In a little plaza on the side of West Main sits a nondescript store. In the back corner, tucked in between an Indian restaurant and a “Check Cashing” store, is Kalamazoo’s own Corner Record Shop. It’s indistinguishable from the other lots with the exception of their sign, a peculiar shade of blue that glares against the brilliant gold of Payday Loans. Based on its location lack of visible advertisement, no one would know that it is one of the premier record stores in the city.
If you venture closer to the store, the windows tell a different story. Myriad band posters adorn the glass; they advertise shows past and future, in sync with the vibrant underground music scene of Kalamazoo. There’s a CD release party, a touring band, beloved local rock and hip hop, and many more. If it’s music in Kalamazoo, then it’s probably posted here. Compared to the street view, approaching the entrance breathes life into the otherwise bland plaza.
I entered the store, and it was totally empty save for a strawberry-blonde haired and bearded man looking intently at his computer behind the counter.
“Give me just a second,” he said. “A customer is looking for a really specific recording of ‘Porgy and Bess.’ They wanted the one with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. They might just be out of luck.”
He mentioned that there were about a thousand different recordings of the show. Every jazz musician had to do it.
As he continued, I wondered about the customer base of the store. The front room holds a couple of racks of CDs and DVDs, but the back section contained rows upon rows of vinyl, both used and new. The big releases were on the walls, everything from ACDC to the Beatles to Jay-Z to Tom Waits. How does a store that relies almost solely on vinyl survive, especially in the era of digital distribution?
The man behind the counter briefly gave up his search. “Do you need anything?” He asked.
“Nothing in particular,” I replied. “I did have a couple questions for you about your shop, though, if I could come by later for an interview.”
He looked around the store and chuckled. “Well, it seems pretty quiet here to me. I could talk to you now, if you want.”
This was Sean Hartman, the co-manager of the business.
I introduced myself and explained that I was doing a profile on the shop. Record stores are becoming so rare, especially in the age of digital distribution. “How is the business doing with almost solely vinyl sales?” I asked.
“Like, uh, supposedly vinyl right now is the fastest growing area in the music industry,” he said. “It’s still very much a niche market compared to traditional sales and things like that, but we have been seeing a trend in the five years since we’ve been open.”
Even so, who tends to buy vinyl anymore? With the dawn of digital media, physical copies of albums are becoming increasingly limited to past collections.
He gave a shrug. “We’re just sitting tight right now to see how things go in the next couple of months with all the college students leaving.”
I should have figured. I myself have a sizeable vinyl collection, mostly due to the fact that their used vinyls are around a dollar a pop. You can’t beat those prices as a college student, especially when popular songs on iTunes will run about two dollars each. However, newer or rarer pressings will generally run you between 20-30 bucks.
“So what exactly is your market?” I asked. In my travels to and from the store, I had very rarely seen people perusing the racks. It must have just been poor timing on my part.
“It’s kind of across the board, too. There’s a lot of younger people that get into it, um, which include college students moving into town and realizing that records are available,” he said. “Even younger, high school, middle school kids are getting into it.”
The store itself exudes the classic record store appeal. Tour posters and classic albums surround the customers, and both a turntable and a cassette player sit in the corner, playing local gems and classics alike. I could see where that would draw in the younger crowd; it’s a beacon of the underground music scene. Occasionally, the smell of incense wafts through the racks, a pleasing spice that lends itself to the relaxed atmosphere. They just want you to enjoy the music as much as they do.
Sean drawled on about how there is a marked older crowd that frequents the store as well. “[They], like, left their record player in the basement years ago, and then forgot about it and are bringing it back. They realize that they can still buy all the cool records.”
We got back to the topic of the summer. “You were looking to see how sales were going to do over the summer with students leaving, right?” I asked. “Do you think it will have that much of an effect?”
He leaned on the counter as the door chime rang. A couple, probably in their late twenties, walked in to peruse the CD collection. “Is there anything I can help you with?” Sean asked.
The man silently gave him a shake of the head, and they continued to browse. They only stayed for a couple minutes and exited as silently as they arrived.
Sean walked back to the other side of the counter where I was standing. “With this being a college town, at least fifty percent of our business is college-aged people, and when they head out of town for the summer, it decreases our market a lot.”
“Well, I noticed that you guys have a lot of show advertisements here,” I said. “Do you use these to draw people in?”
Sean used to book bands for the Strutt, and so he utilized that to the advantage of the shop. “Well, yesterday started a series where we’re going to be doing live jazz every Sunday.”
“Really?” My interest was piqued. It looks like I have a show to catch to see who all shows up.
Sunday quickly approached, and come 2 o’clock, I wandered up to the store. It was a cold and dreary day, especially odd given that it was mid-May. Gray clouds crested the hill as I walked, and I couldn’t help wonder if anyone would actually be there.
As I got to the shop, it seemed especially quiet. There were no noticeable sounds booming through the windows, and the area by the counter looked deserted. Did they end up closing early?
However, as I wandered to the back of the shop, there were stacks of speakers near the stockroom, but there were no sounds, save for some Earth, Wind, and Fire softly wafting around the store.
In the very back, however, sat a different man than Sean, but he was staring intently at it just as I had run into Sean. He wore a blue and red track jacket over a plain white tee-shirt, and his cap was angled down, so I couldn’t see his face.
“Hello?” I said to him. “I was wondering if you guys were still having that live show.”
He looked up at me. He might have been in his late 30’s to early 40’s, and he had a kind, but weathered face.
“Well, the band hasn’t showed up, and I can’t reach Sean at all,” he said with a disgruntled tone. “Sean was the one that booked them, and I don’t have any of their numbers. I can’t do a thing but wait right now.”
I was curious to see how this could happen. No-shows do happen, but I was amazed to see how little communication there was between the staff, especially with something like a live performance.
“Yeah, I’m just sitting tight here for a while,” he continued. “It’s odd how quiet it is today. We usually have a decent turnout on Sundays.”
“It might be because it’s Mother’s Day?” I said.
He nodded at me. “See, I thought it was just because it was cold and gray out today, but that might be it. People are taking their moms and grandmoms out for dinner,” he joked.
As an afterthought, I introduced myself, and explained why I was there. “I talked to Sean last Monday, and I was really hoping that something would be happening here,” I said. “Sean was telling me that you guys were looking at a slow summer. Does that affect you that much? How do you guys keep going with days like this?”
“Oh, I’m Flip. I’m the other co-manager here,” he said. He chuckled at me. “Yeah, today’s especially slow. One person must have wandered in in the last couple hours.”
He continued. “Well, with the way it’s been looking, it’s going to be a very slow summer. We had Record Store Day a couple of weeks ago, and the turnout was killer. We had people lined up out the door and around the corner.”
Record Store Day is a day for independent record stores to collaborate with local artists and celebrate record store culture. There are new releases, full stock, and a chance for locals to hear music and get some fresh tunes. Even so, I was surprised to hear that so many people showed when I had never seen more than five people in the store at once.
“Mostly because of days like that, we get enough business to go for a while. Sean and I couldn’t even move from the registers all day,” he said.
“Does it really make that much of a difference?” I asked.
He laughed and said, “Yeah, we were busy all day. You can’t beat that.”
It struck me as odd that single days like that could sustain them for that long, but they’ve been in business for almost five years already, with no signs of stopping. I took his word for it. Even though no one has seemed to have heard of this place, and even though I never seem to run into anyone there, but they seem to be doing pretty alright. I guess you really can’t beat that.