Record stores are really suffering during the shutdown, but they’re finding ways to adapt
By Paul Carrubba
Here’s a confession that could see me run out of Austin on a rail: I prefer to consume my music at home via a very good sound system.
There are reasons for this. The anxiety caused by crowd-induced claustrophobia, combined with the attention span of a cocker spaniel and an obsessive need to accrue (usually useless) knowledge all means that my musical meals often get served at home, and at 45rpm.
That’s why I love record stores (and I’m not alone).
They combine history, a sense of belonging, and, most importantly, the chance to discover badass tunes and artists you’ve never heard of.
But, with the cloud of COVID-19 hanging overhead, and with the second installment of this year’s tripartite Record Store Day approaching (they split it into three days this year, and the next is this Saturday, Sept. 26), I got to thinking about our local record stores.
Is there a chance that the same devastating effects that have befallen live music venues here in Austin could crash upon record stores as well?
In a very informal survey among fellow vinyl devotees, I asked them what we, as a culture, would lose if physical record shops disappeared.
“We would lose those sounds, that smell and that feeling that only a record store can bring to a music lover’s heart,” said Joseph Juarez, a good friend and fanatic about soul, R&B, and funk.
“If we can’t go to the venues, we need to find some other way to keep music alive in this city,” said Omar Jimenez, host of the Mohawk’s Bring Your Own Vinyl events. “If we don’t protect music and the people who help bring it to us, why are we even in Austin?”
The Cactus Cafe’s own Matt Muñoz had this to say about record shops: “Oh boy, to me it would be as if all the churches went away. They’re my spiritual place.”
So what happens when a business that is essentially built on in-person browsing and interaction can’t do those things?
“COVID has certainly been a game-changer,” said Josh LaRue, co-owner of Breakaway Records.
LaRue and business partner Gabe Vaughn have curated a diverse collection of vinyl at their shop on North Loop. From world music compilations to local hip-hop mix-tapes to overlooked soul 45s to new releases, there’s a lot to discover in the bins at Breakaway. And up until the pandemic made keeping the shop open to the public unsustainable, those bins were getting plenty of use.
“We were doing good. The shop expanded about three years ago, so we got a lot more square footage. We had more employees,” said LaRue. “We were always working hard to keep it on that track.”
Over on the East Side, things were likewise chugging along for BLK Vinyl.
“We weren’t killing it, but it was on the uptick,” said co-owner John Brookbank.
BLK’s (that’s B-L-K, as in the first letter of the owners’ last names: Brookbank, Keith Lough, and Jason Kuntz) inventory consists entirely of second-hand (or as I would call it, “pre-loved”) vinyl.
You won’t find re-issues on their shelves, but you will find a carefully selected collection of rock, pop, R&B, and jazz LPs from the 60s and 70s. They also have a passion for alt-rock vinyl from the 90s (“That was kind of the downturn in vinyl production. So, it’s pretty rare,” explained Brookbank).
The East Side shop was getting ready to celebrate two years in business when they too had to close the shop to the public.
“This hit at a bad time,” said Brookbank. “We really felt like we were hitting a stride, where we could start to make some steps up.”
Dan Plunkett, co-owner of South Austin stalwart End of an Ear, also had big things in the works for his store, only to see them evaporate.
“Pre-COVID, there were all these great plans. Obviously, South-By was coming. Record Store Day would have been in April, and then May was going to be our 15th year.”
Everything shut down, even Austin’s largest independent store, Waterloo Records.
For just about everyone I spoke with, the transition from normal to most-definitely-not-normal felt both sudden and creepingly gradual at the same time.
“We started seeing stuff on the East Coast, where things were closing, and we were like, ‘I think this is coming our way,’” said Plunkett. “I think everybody felt this ‘day-by-day the world changed’ kind of thing.”
In Round Rock, the staff at Piranha Records needed only to look 15 miles down I-35 to know what was on the way.
“It hit a little slower, just because everyone was talking about how serious it was getting in Austin,” said Piranha employee Jason Whatley. “Once we started hearing about closing down the whole state, that’s when it became a little real.”
Everyone could see the storm was coming quickly, and it was time for all the shops to figure out how best to ride it out.
Making it work
Many stores, including Waterloo, have transitioned to curbside pickup as a way to survive.
LaRue and Vaughn slowly started to adapt Breakaway’s website for e-commerce, but for the first few months, they focused on pre-existing ways to sell records.
They kept Breakaway afloat by selling inventory over the phone as well as on eBay and Discogs (for non-record collecting nerds, Discogs is essentially eBay, but specifically for physical musical media).
“It became clear to us that really this is going to be here for a while,” said LaRue “We had to really rethink how we were doing business, and how to keep it as local as possible.”
They didn’t just want to keep sending records off to different parts of the country. They wanted to make the shop available to the public again, in whatever way they could.
