For a certain type of music enjoyer, owning a record store is perhaps the ultimate dream. A room of your own, filled to the brim with physical copies of your favorite tunes...the opportunity to listen to and talk about music all day....while hopefully making some $$$ on the way...what could be better?
Of course, running such a biz, especially a brick and mortar one, isn't all just flipping vinyl from one side to the other and giving shrewd recommendations for people who really liked Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children. And I realized recently that I have never interviewed a record store owner before, and wanted to know more about the day-to-day trials and tribulations of record store ownership...
...so I hit up my Twitter mutual Greg Davis, an experimental electronic musician who owns Autumn Records in Winooski, VT, for a Zoom call. I am from nearby Burlington, VT, and a lot of my "I'm in the arena trying stuff" musical education came from record shopping at local independent stores like Pure Pop and Downtown Discs, so I appreciate Greg's contribution to the VT record store ecosystem and thought he'd be a great person to talk to. Read on to learn about "one-sider" records, the constant struggle of record store cleanliness, Taylor Swift as indie record subsidization, and much more...
When did Autumn Records open?
Just over six years ago now. I think we had our sixth anniversary in October.
Will you tell me what the initial getting-things-off-the-ground process was like?
A lot of stuff went into it. I had worked at some different record stores over the years. Leading up to opening the shop, I worked at a place called Burlington Records, which is in downtown Burlington, and got a lot of experience there and was able to see a little bit more about how the business part of it works, and how feasible it might be. I was going through different things in my life and decided, hey, why don't I try opening a record store? It's something I've always wanted to do kind in the back of my mind. That was the impetus.
The first thing I really started doing was buying as many used records as I possibly could. So I spent almost a year driving around the state and all over the place, just buying used collections from people. I put out ads and put out the word, and had a business card made up, just trying to find people to buy records from.
I ended up amassing a lot of records, and my house at the time was filled with boxes. I was putting records wherever I could just to make sure I had enough stock when I opened the shop. As I was doing that, I had to develop a business plan and figure out the financial side of it. Once I decided I wanted to be in Winooski, the town over from Burlington, then it was a matter of waiting and looking at spaces until I found one that I really liked. Once that happened, I jumped on the space that I'm in currently.
The landlords took a little time to renovate the space, because it was pretty derelict. They were very nice to renovate the space before I moved in there. I essentially gave them how I wanted it to look. That took probably six months for that. But yeah, the big part of it was getting enough records. I figured when I got the space, I needed about 10,000 records to fill the bins, so I was shooting for that much. The biggest startup cost for the shop was actually buying new vinyl for the shop. I bought a big chunk of new vinyl to fill out the shop.
So yeah, it was a lot of work.
And a lotta startup capital overall?
The startup costs were actually not as daunting as I thought they would be, compared to other businesses. I already had some money in savings that I used, and then I took a loan out for the rest. But the loan wasn't crazy. It was probably about half of my startup costs. I was lucky at the time, I had a very good small business loan, and the rates were very good at the time. I know people trying to do that now, it's a little different.
When you were going out and sourcing used vinyl, were there any albums that you were like, any record store owner worth their salt will have this? Or were you just trying to get volume in there.
Usually when you go out and buy collections like that, especially when I was trying to just get a lot of records, generally I would try to buy larger collections, just because it was more worth my time to get stuff in bulk. When you buy used records, you see a lot of the same stuff. It's a lot of classic rock. And especially in this area, there's certain types of things that you see all the time. I wanted to make sure I had, I call them "rock & roll commons"—you want the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. That's stuff that people are always looking for, young and old. But I was finding cool other stuff too, some jazz here and there, some soul, other bits and pieces.
And after I bought everything and was starting to clean and process all the records, that's when I started to curate and weed out stuff that was just garbage. I'm constantly doing that at the shop. That's something that most people don't realize—you really have to work hard to maintain a good inventory that's not loaded up with junk. There's a constant process of like, get this out of here, it's not going to sell. I'm pretty, strict about that.
In terms of running things now, how is your time divided in terms of what parts of the business you're working on?
When I first started, it was full-on. I only had one employee, so I was working in the shop a lot more than I am now. That's the thing that I didn't quite realize when opened the shop: oh, it's a retail business, you have to be open every day for a certain number of hours. But as things settled in, I got a second employee and I was able to not have to be in the shop as much. I have a pretty even balance now between being in the shop, helping customers, but also pricing up a collection of records, putting some cool stuff out, or pricing new vinyl that's coming in.
Then the stuff that I can do from home is ordering records from distributors, and then all the business stuff: accounting and QuickBooks and financial stuff that you just chip away at. I'm still working a lot, but it's not as crazy as when I started. I'm finding a good balance between work and my family life. I'm a musician, too, so I'm trying to work on music when I can.
