On a recent Sunday morning in March, gray-haired rockers bumped elbows with pierced, tattooed hipsters clutching cups of coffee as they flipped through plastic crates and cardboard boxes of vinyl records under the fluorescent lights at the San Luis Obispo Grange Hall.
The roughly 350 music lovers had gathered, with a handful of retailers, to buy, sell and trade records at the SLO Record Swap.
“I don’t think anybody thought or assumed that there would be this vinyl revolution,” said SLO Record Swap co-founder Malik Miko Thorne, manager and buyer at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo. It’s proof, he added, that customers still crave music in its most tangible form.
Brick-and-mortar music retailers are the focus of Saturday’s Record Store Day, an annual, international event launched in 2008. It’s organized in partnership with the Department of Record Stores, the Alliance of Independent Media Stores and the Coalition of Independent Music Stores.
“We’re still here. We’re still vibrant. We have this wonderfully curated collection of music just waiting for people to get their hands on it,” Boo Boo Records owner Mike White said.
A collective shudder shot through the spines of record store owners in the late 1990s with the advent of digital downloading and streaming services. As the popularity of MP3s grew, CD sales plummeted.
The beginning of the global economic recession in 2008 brought more jitters.
“Everything was going ‘This is the death of the physical medium for music,’ ” Thorne recalled.
But whereas massive mall retailers such as Tower Records, Sam Goody and Virgin Megastores have folded over the past decade, their independently owned counterparts have survived, and in some cases thrived — in part by relying on savvy staffers and loyal customers, Thorne said.
“All the big chains just couldn’t adapt as quickly,” Thorne said. “The smaller, agile, smart shops just figured out what to do. They worked with their communities.”
Driving this retail resurgence, local stores said, is a renewed interest in records.
Audiophiles value vinyl for its sound quality, which they considers superior to other formats.
Others appreciate the tangible nature of records — the sensation of sliding a 12-inch disk out a colorful cardboard sleeve and setting it on a turntable.
“For a lot of kids, it’s like a magic trick when you put a needle on a groove of a record and sound comes out,” White said. “It’s this return to an organic sensibility. That’s (what’s) attractive. That’s the allure.”
“People like the idea of touch and feel,” said Jeremiah Highhouse, who opened Vinyl Isle in Morro Bay in September 2007.
“I didn’t do it with money signs in my eyes,” explained Highhouse, a landscape technician at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. “I have an absolute love of music and … I just wanted to share this love with everyone else.”
With the exception of albums by local bands including Red Eye Junction and the Red Skunk Band, Highhouse eschews CD sales — “I’m not a believer in that format,” he said — for vinyl. (He also carries a small selection of cassette tapes, 8-track tapes and even tape reels.)
“The biggest (misconception) I hear is, ‘I thought vinyl died’ or ‘I hear it’s making a comeback,’” Highhouse said. Although the format experienced a “huge lull” in the late 1980s and ’90s with the introduction of CDs, he said, there’s always been a demand.
“I have younger kids coming in really excited about the notion of discovering music,” he said, and older folks eager to replenish their collections. “The age range is tremendous. It’s really cool to see.”
At Boo Boo Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in December, records account for a third of all sales, White said. CDs constitute “about half of our business,” he added, while non-music items such as books, posters and apparel make up the rest.
“(Records) being a third of our business is actually pretty amazing,” White said. “Five years ago it was nothing near that. … It’s really growing right now. It’s taking off.” (The company sells a substantial portion of its stock online; it shuttered a second brick-and-mortar location in Grover Beach in 2007.)
CDs sell five to one over records at Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo, according to general manager Richard Ferris. But, he added, record sales are getting stronger at the store, which opened in 1971.
Housed in the same building as Captain Nemo’s Comics and Games, Cheap Thrills also sells DVDs, Blu-rays, video games and other goods. In addition, the company carries recordings and record supplies through its wholesale website, SquareDealOnline.com.
“It’s great to see somebody walk out with a comic book and an LP,” said Anthony Roselli, Cheap Thrills store manager. “We’ve got so much stuff here and such a wide selection.”
For Record Store Day, Cheap Thrills plans to hold storewide sales on stock including vinyl and CDs.
Boo Boo Records will offer its own sale specials Saturday as well as in-store concerts by the likes of Caleb Nichols, Captain Nasty, Joel Jerome and Shadowlands. Shoppers can snap up Record Store Day T-shirts screened in front of the store by Live Local Apparel of San Luis Obispo.
Both San Luis Obispo stores will sell special releases exclusive to participating Record Store Day locations.
Although Vinyl Isle is not taking part in Record Store Day, the Morro Bay store is offering a 50 percent discount on all of its titles this weekend.
According to White, Record Store Day has helped revitalize his industry by refocusing attention on independent music retailers.
“Right now is a super-exciting time (for us),” he said.
Local record stores
Boo Boo Records
978 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
541-0657 or http://booboorecords.com
863 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo
544-0686 or www.cheapthrills.biz
740 Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay
772-1103 or www.facebook.com/pages/VinylIsle/133120850060872