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As Record Store Day approaches, Downtown Ann Arbor's four record stores still thriving in digital age

Record Store Day is on Saturday and music fans from all over Washtenaw County and beyond will descend on Ann Arbor. In what is relatively rare in this day and age, the city has four record stores within walking distance of each other.

Last year, 41 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S., which surpassed CD sales for the first time since 1987. That’s according to numbers from the Recording Industry Association of America. Bon Jovi’s "Slippery When Wet" was the top selling album that year, in case you were wondering.

This rise in vinyl sales has been welcome news to the three record stores located in downtown Ann Arbor: Encore Records, Underground Sounds and Wazoo Records. And, as of last summer, there is a fourth: Your Media Exchange. So, I set out to ask them how they all make it work selling vinyl records in a digital age.

The first stop on my journey was Underground Sounds. The store, located two doors down from Literati Bookstore, sells mostly vinyl and most of it new. Like a lot of record shops, you walk in and no matter where you are in the room, you’re within arms reach of a wooden crate full of records. There’s a few featured albums hung on the walls, along with a variety of posters. The store, in its original form, started in the 1990s when Matt Bradish wasn’t enjoying being a student teacher at a high school in Kalamazoo.

“And I was thinking to myself, what I really wanted to do and what I like going to record stores. Then I thought about the song, ‘Found A Job' by the Talking Heads … ‘If your work isn't what you love, then something isn't right.’ What do I love? I love record stores. So, after I ... graduated from Western in ‘92, I worked my butt off for three different jobs, saved a bunch of money, borrowed money from an uncle, and opened in August of 1993.”

Bradish opened that store in Ypsilanti before moving to Ann Arbor on Liberty Street in 2001. After a brief stop on Main Street during the COVID-19 pandemic, he moved again into his current location at 120 E. Washington Street. He said Ann Arbor has been a record store “mecca” for years with several shops that have sadly come and gone, like Schoolkids and PJ’s.

“Record stores still exist because it's the last retail. That and books, are the last retail bastions that are still freakin’ enjoyable, you know? And so. many of the other retail aspects are just … just order it online, I just don't care. Just get it to me. Let’s just get this over with.”

Bradish says having a selection of records that people want, and can find, is key. He’s embraced technology where you can look for records in the store, or you can find his entire inventory on his website.

I made my way over to 336 State Street, which is a quick jog from the State Theater, and after walking up a flight of narrow stairs and through a doorway, I find Wazoo Records. When you walk in, it feels like a bit of a time warp. That’s because it’s been an Ann Arbor institution since 1974.

Wazoo moved to its current location in 1981. and not much has changed, including the man sitting behind the counter. John Kerr started working there in 1978 and has been there ever since. He bought the store from the original owner in 1996. I asked him what makes his store stand out after all these years.

“I suspect it's a balance of new and used that we have, you know? Some stores probably, Underground [Sounds] more focused more on new stuff. And Encore [Records] might have more emphasis on used. But we try to sort of be right in the middle, you know, have a good balance.”

With Kerr, he’s a bit of a one-man band but manages to stay up to speed on what people are listening to. Part of the job, he says, is sometimes people will ask you to make suggestions.

“I get people come in all the time and say, ‘Tell me what to buy. What's a good jazz record?’ You know? And you're like, 'What do they think jazz is?' I mean, when they say a good jazz record, do they mean like Miles Davis or do they mean like the Dixieland Band or what do they mean? So, you have to, like, sort of ask a bunch of questions and triangulate what they might like.”

Kerr doesn’t know the origin of his store’s name. His best guess is that it may be inspired by Frank Zappa’s 1972 album “The Grand Wazoo”. But he knows having four record stores so close together is what makes Ann Arbor unique.

“I think it's because there's just a lot of devoted music people up here who are willing to make a modest living, you know, doing what they enjoy. I also think I try to be positive about it because I agree, you know, it's probably about one too many certainly record stores for a town this size. But think about it. If you live, say, 50 miles away, would you drive 50 miles to go to one record store? But you certainly drive 50 miles to go to four.”

The newest record store in downtown is Your Media Exchange, which arrived in the summer of 2022. They specialize in new records, but they also sell all kinds of physical media, including DVDs, retro video games, and record players. The owner, Broc Curry, has run record stores, bars and clubs in the Toledo area over the last two decades. His first Your Media Exchange location in Toledo opened in 2020 and was an instant success. So, he opened up a second in Ann Arbor. It’s on Main Street, across from the Blue LLama. When I stopped in, Curry wasn’t there, as he splits time between the two stores. So, I called him up while he was working at his Toledo location.

