Record store revival

The vinyl renaissance reaches Chico

Chelsea Tucker cues up a piece of vinyl while working at Melody Records.

Chelsea Tucker cues up a piece of vinyl while working at Melody Records.

Photo by Ken Smith

Last Christmas, Amazon’s best-selling home audio product was a Jensen record player. In the United Kingdom, audio equipment retailer HMV reported selling a turntable every minute during the holiday shopping season, and vinyl record sales in the United States in 2015 were the highest they’ve been in 26 years.

Those numbers have been reported by various sources heralding a new age for an audio format once considered extinct by all but hardcore audiophiles and music geeks. And the vinyl renaissance is evident in Chico with the opening of two new downtown record stores—Wax Museum Records and Spin Again Records—in the last six months, as well as booming business at mainstay Melody Records, which has been slinging vinyl since 1979.

Wax Museum Records sits in the corner of a larger space called MCM Vintage, which specializes in mid-century modern antiques and furniture. The building also houses an art gallery, but Dan Lewis—who owns all three endeavors with his wife, Lorna—said during a recent visit that the record store has consistently outsold the other two ventures since they opened their doors six months ago.

Opening a record store has been a life-long dream for Wax Museum Records owner Dan Lewis.

Photo by Ken Smith

Lewis said he didn’t open the store to capitalize on a trend, but to fulfill a lifelong dream. He’s been collecting records since he traded his Hot Wheels toys for a short stack of vinyl at the age of 9. He has about 10,000 records in his not-for-sale personal collection, the crown jewel of which is a copy of The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today LP with its original, banned “butcher cover,” which depicts the Fab Four wearing butcher smocks and surrounded by meat chunks and baby doll parts. The fact the record is a stereo copy makes it rarer; Lewis believes there are “about 16 copies known to exist.”

Lewis has a few thousand records in the store, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 more in storage. He said he’s selling records faster than he can move them from storage to the store’s shelves and plans to hire help soon so he can focus on stocking.

He noted record stores are quite unlike other retail outlets, and he’s dedicated to keeping the atmosphere lively and offbeat. Visitors to the MCM Vintage complex (260 E. First St.) are greeted by life-size statues of the Blues Brothers in front of the shop, and Lewis recently created a shrine to the late, great David Bowie.

The accompanying antique store gives Lewis a unique perspective on what he sees as a cultural movement that goes beyond record sales: “There’s a really strong new interest in old technology,” he said. “In other parts of the store, I see young people fascinated by things like manual typewriters, rotary-dial phones and vintage cameras.

Spin Again Records is Alex D’Angelo’s second shot at running a record store.

Photo by Ken Smith

“I think there’s a backlash against the fact that everything today is digital. Vinyl is old-school technology.”

Alex D’Angelo, who opened Spin Again Records just over a month ago, agrees that vinyl holds a peculiar attraction for younger generations, particularly millennials.

“There’s a whole generation that has never heard music through a good sound system or with much attention to sound quality,” he said during a recent visit to the shop located at the back of the Phoenix Building. “The entire time these kids have been growing up, they listen through ear buds or computer speakers. There’s something about analog, the fidelity, that really catches people’s ears.”

This is D’Angelo’s second spin around the record-sales track. In 1978, he opened a store called Deaf Ear Record Exchange in La Crosse, Wis. He ran the store for 25 years before selling it to a business partner, and the store is still open today.

Melody Records owner Ray Coppock credits the store’s longevity on its wide selection.

Photo by Ken Smith

“When I started selling records, I was the same age as my customers, and then it got to the point that I was their dad’s age. I thought I didn’t want to still be doing the same thing when I was, like, their grandpa.”

Since then, D’Angelo moved to California, picked up some woodworking skills, and starting building high-end custom furniture at his workshop in Paradise. A few years ago, the record bug bit again and he started picking up vinyl, sending high-dollar collectibles back to the Wisconsin store and selling others from a booth he rented at the Eighth & Main Antique Center. (Wax Museum owner Lewis also held a spot there before opening his store.)

D’Angelo said he missed the atmosphere and face-to-face connections he’d found at his former store: “The money is OK, but the real thing for me is how much fun I’m having doing it. The interaction I’ve had with people, even though it’s only been a month, has been really good for me.”

He also said he’s had no recent problems communicating with teenagers when it comes to shared interests in music and records.

“The fact that the demand for nice, clean records is greater than the supply right now meant I could do this,” he said. “I don’t think it hurts other places, because we all have different stuff and we’re serving an ever-expanding market.”

Melody Records owner Ray Coppock credits the ongoing success of his store with low overhead costs and the breadth of the store’s collection, which he said is influenced by the fact that he loves all genres of music.

Having weathered a long slump in demand for vinyl, Coppock said sales are definitely on the upswing. He said he hasn’t felt business at his long-running location affected, negatively or positively, since the new stores opened.

During a recent visit to Melody, a scene unfolded that drove home the singular type of magical experiences that can happen at record stores. After a brief chat about music with regular customer/music legend Jonathan Richman, Melody employee Chelsea Tucker cued up another record, smiled and just half-jokingly said, “Man, working in a record store is the coolest!”