the shop to find a new balance, taking it day by day. And even if things return to normal, the added line of convenience will likely remain a part of operations.
“The comforting thing is, we’re all in it together. Everybody has it in a not-ideal way right now,” Martenstein says. “If we can navigate it and stay nice to each other, then I think it’ll be easier coming out of it in the long run.”
Sorry State, whose online store and record label preceded its 2013 brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Raleigh, already had the infrastructure for a swift transition to online orders. Owner Daniel Lupton notes that despite the loss of walk-in customers, the mood among the staff has largely been optimistic. The community response, he says, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think people not being able to come into the shop realize what they miss, and they’re really interested in making sure that we get through it, that we can get back to normal,” Lupton says.
Sorry State has been booking private shopping appointments, allowing individual customers to enter the shop for an hour at a time. But Lupton isn’t making any predictions about reopening until COVID-19 cases decline.
At Nice Price, Marchant and co-owner Brian Shaw faced more of an uphill battle, as the shop had relied almost exclusively on walk-in customers. Marchant acknowledges the success of Instagram in continuing business during the pandemic, but the idea of replacing the tangible experience of being at Nice Price—where items are organized, “but not too organized,” to encourage exploratory browsing—with something so ephemeral still bothers him.
“The stuff we sell, the reason people want it is because they want to have it forever, and it exists forever,” Marchant says. “The idea of selling those things on the least tangible format is a very odd combination.”
In recent weeks, Nice Price has opened to the public for limited hours, requiring masks to enter. Marchant considers the shop lucky, but he worries many independent and DIY music spaces won’t make it through the current crisis.
“That hammer has yet to fall,” he says, citing the recent closure of the beloved Asheville venue The Mothlight as one of the first major local casualties of the pandemic. And on June 28, Nice Price announced that Nice Price Jr., a smaller location in Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood that opened in 2018 and specialized in book clubs and small gigs, was closing for good.
With venues closed, record shops are one of the few spaces where the local music scene remains open for business. It hasn’t been easy, but then again, it never was. They’ve weathered the rise of Amazon, the dominance of streaming services, and the everyday challenges that come with running any small business.
But if their business model makes them particularly vulnerable to the challenges of the coronavirus, perhaps their tradition of adaptability will balance the scales and see them through.
“You need to listen to your regulars and your customers. They’re going to share with you how to operate,” Martenstein says. “For record stores, the music industry changes so fast and so often. You just learn to deal with it.”
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