Connor Herrington makes a curbside delivery of albums to a customer outside Comeback Vinyl, a new and used independent record store in downtown Alpharetta, on Friday, May 8, 2020. Retail has suffered during the pandemic, and record shops are no exception. Some posted GoFundMe campaigns to help them stay afloat and pay employees, some offered mail order and curbside pickup and now a few are slowly reopening their doors to customers. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Independent record shops in Atlanta navigate a COVID-19 world

Record shops are cozy. You might need to squeeze by a fellow shopper to get to that red vinyl treasure at the end of the row. Social distancing is not an option.

Of course, they aren’t all that way, but Wuxtry in Decatur has always been a tightly packed place, crammed floor to ceiling with albums. While the shop was closed, manager Richard Kuykendall and owner Mark Methe spent a lot of time creating space and a new traffic flow.

Wuxtry Records store manager Richard Kuykendall has worked there since 1991. He’s seen here in a photo from October 3, 2018. (Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com)

“Instead of sitting around going ‘oh, no, we’re gonna die’, let’s just work,” Methe says. “It was somewhere to go and do, something instead of sitting around at home.”

There’s only so much to be done, though. “It’s always going to be cramped, but the flow pattern’s a little easier right now,” he says, before pausing to ask a couple of customers entering the store — both masked — if they’d like some hand sanitizer. They’d already sanitized in the car before coming in.

“Well, feel free to re-up…,” he says, noting that he invites everyone to partake in the sanitizer, and if they don’t, he “sort of insists.”

Wuxtry in Decatur is still chock full of albums, but the traffic flow is a bit more open these days. Photo contributed by Richard Kuykendall

Wuxtry has been doing business near the corner of Clairmont and North Decatur roads since 1978, and in that time, they’ve never been closed for this long. The store shut its doors on March 24, and reopened on Monday, May 4.

“I’m not 100% certain I’m doing the right thing, but you got to stay alive, too,” Methe says.

Wuxtry’s four-legged greeter Podushka the corgi, who has her own Instagram account (@podushka_the_corgi), is back on the job as of Monday, May 4. The long-running Decatur record store has reopened after being closed since March 24. Photo contributed by Richard Kuykendall

In opening up its doors to customers, Wuxtry is the rare exception, but it’s not alone. Records Galore in Clarkston and Mojo Vinyl in Roswell have both reopened, too. But Atlanta is blessed with many record shops, and they’re struggling to survive just like every other consumer-focused business in the current pandemic. Even the ones that haven’t reopened are looking for ways to keep the lights on until they’re ready to welcome customers again.

Mojo Vinyl is open just three days a week, for now. The shop is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and, as their Facebook page reminds potential shoppers, they’re “following current social distancing rules and wearing masks. If you can’t deal with that, don’t bother.”

Connor Herrington (left) wears mask and latex gloves before he makes a curbside delivery at Comeback Vinyl on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Most of the shops are concentrating on mail order and curbside pickup, including Alpharetta’s Comeback Vinyl.

“Business has definitely been slower without our retail store being open for in-store shopping,” says Comeback’s co-owner Alex Vernon. “We’ve taken a big hit for the last few months, but our customers have been keeping us going with online and phone orders. We’ve been doing mail order since we first started selling records in 2014, so we’ve had a lot of experience with it, but it’s never been all we do.”

Copies of Jason Isbell’s new album “Reunions” are packed and ready for a curbside delivery at Comeback Vinyl in Alpharetta on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Some artists have been encouraging fans to support small independent music retailers, and a few have gone even further. Jason Isbell, formerly of Athens’ Drive-By Truckers, is releasing his latest album, “Reunions,” to independent record stores seven days before it hits other outlets. Comeback Vinyl was among the shops selling the Isbell album last Friday.

But something is lost in picking up an album without ever leaving your car, and Vernon knows that.

Connor Herrington makes a curbside delivery of LP albums to Duncan Murphy in his car outside Comeback Vinyl, a new and used independent record store in downtown Alpharetta, on Friday, May 8, 2020. Retail has suffered during the pandemic, and record shops are no exception. Some posted GoFundMe campaigns to help them stay afloat and pay employees, some offered mail order and curbside pickup and now a few are slowly reopening their doors to customers. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“We’ve made several new efforts to allow our customers alternative ways of shopping during the pandemic,” he says. “We uploaded ‘flip videos’ of our entire inventory, both new and used records, to a Dropbox folder that we’re calling the Comeback Vinyl Virtual Record Store.”

Those folders are organized just like they are in the store. You can view used records or new, and see albums alphabetized within genres. You can see the store’s entire inventory at comebackvinyl.com. “Flipping through records in a record store is one of the most enjoyable things about collecting albums, and with the pandemic going on, we wanted to find a way for our customers to still get that in-store shopping experience from home,” Vernon says.

Connor Herrington makes a curbside delivery of albums to Duncan Murphy in his car outside Comeback Vinyl, a new and used independent record store in downtown Alpharetta, on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Social media is another important outlet for keeping record stores afloat. GoFundMe campaigns have helped some stores maintain payroll and leases, but others have used it to keep doing what they’ve always done: sell records.

Wax’n’Facts in Little Five Points, which relied almost solely on in-store sales, has jumped on the digital sales bandwagon with encouragement from customers. But many shops have been doing online sales for many years, via the multi-vendor platform Discogs, eBay and other outlets.

Ella Guru Record Shop owner Don Radcliffe is among those who have a presence on Discogs, but since the pandemic shut down the shop to foot traffic, he’s been posting select albums on the shop’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, along with a price list. He’s even done the occasional delivery for local customers.

Connor Herrington (right) talks on the phone as Luke Brown prepares for a curbside delivery at Comeback Vinyl on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“We’ve had a couple of months which are no worse than the first months we were open originally. We’re paying the rent; I’m still paying my part timers. We’re not ahead of the game, but we’re keeping up without having to worry too terribly about whether we’re going to have to do a GoFundMe, or I’ll go back to running the thing myself. It’s really been great.”

Don Radcliffe inspects a used album at Ella Guru in the Oak Grove neighborhood of Decatur.

“And people are so supportive,” Radcliffe says, before noting that he’s put hundreds more records up on Discogs that weren’t there before the shutdown began. And most of the people buying there appear to be new digital customers, too. You can tell by noting how little feedback they’ve had on their accounts.

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“I would say half of the people who have bought stuff from me on Discogs have got 10 feedback count or less,” Radcliffe says. “People are jumping on and buying records because people just gotta buy records. Nothing’s gonna stop them.”

Wuxtry actually sold a few albums in April, too, as Methe notes that he took in about $64 in April. Customers called, asked if he had something in stock, and they worked out an exchange at the door. But that’s not a long-term strategy for survival.

Connor Herrington inspects a used album before he packs a bag for a customer to pick up at Comeback Vinyl on Friday, May 8, 2020. Some local record shops are offering mail order and curbside pickup and a few are slowly reopening their doors to customers. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“The idea of having a table at the door and people come up and you say what do you want and you go look, like the liquor store, I don’t see how that could possibly work here,” Methe says. “You’ve got to browse.”

Music is comfort, and for some of us, there’s still something about going to a record store and flipping through the bins that can never be replaced.

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