“We needed to have a much better website, and start doing the curbside thing,” said LaRue. “We just spent hours and hours figuring it out and tweaking it, troubleshooting and working hard on it every day.”
Luckily for Piranha Records, they had a fairly established eBay presence to supplement in-store sales, even well before the pandemic.
“We always knew we had eBay to rely on,” said Whatley. “if we can’t sell records in-store, we’re for sure going to find a way to sell them another way.”
At BLK though, online sales via Discogs or other sites just weren’t a big priority pre-quarantine.
“It’s just…it’s not fun,” said Brookbank (with something that’s part-sigh and part-laugh).
He explained that, in the before-times, it just wasn’t worth the cost–in dollars and energy spent–to list, fulfill and mail online orders unless they were their top-shelf rarities. That said, Brookbank and his partners knew that they had to adapt.
At first, they tried something a bit novel for record stores: delivery.
“People wanted to support [us], so there would be kind of big sales here and there,” said Brookbank. “But after a few weeks in quarantine, I was jonesing just to drive around. So I was doing deliveries myself.”
While innovative, Brookbank admitted that delivery wasn’t the most sustainable long-term option for them. They quickly pivoted to curbside sales, which they felt was a much more safe and natural choice.
Pre-COVID, End of an Ear did sell some records through Discogs, Amazon, et al. However, it was pretty much an afterthought to Plunkett.
“There’s already been a lot of stores that do [web sales] really well,” he said. “We just didn’t really fool with it that much.”
As the saying about necessity goes, once Plunkett and staff really went all-in on online and curbside, they found that they could do it pretty well.
“We’d much rather people come in here and find stuff, But, it’s been convenient for people to just do curbside,” he said. “That’s been great. We’ve learned a lot of stuff.”
And Plunkett’s not alone in that last bit.
“Oh wow, I didn’t know we could do all this.” – Dan Plunkett
To put it mildly, sales for everyone are less than ideal, but at the same time, not as bad as they could have been. That owes in large part to what is perhaps the one, thin silver lining from this whole ordeal.
From spinning up online stores almost overnight to engaging with customers on social media to finding new ways to be themselves, every store I spoke with has learned something new or leveled-up their capabilities in one way or another.
After dreading the chore, Brookbank pretty much has BLK’s Discogs game down to a science. Plus, if you follow BLK on Instagram, you’ll get treated to cool videos as well as his long-form breakdowns of some of the records available in the shop.
“It’s definitely been eye-opening,” he said. “When we’re back to normal, I’ll still have that arsenal of the Discogs listings and the Instagram editorials.”
Breakaway, too, has upped their Insta game. The store has always done a great job of showcasing new records on the floor, but now followers get to watch LaRue and Vaughn spin records live on “Twin-Spin Tuesdays.”
They’ve also applied their taste and knack for curation to Breakaway’s revamped website. In addition to choice vinyl, accessories and stereo equipment, you can buy grab-bags hand-picked by LaRue and Vaughn.
If you, say, love rocksteady, 60s French pop and old school hip-hop, just let them know and they’ll likely come up with picks you’ll like.
“It was Gabe’s idea to do these grab bags and stuff,” said LaRue. “Not only to make it easy on us, but also on the customer.”
He added, “We put so much energy and time into this website thing, it’s not going to go away.”
Not going to go away
Piranha has been able to open its doors to the public for a little while now (albeit in a very safe, socially distanced manner), as has Astro Record Store in Bastrop and recently, Bluebonnet Records in Lockhart.
Jason Whatley of Piranha seemed genuinely surprised at how many people wanted to come in and browse and support the store–even when things were more uncertain than they are now.
That’s a hopeful sign for when (not if) stores here in Austin feel they’re in a place where they feel comfortable opening their doors again.
While everyone was very realistic about the less-than-rosy present, there was a sense of hope and optimism and faith in the communities these stores created.
Said LaRue, “Just the fact that we’re still doing this, we’re still in this room, we’re still selling records, that gives me hope that we’re going to continue to be here.”
You can support these local, independent record shops:
[Open for curbside orders 12pm-6pm daily]
705 Pine Street
[Open daily 10am-6pm, Monday by-appointment only]
2505 E 6th St
[Update: They’ll be allowing limited in-store shopping starting 9/24–visit their site for details]
112 E. Market St.
[Open open for in-store shopping TH-SUN 12pm-6pm for two customers at a time as well as curbside and shipping]
211 W N Loop Blvd
[Currently only accepting online orders for curbside pick-up and shipping]
4304 Clawson Rd
[Currently only accepting online orders for curbside pick-up and shipping]
6550 Comanche Trail #213 (at the Oasis on Lake Travis)
[Open Wed-Sun, 12pm – 9pm]
1208 N I-35 Suite 200
[In-store hours: MON-SAT: 10 AM – 6 PM | SUN- 12 PM – 6 PM | Must wear a mask or face-cover]
4930 South Congress Ave
600A N. Lamar
[Curbside pick-up only 11am – 7pm daily]