Vinyl fuels indie record store resurgence

Originally posted Tuesday, October 9, 2018 by RODNEY HO/ and Melissa Ruggieri/ on the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Over four decades, Decatur's Wuxtry Records, a crowded repository of all things auditory a mile east of Emory University, has ridden the peak years of vinyl, the rise and fall of cassettes and CDs and the surprising comeback of vinyl this past decade.

Owner Mark Methe points to a 2015 New Yorker cartoon he taped to the entrance and chuckles like a man who has seen it all. The cartoon figure tells another dude: "The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience."

By the entrance of Wuxtry Records in Decatur. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/

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For a time, stores like Wuxtry seemed destined for the record store cut-out bins of retail history, along the lines of video rental stores and Radio Shack.

But thanks to vinyl’s zombie-like revival, metro Atlanta has seen a resurgence in mom-and-pop record stores in recent years, mostly in the northern suburbs. In the meantime, in-town staples, such as Wuxtry and Criminal Records, have found new life.

"Right now is the peak of indie record stores in Atlanta," said Jeff Clark, who has run eclectic music magazine Stomp and Stammer for 22 years and has lived in the area all his life. There are at least 18 currently open, from Vinyl Frontier in Carrollton to Al Bum's Record Shoppe in Acworth to Sunbrimmer Records in Avondale Estates.

Back when vinyl was the dominant option, Atlanta-based chain Turtle's and L.A.-based Peaches owned the town, Clark said. Later, Tower Records in Buckhead became the place to be, a regular stop for Elton John. Peaches filed for bankruptcy in the 1980's. Turtle's was swallowed up by Blockbuster in the 1990's. Tower closed in 2006Vinyl sales by then had shrunk to fewer than 1 million new units a year compared to 250 million plus in its peak year of 1978.

Today, there is a clear hipster factor to vinyl, as evidenced by its success at Urban Outfitters and presence in movies and TV such as "La La Land" and "Suits." But it's fair to state that vinyl is still largely eclipsed by digital options and even the dying CD format. Vinyl sold 14.3 million new records in 2017, the most in nearly three decades. But that represents just 8.5 percent of total album sales and 4.5 percent of all music revenue.

Nonetheless, renewed interest in vinyl revamped the secondary used market, enabling many of these newer stores to survive. Several stores are now complementary additions to downtowns such as Newnan, Woodstock and Marietta already filled with trendy restaurants and art shops. Al Bum’s, with support from the city of Acworth, holds regular concerts to draw traffic, including a recent Led Zeppelin cover band to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary.

Both Moods Music in Little Five Points and Waterloo Sunset Records in Smyrna are even planning to add second stores.

Karen and Alex Vernon, owners of Alpharetta's Comeback Vinyl. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/

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While a few shops—like the appropriately-named Comeback Vinyl in Alpharetta—are solely about vinyl, others diversify to stay alive. Newnan's Vinylite sells skateboards. Mall of Georgia's Rock Shop specializes in rock, punk and metal band T-shirts. Sweet Melissa Records in Marietta is part of an antique shop.

Collectors of vinyl have no shortage of non-retail options, from flea markets and estate sales to eBay and Craigslist. So why even bother driving to a brick-and-mortar store?

"Record collecting has become a community activity, and record stores are the gathering spots," said James Kelly, 62, a clinical psychologist from Cabbagetown who loves Wax n' Facts located in Little Five Points and is active on Atlanta Vinyl Collectors, a group page on Facebook. "Just about every time I go, I end up in a conversation with someone over some record or artist, and pretty much always gain and share some knowledge. The record store owners know what the regular customers are looking for, and make sure their stock is loaded with high quality, unique, interesting, and hard-to-find albums."

Many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, who dumped their record collections in the ’80s and ’90s to scoop up CDs, are now buying back some of those same LPs, paying a premium for the privilege.

Zach Kell holding his prize: a 1981 master pressing of Rush's "Moving Pictures," which he purchased for $40 from the Wright Stuff Records & Collectibles in Woodstock on October 4, 2018. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/

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Indeed, 56-year-old Tom Wright—owner of The Wright Stuff Records & Collectibles on Main Street in Woodstock—recently spent 40 minutes giving new customer Zach Kell a lesson on vinyl master recordings and the value of first pressings. Kell walked away with a $40 Robert Ludwig-engineered version of Rush's 1981 "Moving Pictures," with the original $8.66 Turtles price sticker on the front.

