All evidence points to the imminent closure of independent record stores. Most of them have already closed. The few hangers-on have had to launch ambitious fundraisers in their communities, set up shop on eBay and redesign their store calendars with Record Store Day at the center, a hopeful red bullseye encircling it (it’s April 21st this year, by the way). Regardless of what the writing on the wall seems to be telling us, I’m continually surprised by what I find when I walk into my neighborhood independent record store: people.
On this particular visit – I am going to Decatur CD with the express intention of talking with proprietor Warren Hudson about these weighty matters – I walk into a store speckled with browsers and one customer in particular posing the question to Warren that we all have voiced at one time or another: “But why would anyone want the downloaded an mp3 when you can have the experience of going to a record store? Besides, the sound is so much better on vinyl. When I hear a song I like, the thought never crosses my mind to go download it from my computer; I’d rather just go to the store and buy it.”
The man looks to be in his late forties, early fifties. I get the impression that Hudson doesn’t hold much store in these nostalgic opinion, though he may personally agree with them. They just aren’t the realities of his business. He patiently describes a scenario I’ve often heard booksellers lament: customers come in to browse in the physical shop and then download whatever album they fancy on their iPhones, often right there under the proprietor’s nose.
Like others in the music industry (particularly those who’ve found themselves on the chopping block) he holds the belief that independent bookstores are going the same way as record stores. Later, talking with me, Hudson compares the future of books to the present reality of movies.
“It used to be it’d take hours, maybe all night, to download a movie. Now it happens in minutes. Whose going to go out and buy a dvd when you can do it so easily at home and so fast for free? That’s where books are headed.”
I have to admit, film is the one media that I rarely feel guilty about not paying for. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel too sad about withholding my hard-earned Franklins from the already dollar-saturated industry. Of course, we know it’s not the wealthy who have had to take austerity measures in Hollywood in recent years, but the folks behind the scenes, like the writers.
Back to music. Hudson is a seasoned realist. He’s made it in the record business longer than many and he knows wishful thinking isn’t going to pay the rent. Talking with the other customer, he imagines a near future when people walk by on their way to the Watershed (a popular restaurant down the road) and say, ‘Hey, didn’t there used to be a CD store here? I wonder what happened to it.’ Hudson imagines what he’d say in this hypothetical conversation: “All those times you used to walk past and didn’t come in when we were open, we could have used your business then.”
During our conversation, he speaks so vividly of a future without Decatur CD that I’m prompted to ask: Does he see the writing on the wall for his shop?
“Not for this store, no,” he says. “I’m too stubborn. I’m going to keep finding ways to keep us in business.”
He may be a realist, but I’m not. I find myself wondering, or maybe, just hoping if it is solely stubbornness or if those people I see browsing the new releases, the extensive vinyl collection and the best jazz selection in Atlanta aren’t also buying. Whose to say? When I ask how they did over Christmas, Hudson admits they had their best Christmas ever. “But,” he’s quick to provide the caveat, “you need a good Christmas to get through January. Now we’re just going to focus on Record Store Day.”
So is there a glimmer of hope? Maybe one. I ask him if he feels the shop local movement has had any effect.
“Yes…” he concedes, “that Small Business Saturday that American Express sponsored was good to raise awareness. As soon as I heard about it, I went over to Blue Elephant Books and spent $25 on a book for my child.”
One thing, Hudson thinks, that would help small businesses in Decatur would be to get rid of the parking meters in the down town area. Hmm, now that’d make a great topic on For the Love of Bookshops. Does increased foot traffic equal increased business to small businesses? Would you spend more money at your local indies if your town were more pedestrian friendly? And for those of you who live in walkable cities, how does it affect your patronage of small businesses?
In any case, I’d love to hear what you guys think about the future of independent record stores. Particularly, do you feel indie bookstores are destined for the same fate?