It was less than 3 weeks ago in our special music issue that I wrote about how local record stores in the Tampa Bay area were maintaining their viability in the midst of a changing business model, as iTunes and other file sharing websites have revolutionized how people purchase music over the past decade.
One of the stores feature in the story was Tampa's signature indie rock store, Vinyl Fever. So it was surprising to say the least to pick up the local newspapers after being out of town for ten days to learn that the venerable South Tampa institution is going out of business in a month, after nearly 30 years.
In a short e-mail exchange with store owner Lee Wolfson on Tuesday, he tells CL:
We feel terrible about having to do this, and and having to let down our staff and customers who still rely on us for what we do.We looked at all possibilities and angles to this, trying to NOT come to this conclusion, but in the end it boiled down to not being able to rationalize the expense and investment in another move. Certainly we feel fortunate for the amazing 30 year run and we'll miss it and our customers immensely.
The thrust of our story in the December issue was that despite the rough economic conditions, local record stores were doing okay, and in the case of Bananas in St. Petersburg, doing well enough to open a new site. My interview with Wolfson was done (via his request) by e-mail. As I reviewed my notes yesterday, I saw that I did ask him how business was, but as part of a question about how important the holiday season was to his economic bottom line. Here's that exchange:
CL:You're still in business, so obviously ...well, let me take that back. I don't mean to be redundant, but how's business? Are you hoping/expecting to get more folks into the store over the holidays? Has 2010 been better or worse than 2009?
LW:::::::::::::: of course the Holiday season is very important to us - it always has been, but these days even more than ever. It's a time of year when we see a lot of people who, in the past, we may have seen on a weekly or monthly basis. Like YOU, Mitch, ha, ha! We used to see you more often, didn't we?
(The inability for me to ask a follow-up reaffirms that interviewing face to face is always the best way to go if possible).
I have been a regular customer of Vinyl Fever over the years, as I'm rather old-school in still purchasing CD's. Vinyl Fever did have a lot of what I was looking for, but not always. But as both Wolfson and owners of other record stores informed CL, the record companies simply don't supply a lot of new CD's to these stores, since it's not really the primary place where they sell such product.
It should also be noted that the Internet alone hasn't been the only culprit in bringing down record stores over the years- around a decade ago big retailers like WalMart and Best Buy, even Borders, began selling CD's at discounted prices, another factor in driving new music purchasers away from local record stores.
Vinyl has become big over the past half decade, and if not for that revival perhaps Vinyl Fever would have bitten the dust earlier than this coming February. But obviously it hasn't been enough to keep the store (named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 25 top such stores in the nation) in the black.
As Vinyl Fever employee and CL contributor Gabe Echazabal wrote on Tuesday on Daily Loaf,
"And while its easy to blame the stores closing on a variety of different factors, its not to say that the internet (and the downloading of music per se) is entirely to blame. Life goes on changes occur shit happens. It would be no more fair of me to blame iTunes than it would be to blame the guy who used to come in every new release Tuesday in, say, 1996 with a wad of cash in his hand to buy that weeks releases who now cant because he has three teenage kids and an unemployed wife. While theres not one defining factor thats to blame for the long-standing stores closing, there needs to be a sense of pride and elation associated with all the years that it was going strong. "
The last sentence reflects the sense of celebration that Lee Wolfson has said in other interviews he's aiming for in the last weeks of the store's operation. The store has been a success, a success for small, independent businesses in Tampa. It's closing will be a significant moment for those of us who have grown up spending lots of leisure time buying and discovering recorded music.