Alabama vinyl record shops try to keep spinning in the face of COVID-19 slowdown

Alabama vinyl record shops try to keep spinning in the face of COVID-19 slowdown
Seasick Records had just opened in its new location in Birmingham's Avondale community when the COVID-19 crisis forced the business to close. (contributed)

Things were looking the best in four decades for vinyl albums until the coronavirus turned the tables.

The 12-inch-wide discs that for a century ruled the music world had been on a spectacular upward sales spiral smack in the middle of the digital age, then came the global pandemic.

The timing of COVID-19’s advance into America is untimely for independent record stores in Alabama and across the nation. Record Store Day, which last year prompted 827,000 album sales in a week, has been postponed from April 18 until June 20.

Americans bought more than 19 million old-school vinyl records in 2019, marking the biggest number since cassettes overtook traditional albums in 1984, said the Recording Industry Association of America. Buyers who don’t take to the new normal of many forms of digital media have found an appreciation for the artsy covers of vinyl albums, which often include picture booklets, record sleeves labeled with large-letter lyrics and features not found with CDs or online formats. Vinyl albums today often include a code to download the music to an iPhone or computer.

There are about 1,400 independent record stores nationally, with some 15 spread across Alabama. Several long-time stores, like Charlemagne in Birmingham and Pegasus Records in Florence, have shut their doors. Others, like 10,000 Hz in Opelika, have joined the pursuit of a highly niche market, hoping to attract old hippies and young Hangout Festival fans to the fold.

More than a quarter of all “physical” albums sold in 2019 were vinyl, led by the Beatles’ “Abby Road” at 471,000 copies and Billie Eilish’s “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” with 176,000. That’s a far cry from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which sold 32 million copies in 1983 on the way to becoming the biggest-selling record in history. The Beatles are recognized as the best-sellers ever overall, Billboard said.

Birmingham’s Seasick Records, which is heading toward its seventh year in business, was set to celebrate its new headquarters’ grand opening March 28. Last year was the most successful ever for Seasick, whose owner and five employees might by now have been miserable in their recently closed building had they not been prepared.

“We spent the last year building up our online store and, fortunately, we were able to easily transition completely to online sales,” said Seasick owner Dan Drinkard, whose business is 95% new and used vinyl albums.

Seasick was open about a week at its new location in Avondale before Drinkard closed the doors.

“On the bright side, we have a much more functional space now and that has been very helpful in shipping out large volumes of online orders,” Drinkard said amid a hectic day of sales March 24. Seasick can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.

10,000 Hz as a brick and mortar business has been open less than 2 years, following about 18 months as a roving pop-up record shop. Owner Russell Baggett is basically a one-man band, employing one part-time and two “very-part-time” workers, but he’s making it work during this early crisis.

“We made the decision to temporarily close our storefront on March 14 and shift to online/phone ordering,” Baggett said. “It just didn’t make sense to me to stay open – record-browsing is a very physical, hands-on kind of thing. The idea is to get as many people as possible to come to our shop, touch a few thousand things and buy some of them. There’s more contact with individual items by many people in this kind of a setting than there is if you’re just going to a store to grab a few specific things – not ideal in a time of global pandemic, to say the least.”

Baggett said the first months of 2020 had been setting him up for stereo sales stability. His store is mostly vinyl, though he does carry vintage and new turntables, CDs and tapes. He’d been working toward establishing an online presence when the coronavirus swept ashore.

“Luckily, we were already doing some online sales via Discogs.com, and our own website was not far from being finished,” he said. “We just rushed to put it up early in a kind of work-in-progress state, and that has helped keep orders coming in. It took about a week, but our full new and used inventory is on the website now.”

Baggett said he’s spent a lot of time the past two weeks on the phone and computer answering customer questions as quickly as possible. He has developed a system that he hopes will carry him through until people begin walking back inside the store, browsing for that vintage gem or new release they’ve been wanting to add to their collection.

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Andy and Ashley Vaughn opened Vertical House Records in Huntsville 13 years ago. The store was closed March 18 because of concerns over the coronavirus crisis.

“We are pushing online sales via our social media and website,” said Andy. “We’ve been doing a lot of special orders and we are working on getting an online store launched sometime soon.”

About 80 percent of Vertical House sales are of vinyl records, with the remainder being CDs, cassettes, stereo equipment and miscellaneous music items. This year was shaping up to be the best yet for the couple, who are the sole employees. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We moved into a new, larger location in January of 2019 and it was probably our best year to date,” said Ashley. “We just hope the support continues and when we can open again that we are able to conduct business as usual.”

Dr. Music in downtown Fairhope doesn’t have to worry about getting established or hanging on in tough times. Wade Wellborn has been spinning tunes for nearly a quarter-century in his shop, where old and new songs seep from his shop speakers onto stylish Section Street. He opened his dream store to help his hip friends find hard-to-find vinyl like Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” In 2002, Wellborn invented the “Sonic Suitcase,” which are literal vintage luggage with digitally adaptive speakers and are still a shop sales mainstay.

Dr. Music doors were open through Friday, March 27. That’s when an order by Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Public Health declared his store among the nonessential businesses in the state that must close to try to circumvent the coronavirus crisis. So for now, customers can’t come in to easily find “L.A. Woman,” Dua Lipa or Dizzy Gillespie albums. Nor can Wellborn welcome walk-ins needing a record player repair. His shelves are stocked with local musicians’ CDs. Thousands of old records for a couple of bucks each are in crates beneath the more-high-end albums.

“We have very few customers coming into the shop now,” Wellborn said before Friday’s order. “We’re doing a good bit of online sales via Facebook, Instagram, Discogs, eBay and our websites.”

Dr. Music sells lots of turntables and vinyl accessories. He was keeping shop mostly by himself, putting a sign in the window to slip out occasionally when he wasn’t hiring hourly folks to fill in.

It’s hard for Wellborn to be told his shop is “nonessential.”

“In my opinion, a record store is one of the most important businesses in any town,” Wellborn said. “I started Dr. Music in my hometown because there were few choices for buying any outsider music when I was growing up. Visiting independent record stores is an amazing part of a musical journey; we love to share our passion for music.”

In recent years, Walmart, Target and other national chains have gotten back into the vinyl record business. They remain open as “essential” in cities across the nation. Wellborn said the vinyl being sold in those huge stores is essentially just part of another section, similar to the aisles of shoes or sports equipment.

“Online stores, chain stores, record clubs and any variety store with 50 records in their bins are vending machines,” he said. “They can never equal the experience that you will get from your local shop.”

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