Austin Record Stores Move the Needle on In-Person Shopping

You may now commence thumbing through the stacks again (provided you follow the new safety rules)

photo by David Brendan Hall

Before last Saturday, I hadn't set foot in a record store in seven months. The last time I'd gone that long, my favorite musical artist was the children's singer Raffi.

Still, my weekend trip to Waterloo Records felt normal – even considering I got scanned with a forehead thermometer upon entry, the checkout clerk was behind Plexiglas, and the shop's used new arrivals section had been relocated to spread out customers. In those crates, I mined an LP from the Sixties vocal group the Exciters, then journeyed over to the international section and scored a copy of Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti, a collection of field recordings of possession rituals captured in the Forties and Fifties.

I didn't know I needed that record until I flipped upon it in a rack.

Waterloo, which had been doing curbside since March and appointment-only shopping since September, reopened to the public with limited capacity on Nov. 7. Owner John Kunz believes the slow, scaled reopening of Austin's record retailers speaks to them "trying to be part of solution, not part of the problem in terms of the spread." Still, he says operations have evolved as we understand more about the coronavirus.

"There was a lot of concern early on about whether it was spread by touching a product," he says, noting that record shopping is particularly tactile. "We've learned that the touch thing is less the concern as opposed to close contact and big group gatherings."

As such, Waterloo has rolled out a host of safety and sanitization measures. Kunz said in-store shopping has immediately increased business and, as of Friday, they had one day where the register total hit non-pandemic numbers.

We've seen a varied approach from Austin's record retailers. Groover's Paradise, a gem of a small shop on Lake Travis, has been open since May with appointments encouraged and walk-ups welcome, if capacity allows. The beloved End of an Ear, in contrast, has yet to reopen doors, instead offering mail order, curbside, and local delivery.

For the most part, we're seeing a progression from curbside, to appointment-only, to limited in-person shopping with specified safety rules. Antone's Record Shop began taking one-at-a-time appointments last Wednesday – each customer getting 45 minutes with a $10 reservation fee that goes toward your purchase. Eastside emporium BLK Vinyl has been employing a similar reservation-based model since late September. Getting people into the store is important, notes co-owner John Brookbank, because BLK specializes in used and generally obscure LPs – stuff that sells better when customers can pick them up and look at the credits. He says reservation business has been solid, but it's only sustainable because the shop currently has reduced rent.

"We're real close to thinking about doing walk-ins in some capacity," he says. "And we've been on a thread with all the store owners in Central Austin and they're all sharing information. We'll wait to see how Breakaway Records does with walk-ups. They're really on our level in terms of being concerned, but also pragmatic."

Breakaway opened for walk-up shopping last week.

"It was absolutely crucial," says owner Gabe Vaughn. "We wouldn't have necessarily made that jump just yet if we didn't need to. The thrill of buying records curbside is definitely wearing off. The last month of online sales were not great at all. Us having to open to the public was a necessity, even if it pressed our personal boundaries – so we had to do it in a way that made us and our clientele comfortable."

The North Loop shop closed off its second room, built a Plexiglas shell around the counter, enforced sanitizer and masks, and maintained a six-person capacity with a 30-minute shopping limit. For customers still nervous about in-store shopping, Vaughn's been putting honor-system bins outside full of $3 records that you pay for via Venmo.

"It wasn't like we're back to normal, but it was so much better than making a quarter of that on a computer – and we can finally pay off some bills," Vaughn says of last week's business. "It's just so much easier to sell a physical object when you have the engagement. People can ask me, 'What soul record do I need?' and I'll say, 'I got this.'"

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record stores, COVID-19, Waterloo Records, John Kunz, Breakaway Records, Gabe Vaughan, Groover's Paradise, End of an Ear, BLK Vinyl, John Brookbank, Antone's Record Shop

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