There was a time when local record shops were commonplace in New Jersey.
These were places Jersey music lovers rushed to on the day a much-anticipated album or single was released. Or perhaps they just enjoyed hanging out in the neighborhood store, looking at the rows of album covers and trading music recommendations with like-minded fans.
All that has changed. Now music fans go online to download individual tracks. Recommendation websites help them find new music they might like, and social networks allow them to congregate electronically with other fans.
Of course, many music lovers still purchase actual CDs or DVDs—or even new or used vinyl LPs. For these shoppers, there are several options. They can get new CDs at rock-bottom prices at the huge discount chains like Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart. They can go online and buy from a web retailer like amazon.com. Or they can seek out the ambience and selection of the last remaining locally owned record stores.
From Paterson to Princeton to Marlton, independent record stores dot the New Jersey landscape. They are few and far between, but, for the true fan, these intrepid retailers are worth seeking.
You never know what goodies you might find. On one recent Saturday, a customer walked into the Record City store in Paterson seeking hip-hop artist Beanie Sigel’s 2001 album, The Reason. When employee Freddy Kersey pulled it off the store’s rap CD wall and handed it over, the customer exclaimed, “You just saved my life.”
Such scenes are the norm at indie stores, which stay alive by offering expert customer service, a friendly, community-oriented environment, and an ample stock of hard-to-find new and used CDs, DVDs, video games, and vinyl LPs. Typically, such establishments also carry music posters, T-shirts, audio accessories, and gift items.
Like independent bookstores, most indie record shops also maintain a presence on the Internet, where they sell used goods through their own websites or their Amazon Marketplace or eBay stores. A key to this business is used vinyl. While most consumers consider vinyl obsolete, some seek it for its sound quality or collectibility. For the record stores, vinyl is cheap to buy as people sell off their old and cumbersome collections and represents a steady, high-margin business.
Rob Roth, owner of Vintage Vinyl in Fords, says interest in vinyl is growing. In 2008, 15 percent of his sales came from vinyl, up from 10 percent the prior year. Roth says two distinct groups of customers buy vinyl. “It’s the older guys replacing their vinyl albums because new vinyl sounds better, and it’s the younger kids who are getting into it,” he says.
But vinyl is a small business and hardly makes up for the overall decline in the music market. In 2008, total album sales (CD and vinyl) across the United States were down 14.4 percent to 428.4 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That followed years of steady declines—as recently as 2000, the industry sold 785 million albums.
Independent stores were a relatively strong sector, with their album sales in 2008 declining only 9.6 percent. Music chains were down 22 percent the same year. That helps explain why familiar chain names like Tower Records and Sam Goody have disappeared. In fact, since 2005, more than 1,800 stores carrying music have closed nationwide, according to Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a Los Angeles marketing company.
Still, despite rising rents in their downtown locations and a declining economy, a handful of hearty independent stores manage to survive. Some stay alive by marketing to a particular audience—hip-hop or Latin specialty stores, for example. Others rely on cheaper used goods. “I’d rather sell a $5 used CD than a $15 new one,” explains Gary Scotti, owner of Scotti’s Record Shops in Summit and Morristown.
While there are bargains to be had at indie stores, when it comes to new releases, it’s impossible for these stores to compete with the discount chains, which often sell hit CDs at a loss just to build store traffic. Such loss-leading is the bane of the indie retailers’ existence. And retailers say the record companies exacerbate the problem by giving the big discounters exclusive releases from major artists. In recent years, certain titles by Garth Brooks, the Eagles, Guns N’ Roses, and AC/DC have been available only at Wal-Mart or Best Buy.
For now, the best of the independent retailers are hanging in there. Luckily, New Jersey—home of music legends from Sinatra to Basie to the Boss—still has a number of killer record stores. Here are ten of our favorites, listed alphabetically:
Over the last five years, Haddon Avenue in Collingswood has been transformed from mundane shopping street to hip strip, with restaurants, antique stores, music venues, and even a taxidermist. Among the hippest spots on the strip is Grooveground, a coffeehouse-cum-music store that opened in 2001.
Grooveground may make its bigger bucks with coffee and its eclectic menu (featuring yakitori, quesadillas, salads, vegetarian chili, parfaits, and the like), but it remains committed to music.