Holding his new prize, Kell, a 42-year-old chef, appeared as happy as a boy who just received his first toy train. He picked up the record-collecting bug just 18 months ago and admits to spending thousands on analog equipment and records. “It’s a blast,” he said.

Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2010, grew up in a world where every song imaginable is now available on a smartphone. Some are drawn to the concept of actually owning something tangible. Their parents or grandparents educated them on the mystic feel of those fragile, black discs, the often crazy cover art and the crackle as the needle skips over an imperfection in the grooves. And for discerning ears, LPs provide a warmer sound than compressed downloaded recordings.

"The quality of the sounds is awesome," said Natalie Hollar, a 17-year-old senior at Walton High School, as she was leaving Mojo Vinyl in Roswell after almost purchasing an LP version of Dr. Dre's "The Chronic." ("You can't get it on Spotify," she said.) Her first vinyl purchase two years ago? "The River" by Bruce Springsteen.

Fantasyland Records has been in its current location on Pharr Road since 2010. But owner Andy Folio opened it in 1976 in a small strip mall on Peachtree Road in Buckhead. His manager, Mark Gunter (left), has worked at the store for 38 years. Photo: William Thweatt/AJC

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It’s just a fantasy

Inside Fantasyland Records, the largest independent record store in Atlanta which opened in during the height of the disco era, $7 posters bearing the pouts of Taylor Swift, David Bowie and Prince cover the walls.

Cardboard boxes and old wooden Peaches record store crates stuffed with meticulously organized vinyl from the 1950s to the 2000s line the aisles of the front room.while In a back corner, a rack offers a slew of new vinyl releases (Paul McCartney, Carrie Underwood, J. Cole). Two back rooms are filled with used CDs, 45s45's and more vinyl—from opera singers to Cher, old radio programs ("Dragnet," Groucho Marx) to comedy classics—and the hallway between them is just wide enough for a couple of tables bearing the redheaded stepchild of movie viewing: second-hand secondhand DVDs.

"We keep it real classic-looking record store here," said manager Mark Gunter, of the Pharr Road music hub. "I think people appreciate it more."

Everything about Fantasyland oozes authenticity.

Owner Andy Folio, 73, opened the original location in October 1976 in a now-demolished strip of stores on Peachtree Road in Buckhead.

“The rent was $260 a month, which is about 20 times that now,” he said with a smile.

He and Gunter, his associate for 38 years, moved in 2010 to this current location, under a stack of apartments a few blocks from The Shops of Buckhead.

The millennials, Folio said, are the primary drivers of income.

“If it wasn’t for the young kids, we’d probably be gone now. That’s the backbone of our business, people from 18 to 40. Seventy to 80 percent (of our business) is younger people. It’s just something cool that took hold on the internet Internet several years ago. It was cool to have a record player.”

Ed Roland of Collective Soul visits Fantasyland Records in Buckhead on October 5, 2018. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/

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On a recent Friday afternoon, Ed Roland, 55-year-old frontman for Collective Soul and a regular customer, popped into Fantasyland with his sons, Lindsey, 20, and Lennon, 9.

Roland just returned from a summer tour with Three Doors Down and Soul Asylum and was ready to shop and leave the store “full-handed.”

“Lindsey, my oldest, loves (vinyl). He gave his girlfriend a record player a couple of years ago…and it’s always cool to bring him here. My youngest will play video games the whole time we’re here,” Roland said, laughing as Lennon glanced up from his device and gave a thumbs-up across the aisle. “Lindsey and I kinda connected when he was a young teenager. He’d find the bands he liked and introduce me to them, from Phoenix to Twenty One Pilots. I’ve got to be a good dad and keep him in vinyl.”

Roland’s affinity for the format is true.

“All I listen to at home is vinyl. I don’t stream. I don’t do any of that. When I’m on the road, I read. I hear enough music when I’m (touring). But when I come home, our engineer-producer Shawn (Grove) and I, we literally sit and listen to vinyl before we start recording as a band and hear the ideas that we grew all grew up on in and the tones we enjoy. It just sounds more real to me,” Roland said.

Music lovers who agree with Roland’s assessment of the sound of vinyl have a staggering amount to choose from at Fantasyland. Gunter estimates the store carries about 75,000 LPs—plus the aforementioned CDs and 45s 45’s and, for an even deeper blast of nostalgia, cassettes and8-track eight-track tapes.

At least one music celebrity has sought the unique inventory offered at Fantasyland.

"In the mid-'90s, Robert Plant came in," Gunter recalled. "They were touring in a bus, but he had purchased an old Oldsmobile convertible in Texas, and it had an 8-track eight-tracker player. He got into town and somehow found out about our store. He came in and asked if we had 8-tracks eight-tracks and ended up buying a big box of (them)."

