Flipping Alone: An Oral History of Record Stores During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Owners of several of the coolest record stores on the planet explain how they've adapted during a global health crisis

Amoeba Records, photo by Mason Trinca
Amoeba Records, photo by Mason Trinca

Editor’s Note: As more of us get vaccinated and our country begins to open again, we’ll continue to examine and report back on how the music industry rebounds and rebuilds itself into a “new normal.” Our own Tyler Clark — after a year of shopping online or alone for records — decided to talk to owners of some of the coolest record stores on the planet to see just what the pandemic has been like for them. Read on and be sure to support your local record shops.

For the last few weeks, on Thursday evenings, I’ve spent part of my night on Instagram Live, watching a man pack records. The man in question is my friend Drew, who supplements his day job with a nights-and-weekends gig as a clerk at Indianapolis’ LUNA Music. The shop itself has been closed to visitors for over a year now, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic upended almost everything about life as we knew it, but the online business persists. Hence, all the packing, part of which now airs live to any LUNA followers who happen to sign on around 8 p.m. Eastern on Thursdays. Broadcasting as the Night Clerk, Drew makes for an agreeable host; above a soundtrack of ambient guitar or International Anthem jazz, he goes about his work, keeping up a conversation with friends in the chat as he unfolds mailers and reloads the tape gun. The Night Clerk’s broadcasts are short, lasting only the time it takes Drew to pack up the evening’s mail orders. Then, the feed goes dark again until next week. It’s not quite the same as flipping through the shop’s stacks in person, but it helps. For now.

Stuck at home for much of the last year, I’ve worried from afar about the record stores I love the most, from my local shops here in Chicago to the out-of-town stores that dot my personal map. These shops are a part of my life and also a part of an increasingly grim retail landscape. Although they’ve fared better than clubs and concert promoters, record stores weathered their own rocky seas in 2020. While vinyl made headlines for beating CDs and posting its biggest-ever sales year in 2020, that enthusiasm was tempered by data from Nielsen Music/MRC Data showing that physical album sales continued their unbroken decline that began in 2004 and has continued ever since. In recent years, the fight for those ever-shrinking sales numbers has also pitted independent shops against retail behemoths from Amazon to big-box vinyl newcomers like Wal-Mart and Target.

Faced with those headwinds, plus a once-a-century pandemic, many shops simply folded. The list of post-COVID record store casualties includes brick-and-mortar mainstays like Seattle’s Bop Street Records and Everyday Music, Record Alley in Palm Springs, and New York’s Record Mart, the shop in the Times Square subway station that was, until its closure in June, the oldest continually operating record store in Manhattan. For the rest of America’s record stores, time moves in fits and starts, with signs of hopeful normalcy mixed with the uncertainty of a March that, in many ways, never ended.

This month, I stopped worrying and started talking, as I reached out to shop owners around the country to find out how they (and their stores) coped with this unprecedented year. The result is the beginning of an oral history of record stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. We may not yet know exactly how the story ends, but thanks to the following interviews, we now have a good sense of how it began, how it changed things, and how it might, one day, resolve.

COVID Comes to Town

The End of All Music, photo via Twitter

The End of All Music, photo via Twitter

DAVID SWIDER (THE END OF ALL MUSIC; OXFORD, MS): I went to see Memphis soul legend Don Bryant in Memphis with my girlfriend on Friday, March 13th. I drove the 60 miles to Memphis after working a pretty normal day at the record store. We had dinner before the show, and we were discussing the virus and what might be about to happen. Little did we know that it would be the last concert we’d see and the last cold beer at a bar we’d drink for quite some time. That Saturday, March 14th, we had a “spring sale” at the shop that I’d already been planning, and I made a house call to buy some used records. The shop was really busy, but folks were somewhat frantic and concerned by the constant news of the virus, and then we closed that following Monday. I remember I hung a banner from the balcony of the shop that read “WASH YOUR HANDS”, as we didn’t really know about the importance of masks just yet.

It all happened very quickly. I remember fondly — on the previous Wednesday, March 11th — I was DJing my weekly happy hour set at a bar, Saint Leo Lounge, just down the street from the record store. During my set, some friends and I were watching basketball on the TV above the bar when the NBA announced it was shutting down for the season. That was a real shock, but being in Mississippi, you really think you’re in the last place something like this would affect. We’re always last here in the deep South. A week later, we were closed down completely.

MARK CAPON (HARVEST RECORDS; WEST ASHEVILLE, NC): To be honest, last March remains a bit of a blur. Personally, I know I underestimated how quickly widespread the virus was becoming — we had a staff member who had been planning to go to Japan around the 2020 Olympics, and when they started talking about how those plans were falling through because of the virus, I remember being like “nahhhh … you’ll get to do it. This will go away!” Next thing I knew, we were shutting down.

