Portage Park’s Tone Deaf record store was supposed to have its one-year anniversary on June 15.
“I was going to have a big party for that, and instead I just sent out an Instagram message saying it was the one-year anniversary and that was it,” Tone Deaf owner Tony Assimos said. “But I can’t complain because the shop’s still here and, you know, I’m still in business.”
Assimos’ sentiment was echoed in record stores across Chicago. The effects of the pandemic—the lockdown, closed pressing plants, postal service issues, and a postponed Record Store Day—have shaken local independent record sellers, but they are still here, getting vinyl to music-lovers in Chicago and across the country.
During Illinois’ stay-at-home order, Squeezebox Books & Music in Evanston was closed for three months, surviving on mail orders.
“We were rolling at about 50% of what our previous business was,” Squeezebox owner Tim Peterson said. “And while 50% sucks, it’s a whole lot better than zero.”
At Reckless Records, one of Chicago’s longtime record stores with locations in Wicker Park, Lakeview, and the Loop, staff was reduced to just a few people at the beginning of the pandemic while the store applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.
“We’ve had lots of bills and rents and mortgages just like anybody,” says Matt Jencik, a buyer at Reckless. “It was getting pretty worrisome. Thankfully we did eventually get a PPP loan we applied for, [though] it did take a while and there was a period there where it wasn’t looking good—we weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
SELLING RECORDS WHILE CUSTOMERS STAY AT HOME
When Illinois’ stay-at-home order went into effect, record stores increased their online presence in lieu of opening their physical stores. Reckless Records rebooted its eBay presence, bringing out some records they had “squirreled away” for a rainy day. Squeezebox built a website from scratch during the lockdown to give customers a flavor of the store itself, even though they’ve done mail orders through Amazon and Discogs since the shop opened almost 10 years ago.
After coming up with some creative delivery methods, business actually improved at Tone Deaf records after Assimos started doing home delivery in the Chicago area, which quickly became very popular.
“I was doing deliveries out in Rogers Park and Wicker Park: neighborhoods that I don’t think people ever really came up to the shop before. That really helped out a lot: letting me make money and still be in business without even having to open my doors,” he says.
But with a large chunk of their business going to mail orders, record stores are feeling the effects of less-efficient postal service. “We started noticing that months ago, and now it’s pretty clearly out in the open that they are slowing the mail down purposely,” Jencik said. “It’s just going to hurt stores like us and small businesses more and more.
“The government, by doing this, is directly affecting small businesses, and they know it, and they don’t care.”
Most record stores ship by media mail, which is the cheapest way to ship through the United States Postal Service, but it is also one of the lowest-priority tiers.
Reckless Records often found that records dropped off at the post office would sit for over a week without being processed or receiving tracking numbers, making them think the packages had disappeared.
But not shipping by media mail means doubling the cost of shipping the records, discouraging customers from ordering. The problem doesn’t entirely go away by paying more for shipping, either. Recently, Reckless has found that even packages shipped by priority mail are shipping more slowly than normal.
Reckless employees began going to post offices in different neighborhoods to find ones that were less busy. Some postal workers even scanned their packages in front of them so they could see them getting processed.
“It’s weird to drop off $3,000 worth of records and not know what’s going to happen to it. That’s not the way it used to work,” Jencik said.
PRESSING PLANT PROBLEMS
Record stores are also feeling the trickle-down effects of the pandemic shutting down pressing plants, where the vinyls are made.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to when the stuff shows up anymore,” Squeezebox’s Peterson said, attributing it to a mix of Direct Shot distributing and to pandemic-induced vinyl shortages.
“They’re just not making enough stuff,” Jencik said. “And even if we do get a new release on time, what’s happening is we’ll sell out of it and then we can’t get it again for a month and a half or two months. That’s a long time—if a record comes out and you can’t buy it right away, two months later, people just don’t even remember it anymore.”
Assimos gives the example of Rose City Band’s new record Summerlong, which he preordered, sold out of, and tried to order again. His distributor told him they weren’t going to be available again for perhaps six months, which is extremely unusual for a new record. Assimos’ distributor told him that the pressing plant only could press a certain amount of the record because of how much work they had to do, leaving the band with a smaller amount of records than they had requested.
Stores have noticed that big artists such as Radiohead, Fleetwood Mac, Pavement, or Neil Young, who have very common records that usually sell very well, are becoming hard to get because the pressing plants are so behind at the moment.
“It’s too bad because that’s revenue for record stores, that’s revenue for the labels, and the distributors, et cetera,” Assimos said.
RECORD STORE DAY DROPS
Indie record stores are still dealing with the loss and restructuring of Record Store Day, an annual April almost-holiday that celebrates independent sellers with limited-edition releases from hundreds of artists.
