25 Things Every Record Store Should Have (Other Than a Future)
In tribute to the countless record stores suffering through this pandemic, here's something I wrote a while back and have now updated. I am sick without the ability to record shop, but the folks who run the many stores I frequent are doing much, much worse. I know survival is job #1 for these shops right now, but I hope they come back strong and I stand ready to help, via armloads of new and used record purchases, when that time comes. So a future, obviously, is the #1 (with a bullet) thing our favorite record stores really need, but here are some other things essential, in my experience, to a perfect record store.
I’ve spent thousands of hours in record stores over the years. During this extensive field research (even Alan Lomax would be impressed) I’ve mentally compiled a list of the common characteristics present at my favorite shops. The list is transcribed below, but is far from comprehensive (feel free to submit some of your own). This doesn’t mean I want all record stores to be the same, but I do believe all should aspire to serve their customers better. I realize times are tough and budgets are tight—some things on this list may not be financially feasible for some owners (especially now). I understand and sympathize. But most of the items on this list won't cost a bundle to execute either.
Dear Records Store Owners and Clerks,
Please add the following 25 things to your store as soon as possible if you haven’t done so already.
1 “Now Playing” rack
Please don’t make me ask you what’s playing on the house speakers. You’re not a sphinx—there should be no riddle required prior to accessing the pyramids. This way, I won't have to wait until you’re free to kibitz. Plus, some customers are introverted and/or don’t want to admit they don’t know what’s playing in fear of jeopardizing their coolness quotient. It’s a pride thing for some. Relieve all of these burdens by simply propping up the record currently playing on the counter somewhere. Then, with a sharpie (a wood burner perhaps?) write “Now Playing” on a stray block of wood. This is an easy one—low hanging fruit—to get you started. People buy what they like and if they like what you're playing, you've got a potential sale on your hands.
2 Staff recommendation section
You run a record store. You get to listen to music all day. Lucky you! But your real job is to sell records to people that they want and to turn them on to records they didn't know they wanted. It's the key to your perpetual viability. Make a concerted effort to highlight the music you truly love—your enthusiasm can be infectious, your knowledge invaluable! So why not dedicate a spot (preferably with a listening station) that highlights your personal favorite records of the moment (new or old)? (And, of course, your staff’s favorites, too—if you have a staff). Even if we don’t agree with your selections (Swedish death trance?) we appreciate the effort. (Ed. Note—Feel free to add an RIYL—Recommended If You Like—addendum alongside each choice, so we can approximate the genre of your artist from within a more accessible context.)
3 Keep new & used vinyl separated
There are many days when I’m in a crate digging mood and will spend hours flipping through your entire stock of virtually unsellable records. On other days, I just want to see what’s new. It can be overwhelming to the customer to see so many records—you don’t know where to start. Paring down the size of the task is never a bad idea. Plus, some people want to buy new, pristine vinyl. Not everyone likes a yard sale. On a side note: for frequent visitors, have a “New Arrivals” section for used vinyl. I’m a regular—don’t make me rummage through every record in the store every time I come in (I’ll do that often enough, still). On a side note to that side note: a record store I was just in even had a “this just in today,” “…in yesterday,” “…two days ago,” all the way to “…six days ago” sections. Talk about rewarding your loyal, frequent customers! It’s a lot to ask, but if you want extra credit, go for it.
4 Have a robust new releases section
Remember what got you into music in the first place (to begin with, everything). For me, and likely for you, it was discovering exciting new sounds! So go out of your way to keep cool new music in stock. Stay on top of what’s happening and try to stock the records people want and some they should want. If your sole purpose is to be a crate-digger’s vinyl emporium with no focus on anything new, so be it. That serves a purpose. But for me, the perfect record store serves both audiences. FYI: It’s also a good idea to have a new releases wall, or section, in the store—the freshest of the fresh. When I go to a store for a cool new record I’ve heard about, that’s the first domino. If I don’t find my #1 goal, I won’t be in much of a mood to get a few impulse buys on the side. Nobody wants to leave with their second choice. If I get the one or two (or eight) that I came for, that’s when I take a flier on something risky or fill in some back catalog items. I reward shops with good stock by buying more and more records from them. And I don’t mind paying a little more for the experience. Side Note: One favorite shop of mine staples a little “New Release” sign to the dividers of artists that have released new material in the past few months. It also makes for easy navigating, which is especially welcome if your kids and spouse are in the car waiting for you to finish because they want to go home already.