TODD ROBINSON (LUNA MUSIC; INDIANAPOLIS, IN): Some folks were starting to buy loads of records, with the thought that “I may not be able to do this for a while…” It felt quite shocking — the realization that this may indeed be a reality, for a bit. Or longer.

TONY GREEN (AMOEBA RECORDS; SAN FRANCISCO, CA): I never thought there would be a total shutdown of “non-essential” business. That sounded like a death knell to me. I mean, it would have been if it wasn’t for our online business and some federal and state Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) assistance.

AARON AND STEPHANIE MEYERRING (THE ELECTRIC FETUS; MINNEAPOLIS, MN): We didn’t realize it was going to affect our business until it hit us like a ton of bricks. March 17th, 2020, we came to work, business as usual, and by noon we were closed with no idea what to expect. There was a small group of long-time employees that we will forever be grateful to. They went above and beyond to keep us afloat during these trying times. Together we started building a new way of doing business.

Life During Lockdown

Tone Deaf Records

Tone Deaf Records

TONY ASSIMOS (TONE DEAF RECORDS; CHICAGO, IL): We were going to close down for a couple of weeks or a month. When that wasn’t happening, then all of a sudden I had to change my whole business model.

When I first opened the store in the summer of 2019, I was initially like, “Oh, I don’t need to have a website.” The whole idea of the store was to have people come in and browse, but then there were a couple of other shops in Chicago that told me, “No, you should put stuff online; you might get a few sales here and there, but it helps out.” And I’m really glad that I did because when I had to close the store up, that really took off, and I wasn’t playing catch-up trying to get everything online.

MEYERRING: We remember, in early March, meeting with staff to finalize Record Store Day events for April.  It would have been one for the record books.

MICHAEL KURTZ (RECORD STORE DAY): When medical professionals began to question large gatherings of people, we knew we had to change what we were doing. We consulted with the organizers of Record Store Day around the world, in places like Germany, Japan, Poland, Australia, the UK and France, and came up with the plan to do three RSD Drops. The response was good; most stores and the artists and labels involved all understood and were very supportive. By staggering the events, we’ve enabled stores to stay relevant and in the news. The results were stores were able to offer curbside service, online service, and managed in-person service. In the end, no one got sick, and we were able to help all of the stores be as successful as they could be during a pandemic.

CAPON: After shutting down, we did nothing for about a month. By late April, we were fulfilling scattered order requests, keeping highly irregular hours for curbside pickup and local deliveries, with essentially just (co-owner Matt Schnable) and me taking care of all of it. It was exhilarating for a few months — it reminded me of the hustle of our early days in the mid-2000s! But also quite exhausting. We didn’t bring any staff back until the fall, which has been a huge relief. Now, we’re doing tons of curbside still but adding appointment shoppers every day, which has been highly successful. Who doesn’t want to have a record store all to themselves for an hour?

SWIDER: We implemented our now-famous dumb waiter. Our shop is on the second floor of a 100-year-old building in downtown Oxford. So, we tied a record crate to a rope and used it to lower records down from the balcony to folks on the sidewalk below. It was the safest way to get records to our customers, and it was a ton of fun. It was truly a bright spot during a rather dark time for a lot of folks. It even made it on CNN!

ASSIMOS: In the first week or so, I decided I was going to start delivering records to people who couldn’t come into the shop anymore. That really took off. People loved it, and they still do. I still do it. I think I made them feel really good about supporting a local business that was going out of its way to actually keep people interested and make sure that people had music. I got a lot of very positive feedback, to the point where I had a bunch of write-ups in places like the Chicago Reader and Block Club.

In the beginning, I enjoyed it. There were no cars on the road. I kind of had the streets to myself. It was weird, though. I was doing a good thing by delivering music to people, but there was a disconnect there. I wasn’t seeing anybody. They’d order stuff online, I’d drop it off at their doorstep, and there would be no human interaction. That kind of bummed me out. I think people still like it, but a year into it, the novelty of it’s kind of worn off. People are just like, “I want to go back to the shop and hang out and listen to music.”

The Electric Fetus

The Electric Fetus

SWIDER: I was also making home deliveries to locals in my truck. I went to neighborhoods I’d never been in before to leave Sturgill Simpson LPs on people’s front porches. I also got to know our USPS workers on a whole new level. God bless those dudes. We shipped records to all 50 states in 2020, which blows my mind.

ROBINSON: We use outgoing orders as an opportunity to make a care package and love letter. We started doing a proprietary ‘zine with staff picks, podcast selections, and general silliness to help folks cope. We always send a LUNA sticker or postcard — encouraging folks to use them to reach out and keep lines of communication open during these shut-in times.

MEYERRING: Vinyl records and turntables have been the majority of our sales during the pandemic. We’ve heard many customers say building their record collection is how they spend their fun money now, and it’s helping them cope with COVID. Having something special and new to spin at home just makes the days go by a little quicker.

