April brings many joys (well, maybe not on the 15th) as the last of a sullen winter blows away and green replaces gray as the prominent color. It’s the month of renewal and re-acquaintance with familiar pleasures, but few of us may realize that among the month’s many welcome arrivals is Record Store Day. Returning for its sixth observance on April 19, Record Store Day is the nationally-based brainchild of a group of independent record store owners and employees intended as a celebration of the survival in an iTunes world of the country’s nearly 1,000 independent record and music stores, all of whom are much more embedded in their local communities than anonymously-owned big box stores.
“We’ll have been here for ten years in August,” says Mark Capon, a co-owner with Matt Schnable of Harvest Records in Asheville, one of the independents participating in Record Store Day. “That’s about five years longer than we ever dreamed of being open, honestly.” Like most independent stores, Mark and Matt’s store provides customers with music in both vinyl and digital form; and like some of their peers, they’ve diversified even further with their own record label. “We’ve had about ten releases total in eight years, but the record label was always a side thing,” Mark says. “The shop is what we’re here for.”
In Brevard, Southern Comfort Records And Music supplements record sales with a small inventory of musical instruments, from autoharps and dobros to banjos and guitars. It’s the result of a merger of the former Rockin’ Robin Records with Celestial Mountain Music, and gives Southern Comfort’s new location on Main Street the flavor of earlier times, when poodle skirts and saddle shoes ruled. “We stay in business because people still want to hold albums in their hands,” says Southern Comfort’s Christopher Fox. “It’s a myth that when new technology arrives everyone wants to participate in it.” Southern Comfort’s vinyl-based business remains strong, Christopher says, thanks in part to purists who insist that digital audio lacks the subtlety of analog sound played on a quality sound system, preferably powered by glowing vacuum tubes inside a boxy amplifier.
For Dave Mench, who owns Play It Again Records in Valdese, record store culture is almost in his blood. “My first job was working at a record store in Centerville, Ohio called Dingleberries Records,” Dave recalled. “It was my last year of high school and I was listening to Todd Rundgren, Kraftwerk and King Crimson.” Jobs at three more record stores followed while Dave was in college. Like most of his fellow owners, Dave sells CDs but finds that the market for vinyl is still pretty strong. “Everyone loves the larger album cover, with artwork, lyrics, recording information that’s not so hard on the eyes, like with the printing on a jewel case.” Dave reported that audio geeks are even turning back to cassette and 8-track tapes as novelty and nostalgia items.
Like Harvest Records’ label, Dave Mench has Waggletone Records, a label he started in the early 1990s as a cushion against the undoubted challenge to independent owners from corporately owned stores, shopping malls and the overwhelming amounts of downloaded digital music. The organizers of Record Store Day specifically bar any corporately-owned store from participating and strictly define those who can participate as “standalone bricks-and-mortar retailers whose company is not publicly-traded and whose ownership is at least 70 percent located in the state of operation,” according to the official website.
Record Store Day, in other words, is really a variety of the “buy local” movement, a framework that independents can tailor any way they want to attract business. Some stores will have live music on offer, like Fat Cats in Boone and Dead Wax Records in Lenoir, which will have five bands on the program. Other stores stage special sale events or, if space allows, provide a DJ for dancing.
“Many people are realizing how important it is to support a local merchant,” Christopher Fox says. “More of your money stays in your community where it helps your neighbors. It doesn’t wind up in a corporate office on the other side of the country.” Even better, music lovers can talk with fellow enthusiasts who work in local record stores and who are often, like Dave Mench, musicians themselves who know the product better than a minimum-wage floorwalker in a big box store. “The record store has always been our livelihood,” says Mark at Harvest Records. “It’s what we think about waking up in the morning and what we think about going to sleep at night. We just try to provide the right experience for our customers, no matter what.”