Record stores see tangible return for selling vinyl
on December 5, 2009
A fading sign on a storefront window at 26th and Telegraph says WE SELL USED CDS AS LOW AS 99 CENTS. But it’s plain to see that isn’t true anymore. At the door the steel security bars are getting rusty, and on the floor of the defunct shop there’s not a single disc to protect.
Times are tight for brick-and-mortar music vendors all over the country, where sales of physical CDs dropped 26 percent over the course of 2008, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. North Oakland is no exception.
This shuttered CD Shop on Telegraph is yet another casualty of the rise of online music, a memory soon to fade from the cityscape now that its name no longer adorns the exterior. But music lovers might be comforted to know that North Oakland is still a great place to look for vinyl LPs and singles, whose popularity has taken a surprising upturn in the digital age.
Audiophiles who grew up listening to MP3s—or who are old enough to be nostalgic for a time when albums were physical objects—are now looking for vinyl in numbers not seen since 1990, according to the RIAA, with sales at $57 million in 2008. Two North Oakland businesses are open to satisfy the renewed craving for the format, which was only recently dismissed as a relic of history.
For those whose tastes lean toward new artists, there’s 1234 Go! Records at 419 40th Street in Temescal, and for collectors of vintage jazz there’s The Groove Yard at 5555 Claremont Avenue in Rockridge. Both stores reported steady business, even though some of their customers have yet to buy a turntable.
“Every day somebody comes in and asks where they could get a turntable,” said Steve Stevenson, the owner of 1234 Go! Records.
The Groove Yard is the older of the two stores, having begun at a storefront at 48th Street and Telegraph Avenue in 1992. The owner, Rick Ballard, is a music retail veteran who started working at Oakland record stores such as Stairway to Music—no relation to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” he says—as a UC Berkeley student in the early 1970s.
After striking out on his own in the 1980s, he amassed an inventory of about 10,000 LPs and singles and 10,000 78-RPM format records. Ballard, the sole owner of the business, said quality control is a priority, and that he works hard to make sure his shelves are kept clean of dollar records—surplus LPs that stick to store shelves like mold, causing serious collectors to recoil.
“I’m very picky about what I buy,” Ballard said. “I don’t want a bunch of dollar records. It helps to have a lot of experience so you know what records to stay away from.”
That keeps the hardcore vinyl junkies coming in, and it sometimes wins him customers like Japanese author Haruki Murakami, a jazz fan who has been known to drop by when he travels to the Bay Area.
At the Groove Yard the average price for an album is in the range of $8 to $10, but rare records sometimes get prices above $100, like the Sweetback LP by soul jazz legend Boogaloo Joe Jones, now on sale for $150, or the famous Blue Note label’s Blues Walk LP by alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, priced at $325.
Classical music LPs, a cheaper option, usually sell for 50 cents to $1.50, said Ballard, a mild-mannered man who defies the stereotype of the haughty record store clerk. A rule he’s made for himself is to never put a record in the store that he’s unwilling to part with, so as to avoid stand-offs with the clientele.
“It’s not that I don’t like music,” Ballard said. “I just make it a priority that everything that comes into the store goes out for sale.”
Temescal’s 1234 Go!, meanwhile, is run by an equally approachable entrepreneur with a taste for punk. Steve Stevenson, who runs a record label that shares the name of his storefront, opened up shop in the spring of 2007 after leaving behind years of work in tour management and music merchandising.
Located next to the Manifesto bike shop, a business run by one of Stevenson’s friends, the store’s wares appeal to a younger clientele looking for new sounds to spin. Here, the big-ticket items are often rare LPs and singles from influential acts such as Mission of Burma, or hard-to-find compilations put out by independent record labels and zines such as Maximum Rock ‘N Roll.
Stevenson, originally from Seattle, has earned up to $200 for rare records from legendary acts like the Clash, but most used LPs run in the $5 to $15 range, such as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album, priced at $6.99, and Ozzy Osbourne’s Speak of the Devil, going for $12.
Older records aren’t the only thing in stock in this store, which is decorated with raw wood, band posters and defunct televisions. In fact, roughly half of the 8,000 records in the store are new. These include 1234! Go label artists such as No Bunny, recently featured in an article in Spin Magazine, and Bay Area favorites such as Thee Oh Sees from San Francisco.
Many of the new LPs now come with MP3 download cards, which enable the customer to log onto a website and download a digital album, so they can listen to it on an iPod as well as a turntable. Stevenson said a growing number of music fans have come to expect that combination of ease combined with the album’s enduring ability to create a tactile connection.
“They like the convenience of the MP3s but they want the physical possession,” Stevenson said.
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