A Record Year

Ingenuity and perseverance help many area vinyl shops prosper despite pandemic

In a year filled with calamity on a near-biblical scale and requiring supernatural levels of human endurance, the country’s owners of small and independent businesses faced some of the most unique and dire challenges of all from the ongoing pandemic that spanned most of 2020. It was certainly not the year to have invested one’s blood, sweat, and tears into a bar, music venue, or a myriad of other ventures dependent on public assembly. But as it turns out, it was not such a bad time to own one of Delaware’s surprisingly abundant independent record stores.

A decade ago, it was hard to imagine that an ambitious vinyl enthusiast would be able to spend an entire day or even a weekend on a tour of the Small Wonder’s independent record shops. But the state has quietly grown into a crate digger’s paradise as fascination with record collecting has soared through the outreach of Record Store Day (the industry’s yearly celebration of itself), and the slow, sad demise of compact discs as a viable medium in the wake of music streaming services such as Spotify.

During the pandemic, Rainbow Records owner Todd Brewer has posted regular videos on social media updating customers on what new albums have arrived at the store. Photo by Melissa Forsythe/Rainbow Records

Rainbow Records and Wonderland, in the college town of Newark, are the progenitors of the scene, both having survived since the 1970s. They’ve recently been joined in Blue Hen country by Long Play Café.

Near Arden, Jupiter Records first opened in 2013; its neighbor in North Wilmington is Jam — Music and Memorabilia (located in The Zeppelin & The Unicorn antique mall).

SqueezeBox Records is going strong in the Little Italy section of Wilmington, and just outside city limits lies relative newcomer, Grooves and Tubes (Centreville) and GoodBoy Vinyl (Elsmere). Even Rehoboth Beach has two shops: Extended Play and Gidget’s Gadgets.

Though counterintuitive at first glance, MCR Data, the industry tracking system for sales, indicates vinyl sales were up an astonishing 46.2% in 2020 over 2019, and the industry sold the most units since the information began being tracked 15 years ago. There are some obvious reasons for this: listeners having more time for the active listening experience that vinyl entails; the increased notoriety of Record Store Day; and the groundswell of support for small business in general. However, just as important is the ingenuity and perseverance of the record store owners and managers.

Todd Brewer, owner of Rainbow Records, used the pandemic as the impetus to overhaul his whole business model.

“This has been a very strange year for us, and it really forced us to rethink everything we know about the shop,” said Brewer. “We were really forced to get with the times systems-wise. That meant a new website, new Etsy shops for clothing and records, as well as a new inventory and point-of-sale system. This allowed us to be set up better for things like curbside pickup and shipping. The fact that we had all of these new things working together helped us keep the shop alive in 2020.”

Implementation of new systems and methodologies is a common thread among the local shops, and SqueezeBox Records is no exception.

“We were definitely rattled because our store tries to cater to those who like to spend time browsing in a record store,” explained store manager Matt Kaukeinen. “We’re talking one-plus hours. But we pivoted. We started pushing our internet sales on Discogs (the Ebay of records) and Instagram, taking orders over the phone, and arranging curbside pickups. Curbside pickups were just people ordering online beforehand and then driving to the curb outside the store, and we would deliver their records with mask and gloves on. It was spotty at first, but we just kept letting everyone know we were still there.”

Goodboy Vinyl’s Chris Haug, a well-known local musician and DJ, reiterates nethe theory of survival through adaptation.

“In the beginning when things first shut down, it was a little rough, but we put the majority of the inventory online and were able to sell most of it,” Haug said. “Once things opened back up, we limited the space for and the number of customers in the shop at a time, and I would say that we averaged the same amount of income throughout the week as we did prior to the pandemic.”

Goodboy Vinyl’s Blane Dulin (left) and Chris Haug. O&A file photo

At the heart of vinyl’s general resurgence over the past 10-plus years — and its viability and growth during the pandemic — is Record Store Day. The first RSD took place in April 2008 as a celebration of both the record stores themselves and their rabid aficionados. In 2010, a second yearly Black Friday event was added in November. The combination of in-store appearances by bands and limited special releases has made those two days highly anticipated by fans and the most crucial days of the year for record store owners.

But in 2020, Record Store Day’s April event was postponed to June due to the pandemic lockdown, which was then rescheduled again and retooled over similar concerns. The usual April event was split into three events taking place in August, September and October. Combined with the Black Friday event in November, this allowed for four days of booming business instead of two — all while accommodating social distancing measures.

Kaukeinen said the 2020 structure was a difference maker for Squeezebox. “Having those four huge days threw us a lot of business and threw record stores into the spotlight in general.”

Rainbow’s Todd Brewer agrees. “In our experience, Record Store Day is extremely valuable when it comes to introducing new customers to our shop. Every year, there are a bunch of people that shop with us for the first time at these events. We thought the delay was the right thing to do as keeping people safe was our main priority last year. As a result, 2020 was our best event ever!”

In a time of trouble, it’s often art that gives human beings the most solace, and there can be particular consolation in being transported from one’s own problems on the waves of another human voice singing a melody — be it uplifting or plaintive. This experience is especially heightened when listening on vinyl (ask any record collector or any record store owner for that matter).

Says Kaukeinen, poetically summing up 2020 for independent record store owners, employees, and customers: “We definitely get a feeling from most of our customers these days that they are just so grateful to be out and hunting for something and getting a dose of quality retail therapy. It feels great to be selling great music that people can enjoy while they spend a little (too much) time at home. And records are things that people truly cherish.”