It was a sunny Thursday afternoon at a time when you'd expect most people with the disposable income to collect records to be at work, even though — judging by the crowd of customers assembled at the Princeton Record Exchange — you might think it was a rainy Saturday afternoon.
It begs the question: What makes this location such a destination in a time when brick-and-mortar retailers, such as bookstores and movie outlets, are disappearing faster than you can say “Foghat”?
Jon Lambert, the store’s general manager, says it’s because the record shop is more than just a retail outlet: It’s entertainment.
“Getting your hands dirty — it’s become an event,” he said. “Going to the record store is doing something; it’s entertaining yourself.”
That entertainment value can’t be underestimated or easily replicated by an online marketplace.
“The digital, online world is rather cold, it’s rather sterile and it’s rather lonely,” Lambert said. “You go to the movies, you go bowling, you go to a concert, you go to the record store. You gear up for it. It’s fun for people.
“Online shopping is convenient, but it’s not fun. At least not for me.”
Lambert admits the trend of online shopping and, unfortunately, illegal downloading has altered the landscape of the business, but that’s not exactly a bad thing.
“I think it used to be that, when you went to a record store, it was very commodity-driven,” he said. “There were so many, they were everywhere; it was ubiquitous. That’s how you got your merchandise.
“But with the availability of music, what’s happened is it’s sort of screened out the people who just wanted that as a commodity and it’s increased the people who actually want to be in a store and physically touch something.”
To that end, Lambert said the experience of visiting the record store, and going through the alphabetized stacks, is itself a tactile one that is analogous to the relationship between digital music and having a physical copy of an album pressed on vinyl.
“You heft it in your hand, you read the liner notes, you go, ‘Whoa, I never knew that existed,’ ” he said. “You’re not going to find that if Spotify is going, ‘Well, this is recommended for you!’
“It’s the event of it. It’s just satisfying on a lot of different levels.”
And the correlations to the in-store experience and the customer experience with the product might explain the vinyl collectors’ loyalty to the local record shop and the fact that vinyl sales increased more than 50 percent in 2014, according to this year’s Nielsen Music Report.
“It’s a little ritualistic, right?” Lambert said. “You’re more involved; you’re not just clicking a button. It’s sort of like a tea ceremony in a way. You clean it off, you check your needle, you anti-static it if you need it. Then 20 minutes later you have to get up and flip. You have to be conscious of it; it focuses you on experiencing that music.
“I think people who enjoy vinyl enjoy the tactile experience on all levels.”
And what’s the demographic of these vinyl lovers?
“It’s very hard to categorize our clientele. On a typical day, we’ll have about 600 people coming through the doors on a weekday and about 1,200 on the weekend, and they come from all walks of life,” he said. “We’ve got 10-year-olds coming in after school, octogenarians looking for the classical and pretty much everywhere in between.”
But, starting with the resurgence of new vinyl (as opposed to the used collections), Lambert has noticed more customers in their teens and early 20s purchasing — almost exclusively — vinyl.
“We’re definitely shifting younger and that’s very encouraging for our business,” he said. “You have to get new customers coming in all the time and to see these young folks really embracing vinyl, the kind of product that we’re offering, the tone and feel of what we’re offering, it’s very encouraging for the future.”
New vinyl has, in fact, taken over (again): In each of the last 15 months, the Record Exchange has sold more new vinyl than new CDs. Some months, it has even doubled, Lambert said.
Still, new music — what’s ordered from manufacturers — only represents about a quarter of its business. The other 75 percent is made up of used merchandise (vinyl and CDs), and the store has never had trouble moving the used merchandise, even during the dearth of production in the 1990s.
And Lambert has one explanation for that.
“There’s a reason we didn’t go back to 8-tracks. Vinyl is successful as a retro product because it’s really a good product. It was never bad to begin with,” he said. “Vinyl, if you take care of it, will last forever. We get records in from 50 or 60 years ago and they sound perfect.”
Name: Princeton Record Exchange
Founder: Barry Weisfeld
Employees: 15 full-time, seven part-time
There’s a sign greeting you when you enter the front door of the Record Exchange: “Wi-Fi Hotspot.” You may wonder, “Who needs Wi-Fi at a record store?”
Well, Lambert was seeing a lot of customers on their phones and knew exactly what they were doing.
“We have free Wi-Fi here and I brought that in because I kept seeing people on their phones trying to compare prices,” he said. “(So) go ahead. We’re cheaper; people would see it’s half as much as it is on Amazon.”
When we spoke to Jon Lambert in the back room of the Princeton Record Exchange, the shelves were stocked with special releases awaiting the large crowds that would be assembling the following Saturday, April 18, for Record Store Day.
Started in 2007, Record Store Day is held on the third Saturday of every April to celebrate the culture of the independent record store. Artists and record labels release or reissue certain albums specifically for the day that draws thousands of vinyl collectors throughout the country.
“We had about 300 people in line on opening,” Lambert said of the crowd that wrapped around the block. “There were roughly 2,000 people that came through the store that day.”
To celebrate the event, the Record Exchange teamed up with Dogfish Head beer, the “official beer of Record Store Day.”
“It may be a little tangential, but I think vinyl and craft beer actually go together quite well,” Lambert said. “The same kind of people who are into quality beer are also into quality music.”
Because they couldn’t hand out the beer at the store, the Record Exchange teamed up with the Princeton pub Winberie’s, which had four different Dogfish drafts on tap, raffled off a Dogfish Head turntable and offered a dollar off the first draft if you brought your Princeton Record Exchange bag in.