“We’ve been doing surprisingly well selling CDs, especially considering downloading and the down economy,” says Rich DiGregorio, a Grooveground barista from Marlton. Part of one wall displays CDs of all genres, and what is not available in the store can be ordered through Grooveground’s website.
“We really encourage people to order through us,” says DiGregorio. “Why would they do that when they could go to amazon.com? Well, don’t you want to order from someone who knows about music? That is a requirement here.”
Grooveground also has music memorabilia, T-shirts, and other new and used clothing. Friday nights are live music nights, with several acts playing.
647 Haddon Ave, 856-869-9800, grooveground.com
JACK’S MUSIC SHOPPE
Rumor has it that Jack’s is where Bruce Springsteen shops for his music. Whatever the case, this is one of the best record stores in the state. It’s a big store—5,400 square feet on the main floor, plus a 1,300- square-foot balcony—and it is stocked with tens of thousands of CDs and DVDs. Guitars and other instruments, amplifiers, and sheet music are also for sale.
Celebrating his 40th year in business, owner Jack Anderson admits, “We don’t see the volume that we would have seen in the old days.” Demographics have changed, too. “We used to sell to everyone from young kids to grandparents, but we don’t do much youth business because they are so into downloading,” Anderson says.
Interest in hit CDs is down, but “catalog and esoteric titles” still do big business for Jack’s. “Rock is our main seller,” says Anderson. “We will carry every Stones album, every Beatles, every Zeppelin. Any decent artist, we will have their whole catalog. You can’t find that at Best Buy.”
Used CDs account for about 15 percent of Jack’s CD inventory. Remarkably, before being sold, each used CD is resurfaced, loaded into a new plastic tray, and rewrapped. “It comes out beautiful, but we mark it as used,” says Anderson.
So does Springsteen shop at the store? Anderson won’t say yes or no, just that Bruce is “a damn nice guy.”—EC
30 Broad St, 732-842-0731, jacksmusicshop.com
PRINCETON RECORD EXCHANGE
It’s 3 pm on Super Bowl Sunday, and Princeton Record Exchange is humming. About 60 customers are poking through the rows of bins and conversing with friends about potential purchases.
According to owner Barry Weisfeld, Princeton Record Exchange carries about 60,000 CDs, 50,000 LPs, and 20,000 DVDs. Although it is packed to the rafters, the store is easy to shop. An exception is the bargain vinyl, some of which is displayed in boxes under the racks.
Used items account for about 60 percent of what the store sells. “Our strongest categories on CD are rock, classical, and jazz,” says Weisfeld. “On vinyl, it is rock, jazz, soul, and reggae.”
Weisfeld started the store in 1980; it has been in its present location since 1985. Pricing is key. “We have 20,000 CDs under $5, which is one of our big draws,” he says.
The store’s customers are mainly males in the 20-to-40 age range, although the occasional youngster will wander in. “We had a 12-year-old kid here looking for blues records,” Weisfeld relates. “I talked to her mother, and the kid was really into it. We don’t get too much business from the under-14-year-old age group.”—EC
20 S Tulane St, 609-921-0881, prex.com
Record City has been in business in downtown Paterson for more than twenty years and is considered by some in the music industry to be the top urban music store in New Jersey. “We specialize in hip-hop, R&B, gospel, jazz, and dance,” says owner André Hunter.
The store carries a mix of new and used CDs, cassettes, vinyl LPs, and 12-inch singles. Shoppers can access close to a half-million CD and DVD titles on the Record City website.
Record companies love Record City. “We have done in-store appearances with our artists, and they always have a good turnout,” says one label executive. “Record City is known not just for music, but for customer service too.”
Shoppers also stop in to check out the store’s two CD listening stations. Many come for the wall of rap and hip-hop vinyl albums, old house records, 12-inch reggaeton and rap titles, or, the disco offerings.
To help pay the bills, Record City (once a three-store chain) also carries calculators, radios, CD players, a few guitars, and amplifiers.—EC
105 Main St, 973-278-5800, recordcitydirect.com
THE RECORD COLLECTOR
John Chrambanis loved hanging out at the Record Collector. When the shop came on the market in the mid-1980s, he quit his job at McGraw-Hill and bought the business with his wife for $10,000. After several moves, the Record Collector has settled into a pastel-and-stainless-steel art deco building in downtown Bordentown. The product line is also retro.