5 Curated stock
If records don’t turn over reasonably fast, put them somewhere else (or make them into potato chip bowls or coasters). Your loyal customers don’t want to see the same Burton Cummings solo record over and over every visit for ten years. A good record collector can sniff out a store with picked over stock a mile away. Do get a reputation for buying used records in good condition at a reasonable price. Also get a reputation for being discerning. Don’t buy just to fill the racks. Some of the best record stores I’ve ever visited had a smaller yet more intriguing flip.* Quality over quantity. One of my favorite stores even keeps the sow moving stock in the basement so the crate diggers can peruse off the grid when we so desire. A nice touch.
*Flip is defined as the process of digesting what records are in a given record bin. A good “flip” means the flipper is compelled to see what’s next based on a peaked interest or curiosity level. A bad “flip” means the flipper is bored, frustrated, and possibly considering bagging the effort altogether if something good doesn’t turn up pretty fucking soon.
6 Decent sound system
Find a system that makes the records you play sound good (it doesn’t have to be audiophile quality, but it shouldn’t be something found in a teenage girl’s bedroom either). Please, no Playskool turntables! Keep the volume loud enough to do justice to the music, but don’t punish us. And, by the way, play stuff you’re genuinely interested in listening to, or selling. Never, I repeat never, play something intentionally to alienate/abuse/perplex your clientele. Get a reputation for playing cool records. (To quote High Fidelity: “I will now sell five copies of the Beta Band’s 3EPs.”) And please don’t watch TV, listen to the ballgame, or sit in silence reading. You’re the record guy (or gal). Play some good fucking records and energize the place!
Records stores have a reputation for stanky-ass smells (mold, mildew, dust, B.O., weed, fast food, etc). So, weather permitting, open a door (or, if you can find a place with a transom, that would be delightful), keep a ceiling fan running, or position a twelve-inch, 3-speed, oscillating fan in just the right spot. This is especially important if it’s hot and your A/C has seen better days. (Ed. Note—Use incense at your own risk; it can distract and repel as much as it can attract and compel.)
8 Open-minded, understanding, courteous, and knowledgeable clerks
Alert to all record clerks: we’re officially in the days of the customer experience. Customer service and convenience is king; we have no time or desire to indulge your snobbish proclivities. The record counter is no longer an ivory tower. It is not a place for you to stabilize your soapbox one pompous, condescending, hipster nail at a time. These days, a dismissive attitude is unforgiveable. We no longer require an eye roll when we ask which Scott Walker record is his best (Condescending answer: “They’re all equally good.”) You need to understand that not everyone is as into music as you are. Why would you want that anyway? So choose to help every customer get to the next level of music experience no matter where they are at on the spectrum, by sharing your passion in an open-hearted, helpful, and insightful manner. Just like you should open a door for an old lady, you should see what the customer needs and come to the rescue when engaged. People remember where they were treated well and then return for the same experience again and again. So shitcan the ‘tude and find that wayward custom-er over in the corner a record she’ll love. Me, on the other hand, I’m good—leave me alone.
9 Listening area/social center
I realize space is often an issue, but I’ve seen some record stores set up a comfortable listening area for patrons. A place where one can put on a record and let it soak in casually, without any pressure to scram. Do you wonder why bookstores put comfy chairs in the store? Or why some coffee shops have a fireplace and actually encourage you to write your lousy screenplay for three hours on one cup of coffee? Mainly because it creates an atmosphere where you can feel at home, enjoy the healthy buzz of low-intensity social interaction, and sometimes hang with people who have similar interests. It keeps people in the store longer, and that’s never a bad idea. As long as the store is open, that is.
