Shuffle: Independent Record Stores Spin Up a New Business Model in the Face of COVID-19
On what would have been the 12th annual celebration of Record Store Day on April 18, local music shops remained dark, empty and closed. The event is an annual celebration of independently owned record stores and brings crowds of music fans to these local businesses to buy exclusive or new music releases.
Local record stores are experiencing the difficult effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—not only on sales, but also in missing the camaraderie that often comes hand-in-hand with small businesses and their regular patrons.
How Northeast Ohio record stores responded to the temporary closure of non-essential businesses
One record store owner pre-emptively closed his store before state-mandated orders were put in place.
David Sherrill, who co-owns Arrowhead Vintage and Handmade Goods in Canton with his wife Melissa Sherrill, said he took proactive measures, which meant entering self-quarantine early.
“Within an hour they confirmed a Stark County case, we just locked the door and turned off the lights,” Sherrill said.
Prior to the shutdown, Arrowhead—which is known as a destination spot for records but also sells a variety of vintage and handmade goods—only sold about 10 percent of its inventory online. The store is now focusing solely on online sales and doing curbside pickup orders for locals and regulars.
In Wooster, Operation Fandom, LLC owner Joshua Lehman opened his record shop, Blackbird Records, on March 5—just prior to widespread shutdowns in Ohio. His business sits next door to Operation Fandom at the former site of Lucky Records.
Lehman planned to host the grand opening of Blackbird Records on April 18 to celebrate Record Store Day.
Record shopping is a personal, hands-on activity, so changing the business model has been tough for these business owners.
“In our business, which is memories and nostalgia and collectibles and that kind of stuff, you really need the thrill of [the] chase, and you need that camaraderie—that relationship building,” Lehman said. “For us, it’s always been 100 percent in the store and nothing online.”
He has now had to scale back his new release orders by 50 percent, but he is posting the store’s inventory on social media and offering porch delivery or shipping.
Dave Ignizio, who has owned Square Records in Akron since 2003, began selling a select amount of his store’s inventory on Discogs April 20.
His physical store will be on hiatus for the foreseeable future.
'For us, it's always been 100 percent in the store and nothing online.'
Life without the face-to-face interaction of record stores and their regulars
Ignizio said he had not initially pursued online sales during the statewide lockdown because he prefers to have the best product available to walk-in customers when he is able to re-open.
“To me, the more interesting aspect of having a record shop is the actual walking in and browsing,” Ignizio said. “At any given moment, there could be 15,000 records in there, so it’s like, obviously I’m not going to be able to put all of that online if I haven’t done it already.”
Jim Lightcap, a Cleveland resident and record collector of 10 years, visited My Mind’s Eye Records in Lakewood to do curbside pickup.
He purchased copies of AFI’s “The Art of Drowning” and Gaslight Anthem’s “The ‘59 Sound” on vinyl from the store after COVID-19 measures were put in place.
Lightcap said he prefers to support local shops, rather than ordering records from major online retailers because he enjoys the fun of finding “buried treasure” in stores.
“For a while, it became a weekly go-around to local shops on, like, a Saturday morning and just look for treasure,” Lightcap said.
Some avid record collectors may be wary of or simply curious about the process of ordering physical albums for outside pickup from their local record stores.
“I wasn’t too worried about the record since it had shrink wrap,” Lightcap said. “[I] just paid with the credit card over the phone and then called them when I got to the store, and then one of their clerks would come out, wearing gloves and a mask and hand me my order.”
Sherrill is also facilitating curbside pickup orders at Arrowhead in Canton.
“You arrive, you call me on your cell phone. I walk out with your product in a paper bag. And I hand it to you through the window, and you give me nothing,” Sherrill said.
'If things are at least 70 percent of what they used to be...we can manage to keep it going'
He said regular record shoppers are still calling him, and he’s been sending them photos of records from his inventory if they’re looking for something specific. Then they’ll negotiate a price for the individual record.
Sherrill said he is keeping prices low since people don’t want to spend a lot during the pandemic.
Arrowhead’s owners redid the store’s website and inside of the physical store to accommodate the influx of online orders and pickups—Sherrill said people have more time to really dig into records and listen to them now.
“Our store, where you would shop, is now a table with a lightroom for me to photograph things,” Sherrill said. “And then the next one is a shipping department, and the next table is a place for pickups.”
Arrowhead has thousands of $1 records in the shop and started selling those online in curated packs of 10.
The online shopper picks out the genre they’re interested in, e.g. “hippie, folk, dad rock, metal, jammy, even kids’ music,” Sherrill said. He will pick out 10 records in that genre for $10.
Sherill said online record sales through the store’s website have done well.
He and his wife hosted a "QVC- style show" on the Arrowhead Vintage Facebook page where they showed off their products to viewers.