The Fantasyland reputation trickled down to several other celebrities over the years. Michael Jackson visited in the '90s—with his limo driver and Emmanuel Lewis in tow—and Eric Clapton, Billy Corgan, Elvis Costello, and Peter Buck and Mike Mills of Athens-rooted R.E.M. have perused the merchandise as well.

“People just like building a record collection,” Gunter said of the trend. “You can tell a lot about their personality from what they listen to. You have the nice album jacket, the artwork. It’s part of the culture. You have to actually listen to the record, flip it over for side two. It’s good to come from school or work and have your record collection on the shelf and pick out what you’re in the mood to listen to and put it on.”

Power of promotion

Record Store Day, which Criminal Records founder Eric Levin helped develop in 2008 and happens each year in April, has become an annual marketing bonanza for indie stores worldwide, their equivalent of Black Friday. At Criminal, fans will line up around the block on Record Store Day. Many stores hold concerts and cookouts while fans scoop up special reissues or releases musicians give only to independent record stores.

Butch Walker, a native of Rome, Ga., played Music Midtown on Sept. 16, 2018 for the first time in more than 20 years. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

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Butch Walker, the a former Atlanta-based singer and songwriter, is one of those musicians who has given music to sell on Record Store Day.

He grew up in small-town Cartersville, and trips to the local Record and Tape World—where his parents would drop him off after school—were an exciting pilgrimages.

"This place was like a forbidden land to me," he said, "especially for Cartersville in the '80s, which was a very conservative Bible Belt town. When I walked in, there would be posters of Kiss, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, all over the walls. It smelled like marijuana even though I wasn't supposed to know what that smelled like."

Walker’s musical odyssey began in that local shop. – “I guess you could say it educated me, as well as groomed me into the music-obsessed person I am today,” he said, and he continues to spread the gospel of the allure of the indie record store.

In concert, Walker often professes his love of Criminal Records—and fans take notice.

On a recent September afternoon, Amanda Ellis, 36, and her daughter Samantha, 17, of Tampa browsed in the Little Five Points musical mecca.

The pair visit visits Atlanta a few times a year for concerts and always swing by Criminal Records, which they discovered through Walker.

“We’ve been really big fans of his for years and years, and that’s how we found out about (this place) and started coming here,” Amanda Ellis said.

Walker still has warm feelings for the store. For about 16 years, he lived on Colquitt Avenue, behind the former Criminal Records home, and recalls his routine on the days he wasn’t touring the country in a van.

“I would wake up, get an Americano from Aurora, then walk next door and check out new records,” he said. “I would listen to what they were playing over the speakers, or ask them to throw on a new release by someone that I was curious about. The sometimes overly-opinionated store clerks—I’m looking at you, Caesar—would be very vocal about whatever selection you were interested in, regardless if you asked for their opinion or not. I found this mostly entertaining and sometimes helpful. After all, these people lived and breathed music. They were fans. Try getting that kind of attention to the details at Target.”

Drawn back to the biz

Don Radcliffe primarily sold used CDs at Ella Guru in Decatur starting in 1999 but closed shop in 2009 as sales faded away.

He vowed never to go there again, but the vinyl revival was his siren call. He reopened in a modest 450-square-foot space in 2012. As his wife, Melissa, told him, “What do shoemakers do? They make shoes. What do you do? You sell music!’ “

Radcliffe readily admits a small record shop has never been, and will never be, a path to owning a second home on Tybee Island.

“We’re hanging in there with the philosophy of low overhead, high margins,” he said. “It’s just a great little cash-flow machine.”

It helps that Radcliffe has sharp instincts honed by decades of built-in musical knowledge, buying cheap and selling at margins that pay the bills.

“It’s always good to find unusual and strange and rare,” Radcliffe said, “but if 50 good copies of ‘Thriller’ came my way, I’d buy every one of them. Same with ‘Rumours’ or ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Led Zeppelin II.’ In my business, it’s cool not to like the popular stuff, but they sold 20 million copies for a reason.”

He said he goes back and forth whether the current vinyl comeback is sustainable for the long term. “We’re still a niche business, the 0.1 percent,” he said. “Digital music fits most people’s lives perfectly. I have no issue with digital.”

Clark, the Stomp and Stammer magazine owner, is ever the contrarian. He foresees a comeback in CDs down the road, noting he can scoop up six $5 CDs at Fantasyland for the price of a single new LP: “CDs rule, man!”