“Big chains went under because they lost track of core customers.”
After waiting in line for hours, some fans sang, some screamed and others simply bobbed their head along with Elvis Costello’s music as the singer took the stage in Hollywood earlier this summer.
But he wasn’t performing at one of Los Angeles’ famed music venues — instead, hundreds of his fans had crowded against racks of albums inside of Amoeba Music, a giant record store which hosts frequent in-store performances.
Surprisingly, as many music and book retailers have shuttered in recent years, a number of stores — like Amoeba — haven’t seen their sales fall at all.
How have they managed to do that? The book and record stores that have survived are playing up their roles as community centers that serve as unique cultural spaces rather than just a place to buy a quick CD or magazine.
"Big chains went under because they lost track of core customers and grew too big and expected to make a certain amount of profit," said Amoeba’s co-owner Marc Weinstein. "Virgins were almost like banks or something. They didn’t showcase the product, and it was always just so sterile. We don’t have a real corporate hierarchy. People really get the passion for music when they come in the store." (See accompanying interview with Weinstein, "Why Amoeba’s Different.")
Charles Day, the store manager of Book Soup on the Sunset Strip, believes that if you don’t think outside of the box, you won’t survive these days — as was the fate for the iconic Tower Records store that stood across the street from the bookseller for years.
"You can’t just sell books anymore and expect to get by," Day told TheWrap. "Events are really what keep us open. You have to be a tastemaker and talk to people in an educated way about books. It’s a lot harder than it was five years ago. We’re making less money, and we have to watch the margins more."
There’s certainly adequate reason for anxiety. As of April, there were 185 record stores in the L.A. area, down from 259 at the beginning of 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times. The disappearing stores included everything from big chains like Tower and two Virgin Megastores to smaller independents like Rhino in Westwood and Aron’s in Hollywood.
Bookstores have arguably fared even more poorly, no thanks to Amazon — and, increasingly, its Kindle. Despite its national reputation and two decades of history, 25-year-old Dutton’s in Brentwood folded last spring when the business went into $500,000 of debt after opening an unsuccessful Beverly Hills branch.
Cook’s Library, the 3rd Street store which sold epicures and cookbooks for 20 years, closed in April. And West Hollywood’s 51-year-old Cosmopolitan Book Shop announced in June it was going out of business, after barely surviving thanks to orders for 5,000 or 10,000 titles at a time which may have been for set-decorating purposes.
Many of the retailers who have managed to stay afloat have done so by hosting a number of weekly events.
Amoeba typically has one live in-store performance per week — recently, they’ve presented Costello, Paul McCartney, Mandy Moore and Flight of the Conchords. The events allow L.A. residents to feel connected — and also allow music fans to share used items from their collections, co-owner Weinstein believes.
"People in L.A. feel removed or spread out, and Amoeba is a place where it’s all distilled down," he said. "A lot of collectors come in and buy hundreds of records off the wall, and lower-income families come in and buy VHS tapes. All kind of culture is being recycled."
A similar tactic has been paying off for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, which hosts 350 events a year ranging from nightly author signings to crafts for kids. Even in hard times, the store is seeing the same sell-through at its events as in past years. It also sells a number of non-book items at these type of events, such as purses, journals or candles — items that make up 30 percent of the bookseller’s overall sales.
"We still have the essence of a bookstore — we have 85,000 titles, but the margin is better on non-book, and all our eggs aren’t in the same basket if one season the list of books isn’t as good," said Allison Hill, Vroman’s president and chief operating officer.
"If you hang out for one of our events and have the experience of coming in with your family together, that has a longer lasting value. Parents who read to their kids at night buy a book like ‘Harry Potter’ for $25 and it lasts for weeks and weeks."
Rockaway Records in Silverlake also has specialized in selling niche items through its extensive music-related collectibles catalogue, which includes concert programs, tickets, autographs and rare posters. Its collection includes an issue of Newsweek with the Beatles on the cover — and signed by the band — that sells for $13,000, as well as a 1990s multi-platinum framed Bruce Springsteen award up going for $450.
"That has turned out to be our saving grace. Without it, we probably wouldn’t be in business," Dave Kent, the store’s general manager, told TheWrap.
Meanwhile, Amoeba Music is even opening its own online digital store, set to launch early next year. Weinstein says it will contain millions of archived songs available for download, as well as old artifacts like original 45 sleeves or articles that have been digitized.
"It makes me feel sad that a lot of indie stores don’t have the ability to develop their own digital store because it’s so darn expensive," he said. "We can archive a massive amount of music that represents a huge inventory of stuff that no other stores have. Eventually the digital store will have far more music than is represented in our retail store."
Sometimes the key to staying alive is more simple: location, location, location.
Kerry Slattery, co-owner and general manager of Skylight Books in Los Feliz, says her two neighboring bookstores inhabit a popular walking street surrounded by an all-hours restaurant, low-budget movie theater and vintage clothing shops.
"We’re in a unique neighborhood that is one of the last great walking streets in L.A.," she said. "I think we’re what a neighborhood bookstore should be. I consider us to be extremely community-based, we’re very supportive of our local stores. We have a little bit more of an offbeat, literary feel."
With all of the major stores falling out, Ron Stivers, the owner of Poo-Bah Record Shop in Pasadena, believes there’s actually no better time to be a mom and pop store.
"We’re not a corporate chain with some guy in New York picking titles for a store in L.A. I work in the store every day, and I’m seeing what’s selling and not selling," he said. Stivers, 36, bought the record store (which also houses its own record label) in 2002, despite the warnings from worried friends.
"Everybody was saying it was the worst possible time to be opening a store with the rise of digital downloads. But this was the first record store I ever went to. It was my library and my high school. It’s flatlined these last few years and it’s a constant struggle, but I’m in this for the long haul. It definitely is up and down, but at the end of the month, it works out."