June 9, 2011
Curmudgeon records closes its doors for good
By Eugene Paik/The Star-Ledger
With vinyl record sales soaring in recent years, business should be booming for independent record shops, right?
Tell that to Curmudgeon Records.
The Somerville store shut its doors for good last month, weighed down by debt and disappointing sales.
Curmudgeon became the latest casualty in the era of digital music, a loss that leaves vinyl lovers with few places to shop in the midsection of the state. Even as vinyl becomes popular again and sales climb impressively, experts said record stores can only survive if they are willing to branch out.
"The stores are now becoming more like pop-culture hubs for the community," said Joel Oberstein, president of the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, which tracks the music industry. "Stores are seeing this as the way to survive."
Vinyl album sales have increased over the past three years, with the bulk of the purchases occurring in independent record stores, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks the music industry.
Nielsen SoundScan said 2.8 million vinyl albums were sold in 2010, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. And sales have been increasing for the past three years.
There's a catch, though: The vinyl sales only accounted for about 1 percent of total album sales -- a category that also includes CDs and digital music, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
That means stores that want to carry the vinyl have to get creative with their businesses to cover their costs.
"Record stores need to be more than a record store," said Jon Meyers, senior editor of the blog Vinyl District. "Every city has its own vibe, and record stores are at the center of that music culture."
There are now 16 independent music stores within 25 miles of Curmudgeon's former location, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail. The stores, which stretch from Trenton to Westfield, don't all sell vinyl records, but most of them provide a diverse range of goods, from stereo equipment to rock shows and designer apparel as well as music.
Meanwhile, Curmudgeon refused to be anything more than what it was intended to be -- a record store. Bill Plenge, the store's owner, said money to broaden the business wasn't there. But the reasons also went deeper -- Plenge was determined to run his shop on his terms: His dream was to sell vinyl records.
"This is what I like doing. This is what I enjoy," he said. "The other stuff just doesn't interest me."
Plenge believes his store's eventual downfall wasn't necessarily caused by a refusal to change, but by ambitious expansion plans.
Curmudgeon was one of the few shops left standing between New Jersey's two vinyl-record heavyweights -- Vintage Vinyl in Fords and the Princeton Record Exchange. Plenge originally opened his store in Edison in 1994 and became profitable enough to add a second store in Hillsborough six years later.
The new store opened at a time when Curmudgeon was hitting its peak, but sales soon began to plummet, and by 2006, both locations had to be closed. Plenge reopened Curmudgeon almost immediately in Somerville, where rent was lower and Plenge thought business would be better.
"We overextended ourselves on that loan (for the additional store)," Plenge said. "But we saw what we were making (in Edison) and we just wanted a little bit more."
Curmudgeon's fate is a lesson that resonates with new store owners hoping to beat the odds.
Consider Holdfast, an independently owned shop that opened in Asbury Park two years ago.
Co-owner Joe Koukos said vinyl records make up more than half of his merchandise, but he sells designer clothing and rock 'n' roll memorabilia. His store also doubles as an art gallery, Koukos said.
To keep the cash registers ringing, he said he has to hustle to find fresh ways to draw people in.
That means digging for hard-to-find records or finding new bands and featuring up-and-coming artists.
"A lot of stores fall into the trap of just sitting behind a counter and waiting for things to come to them," Koukos said.
Holdfast hopes to benefit from the growing number of vinyl fanatics -- a group composed mainly of young adults with disposable incomes.
It's not clear if the renewed interest is merely a fad, but Oberstein said those listeners -- raised on compressed, digital music files -- prefer the warm, full tones of vinyl. And nationwide events such as Record Store Day, an annual celebration since 2007, help by making more people aware of the vintage black discs.
"They're souvenirs of an era," said Meyers, the senior editor from Vinyl District. "Now whether they can sustain and revitalize stores remains to be seen."
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