Lehman is also engaging local record collectors and music fans on the Blackbird Records social media page. He has been asking his Facebook followers for their “Top 5” music lists based on the movie “High Fidelity” and said he has gotten engagement and listening suggestions through those posts.
Lehman has been shipping and delivering records weekly and said it’s going pretty well.
“With Amazon no longer shipping ‘non-essential’ products, we figured we would do whatever we can safely to get music into their hands,” he said.
What the future looks like for local, independent record stores
The shift to online sales has become a new reality for these record store owners and shoppers. While events like Record Store Day have been postponed, the fate of local, independent stores remains uncertain.
Ignizio said he expects business to be slow overall as many are facing financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We've been in business for 17 years and seen lots of ups and downs in the overall economy, but nothing quite like this situation,” Ignizio said. “I love records and physical media, but it is not essential to live, so for a lot of people I imagine it will be on the backburner.”
He’s worried about the state of independent retail, in general, after this. He said many shops and restaurants won’t be able to make it, and it’s already difficult for small businesses to compete with big-box stores and online retailers—and it will only get harder.
'We realize that their ability to spend money on this kind of stuff...will probably take a while to bounce back fully.'
“We could probably survive.. a few months. Once we do get back up and running, if things are at least 70 percent of what they used to be as far as sales for a while, we can manage to keep it going,” Ignizio said.
Sherrill said he doesn’t plan to close up shop any time soon, and his major focus is keeping the store clean. This means not buying secondhand records from sellers and keeping the store closed to the public for at least another three months.
“We’re looking at different models of, ‘OK, in three months if it’s a little safer, maybe we set up outside of the store, a curbside sale,” Sherrill said. “And then we bring things back in once they’re clean. Or maybe we close off the front of the store and people can only come into there. But we haven’t figured it out yet.”
Lehman said the support of the local community has kept online sales going. He anticipates seeing customers itching to visit his store on the new grand opening date.
Blackbird Records will continue offering porch delivery and shipping services after the order has been lifted for customers who don’t feel comfortable venturing out in public.
“Some people might not recover from this for a year or two, and so we realize that their ability to spend money on this kind of stuff—or traveling—will probably take a while to bounce back fully,” Lehman said.
How the community can support their favorite record stores
Record stores have historically been integral parts of local music scenes.
Ignizio has hosted live performances at his shop for the last 17 years. Sherrill’s store is a frequented stop during Canton’s First Friday music and arts celebration. Lehman has been working to build community among local vinyl collectors and various fandoms.
Music fans looking to keep their favorite local record destinations afloat can support them through online orders, social media engagement or donations.
“I’ve also been looking at getting some gift cards at places, too, just to help keep them going,” Lightcap said.
Ignizio and Lehman are both offering gift card sales to interested customers.
Sherrill said word of mouth, sharing record stores’ social media posts and passing along links to order records from local shops are ways to turn others on to new records if they have extra time and money for them.
Gift cards can be purchased online at the following locations:
Blackbird Records: Direct message on Facebook at Facebook.com/DowntownWooster. Gift certificates will be mailed. For every $25 gift certificate purchased, the customer will get $5 added on free of charge.
Arrowhead Vintage and Handmade Goods: Purchase online from $25-$100 at arrowheadcanton.com.
Listening recommendations from local record store owners:
Dave Ignizio, owner, Square Records:
- US Girls- 'Heavy Light'
- Caribou- 'Suddenly'
- Jeff Parker- 'Suite For Max Brown'
- Alabaster DePlume- 'To Cy and Lee'
- Sam Gendel- 'Satin Doll'
“I've been listening to a lot of classics while all this has been going on. For me, that means a lot of Bill Withers, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Lou Reed, New Order, R.E.M. [and] Yo La Tengo. Maybe they're more resonant right now ‘cause they're sort of musical comfort food.”
Joshua Lehman, owner, Blackbird Records and Operation Fandom, LLC:
- The Beatles-'White Album'
- The Naturals
- Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits
- Of Monsters & Men
“Best sellers at the store lately…”
- Miles Davis
- Billie Eilish
- Pink Floyd
- David Bowie
- Nirvana, Led Zeppelin
“Here’s a new, diamond-in-the-rough band that is starting to sell well for us and has rave reviews: The Black Pumas. Their song 'Colours' has a terrific throwback feel to it.”
David Sherrill, co-owner, Arrowhead Vintage and Handmade Goods:
“The wife and I have become obsessed with this album: The Freedom Express – 'Easy Ridin.' The album is a '60s soul-funk-rock beast of an album. The whole album is fantastic, every song hits so hard. Highlights are covers of 'The Pusher' and 'Don't Bogart Me.”
- Miles Davis – 'Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall'
"An incredible live performance, very fluid, very lively. It's very hard to stress when listening to a master jazz musician."
- John Prine, self-titled 1971
"John was a beautiful soul, and this release was such a gift to everyone. He's both tender and kind but funny and happy. This album is a wonderful experience for deep listening."