Local record stores are enjoying an increase in vinyl interest, despite the precarity of most other businesses during the pandemic.
Far from folding, new record stores have opened in the East Bay and flourished during the pandemic. Older establishments such as Contact Records have, in the words of owner Andrew Kerwin, “upped their online game” and courted the global market of vinyl fans.
Kerwin has run Contact with his wife, Hannah Lew, from a shipping container in the MacArthur Annex since 2016. Lew has ample music experience, having played in post-punk groups such as Grass Widow and Cold Beat, while Kerwin, a musician with over a decade of experience working at Amoeba in San Francisco and managing 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland, was able to fulfill every earnest record store employee’s dream and open his own.
When Contact opened, many were skeptical. Even in 2016, Kerwin said that friends were convinced he was “catching the tail-end of a vinyl comeback which would plateau or dip.” Since then, the “trend” has only mushroomed: One out of every three albums sold in the U.S. last year were vinyl LPs. 2021 marked the 16th consecutive year of vinyl sale growth and the largest year for vinyl sales since the music analytics company MRC Data began tracking sales in 1991.
Despite rent discounts from their landlord and small-business grants from the city, maintaining physical business was daunting for a store in which social distancing was nearly impossible. They went from listing two dozen rarities to having half of the store online within the first week of shutdowns.
When business returned for Contact, it returned to a new normal: “How the pandemic goes is how business goes,” Kerwin stated. If reopening protocols and stimulus checks are in place, customers flock — particularly for holidays. As cases surge, business falls: “It’s a constant up-and-down,” he said.
Chris Ford, the owner of Hercules Records in South Berkeley, begs to differ. He opened Hercules in April 2020 and has “stayed busy ever since — any slow times we had weren’t really pandemic-related.”
He attributes his success to maintaining a “prudent reserve” of savings and low overhead, and cultivating a devoted clientele through choice inventory. If collectors are there, he said, “time and space don’t have much to do with what they will spend their money on.” He cultivates these devotees by sourcing rare stock; when pressed as to where he does find records, Ford avowed that “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
Ford remains unconvinced that the vinyl trend matters very much for business. “The vast majority of music sold now is digital. Vinyl makes up a very small percentage of the overall market, but the market it does make up is very loyal,” he said. “But the reissue market won’t continue, where records you can find in my store for $15 are being sold at Urban Outfitters for $40.”
While Ford loves music, he views the record market for what it is: a market. He’s not a collector but a businessman, and records aren’t things of sentimental value but “things to be bought and sold.” When asked why he chose this line of business at all (besides the clear joy he takes in making other music lovers happy), given that he differs so much from his colleagues, he admitted, “I don’t know why I do these silly things. They’re all wrong and I’m right.”
While the pandemic hasn’t taught Ford anything he didn’t already know, it’s affirmed the value of non-expansion.
“We have a tiny shop, find cool stuff, pay staff, pay bills, and sometimes we make a lot more,” he said. “It’s a nightmare, but a great nightmare.”
Steve Adams, the owner of Mars Records in Piedmont, also opened his store in 2020. Like Ford, he ascribes his success to low overhead and devoted clients. Unlike Ford, he is doubtlessly a collector and foremost a musician, having co-founded the rock band Animal Liberation Orchestra and played bass with Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers.
While he’s active as an online seller, he has 100 rarities listed “if that”; he more uses the internet as a guide for market values. He attributes his business to a strong community presence. Adams rotates shows of local artists’ work every three months. These, alongside live concerts held in the store’s backyard and markets held with neighboring vintage stores in a front courtyard, draw steady crowds.
He draws upon community in every aspect of business, selling records from bins assembled by friends and working the register from a repurposed hand-me-down dresser. Many of the boxes stacked throughout his store hold records that he thinks certain customers will like; one bin bears Jerry Lewis and Lenny Bruce for a vintage comedy fan.
Although running a successful business at any time is inherently uncertain, Adams takes morale from the unknowns of the trade.
“Selling music is like playing it,” he explained. “You pour your time and energy into it never knowing when it’ll pay off.”
Despite this uncertainty, Adams spoke for many East Bay record store owners when he attested that “the pandemic wasn’t a challenge, but a window of opportunity to try something new.”