Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rising Vinyl Sales Keep Small Store Afloat

-by Jason Debiak
As John Schlapak attaches labels to a stack of merchandise in his Westwood, NJ record store, a post-grunge pop song reaches its chorus on the radio. “See, this is a typical example,” he says, scrunching a face that has seen its share of fads come and go, “some moaning, groaning song that’s going nowhere and no melody.” Like it or not, Schlapak now runs one of the hippest shops in town.

While album sales plummet in the age of new media and its profit-killing MP3’s, the format that brought Schlapak into the music business in 1979 is seeing a resurgence. With artists from Brian Wilson to Radiohead releasing vinyl versions of their latest albums and an entire label - Eyeball Records in New Jersey - planning to release all new albums in the format, nostalgia is definitely in.

If it weren’t for the CD displays, you might swear Music Merchant was trapped in a time warp. 8-tracks, a 1960’s era scale and an assortment of indeterminable old gizmos collect dust atop shelves of calcified records. The aisles are made narrow by neat rows of boxes labeled with a black marker. Schlapak, a white haired man in his early 60s, fiddles diligently behind the counter. A slow, but steady stream of customers picks through the unwieldy collection of an estimated 30-40,000 albums on a clear Saturday afternoon.

As the proliferation of digital music choked off industry earnings, Music Merchant has seen its share of competitors come and go, crowded out by big box retailers. Shlapak’s secret? “I watch my overhead.”

Of course, not every record store has the luxury of a one-man payroll, and even he was forced to close Music Merchant’s second location in the in 2004.

“In this environment, I think that if you’re holding your own you’re doing pretty well,” Schlapak said. “CD sales are down, but vinyl sales make up for it.”

U.S. album sales fell 9.5 percent in 2007, and the fate of this year’s sales numbers seem bleak considering an even more uncertain economic environment. Shlapak concedes that if not for the apparent rebirth of vinyl, especially new releases and pricey collectibles, he would likely be out of business. Music Merchant estimates that vinyl sales make up 40 percent of business, with the rest going to compact disks.

In a world where the “medium is the message,” as author Marshall McLuhan wrote while trying to make sense of media in the 1960’s, Shlapak believes music is reasserting itself as a permanent work of art through vinyl. “CD’s are disposable and have no value as a collectible,” he says, affixing a label to a CD case and placing it on a growing stack.

An older man in a cabbie hat, a bald middle-ager in a flannel shirt and a young guy with a black hooded sweatshirt and tight jeans begin a slow climb up and down the aisles in search of a hidden gem. Shlapak says his customers prefer vinyl records for the warmer sounds, durability, trendy retro appeal and album art larger than a handheld frame. Plus, he’s noticed that teenagers often raid his 49 cent discount pile, probably looking for kitchy bedroom art.

In the back of the store, John’s twin brother Tom Schlapak sorts through a stack of records. He’s got a regular job, but comes in on weekends to perform the “therapeutic” task of refurbishing records. Tom, like his brother, speaks with deliberative pauses, gazing into the salmon walls with a faint smile as he recalls better days for the industry. Also like his brother, Tom is armed with a laundry list of complaints about the modern music industry.

“It has no soul,” Tom paused momentarily, searching for a way to make his point clearer. “Excuse the expression, but it has no balls.”

The prospect of big box stores shifting to collectible vinyl draws smirks from the Schlapak brothers, whose shop is filled nearly to capacity with 30 years worth of merchandise. John figures there is little chance retailers like Sam Goody could build a competitive archive.

“I can’t get out from underneath it,” Tom said, summing up his efforts to clear more room in the store. “There’s just so much stuff.”

Live in the NJ area? Make sure to visit the Music Merchant in Westwood, NJ. Don’t live in NJ? Then support your local independent record store!

(This article was written by Jason Debiak. Jason has a blog called Air and Sea Battle. Visit it Here )

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