Well I really wanted to ask about any consumer trends you might have noticed, in terms of specific records, or just genres people are looking for. What's happening on the ground?
It's interesting. I'm in a small town in Vermont. There's not a lot of people there, but there's enough people who are into records to keep it going. I can't be as specialized as a shop that might be in a bigger city, so I feel like I have to have a bit of everything in my shop. The thing that I've worked on over the past few years is trying to stay up to date with new releases and indie stuff—which is really hard because there's a zillion things coming out all the time—keeping my ear to the ground of what people are really into.
A couple of years ago, I started a rule where, if two different customers asked me about a record and I didn't have it, then I would get it. That could be Olivia Rodrigo, or whatever. I'm willing to carry most anything. I can sell Taylor Swift records and that helps my business make money, but I can also can use that money to buy La Monte Young records, you know? It helps me fill out the weird section or get more jazz or whatever. I don't try to discriminate too much.
There'll be a record that everyone's asking for for a couple of months and I sell a bunch of them. Last year [it was] the Big Thief record. And then there'll be another record that comes out. I always feel like my head is swimming because there's always a new thing coming out, and I have to try to keep my finger on the pulse.
Do you get a lot of requests for Noah Kahan? I feel like I saw him bubble up and I was like, Oh my god, the new Vermont guy.
Oh, yeah. He's like a superstar in Vermont now. The crazy thing about the Noah Kahan records is that I think he had two records, and then the most recent one Stick Season was the one that got popular. The first two were not available on vinyl. It was totally sold out, and the label was not repressing it or anything. But recently, like within just within the last month or so, the label must have pressed up a ton of copies because I was finally able to get a bunch, and sold a bunch already.
Does anyone come into the store as a customer, not knowing what to buy and wanting advice? Or do people come in content to browse?
It's usually the latter. People are looking for a specific thing and they come in and either find it or ask us for it, or we get a lot of people who are just browsers. To me, that's the beauty and the joy of a record store, right? You go in and you might have some things in your mind of what you're looking for, but then you're always finding stuff that you weren't thinking about. That's what's so much fun.
But I do get people who want a recommendation or are like, "I'm really getting into ambient music, pick out some things for me." It's super fun because I can just go to a section and pick out some of my favorite things, and hopefully they dig it. And our customers will tell us about stuff and we'll check it out and maybe order it. It can be a two-way street too.
It's nice to hear that that type of interaction hasn't completely gone away. Is there an aspect of running a record store that people don't realize is difficult?
A lot of the inventory management that I was talking about is intense. It's really hard physical labor, and takes time. You're lugging records around all the time. And especially if you're going out to buy collections, that can be like pretty gnarly. You can be digging records out of a basement or an attic, or you're dealing with strangers who you've never met before— sometimes wonderful people, and sometimes really mean people. There's a lot of that.
The thing that I work really hard at is I try to keep my shop very clean and organized. I keep any junk off the floor, and put that in the basement or in the back room, or just get rid of it. Some shops struggle with that. They don't have the space to deal with it. That's a constant struggle with my shop. I have a lot of space to work with, so it's a little easier, but that's something we're always working on. We want to have a really nice environment for people to browse records and hang out.
It's a compliment that we get a lot and it feels good. It's funny, because you know what kind of store you want, and you also know what kind of store you don't want. I had some shops that I loved over the years, and modeled after that, and try to not be a certain other kind of store that I've been to over the years, too.
If you were going to the store today, what would be something you'd play while you were working? What's your current retail ambiance pick?
I let the my employees play whatever they want, and we pretty much pull records from the shop that are at the shop to listen to. I pull a little stack from the most recent stuff that's coming in. We listen to a lot of jazz, some classic rock, electronic and ambient music...it's all over the place. I'm always trying to listen to new stuff, and that's the nice thing about having a shop. Oh, this record looks cool. I've never heard it, I'll just throw it on and see what happens.
There's an element of chaos in that, too.
There are the records that we call "one-siders," if you play the first side and it's like, No, it's not happening. And there's records that I throw on that I'm like, wow, this is amazing. I have two employees, and one employee has fairly similar tastes to me, and then my other employee is younger and she likes different stuff. They play stuff that I wouldn't necessarily play, but I dig it. So yeah, we're all trying to keep the vibe going, you know?
Thank you Greg! If you're in the Burlington, VT area, go visit Autumn Records at 11 E Allen St Suite 2, Winooski, VT 05404, and also check out Greg's music on Bandcamp. And if you like I Enjoy Music, tell a friend about it.