Friday, November 28, 2008

Vinyl helps record stores find a niche

Independent record stores spin success

On an unassuming stretch in Chicago's Beverly community, there is a music revolution sounding thanks to two independent record stores that keep spinning the vinyl even in tough economic times.

Beverly Records, 11612 S. Western Ave., and Mr. Peabody Records, 11832 S. Western Ave., are separated only by a few blocks, but they remain two of the few independent records stores in the Southland. Although the region once was filled with competitors such as Discount Records and Threshold Music in Tinley Park, the digital music revolution and rise of big-box chains such as Best Buy forced several independent record stores to shut down.

"You just can't compete with free, and that's pretty much what occurred," said Mark Ament, who owned Discount Records. Ament opened the first Discount Records in 1980 at the corner of 59th Street and Kedzie Avenue in Chicago. He eventually opened stores throughout the Southland - in Midlothian, Matteson, Homewood and Frankfort. The stores sold vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs but, when customers started burning music and relying on MP3s, Ament said his business became no longer viable.

He began closing stores in 2006, starting with the Frankfort location, and one store closed every six months until the final store in Matteson closed in February.

"It's a reality that people don't spend money on music, especially in today's times when consumers are hit hard in the pocket from gas prices," he said.

Hanging on

Though it can be challenging, Beverly Records and Mr. Peabody Records have stayed afloat by supporting a niche market. Both stores focus on selling rare vinyl, which has seen a surprising surge in popularity this year.

Beverly Records opened as a penny candy store in 1967, selling candy, gift cards, novelties and the top records of the week, according to Jack Dreznes, current owner of the store. His mother, Christine, who ran the store back then, noticed that customers began asking for the old records after they were replaced. She started specializing in harder-to-find items and records. By the 1970s, nearly 75 percent of the items in the store were records.

Dreznes, who started working at the store in 1975 after serving in the Army, immediately fell in love with the unique clientele who would come in the store and ask for rare records.

"I remember somebody called and said, 'I want a record by Jelly Roll Morton.' I said, 'You're kidding me, right?' And he said, 'No I'm serious. He was a jazz artist in the '40s.' I said, 'Oh, I'll take a look,' and, sure enough, we had two or three records by him. I said, 'Oh, this is fun.' I just gave up looking for a job and stayed since then," Dreznes said.

The store established branches throughout the Chicago area in the '80s, but as demand for vinyl diminished and CDs become more popular, those at Beverly Records decided to focus on one store and closed down the last branch in the mid-1990s.

"Since then, we've been hanging on," Dreznes said. "We're not thriving, but we're surviving by specializing in harder-to-get things that the bigger stores don't bother with - the jazz, the karaoke, the more obscure artists from the '50s and '60s. Kind of what our clientele asks for -- the more they ask, the more we'll get in stock."

By specializing in hard-to-find records and karaoke equipment, customers looking for a specific record can walk in and request a record. Using the Internet, record collector sites and other stores Beverly Records networks with, Dreznes said it usually can track down most records if they are not in stock.

This specialization keeps Cedric McQuitter, a former disc jockey and avid record collector, coming to Beverly Records between 10 and 15 times a year. McQuitter's wife works at an FYE store, but when looking for a rare record, McQuitter chooses to shop at Beverly Records.

"There's no comparison in my book. No comparison," he said.

On a recent afternoon, McQuitter, who's 49 and lives in Chicago's West Pullman community, came to the store looking for an old disco record titled "Do You Wanna Funk?" by Sylvester.

In addition to walk-in customers, approximately 10 percent of the business comes from Internet sales overseas, mainly from England, Japan, Germany and France.

Rare recordings

Just two blocks south of Beverly Records, Mr. Peabody Records is another independent record store that has survived by focusing on a niche market. The store, which opened in February 2004, specializes in soul, jazz, rock, dance, disco and early rap music. The store stocks more than 80,000 vinyl records and a few thousand CDs.

Co-owners Marcus Pettigrew and Mike Cole Jr. decided to open a record store after meeting at Beverly Records and realizing they both were obsessive collectors.

"We were talking about records. From then, I gave him a ride home. We were playing tapes in the car, and he went into the house and got some tapes. He said, 'Man have you heard this? Do you know about this? Do you know this label?' " Pettigrew said. "We figure two can do more than one, so we might as well team up and see how much stuff we can find and discover."

About 90 percent of their business is on the Internet, mostly from overseas clients who are looking for rare records, Pettigrew said. Dealing with high-end collectors who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for records helps focus their niche. Pettigrew and Cole also work with record labels - including the London-based BBE - with licensing and redistributing rare music.

"I think (in the beginning) everyone was probably like, 'Are you guys crazy? You're dealing with vinyl?' Now look at it. Best Buy is carrying vinyl. But it's an extreme niche," Pettigrew said. "We have to really watch how much we buy and what we buy. You've got to know what you're doing today to survive."

[Southtown Star]

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