I’ve never met a dog in any store that wasn’t a magnet for people. There’s a reason they’re used for therapy in old folks’ homes and prisons—they put people in a good mood. People not only love a lazy dog sleeping in the window or on the floor of your store, but he or she is also a diversion for the sidekick of the record addict. When two people go to a record store together (I don’t recommend it), one is always slower or less interested in browsing than the other (would it kill them to broaden their horizons a little?). A dog gives the hare something to do while the tortoise catches up. Personally, I like to give a little belly rub as the clerk rings up my purchases. Also, you can also name the dog after one of your favorite musicians (Jerry Lee, Holger, Elvis, Pickett, etc.). (Ed. Note: Bonus points if you keep a water bowl by the front door and treats behind the counter for other canine visitors.)
11 Create some atmosphere
Sadly, many record stores don’t put much effort into creating a distinct atmosphere. It makes no sense—the store is an altar to creativity, so show some yourself! I’ve been in stores with blank white walls and bright halogen lights, and I’ve been in stores where you didn’t know where to look next—a veritable feast for the eyes! I don’t require a boutique, carnival, or burlesque show, just something that makes me feel anything is possible at this place. That feeling translates to a longer visit and makes me want to visit every corner of the place to see what treasures are hiding there.
12 Sell store T-shirts
We don’t have to remind you that record stores are rare commodities these days. Part of your job is to embrace the culture and promote it. You’d be surprised how many of your customers feel the same way. My wardrobe is 40% record store t-shirts. We’ll pay you to wear a t-shirt that promotes your store! How great is that? But put some effort into the process. Surely you know someone with design or artistic talent, right? Record stores are beehives of people that appreciate the arts of all kinds. Put a sign on the door asking for people to contribute artwork ideas. Then print up some free advertising and have people pay for the privilege of wearing it.
(Side Note: Also, consider a bumper sticker, patch, record mat, or other clever souvenir, if you have the creative urge and/or budget. With the internet, it has never been easier to put your name on shit.)
13 Have an internet presence
This may sound counterintuitive, but a website allows people to hear what’s going on at the shop and possibly even order records from your stock (if you’re technologically sophisticated enough). You can promote your record of the week, the next RSD, talk about new acquisitions, highlight promotions, recommend new releases, and anything else you can think of. Technology may have ruined the record business, but failing to embrace it could hasten your demise.
14 Be active in your community
Support the local arts community, if any. Allow posters for gigs, bands, high school events, bars, etc. Have local bands play in-store if there’s room. DJ a charity event. Anything is good as long as it makes you a known and active part of the city in which you’ve chosen to live. Also, it always helps to know of good local bands or artists in the area. Have a dedicated section to local bands. Sponsor a show. The possibilities are endless.
15 Exterior sign
I get it: signs can be expensive. But if you can afford one, get one. Or get creative and make your own. Face it, people like to be lured into places—we don’t like to think. If there’s a cool little shop downtown, you know, the one with the retro neon sign, or the purple octopus hanging out front (assuming your shop is called Purple Octopus Records, that is) then people are more likely to pop in for a look around. People will also see it better when driving or walking in the neighborhood. If your exterior looks dank, old, and unkempt, there’s no way someone on the bubble is going to come in. Why would they?
16 Sandwich board
A lot of records stores use this ploy, but it’s a simple and easy way to lure in passers-by. A sidewalk chalkboard can highlight the week’s new releases or you can make it a forum for your poetic/artistic brilliance. But I guarantee people will read it and take note.
17 Year-end 'Top 10' lists
Music fanatics love Top 10 lists. So cater to them. All my favorite record stores post lists of their favorite songs and/or records at the end of each year. Xerox some copies and leave them by the counter or entryway for people to take. You might sell a few more records as a result.