“We have CDs and DVDs and T-shirts and posters and all that, but 60 percent of what I sell is old records,” says Chrambanis. “If your favorite group is, let’s say, Metallica, you still want an album cover or vinyl, which always sounds better.”
In the funky bi-level store, Chrambanis also has an old upright piano, the better for customers to try the sheet-music books he sells. There are a whole lot of 45s, including rarities like “Tracy” by the Cuff Links, priced at $3.50. There’s a stand of postcards for a buck (some hand-made from LP covers) and a display of old rock mags (Teen World from December 1964, with the Beatles on the cover declaring, “We Won’t Return to the U.S.!”, runs $19.99).
Local deejay Randy Now books a steady stream of live performances in the store, with attractions from Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling to area blues band the Buicks. “These are acts that get 1,000 or more elsewhere and here play for 50 to 100 people,” says Chrambanis. “People sit and listen, and then they buy something.”—RS
358 Farnsworth Ave, 609-324-0880, the-record-collector.com
This aptly named North Jersey store is the king of the 45. Owner Craig Stepneski claims he stocks a half million of the 7-inch vinyl platters.
Entering the Record King is like stepping back in time. It is jammed to the rafters and would benefit from a major reorganization. But fans willing to spend the time can make score great finds here, like an obscure Lesley Gore single we found from the early 1970s.
When Stepneski bought the 2,400- square-foot store in 1992, it was still carrying new CDs. Then the business changed. “About ten years ago, when things shifted, we went used on the CD,” says Stepneski. Nowadays, the store is a destination for collectors of 45s; there are only about 1,000 used CDs on display.
Even the store’s website is a throw-back; you have to mail in your order with a check. That might be part of the retro appeal. “I am not flatlining,” Stepneski says. “I may be working twice as hard to make less, but I really love what I am doing.”—EC
303 Main St, 201-488-4232, therecordking.com
SCOTTI’S RECORD SHOPS
Summit and Morristown
Just after graduating from Monmouth University in 1981, Gary Scotti went to work at the record shop his father had started 25 years earlier. The business expanded to five North Jersey locations, but lately Scotti has been closing stores. He now runs just two—the main shop in Summit and a Morristown location. Gross sales in those locations are down about 50 percent from five years ago, but Scotti is content at the current level. “I want to stay in this business,” he says.
The Summit store is a cheery place with music playing (not blasting) and colorful T-shirts brightening the walls. Customers browse among neat bins of new and used CDs and DVDs, plus a selection of video games, posters, and iPod accessories.
Scotti’s ace in the hole is his back room of vinyl LPs and singles. He says he “hoarded” used vinyl when CDs first took over the market, stocking a warehouse with more than 200,000 LPs and singles. When the Internet battered CD sales, Scotti was armed with his ample stock of vinyl to sell in the store, online, and through his eBay store.
Vinyl now accounts for about 20 percent of Scotti’s business. Still, hot new releases are always welcome. Scotti says he sold 300 copies of Bruce Springsteen’s new Working on a Dream CD (at $12.99) the week it hit the market.
Scotti knows he can’t compete with the big-box stores and Amazon when it comes to selling new CDs. So he continues to load up on used titles. “It’s a dirty job. You’ve got mold, you’ve got mildew,” he says of the collections that customers sell him. “Some days you go home smelling like a garbage man.”
But some days you find gems—and that keeps the collectors coming. On a recent afternoon, one of Scotti’s Summit regulars, a local attorney, excitedly came to the counter with an armful of vinyl that included a used Pink Floyd rarity (at $39.99), a stack of Stevie Nicks singles ($1.99 each), several Japanese-issued Beatles singles ($9.99–$12.99), and an Australian version of “Penny Lane” ($19.99). Total sale: $167.80, cash.—KS
351 Springfield Ave, Summit, 908-277-3893; 23 South St, Morristown, 973-538-5164; scotticd.com
This is a rock store with well-stocked metal, hard rock, and punk sections. The CD selection is extensive. Store owner Art Morgan claims 50,000 CD titles and an equal number of new and used LPs, plus inventory of 20,000 DVDs.