“I started seeing the need for it, you know, back in 2019, 2020, like a store that was super dedicated to just all formats of physical media. We even carry things like cassettes and VHS tapes, and we're seeing, cassettes in particular, like people are just really going back to that. In Ann Arbor, the kids are coming and buying like cassette players. I can't keep them in stock.”

Your Media Exchange enters a downtown area with three nearby record stores with a combined business history of 162 years. I asked Curry if he was concerned about fitting in and competing. And he said, “The more the merrier”.

“Record store people like to browse. They like to do some digging. And what I have in my store isn't going to be what the other three stores have and vice versa. So, I think that helps bring people to a general area, and they like to go to all four stores and see what's available. And I love supporting the other stores. It just feels …to me, it's more of a community.”

For the final stop on my tour, I went from the newest record shop to the oldest.

Encore Records originally opened as the “Liberty Music Shop” on Main Street in 1939, but then moved up to Liberty Street in the 1960s. It was primarily a classical music store until the mid-90's when a change in ownership led Lisa Dale to bring her brother Peter Dale in to run it. It became “Encore Recordings” and was later named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 25 Best Record Stores in the country. Once Dale retired in 2011, Encore employees Jim Dwyer and Bill McLelland stepped up to buy the store. For Dwyer, he left his job as an English teacher behind.

“I'm making way less money now, but it's an important institution to keep going.”

After changing the name to “Encore Records”, they moved to their current location at 208 North 4th Avenue, near the Farmers Market. Chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for at Encore with just about every genre covered. They even have a sea shanty section, and for those who might be a fan of the Electric Mayhem, there’s a Muppets section.

“Variety is probably the biggest thing here. We have a staff who are almost evangelical about sharing the joy of music. Everybody has special interests. So, there’s, like … Bill’s a jazz guy. He knows all about jazz. Somebody has questions about jazz. 'Oh, you like this? You might like this one.' I'm sort of the resident Beatles expert. I'm also like, you know, electronic music and krautrock. And everybody has areas of expertise.…so with the overlapping nature of the group, we covered a lot of ground.”

The four businesses have a lot of commonalities. They all agree that in order to be a successful record store, you need to have knowledgeable employees who can help you find what you need. There’s a stereotype that when you walk into a record store that you’ll encounter Jack Black’s character from the movie High Fidelity.

Every store assures me that you won’t find Barry Judd sitting behind the counter. John Kerr from Wazoo, who has very few employees, says stores like his try to avoid what he calls “record store elitism”.

“You know, you're sometimes tempted to make a crack about somebody's records, but you just can’t do that. And, in the end, I don't care what people are into. I just love that they're really into music, and it's really important in their lives. It can be music that I think is utter crap, but if it means something to them and it gives them joy, that's great. I'm glad to be able to provide it, you know?”

It’s no secret that the price of a new vinyl record has gone up. Depending on the artist, you could sometimes pay between $30 and $40 or more for one album. Broc Curry has a theory. He thinks the record labels are trying to raise prices to kill the demand.

“You know, the labels don't really want to be in the physical media game. They had been trying to get out of it for a long time, and the vinyl thing has just been this thing that has come out of nowhere for them. So, I’m sure the demand was so huge that they had to kind of go with it.”

All four stores tell me the customers have changed during this current vinyl resurgence. Here’s Jim Dwyer from Encore.

“It used to be when, you know, I was working for Peter that 70 to 80% of your customers were dudes. And women were not really doing shopping for records at that time. It may have been different earlier, but in that time period in the 90s and aughts, it was mostly guys—middle-aged. It's a much younger crowd now. It's like an even split, 50/50, between male and female customers.”

Record Store Day is Saturday, which is an annual event that celebrates independent record stores. Underground’s Matt Bradish says his store does about three weeks’ worth of sales on Record Store Day. He says it’s a lot of preparation and the day itself is extremely busy, but …

“The thing that makes me happy about Record Store Day is just happy customers.”

If you walk by any of the stores on Saturday, you’ll probably see lines to get in as people will be there to try to score one of the many special releases that are put out for the event—everything from Taylor Swift and Norah Jones to BB King and Art Blakey.

Broc Curry says there will be a lot of collectors looking for rare pressings, including some you might not expect.

“The Randy Macho Man Savage rap album. It's going to be the most demand record because of the limited quantities that were pressed of that. So, if anybody sees that, they should definitely pick that up. It's going to be a hard one to find.”

But if a professional wrestler making fun of Hulk Hogan in a rap song is something that brings you joy, then your local record store will help you find it.…without judgement.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
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