18 Promotions beyond Record Store Day (i.e., frequent buyer programs)
I have a love/hate relationship with Record Store Day—love the cool novelties, hate the assholes hired by eBay entrepreneurs to pinch the good stuff for quick resale and profit. It has taken much of the spirit away from the day’s original intent. (The modern era’s version of hiring bums to sleep in ticket lines back in the 70s and 80s. There is no shame.) There has to be a way to reward the most loyal customers with priority access to RSD product. Some stores already have a frequent buyer program, for example. You buy 10, you get the 11th free (or at least at a discount). Maybe you can find a way to track purchases (like a mini-Amazon), and make it known to visitors that one of the perks of loyalty will be cool, rare stuff when it rolls in on RSD. Open the doors an hour early for your most loyal subjects. I understand this could be a logistical nightmare, but work with me. That said, RSD shouldn’t be the end-all promotion. Do other things, too. In-store performances (a local band), free pizza on new release Friday (which should still be on Tuesday), or something else of your own choosing. On another note, do you know how some taverns will keep personalized mugs for their best customers behind the bar? Why not give big spenders some status, too? Something they’ll get a kick out of, like a Polaroid on the wall, a free cold beer while they browse, or control of the house stereo when they shop? Maybe even let them contribute to the recommendation wall once in a while (Loyal Customer Picks), etc.
19 Record cleaning supplies
This is simple. People are buying vinyl more and more these days. Have the supplies they’ll need to play, and maintain, their records and equipment. Some shops even sell/fix some primo used equipment. Not a bad idea.
20 Personal hygiene
I don't want to be harsh, but is a shower out of the question? And can we agree to wash the fried chicken stained Mojo Nixon T-shirt once in a while?
21 Hand wipes/sanitizer
This falls under hygiene, but it is so important it deserves a separate line item (now more than ever!). Records, especially used ones, leave a mysterious film on your hands (I do not want to see the lab results either—ignorance is bliss in this case). Lots of grubby mitts flip through stacks of records on a daily basis. You don’t know where those hands have been. I’ve been at stores before where I felt like showering immediately afterwards. You can’t stop used records from being worn and dirty, but you can help out your customers by putting a little hand wipe box near the door or a jar of pump sanitizer. They’ll love you for it.
22 Record commentary
My favorite record stores often put a little personal commentary on select records in their stock, usually on a sticker affixed to the record (be sure to use only those that easily peel from the records with no damage/residue left behind). You don’t have to do it on all of them, of course, but every now and then, some personal perspective is welcome. It can either be a comment that the record is rare or special in some way (out-of-print, for example) or just a quick note on the band, style of music, or star rating. Think of this as the aforementioned recommendation wall in miniature. It also shows you’re personally invested in the records you stock and are willing to share your knowledge with your customers.
23 Easy navigation
I cannot stress this enough. Make it clear how the store is laid out. I should be able to quickly figure out the lay of the land without a Sherpa for guidance. Label shit well and keep up on it. My favorite shops sort artists with their own individual divider. The more individual artist sections the better. My least favorite shops jam 1,000’s of records in the “Misc. S” section because they’re too lazy to make a new divider.
24 Don’t pre-open new CDs and records
I like to open my own records, thank you. I don’t like when they are opened and stored behind the counter. Or when the CD insert is used to sell the record instead of the CD itself. I don’t want twenty scumbags pawing the insert before I get to it. I know security is an issue, but there are better ways to protect your stock.
25 Thank me for coming in
I don’t need to be mollycoddled, but would it kill you to appreciate the business I’m giving you? I’ve been at stores where the clerk rings me up, takes my money, and ships me on my way without a word of discourse uttered. Why not ask if there’s anything else the customer was looking for but couldn’t find? Even if you don’t have it, it’s intelligence for future stocking consideration. Engage your customers. If you’re friendly, I’m 10x more likely to return. Don’t take my addiction, and others like me, for granted. We’re loyal to record stores, and will fight for their survival, but we all have a breaking point.
Thanks for hearing me out,