What’s the future of Recycled Records, Reno’s oldest record store, as it moves to Midtown?
On a weekday afternoon, a steady stream of customers comes into Recycled Records’ new location on Virginia Street, near the corner of Virginia and Cheney streets, in the heart of the Midtown. A mother points to a rack of cassette tapes and says to her young son, “Those are tapes. That’s how I used to listen to music.” A solitary shopper, a guy in his mid 30s, with glasses and a very serious expression, slowly and methodically surveys the used record bins, like he’s researching a thesis paper. The store’s multiple-disc CD player shuffles among The Beatles, Carole King and jazz great Eric Dolphy. Store owner Paul Doege sorts a medium-sized stack of vinyl records, deciding which ones he wants to buy. The man selling the records tells Doege a little bit about each one—where he bought them, the last time he listened to them—almost compulsively, like he feels compelled to say something about each record, as a way to say goodbye. A pack of young teen boys, probably aged 13 or 14, walks by. Without stopping to come in, one boy points to the store and proclaims, “Oh, that place is so cool!”
Time is on my side
Recycled Records first opened in 1978 on Wells Avenue in the shopping center behind what is now Speedy Burrito. The original owners were Jonathan Zenzic and Nikolai Janushkowsky, who quickly parted ways. Doege bought the place from Janushkowsky in December of 1980.
“I got turned on to used record stores at Ohio State, and wanted to do something along this line, and was currently managing a Wendy’s to basically build up money to try to get a place,” says Doege, who’s originally from Cleveland. “And I get a call from my mom [who had retired to Reno], who had gone into Recycled Records and overheard Nick on the phone saying he was going to go out of business. So, like most parents who want their kids nearby, my mom offered to loan me the money to buy the place. … As a result, at age 23, I had my own business.”
Prior to buying the business, Doege had shopped at Recycled Records whenever he came to Reno to visit his parents. He remembers being frustrated by the store’s then inconsistent hours.
“So the biggest thing I did was provide regular hours, and I kind of learned as I went,” he says. “I had never worked at a record store before. I was very interested in music and collecting and that kind of stuff, but I’d never done it before. So I made my share of smaller mistakes. The trick of business when you start is not to make the big mistakes.”
In 1983, Doege moved the store to its “classic” location on South Virginia Street, behind the McDonalds, near the corner of Virginia Street and Kietzke Lane. The store was in that location for 24 years, and expanded three times: from 900 feet to 1,200 feet to 2,100 feet to 3,000 feet. From 1988 to ’93, Doege operated a second location on Rock Boulevard near Sparks High School. And from ’98 to ’07, there was a satellite store on North Virginia near the University of Nevada, Reno.
In 2007, in reaction to rising rent costs, Doege moved both the South and North Virginia stores to one location, the shopping center at the southeast corner of Kietzke and Moana lanes. It’s a shopping center where there was once a Target and a Mervyns, both of which are now empty. Without a major anchor, the shopping center has grown increasingly desolate. In five years in that location, which included an economic downturn you might have heard about, Recycled Records weathered on in relative isolation. The store was its own destination, the kind of place that customers would find only by going out of their way.
“There’s no walk-in traffic,” says Doege. “There’s never people walking by, saying, ‘Oh, there’s a record store there.’ During summertime, I might get a little reaction from people getting an ice cream cone from Swensen’s, but in general we didn’t get any kind of walk-in traffic.”
This lack of walk-in traffic is one of Doege’s primary motivations for moving to the now booming Midtown neighborhood. The Moana location will stay open and fully operational through the end of November, at which point Doege will move the rest of his stock and operation to the new location.
“Midtown is a perfect fit for us,” he says. “The way I look at it, Reno is trying to build a counterculture area. Call it our own little Haight, if you will. You know, when you think of things like the Haight, you think there’s used clothing stores, which we’ve got Plato’s and Junkee. There’s head shops, such as Melting Pot and Twisted Minds, the guys next door to me who do glassware and stuff. There’s sin, like the dirty bookstores. … If you’re building a counterculture area with the used clothing, and the antiques, and the cool little bars, and the kitschy little restaurants, and all that kind of stuff that’s there, a record store fits perfectly.”
The actual Haight Street in San Francisco even has a store called Recycled Records. Doege says there’s no connection that he knows of between the two stores, though he has met the owners. In fact there are many stores called Recycled Records throughout the nation.
“You’ve got to remember that back in the day when these kind of shops started, they were all started by old hippies,” he says. “Nobody bothered registering their name. So as a result, since none of us are original people who thought of these things, we can’t really claim it. So I have it for Nevada.”
