TAMPA BAY, Fla. — This year has been unimaginably rough on local businesses, from restaurants and nightlife to manufacturing and production concerns.
But one niche industry has benefited from the COVID lockdown, garnering new consumers hungry for new input when we’ve seen everything the video streaming services have to offer.
What You Need To Know
- Local independent record stores have been doing OK during the COVID-19 pandemic
- While most stores were appoinment only during the early days of the pandemic, they are open for browsing now
“I've got a lot of friends around the country that own record stores and bookstores and bike shops and this and that, specialty retail, everybody did great,” says Rob Sexton of St. Petersburg’s Planet Retro music shop.
What do people — particularly music fans used to heading out to see a show at a club or theater — do when they’re stuck at home? They listen to tunes. And they’re keeping the dream of the local independent record store alive during the pandemic.
“It was the opposite of what I expected it to be,” says Sexton of his business during the shutdown. “It was considerably better.”
Sexton, a drummer, has devoted his life to music. Planet Retro is currently at its third location in St. Petersburg; he’s moved his crates — that’s vinyl geek-speak for a record collection — from an antiques mall to a Grand Central storefront to a spot on Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Boulevard in the ‘Burg’s up-and-coming Fringe District. As a nonessential business, he had to shut down when everything else did in March, but he has steadily built his brand back, from adding mail order out of necessity to doing appointment-only shopping and, now, allowing browsers back into his shop.
The reason why record stores are doing well during the COVID-19 pandemic is obvious: Music fans, just like everyone else, are stuck at home, and listening to tunes is the next best thing to getting to see a live concert. When you pair the loyal nature of audiophiles with the resurgence of demand for vinyl records and the demand for in-home entertainment, it seems like a business that once seemed like a dinosaur is now, if not pandemic-proof, then at least a timely beneficiary of the lockdown.
“I was lucky enough to pre-pay my rent with my landlord, so I didn’t have to worry about that,” says Keith Ulrey, who’s been running Microgroove Records in Tampa’s hip Seminole Heights neighborhood pretty much single-handedly for nine years. “Then what I did moving into the second month [of lockdown] was I started offering porch delivery within a five-mile radius.”
What people forget about small businesses is just that: They’re able to adapt. Pivoting a multibillion-dollar behemoth is like trying to turn a cruise ship; you need miles of open water to do it. Businesses like Planet Retro and Microgroove—neither of which have paid employees beyond their principals—can shift their business model on a dime, catering to the needs of their customers immediately without a shareholders’ meeting.
“We are way luckier or in a way better position than so many other places,” says Manuel “Manny Kool” Matalon, who runs St. Pete’s Daddy Kool Records. “You hear about a restaurant or a bar that can’t be open at all, so, you know, we’re doing just fine in that respect.”
The door to Daddy Kool Records is locked; shoppers are advised to call the desk to be let inside, and will not be admitted without masks. Microgroove and Planet Retro have similar restrictions in place—these are not places where anti-masker rhetoric and misplaced histrionics over personal freedom are tolerated, and if you’ve got a beef, then you can take your business elsewhere.
"We’re all trapped inside," says Ulrey. "We’re all just trying to entertain ourselves without hurting other people. Buying records is a great way to do that.
“Times change, things change, people change, you have to deal with that. Hopefully, one day we’ll get back."