To curb the spread of the virus, Record Store Day announced in mid-March that they would push the event from April to June. When it became apparent that June also wouldn’t be feasible, they decided to break the event into three dates—the last Saturdays of August, September, and October, to help with social distancing crowd control.
“[The Record Store Day organization] has been very explicit in their communications about saying, ‘Hey, let’s be chill,’” Peterson said. “It’s ‘Let’s not really talk about this as Record Store Day in the old-fashioned sense of the all-day party, the kind of craziness, the bands, all that, because we’re kind of social distanced, we’re not trying to hang out and have a beer after 5 with the band playing and that kind of vibe,’ which is great, and is really wise.”
But store owners are still nervous about these new dates being interpreted as three different events instead of one. Some would have liked to see the releases spread even farther apart to make it as much of a “non-event” as possible.
“I’m just going to have the releases available. If people want to come and get them, they can, but I’m not going to be really pushing it like I would on a regular Record Store Day just because I don’t want people lining up. I don’t want it to be a big, mad dash to get these records,” Assimos said.
Reckless Records is hoping for the best.
“I don’t think it’s going to be nearly as busy, based on the way the store has been since we’ve opened,” Jencik said. “Yes, we have customers, and yes, people are buying things, but it’s just not at the level that it was before. And honestly? I’m fine with that. We don’t want a ton of people in here either, and obviously, we want to make money, but we don’t want to risk anybody’s health—ours or our customers.”
Jencik also notes that Record Store Day has decided to let stores sell Record Store Day stock on their websites later on drop days, which can help stores that are located in virus hotspots and are unable to open.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
With Illinois currently in Phase 4 of reopening, Chicago record stores are open for socially-distanced business again, though some stores’ hours are slightly shorter than normal.
“I think some people probably assume that we’re not open or something, and we definitely want people to know that we’re here every day, still trying to order records and have new releases on time,” Jencik said.
Stores across Chicago have instituted regulations such as store capacities, tape-marked shopping zones, mask-wearing, and hand-sanitizing.
At Tone Deaf, as everywhere, the rules are very clear-cut.
“Everyone has to wear a mask, everyone has to sanitize their hands, I only allow four people in here at a time, and if people don’t like it, I kick them out. That’s happened a couple of times,” Assimos said. “Today a guy came in and he didn’t want to sanitize his hands, so I told him to leave. He said f— you to me, which was really nice. But I’m very strict about it; I think a lot of my customers appreciate that.”
“I think my store and all stores really are happy to accommodate folks’ needs while they are maybe still feeling nervous about COVID,” says Peterson at Squeezebox. “It’s still okay to say, ‘Hey, I want to buy every single Beatles record you have; can you just bring them to the curb?’”
Peterson also encourages customers to call and talk to store staff to find out about the latest records the store has received if they’re not comfortable browsing in the store.
Though customers may focus on new records if they’re shopping online instead of flipping through crates, the “bread and butter” of many indie record stores are used records.
Squeezebox has seen a “massive influx of stuff coming in,” which Peterson attributes to people staring at their bookshelves, old DVDs, and record collections while sitting at home for months on end. He encourages people to bring in things that they aren’t enjoying anymore to keep media recirculating in their local store.
Reckless Records still does home visits to appraise and buy entire record collections, though those visits are a little harder now.
“We do want to buy stuff from people if people have stuff to sell,” says Jencik. “Give us a call or write to our website and let us know because we can try to figure it out. We are accepting things in the store, and we have gone to people’s homes to buy collections; we’ve even left the state to do it a couple times just because some of this stuff is far away and people aren’t willing to travel in that way right now.”
A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY
Though the past few months have been tough, it’s not all bad news for record stores.
The music community is tight-knit, and distributors have been having unexpected sales, lowering the prices stores pay to stock the records in their shops.
A documentary about vinyl’s resurgence, Vinyl Nation, was unable to screen at festivals and theaters this year. The documentary makers instead paired up with local record stores and donated the viewings’ ticket sales to them.
Assimos says this has let him, in turn, support local venues like the Empty Bottle and the Hideout, who are also struggling.
All of the stores credit their regular customers for keeping them in business.
“[During] the lockdown, a lot of people reached out when we were closed and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to buy a gift certificate and/or bank some store credit; here’s fifty bucks,’” says Peterson. “That was a great plus.”
“Even just getting comments on our social from people, sharing stories of the front of the store being closed and people saying they wish they could go in and things like that,” Jencik said, “You might not think that that’s encouraging, but it definitely was, and it made us want to make sure to keep going, because this is the thirty-first year [Reckless] has been in Chicago—we’ve been here a long time and we want to keep going.”
Whether online, curbside, or masked-up in the store, pandemic or no pandemic, Chicago music-lovers can look forward to supporting the music economy through local record stores for many years to come.
Featured image credit: Reckless Records