The store’s bins are crammed with CDs wrapped in clunky “keepers.” The plastic frames prevent theft, but also take some of the fun out of flipping through the bins. Single disks are typically priced about $14.99. While that may seem high compared to Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Target, none of those stores could provide the extensive hard-music selection that you will find in Sound Exchange.
“We have had personalized service for years,” says Morgan. “If we don’t have what you need, we special order it. We work with the customer—it’s not like a big-box chain.”—EC
1482 Route 23 North, 973-694-6049, soundexchangewayne.com
Tunes is a rarity. The small, independently owned chain started in 1989 in Ocean City and now has stores in Marlton, Turnersville, Voorhees, and Hoboken. The Marlton store, which dates to 1992, is located in Greentree Square, between a Saladworks and the Bridal Shop.
Tunes carries current releases and loads of older titles, like the Jerry Vale album As Long As She Needs Me (on vinyl for $1) and a used Seven Stories High CD from the ubiquitous Jersey Shore band Love Seed Mama Jump ($2.95).
There is also a clearance video rack (five for $3), new rock DVDs (The Beatles Anthology for $49.99), four-packs of drinking glasses (four colors of South Park or the Rolling Stones tongues for $29.99), and a bin of Pop Rocks three-packs ($1.99).—RS
910 Greentree Square, Route 73 North, Marlton, 856-817-1185; 910 Berlin Rd, Voorhees, 856-782-3733; 5501 Route 42, Turnersville, 856-227-0558; 225 Washington St, Hoboken, 201-653-3355; tunesonline.net
For this veteran retail-watcher, Vintage Vinyl is the best record store in New Jersey. For that matter, it’s one of best in the country. Among other things, the store gets top talent for in-store appearances; many of the performances are captured on video and shown on the Vintage Vinyl website.
“Its amazing—people come here from out of the country and want to take a picture from our stage because they have seen so many shows from video,” says owner Rob Roth, who opened the store in 1979.
Vintage Vinyl has an old-time feel, which works well considering its orientation toward rock. “We have ten different categories of rock,” Roth says. However, he adds, “We sell a lot of jazz and soul.”
Does Vintage Vinyl carry vintage artists like Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin? “We have Frank Sinatra but we put him in jazz, where he would like to be,” says Roth. “Dean is in oldies.”
The 10,000-square-foot store stocks about 100,000 CD titles, 5,500 new vinyl titles, and about 8,000 DVD titles. Used items account for 5 percent of the inventory. In addition, Roth says, “We carry music books and magazines, turntables and cartridges, and some T-shirts.” —EC
Route 1 North and Ford Ave, 732-225-7717, vvinyl.com ■
Ed Christman is the longtime senior retail editor of Billboard. New Jersey Monthly editor Ken Schlager is his former boss.
Cash For Your Trash
Do you have a lot of old vinyl LPs that you would like to get rid of? Chances are you are not sitting on a fortune, but you can earn some cash for what otherwise might seem like trash.
If a store sells used LPs, you can safely assume it also buys them. Most used record shops will buy almost any LP, CD, or DVD, in almost any condition.
A good first step is to call the store and find out what and when they are buying. For large collections, you definitely want to make an appointment.
Next, do some price research. Although your LPs might bring back great memories, most are probably worth less than $1 apiece to a store buyer. As an example, Gary Scotti of Scotti’s Record Shops says he would pay about 50 cents for a copy of Hotel California by the Eagles, depending on condition and whether he needed copies for his current inventory.
If you think you have some gems, check the prices for completed sales on eBay. But don’t expect to get the eBay price from the record shops; they pay wholesale. If you want the retail price, you will have to list the item yourself.
Most stores prefer you to bring in several crates of LPs rather than testing the waters with an armful. The buyer will pick through the crates and give you a price, often one amount for cash and a higher number for store credit.
Local retailers value their relationships with customers and will usually give you an honest price for your better titles. To get the best treatment, separate the albums you think are the most valuable and ask the buyer to itemize those prices. Also, pack your albums neatly, with all spines facing the same direction. That makes it easier for the buyer.
One more tip: Let the buyer know if you have more stuff to sell. They will offer better prices if they think you will be back with additional goodies.