“I was so excited,” says Jessica Schneider, the owner of Junkee Clothing Exchange. “He was on my vision board to move into Midtown. I felt that strongly about it. … Midtown is blowing up, and I felt somebody was probably going to do some kind of a record store. And if anyone deserved it, it’s him. He’s been doing it for 30 years.”
“In that area, you’re part of a community of likeminded businesses,” says Doege. “When you’re in a strip mall, you don’t know who the hell you’re next to. … All these corporate companies, they can’t speak for themselves. We used to have a meeting for the merchant’s association when I was over by Olive Garden, and the guy at Big 5 [Sporting Goods] could have people selling crack outside of his store, but when we go to the merchants’ meetings, he can’t say anything about it. ‘Well, I’ve got people selling crack, and I don’t like people selling crack.’ He’s not even allowed to say stuff like that. [In Midtown,] these are all small businesses. They’re all local. The people can talk. They can interact. They can make decisions. So many of these strip malls you end up with these corporate stores that can’t make any decisions for themselves.”
Power to the people
“Lou Rawls came in and bought a whole shit load of Lou Rawls albums,” says Doege. Over the years, Recycled Records has been a popular destination for visiting record collectors—including some famous ones, like Glenn Danzig, and members of Sonic Youth and The Cramps.
“One of my best stories is—B-52s were coming to town,” says Doege. “I’d already gotten tickets. This was when I had the Sparks store, so sometime between ’88 and ’93. And Fred Schneider came in [to the Reno store], and spent about $150. I said, ‘Do you have time to go over to my other store?’ At the time the two stores were pretty evenly balanced. And he goes, ‘Oh, no, I’ve got to sound check.’
“And I say, ‘I’m going to the show tonight, but if you want to, after the show I’ll come and open for you.’ He says, ‘You’d do that for me?’ And I said, ‘sure.’ So he gave me a backstage pass, and we saw the show, enjoyed the show. You know how most backstage passes, you go in that little room and the band comes out to see you? So we’re in the little room, Kate [Pierson] comes out, signs a bunch of stuff. He comes out, signs two things, sees me and my wife sitting over in a corner table, kind of staying out of the way … and he walks up to us and goes, ‘Are you ready to go?’ So here I am driving home from the B-52s concert in my minivan with Fred Schneider in the backseat. I drive him over to the other store, and he stayed there til 1 or 2 in the morning. Then, when he was done, I took him down to his hotel.”
Schneider bought old R&B records and comedy albums by LaWanda Page of Sanford and Son fame.
One of the appealing things about shopping at Recycled Records is the fun atmosphere, where longtime employees like Mike Ward, probably Reno’s foremost expert on early punk rock and B-movie horror flicks, and longtime store manager Eric Jacobson, a good-humored, Butthole Surfers-obsessed motormouth, riff on one another and take affectionate potshots at the customers.
“We’ll never not be having a blast,” says Jacobson, who started working at the store part-time in ’86 and has been manager since ’90. “I know who I can make fun of and who I can’t—most the time. … We tend to attract a pretty laidback, open-minded, often hilarious type of people. That’s the atmosphere we provide, so depending on who it is, they can walk in, and we can say virtually anything to some people because they’re so used to that banter. We must know—especially Ian [Yount] and I. Ian and I compete with each other heavily about knowing people’s names when they walk in the door. Between us, we must know a thousand customers’ names, if not more.”
“It all just started because Eric really likes to compete with me,” says Yount, who’s worked at the store since ’02. “And we just try to be cool with our customers and be on a first-name basis with them.”
“I think we used to have a lot more cavalier of an attitude in a way,” says Jacobson. “We were a lot more prankster-ish in the early days. And now we’re really, really focused on—[he pauses to nod hello to a customer in a move that would seem almost too perfectly planned if it didn’t also seem totally natural] how you doing?—just being really good on customer service.”
“A surprising thing about working here is that it’s actually work,” says Yount. “A lot of people think we just sit around and talk about music all day, but that’s doesn’t get product out and pricing done and ready for people to buy.”
“Every store provided its own set of skills that you develop,” says David Calkins, the owner of Discology, one of the very few other record stores in town. He worked at Recycled Records for three years in the late ’90s. “You learn from Recycled Records how to buy used records or CDs or whatever. … I still talk to a lot of the guys over there. They come in here, and it’s a good time.”