CAPON: Our biggest adaptation has been relying so much more heavily on our social media presence. Until a year ago, socials served as a nice accent to our main focus, the physical space. But with very few people getting to come in and shop in the last year, we’ve had to recreate that tangible experience as best as we can in the digital realm. We do these semi-weekly “flip videos” — where we post videos flipping through about 50 fresh used LPs — and it’s become a phenomenon.

I think Matt and I have typically kept a semi-Luddite approach to business, maybe because we opened before social media existed. But now we’re floored on a weekly basis by how quickly something will sell when we post about it. Our customers set their notifications and jump on it with ferocity. Most of the time, at least half of the records are already reserved/purchased within about 10 minutes. Just today, we got in 15 copies of a limited Yo La Tengo instrumental album only available to hand-picked indie stores. We posted about it and sold out within 30 minutes — all just via Instagram DMs. So, then I’m sitting there saying to myself, “Why didn’t we order 50 of these?” [Laughs] Good problems to have.

The New Normal

Luna Records

Luna Records

ROBINSON: The biggest precaution we’ve taken is to close the shop to the public, as I have a compromised pulmonary system. I can’t afford to get ill, nor do I expect my staff to be canaries in the metaphorical coalmine.

GREEN: The first day we re-opened, [there was] a line nearly around the block and a fantastic vibe the whole day. I realized how much I missed that connection with our people. It was so great to see so many familiar faces.

MEYERRING: We have a detailed preparedness plan to take all the safety precautions within our control.  Employees take their temperature before starting their shift, work spaces have been relocated to allow for social distancing, plexiglass shields have been installed at the checkout counters (which we built in our garage out of an old poster display while we were closed), face masks are required at all times for anyone in the building, customer capacity is capped at 15, and [there’s] hand sanitizer. Oh my, the hand sanitizer.

SWIDER: We began to have appointment-only shopping in May, and that went really well. We re-arranged the shop to allow for safer flow. Currently we only allow three people in at a time and encourage folks to keep their shopping to 15 minutes.

CAPON: We’ve been more concerned with the health and safety of our people than with how quickly we could get back to “business as usual,” so we were grateful to have a Democratic governor during this pandemic who seemed more cautious and thoughtful than some surrounding state governors. But on the flip side, Asheville is so dependent on tourism that it felt like the city caved too quickly to the almighty tourist dollar, which is unfortunate. So many of our friends and customers are dependent on service industry income, and they’ve had to deal with pushy tourists for almost the entirety of the pandemic, which is scary. We feel for them. We’re lucky that we were able to say, “No, we’re keeping our doors closed. You can still buy our product a variety of ways without coming in here.” Lots of our friends weren’t so fortunate.

SWIDER: Our mayor was really great. She’s a great leader in my book. The local government set mandates and guidelines that were crucial to the way we operated, and then, like a light switch, they just stopped. They pretty much told all the local businesses in Oxford, “You’re on your own now. You can open or not.” That was really frustrating and felt very unsafe. Businesses around us began opening back up way too soon, in my opinion, but it was hard to blame them. More recently, Mississippi was one of the first states to lift all mask and capacity mandates, which is really stupid, and is why we kept all of our COVID protocols in place for the foreseeable future. We are a deep red state, and sometimes it’s a real head-scratcher owning a business here.

Post-COVID Daydreams

Harvest Records

Harvest Records

ROBINSON: We’ve spent this time preparing for our reopening by pricing over 15,000 used records (which have never been seen by our customers), loading up on quality used audio gear, readying our own label releases and reissues, maintaining the physical shop space and regular store stock, and sweetening our online presence. When we are ready to open up to the public, there will be many fresh things to behold, and we can simply open the doors and welcome folks back.

SWIDER: I can’t wait to get the shop back to its pre-pandemic layout; currently, we’ve got one whole room, which used to be the country and blues sections, turned into a shipping warehouse, essentially. We’re planning on closing for a day once everyone at the shop is fully vaccinated (tentatively, late April) and rearranging the shop in a huge way. Mississippi has surprisingly handled the vaccine rollout really well. Thank you, Mississippi National Guard!

ASSIMOS: There are these happy accidents that happen at the shop all the time that I really miss. I’d be open on a Saturday, and an old friend would come in, and then a different old friend would come in. Randomly, we’re all there at the same time, and it turns into a hangout. That just doesn’t happen anymore, because people are afraid to come in.

Before I opened the store, I was selling stuff online for years, and I got tired of it. I opened the store because I wanted it to be a fun place that people could hang out in and listen to music and socialize. I’m not doing this to make money; that’s really the wrong idea. So, I miss that and I really hope that we can get back to a place where, on a Saturday afternoon, there’s just a bunch of people in the shop talking about music and shooting the shit and just having a really good time, because that was always my favorite thing about it.

CAPON: I think we’re tired of watching people walk up to our locked door, pull on it, look disappointed and confused, as we rush to the door to explain to them the whole deal. I can’t wait to just not have to keep an eye out for that all day every day. Just get your ass in here and start flipping.