Local Record-Store Owners Discuss How They Caught the Bug
Long-forgotten records still have a home at Sound Exchange.
Photos by Clint Hale
Jazz blares throughout the store. The smell of incense fills the air. And two employees debate the merits of Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler, pre- and post-sobriety.
This is a record store.
“That’s the atmosphere in our store, almost like the Seattle Fish Market,” says Chuck Roast, owner of Vinal Edge on 19th Street in the Heights. "We’ve having fun but getting work done at the same time. It’s a great place to work.”
So much so that Roast a number of other record store owners and employees have made a career of it.
Take Robert Medellin of Cactus Music, for instance. Medellin, who has worked in a number of record stores, started buying records in sixth grade. “Once I grew out of buying toys, I started buying records,” he says. “It was a natural progression. I’m still a vinyl guy.”
Inside Cactus Music, Houston's leading independent record store since 1975.
For those who own their stores, such as Roast of Vinal Edge, Kurt Brennan and Kevin Bakos of Sound Exchange, and Craig Brown of Heights Vinyl, the stories vary in terms of how they came to own their respective businesses. But a shared passion for music is a constant. “Love of music – that’s it,” Brennan says. “I grew up with records; record stores were like churches, and I lived in them as a kid.”
Brennan’s story is a unique one. He and Bakos were originally customers at Sound Exchange, which opened in 1979. They began working there in the '80s, and bought the damn place in 1999. “The owner promised it to us if we stayed on,” he says. “It’s a good gig. Why not?”
Roast, meanwhile, started his business for somewhat selfish reasons. Originally a DJ for a popular punk-rock radio show, Roast often experienced trouble finding punk records to purchase and play. After years of slowing amassing a collection, the next step was a logical one. “I had a living room full of records, and I was all about supporting that movement,” he says. “So I opened a store.”
As for Brown, a former Hewlett-Packard employee, he sought out a career path more independent in spirit, as well as one that better fostered a sense of community. “Customer experience is huge for me — I’ve said that since Day 1,” says Brown, who also founded record label Gr8 Heights Records in 2013. “Even if we were hugely profitable, if I’m not providing the customer service I want, I’ll shut it down.”
Heights Vinyl places a premium on customer service, says owner Craig Brown.
Movies like High Fidelity and Empire Records have certainly glamorized life at a record store, so there is a certain “cool factor” associated with these folks’ chosen profession. Not to mention the camaraderie that comes with sharing music with your colleagues.
“I’ve really bonded over the years with people I’ve worked with, quite a bit actually,” says Medellin of Cactus Music. “The younger kids that work here, we share band info. Often times, it’s music I’ve never even heard of, but they’ll play it and turn me onto it, and I’ll do the same for them.”
With regulars traipsing through local record stores, music playing through the speakers and employees bantering and genuinely appearing to enjoy their jobs, one could certainly equate working in a record store to working in a bar. “Everyone has their regulars that keep coming back because they relate to the people that work there,” says Roast of Vinal Edge. “We get to know their tastes and help them out. It’s a lot like being a bartender.”
Adds Sound Exchange's Brennan: “The bar is a good analogy; that’s a good way of looking at it. Most bars get by with those who are there every week. We approach things the same way.”
Getting by certainly seems to be a theme of local record stores, what with music consumption being swallowed whole by downloading and streaming. Long gone are the days of behemoths like Tower Records and Sam Goody raking in profits on the backs of $18.99 CDs.
The racks at Vinal Edge
Independent record stores are under more pressure than ever before to satisfy their existing fanbase, while luring in new customers. They do so in a number of ways, from diversifying their vinyl selection to serving free-beer for an in-store listening or record release party. “We want to create and assist within the local music scene,” said Brown, who is hosting a daylong Record Store Day event on April 16 that will feature live local music, refreshments and a raffle. “We’re always trying to find new, interesting ways to do that. We do this for the scene.”
These stores also cater to consumers by stocking their ranks not so much with employees, but with musical connoisseurs. As an example, Roast tests all applicants during the interview process. He does so by offering up a stack of records and CDs, then having the applicant tell him everything they know about the music put in front of them. “We’re hiring experts,” he said. “It’s kind of cruel because some of the applicants are so nice, but at the same time, I may need an expert in a particular genre. We’re always thinking in terms of what do we need right now.”
And while local record stores are certainly in the business of keeping customers happy, an air of rebellion still exists. Tattoos are prevalent. Obscure punk music lines the shelves. Black is often the attire color of choice. After all, a number of record-store owners got into the business purely because of that rebellion.
“For me, it’s a great gig,” says Brennan of Sound Exchange. “I never really did well with authority, and I didn’t like bosses. To get to do something like this, it’s a great way to make a living.”
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