Faster Than Sound: Austin Record Stores Hang On, Together
Online and curbside pivots support an altered Record Store Day for Austin vinyl emporiums this Saturday.
Gabe Vaughn, co-owner of North Loop's Breakaway Records, remains hurt by an impassioned email from a would-be customer. She accused the veteran vinyl seller of ruining her trip from Dallas by not offering in-store shopping. Vaughn says it's empowering to reply that most Central Austin shops, like his own, are currently operating curbside and online sales only.
"There's a lot of calls like, 'Half Price Books is open. Why aren't you?'" he says. "We're different. The record store owners in Austin have all been in communication with each other, so there's this unified front: 'Let's not open until we can all do it, and all feel safe.'"
Those conversations currently focus on a contactless edition of Record Store Day on Saturday. The event, typically an April occasion for record-breaking sales at independent shops across the country, now spreads exclusive vinyl drops across three dates: Aug. 29, Sept. 26, and Oct. 24. Local participants, collectively closed for in-store shopping, include Antone's Record Shop, Breakaway Records, End of an Ear, Waterloo Records, and Burnet antiques shop Out of the Past Collectibles.
"We've all been talking and emailing, because everybody wants everybody else to survive and still be here," says Waterloo Records owner John Kunz. "We work cooperatively as opposed to, 'Oh, that's my competition.' It's more like, 'That's my ally in competition against [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos.'"
Outside Central Austin, Astro Record Store, Fourth Rock Records, Groover's Paradise, and Piranha Records stock RSD exclusives too – all open to in-person customers. Beyond official involvement, Big Henry's Vinyl & Gifts, Blk Vinyl, Bluebonnet Records, and Feels So Good Records could use the business as well.
Beginning a five-month shutter in March, most Austin stores reported sales are still below half of pre-pandemic figures. Closed shops pivoted to curbside service and selling on Amazon, Discogs, eBay, and Instagram, what Kunz calls online "octopus arms." In the case of Waterloo and many others, it's just enough to maintain the space and limited employee hours.
For the first time, RSD allows shops to post the exclusive wares online Saturday at noon, with plans varying across locales. Waterloo will take email orders in the morning based on a lottery system, and open up their webstore at 12:30pm. End of an Ear already filled up over 400 sign-ups to form a "virtual line" to access their webstore.
"Record Store Day has always been about big lines, big crowds, and big parties," says Dan Plunkett, co-owner of the latter South Austin emporium. "Some stores across the country are putting stuff outside or letting in a few people, but there's just no way to police it. I'm not risking anything."
Like many local shops, End of an Ear hosts the virtual extravaganza on a shiny new website. Before COVID, they hosted some 50 rare offerings online. Now, scroll through more than 3,000. They've found a niche in offering exclusive vinyl colors, like the sold-out pressings of Khruangbin's new album in "merlot wave."
"Those were a godsend," reveals Plunkett. "We didn't really ever look at the online mail order stuff, because it has always been about people experiencing the store. By necessity, we realized, 'Oh, we can be kind of competitive at this.'"
Campus outpost Antone's Record Shop found a similar stride with sales of music books. They've acted as the exclusive sellers for signed copies of Kathy Valentine's March Go-Go's memoir All I Ever Wanted, a natural fit considering co-owner Eve Monsees played with Valentine in the Bluebonnets, and the June Omar & the Howlers remembrance, Omar Dykes: The Life and Times of a Poor and Almost Famous Bluesman. The store also launched a new site with an expanded webstore.
"Before, we really didn't want to throw stuff online before the regulars had the chance to see it," says Monsees. "We wanted to be the cool little store that people stumble into, but that's not an option right now. We have to rethink our whole business model, and those books have been really out of sight."
Discogs once served as a "trash can" for Breakaway's unsold stock and the vinyl/audio gear outpost on North Loop relished unplugging the phone on RSD to emphasize an in-person experience. Its co-owner says the store makes rent these days off upped web sales and social media posts.
"I'm doing exactly what I avoided doing my whole life: sitting at a computer for work," admits an exhausted Vaughn. "I got into records for the existential payment and I'm not getting any of that right now. I don't get to see my people, or have the clubhouse feel of the store. Everything's an assembly line."
Bluebonnet Records owner Kana Harris attests to the existential state of her former community space, now offering curbside and online sales. She and partner Cody Kimbell closed in March on the very day of the Lockhart shop's planned one-year anniversary.
"There's a loss of that connection," she laments, mentioning favorite childhood musical Hello, Dolly! "Barbra Streisand is a matchmaker but not necessarily just for love. That's like what a record store is: 'You want to be in a band? You like this music? You should talk to this person.' I keep thinking, 'What would Dolly Levi do now?'"
She's considered the prospect of appointment-shopping in the small town, but worries that COVID-19 could shut down her tiny team: "If I get sick the store is done. It's a tough tightrope to walk."
Many Austin stores plan for shopping by appointment to precede full reopening. At Waterloo, Kunz installed Plexiglas guards inside but says he's not yet comfortable with state infection numbers. He considers having to regulate shoppers congregating across the vinyl and CD sections. Plunkett agrees.
"I don't want to be a hall monitor," says the latter. "We're busy enough as it is."
On the shores of Lake Travis near Hippie Hollow, used-emphasis shop Groover's Paradise already implements the appointment model. Fridays through Sundays, owner Greg Ellis allows up to six people at a time, and prioritizes those who call ahead. He's hit capacity a handful of times, with business bolstered by his being one of the few open shops in the area.
"My desk at the store is right at the front door, so I can stop anybody coming in without a mask and control the number of people that come in," explains Ellis. "I wouldn't want to put employees through that, but I don't have any problem being an asshole myself."
Ahead of the pandemic, the record industry weathered major shipping delays from music distributor Direct Shot, as well as fire at a California plant vital to vinyl supplies. Shop owners expressed concern over recent cutbacks at the United States Postal Service. Monsees, who began working at Antone's as a teenager, says change is inevitable in vinyl sales.
"Even though we're small, all those industry ups and downs impact our shop," she says. "Fortunately, we've been around for 33 years and have some knowledge – maybe just knowing to expect something to go wrong. We've always got to be prepared for something, we just don't know what it is yet."