Criminal Records back from the brink

Criminal Records store owner Eric Levin said money was never the reason he considered closing the financially strapped independent music store in Little Five Points a year ago.

He was just exasperated trying to keep a small business afloat amid a bad economy and customers who were turning to Amazon and iTunes to get their music. And, he wanted to get into the business of helping fledgling Atlanta bands make records and tour.

The community wasn’t having it. Benefit concerts, a Facebook page and “Save Criminal Records” merchandise sent a message to consumers, but perhaps more importantly, to Levin.

“It never occurred to me that the closing of Criminal would resonate so much,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was selfish of me. I was just going to make records, but the outpouring of love and support changed things.”

There are more than 700 independent record stores nationwide, and nearly 10 independent music stores in Atlanta or Decatur that have been shuttered in recent years. Amazon and iTunes — which have far fewer overhead costs than brick-and-mortar stores — increasingly function as consumers’ record stores of choice, making it difficult for indy stores to stay open.

One local record store owner is going to give it another try. Don Radcliffe, who owned and operated Ella Guru for nearly 10 years before closing it in 2009, has reopened in Oak Grove Plaza. Radcliffe said he’s selling used records and CDs as a start and then hopes to start selling new record releases as well.

Levin complains about the overhead that comes with running a small business, but he is proud to offer his staff health insurance.

Yet, as one way to cut expenses, Levin had to lay off two employees.

The benefit concerts and other donations raised money for Criminal, but Levin won’t say how much. What matters more was that “Save Criminal Records” created a buzz that brought more people into the store to buy records, CDs and comic books. That’s what improved the financial bottom line the most, he said.

“The increase in sales was what got us through the year,” he said.

Sales, donations and other measures eventually covered the mounting debt that included unpaid federal taxes. Levin and some of his staff put up more cash. The Disney Channel paid one month’s rent after shooting a scene from the movie “Let it Shine” inside the store.

Criminal beefed up its inventory. And events such as the annual Record Store Day and the Little 5 Fest music festival helped increase sales, too. Levin said there’s “absolutely” enough to keep the store open and to include in-store shows, album release parties and seminars.

Levin’s trying to figure out how to say “thank you.” He paired with Atlanta booking agency 4th Ward Heroes for the “Criminal Records Saves” showcase at the annual SXSW music festival in Austin. The lineup featured bands that contributed to Criminal’s benefit concerts, as a way to promote them to a much wider audience.

“It created a nice base. We couldn’t go as big as we wanted, but we wanted to give Atlanta bands some attention,” he said.

Criminal got its start more than 20 years ago, opening on Euclid Avenue in what is now the Java Lords coffee shop next to 7 Stages and the Variety Playhouse. Levin soon expanded the offerings to include comics.

The store moved twice, once into a 2,500-square-foot space between Aurora Coffee — which Levin bought in 2005 — and the offbeat vintage retail shop Junkman’s Daughter. Three years later, Criminal returned to Euclid Avenue. The shop tripled in size, but so did the expenses.

Levin isn’t shy about admitting it was a bad business decision to expand just as the economy was falling off a cliff. As the president of the Alliance of Independent Media Stores and the co-founder of Record Store Day, he frequently traveled to other, much larger stores and got caught up in their endless selection of music.

“I saw big, beautiful record stores, and I wanted to do the same thing,” he said. “I bit off more than I can chew.”

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