“I’ve been really blessed for the most part,” says Doege. “I’ve had over 100 people working for me over the years. And I can easily say that four-fifths of them were great. You always get a few that don’t work out like you’d hope or else they’re thieves or something like that.”
What are the attributes of an ideal Recycled Records employee?
“A sense of humor is one of the first things,” says Doege. “Of course, honesty really helps. I’ve had really funny guys work for me that ripped me off blind and those are ones that fall into that one-fifth. Musical knowledge. But a sense of humor just really helps because—I’m not saying I’m a funny guy, but I can hold up my end of a conversation and keep people interested, so with that in mind, I like us being goofy and fun.”
Somebody that I used to know
Used record stores used to be the ugly step-kids of the music industry, now they’re about all that’s left.
“You know why? Because we’re used,” says Doege. “That’s the simple truth of it. The new stores, the markup is virtually impossible to make money. For instance, I’ll give you a great example. You know they have those sets out they call The Essential something-or-other. The Essential Toto. The Essential Judas Priest. The Essential whatever. They’re usually double-disc sets. The Essential Waylon Jennings is $13.99, and my cost is $12.75. I make a dollar and a quarter. I’d spend $12.75 to make a dollar and a quarter. You can’t make money doing that. It’d be one thing if you were selling one a second, but with the way record stores are now, you can’t make any money at that.
“I’m able to get a decent markup on my stuff and still beat or match prices online. So many times you hear, ‘Oh, you’ve got it here for $8, but I can get it for $4 on Amazon.’ OK, buy it for $4 on Amazon, then you pay $3 shipping. Then you wait for a week. And hopefully the one you get is in nice shape. But ours is, and if you buy two, we knock off $2 and include the tax, so you’re back to what you’re paying online, and you’re taking it home that day in good shape and knowing what you got. So to the initial view, online is half the price, but by the time add shipping and waiting and the fact that we’ll give you a quantity deal where they won’t. We come out at least even, if not above.
“If I took that same $12.75 and bought used stuff, I’ve got maybe 10 CDs that I can sell for $8 or $10 each. That’s $65 to $80 on my $12 instead of dollar and a quarter.”
Doege and the other employees at Recycled Records, as well as Calkins at Discology, all say, as far as physical media, they’ve seen a major shift in recent years away from CDs and back toward vinyl records.
“I started doing a shift in focus, expanding my business model to include new-release vinyl,” says Calkins. “And I feel it was definitely one of the better decisions I ever made in business. … People are enjoying that kind of event of sitting down and listening to a record, and its not just background music, which is what mp3-dowloading has become.”
“There’s a lot to be said for physical formats,” says Doege. “They’ve done studies that have shown that younger generations don’t value music as much. And do you know why? Because it’s no problem to get it. I mean, back in the day—[in Walter Brennan voice] back when I was a kid—you maybe bought an album a month. You saved up your money. You went there with your $6 or $7. You bought the new album. You loved it. You played it to death. You read the lyrics as you went along with it. You were invested in it. Nowadays, a kid’s playing World of Warcraft, and opens up a window on the side and downloads the song while he’s playing his video game. There’s just no risk-reward to it. But the nicest thing about the year 2012, and the past couple of years, is just the big resurgence in vinyl, and that’s been driven by kids, and when I say kids, I really mean like 12 to 20. They’re realizing that analog has a nicer sound. They’re realizing that they’re dealing with artwork as opposed to a little postcard. There are just so many advantages to vinyl, and there’s that, for lack of a better term, kitchiness factor. It’s old-school.”
Though the resurgence in interest in vinyl has helped local stores like Recycled Records and Discology, Doege doesn’t think records stores will ever come back the way they once were in the halcyon pre-internet days.
“Record stores in general, I don’t see them ever really increasing in numbers,” he says. “There’s just not enough of the younger end that’s committed, if you will, to having their music in a physical form. Lots and lots of kids are just downloading. And that’s fine. … How far in the future this will go—I’m not really sure. My moving to Midtown gives me the best opportunities to succeed for as long as possible because of being in that area.”
“Over the years, we’ve seen this whole digital thing start coming in, downloading and all that stuff—music on your cell phone—so CD sales have gradually gone down, but not alarmingly, I wouldn’t say,” says Jacobson. “And on the other hand, vinyl’s gone back up. Vinyl’s gone absolutely crazy. I can’t keep stuff in. I’m running out of Billy Joel and Steely Dan and shit. That never used to happen. And a lot of it is kids. Like that kid right there. He buys a lot of records. Oh, and his name’s Shawn, by the way.”