While the COVID-19 pandemic affected every aspect of life, the swift shutdown of non-essential business in March was particularly devastating for local retail stores, with record shops being a prime example.
“It’s all my worst fears being realized overnight,” Grimey’s New & Pre-Loved Music co-owner Doyle Davis says. “Every business strategy we had was to get bodies in the door. We know that every time we have a live event, we’re going to have a better day than when we don’t. All of our revenue was immediately cut off. All the revenue we generate today goes to paying bills from yesterday — and we had no savings socked away for a rainy day.”
For a business with a tight cash flow and built on a foundation of community, in-store browsing coupled with the experience of holding a physical product in your hands, the arrival of the pandemic was cataclysmic. This isn’t due only to loss of new record sales; current industry estimates place used records at 40-60 percent of all vinyl sales. It’s a vital driver in the resurgence of locally owned record shops and for some stores, like Nashville stalwart, The Great Escape, browsing and the lure of never knowing what you’ll find in the bins is central to their business model.
“We’ve always been more of a used venue,” Great Escape co-owner Rob Baker says. “We had about three different plans that we went through when this started. All of our retail stores eventually closed to the public with only our Bowling Green [Kentucky] store offering curbside pickup. Fortunately, we’ve been selling on eBay and through our website for years and we increased those offerings two to three-fold, but we had to reduce our staff significantly.”
Because of The Groove co-owner Jesse Cartwright’s pre-existing health conditions, the necessity of reducing in-person contact was a particular concern. Fortunately, Cartwright and his partner, Michael Combs, had a lifeline already under construction.
“I feel like we were lucky because we were already in the process of creating an online store,” Combs says. “We just had to rush it along. Nowadays you have to compete with Amazon. We’re working with a direct ship warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, in addition to having the product shipped to our house for local fulfillment via delivery in East Nashville, Inglewood, and Madison.”
Internet sales also proved to be a temporary lifeline for Grimey’s. Initially, working by himself in the store, Davis began turning Grimey’s into an online business. Creating a virtual record store from a site previously used for gift certificates and store t-shirts.”
“The response was incredible,” Davis says. “I was shipping records to every state in the Union. I even got orders from Germany, Australia, and Canada. We knew Grimey’s was a nationally recognized brand because of all the press we’ve had, but I didn’t think of it that way.” Davis was eventually able to bring a few employees back to work to help with mail orders and curbside pickup.
Davis and his staff also figured out a way to reconfigure their many popular in-store events for the new post-COVID world. “Luckily we’re in Nashville, so we have access to a lot of Nashville artists that have international followings,” Davis says. “They come in to record a streaming performance, and we can have them sign all the copies of the record they’re promoting. So far we’ve sold through every signed copy we’ve put on the website. Lucinda Williams, for instance, I probably would have brought in 20 for a regular release date, but she signed 200 copies of her record and we sold them all. We were going to order 700 copies of Jason Isbell’s new record for a Brooklyn Bowl appearance that got scrapped, but we sold 859 without the promotion.”
At Vinyl Tap, personal service became the main focus for owner Todd Hedrick. Taking orders over the phone or through emails, he began offering curbside service and free delivery on the East Side.
“I had to lay off all my employees so I was handling all the orders by myself,” Hedrick says. “Business stayed steady but only about a quarter of what we normally do. Of course, since we’re also a bar and Metro passed a temporary permit allowing us to sell beer to go, that was an extra source of revenue.”
As the shutdown went from days to weeks, Nashville’s record shops demonstrated the small business innovation and adaptability that politicians frequently praise but do little to facilitate. The frustration grew as well-intentioned government initiatives were bungled by mismanagement and outright corruption. First was the promise of Small Business Administration loans that were mostly devoured by large corporations. The Great Escape and Grimey’s secured loans in the second wave of funds, but an overabundance of bureaucracy and vague guidelines resulted in a flimsy lifeline. The same lack of leadership became apparent on the State and local level as the push to reopen businesses overtook measured guidelines based on the science of epidemics.
The Great Escape’s Charlotte Avenue and Madison stores reopened to the public on May 13, two days after Nashville entered Phase One of the Roadmap for Reopening plan. Other stores hesitated with The Groove reopening on June 3 and Grimey’s on June 9.
“At the point where Tennessee and Nashville started opening up and it became obvious [the officials] were not going to make their decisions based on the trends going down, I realized we were on our own,” says Davis. “The extra unemployment benefits were going to run out in July, and I wanted my staff back. To get my staff back we had to generate more revenue. We were also seeing more demand from the customers — more phone calls asking when were we going to reopen. I didn’t think there was going to be an obvious right time to reopen, so we’re just threading the needle trying to keep everyone safe but also generate the needed revenue.”
Opening safely and legally presented a special challenge for Vinyl Tap. As a retail store, they were allowed to open in Phase One of the Roadmap plan, but as a bar they could not reopen until Metro entered Phase Three on June 22. After experimenting with private shopping appointments for the record shop two weekends in a row, both the record store and bar reopened to the public on June 25.
“We’ve created a culture where people could shop for records and enjoy the bar,” Hedrick says. “If we were just one or the other we’d know exactly where to stand but that’s not the case for us. We couldn’t stay closed indefinitely. While we had some luck with online sales and special orders, we have lots of expensive inventory just sitting if people can’t see for themselves what’s in here.”
As the first store to reopen, The Great Escape required masks for all their employees but made it optional for customers with reminders about social distancing. They also reduced hours and the number of days open to allow for cleaning and stocking the store, while operating with a reduced staff.
“We’ve found that most of our customers are self-policing their behavior,” Baker says. “I haven’t seen anybody being reckless or inconsiderate, and we’ve been very pleased. I think there was a lot of desire to get out and flip through the bins. The whole concept of our business is you don’t know what you’re going to find when you walk into the store, and an online store can’t duplicate that. So people were definitely ready to do some digging.”
Grimey’s is also operating with reduced hours to allow for cleaning, stocking, and recording performances for online streaming. Davis hopes to have their full staff back on the payroll by the end of July, but they’re following a stricter course in other areas — allowing a maximum of 20 customers in the store, requiring masks, and placing a sanitation station by the front door.
“We’ve had a handful of people with resistance to wearing a mask, but in every single case they left, got a mask, and came back in and bought records,” Davis says. “Most of them had one in their car. If you think about it we’re in here for eight hours breathing this recirculated air and customers, in general, are in here for 15-20 minutes; we are the one at risk, so making them wear masks keeps us safe. It’s a pretty easy policy to stand behind.”
At The Groove, reduced hours and required masks are also procedures, with Combs working as the sole in-store employee. Cartwright is working from home and only coming in once a week to mow the grass. Combs says customers have been enthusiastic in their support of both the shop and the safety measures they’ve taken.
“Most people didn’t know about [Comb’s] health issues until all this. They’ve been asking how Jesse is doing, so it’s been great. I had an incident with a customer who was in the shop and Facetimed her dad to see if he wanted this record. He said, ‘I don’t want a record from any place that makes you wear a mask.’ But she apologized.”
Whatever comes next, the record shops of Music City are dedicated to keeping the platters spinning and the music flowing. As Rob Baker says, “It’s too soon to make broad statements about what we’ll do in the long run, but The Great Escape has been in business for 43 years, and we’re certainly committed to keeping it going.”
Showing support for our locally owned & operated record stores also supports the culture that defines us and is what ultimately puts the MUSIC in “Visit Music City“.