This weekend Heights Vinyl celebrates its first year of life with a big party at their shop on White Oak, just blocks from Fitzgerald's, featuring beer, food, giveaways, and performances from Electric Attitude, Brandon West, Come See My Dead Person and the Heights Boogaloo All-Stars, a band brought together by store owner Craig T. Brown.
In an age when record stores are supposed to be shuttering, Heights Vinyl has proven industry numbers wrong by thriving, with brisk sales, great weekend crowds, a decent location and in-store performances almost every weekend. Along with Cactus Music, Vinal Edge, Sound Exchange, Sig's Lagoon and Black Dog, the shop a couple of doors down from Fitzgerald's is showing that Houstonians are still mad about vinyl and actually buying music.
This weekend's anniversary festivities are a bit late. The shop opened in early December 2011, but with the holiday shopping season in full swing, the party was moved back to a more hospitable date for everyone.
I talked to Brown about Heights Vinyl's first year in the Heights and some of the challenges that they faced over the past 12 months.
Rocks Off: What were the first few weeks and months like for Heights Vinyl?
Craig T. Brown: A whirlwind. The whole year, really. I didn't expect for the Houston community to be ready for a store like ours so quickly. I thought a nice slow start was gonna be the reality, but we've had to hit the ground running. It's been a good problem to have.
RO: How did the Houston scene treat you?
CTB: Having just been back in Houston about three years now, it has been a full-on educational process to get to know the scene and the recent history, what is happening now and who is doing what. And though there's an amazing amount of progress, as a somewhat outsider, I'm surprised at how "distant" the music scene here can be from itself.
Every day I meet fantastic musicians and other creative types who have never heard of each other. I get a real kick bringing these people together and seeing what starts to cook.
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RO: It's pretty exciting to be a local music fan right now in Houston...
CTB: The thing, though, that excites me the most right now is how amazingly fertile Houston is at this point. I believe this town has just started to evolve into something I never thought I would see here. The talent that's around, the new pillars of creativity being created, the willingness of collaboration for greater good.
I lived in Austin in the early '90s, and I tell people the vibe feels very similar. The scene, in my opinion, isn't really defined yet. Yes, there has been fantastic progress by some fantastic people, but I think we're just at the cusp of something special.
From a music and creativity scene, Houston is about as opportunistic as you can get. It's ripe to shape it and mold it how we want it. And to me, it doesn't get more exciting than that.
RO: Was there a point where you were worried about the store?
CTB: From day one, the community has supported us in ways that never cease to amaze me. It's been a learning process for sure this first year. We've definitely had to stay flexible, listen to customers and of course make adjustments.
RO: It seems like the turntables have been a big hit, too.
CTB: The equipment aspect of the store has been one of the biggest and best surprises of the year. From starting out just wanting to give people the option to compare a quality vintage turntable to some of the newer, plastic models offered at large retail outlets, we now (by customer demand) have expanded to carrying vintage amps, speakers, headphones and other accessories.
All our equipment is refurbished and warrantied, but at times we've become a bit overwhelmed and not provided the customer service I think is vital. My biggest fear is for people to lose trust in what we do and have to offer. It's the one thing we keep working on to make it better; there is no road map and we're making it up as we go.
In general, I think we are running so much smoother than in the past.
RO: How important is your staff to your operation?
CTB: It's everything. Despite us growing so much more than I ever planned for this past year, the employee turnover rate really caught me off guard. I think what I've learned is that working at Heights Vinyl is a bit different than working at some other shops.
I've realized I really do ask a lot from the people that work here. Being friendly, knowledgeable, having a desire to learn new things, and actually making connections with our customers really takes a unique individual.
No one here just shelves records and stands behind a register. It means there has to be this combination of great attitude, work ethic and passion about music. But with that, we're still a record store, with record store salaries.
RO: They have a sense of ownership in the store, it seems.
CTB: The trade-off, though, hopefully, is that I also don't look at the people that work for me as employees, but as partners in the store. I give a lot of freedom for new ideas and store ownership.
RO: What has been the best album find you have seen come into your store in the past year?
CTB: That's a tough one. It's so subjective. You get surprises almost every day. A week ago we came across a record, a pressing-plant demo out of Cincinnati, Ohio. No one gave it much thought until someone looked it up and found that a copy had sold on eBay months ago for $600. Now I just need to find a buyer.
RO: Your in-store performances are getting popular. How did those come about?
CTB: Our in-stores have been an evolving process all year long. We've had a couple people do bookings for us and each one has done a fantastic job of making the events on the High Noon Stage get better and better.
We don't really make money from in-stores, and actually during an in-store, all sales go to the bands. We don't take a dime. It's honestly about supporting the scene and introducing music to people that might not have the time to actually make it out that often.
I have a very straightforward vision for how I want us to grow. The plan is to not only continue local support, but also begin national talent as well. We're reaching out to more world bands and styles like jazz and soul. There's too much great music out there. Our goal is to expose more of that to people. We want to keep our customers on their toes, and we'll never stop trying out new things.
RO: What's the plan for the next year of Heights Vinyl?
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CTB: We have a lot of big plans for 2013. We've already taken over 800 square feet of the space next door, expanded our product line and plan to build an even larger stage for events.