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Record Exchange a living time capsule for its faithful

This article was published in the Princeton Business Journal on September 4, 2005

PRINCETON - My friend and I review each other's outfits for signs of geekiness before walking past the hip and seemingly youthful clerks at the counter of the Princeton Record Exchange on South Tulane Street in Princeton.

I am tempted to ask for Barry Manilow or Hilary Duff just to see the reaction, but decide against it. We walk in slowly, taking in the walls, which are plastered much like a teenager's bedroom, with posters that reflect the tastes of the staff.

One poster says "The Best of the Animals," another shows Mariah Carey, her eyes inked over in red, perhaps by a customer's pen. There are endless bins and cardboard boxes, which hold 650,000 titles, including albums, DVDs, CDs and tapes. The CDs are topped with handwritten signs that read Budget CDs, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Christian Rock, Classical — even Space Age Weird and Easy Listening (which are filed in the same bin).

My friend picks up a Beatles album cover and is reminiscing about it as a tall staff member named Ben (who looks much closer to my age than my daughter's) clicks through CDs next to us.
   He looks up and says, "That album cover was drawn by Klaus Voorman, who also played music on John and George's solo albums."

We look at the black-and-white drawings interspersed with photos of the Beatles, and I am reminded we are in the midst of true music devotees here at the Record Exchange.

The Record Exchange has been in business for 25 years. It has survived the move from cassettes to CDs and the DVD revolution. It continues to prosper as some people download their music off the Internet without ever touching a CD or appreciating the cover art of the music that fills their lives.

As we continue to sift through the albums, a man appears next to us wearing a baseball cap, shorts, sneakers, a cell phone and other paraphernalia attached to his belt.
   "Are you looking for me?" he says.

"Are you the owner?" I say.
   He nods yes and begins a high-energy tour of the store that includes information about its opening in 1980, when the man's father gave him a year to "figure it out." That includes the customer base — "people come from all over the world" — to his own personal taste in music — a taste that seems to have stalled in the '70s.

"I have a business to run. I can't be going to concerts and keeping up on the latest music trends," he says as he paces between the bins.

That man, Barry Weisfeld, owner of the Princeton Record Exchange, began his career as a collector of 45 records and a disc jockey at his alma mater's radio station at the University of Hartford in the mid-'70s. His entrepreneurial spirit took him on the road in 1975! , when he sensed that college students were not able to buy good music at their own university stores. For the next five years, he sold music out of his van at colleges across the Northeast.

By 1980, he says he was ready to stop moving and find a stationary location to ply his passion for music. He analyzed potential spots and settled on Princeton, because it is a university town and it also draws from Philadelphia and New York, which is where many of his current customers reside.

Today, the Record Exchange is known for its eclectic mix of new and used music and movies. Much of its merchandise is obtained through the purchase of collections, such as a recent Latin album collection of more than 500 albums that the Record Exchange advertised via e-mail and elsewhere. The store also buys merchandise through estate sales and from collectors who no longer have the space. They also purchase from people who are going through what the staff term a "media shift" — moving from albums to CDs, for instance.

While Mr. Weisfeld says many of his independent record store competitors in the country are no longer in business, the Record Exchange seems to continue to thrive. He will not divulge any supporting figures, but he does say there has never been a day without a sale. The Record Exchange's general manager, Jon Lambert, will go so far as to say, "Our business is much better right now than it was even 10 years ago."

The store has three types of customers. There are the walk-in regulars from Princeton and surrounding areas, some of whom originally entered the store as teens tagging behind their parents. Then there are the destination shoppers who come to the Record Exchange from all over the world to purchase obscure labels or collections. Lastly, there are the people who are wandering through Princeton and stumble upon the store.

The Record Exchange has a voluminous! Web site that directs people to browse through thousands of music and movie titles. It does not sell merchandise over the Internet as of yet, however, because of the potential damage that can take place shipping used items. The store also has a 2,000-subscriber e-mail newsletter that alerts buyers to new collections and updates them on events at the store.

Princeton resident Anthony Capon is one of the Record Exchange's faithful customers. He shops at the store about once a month with an Excel spreadsheet tucked in his wallet detailing the most interesting new music.

"My tastes are fairly obscure, and nine out of 10 times when I walk in with a request, they have it," says Mr. Capon. He adds that his friends and business colleagues from the United Kingdom insist on going to the Record Exchange upon their arrival in the United States.

The Record Exchange is also known for the encyclopedic knowledge of its staff members. There are 15 employees, and while some are 20-year-olds, the average age of the staff is 35.

"There is the front desk staff who may come and go, and then there are the lifers," Mr. Lambert says. The lifers are the people who work 40 hours a week and have been employed at the store for up to 16 years. They are collectors and music buffs, as well as the behind-the-scenes staff who ensure that the business runs smoothly. They process and appraise every piece of used music that comes into the store, buy collections, hire and fire staff and maintain the Record Exchange's vast Web site.

According to Mr. Lambert, those long-term staff members stay for two main reasons. One is the benefits package, which includes profit-sharing, dental and vision care. The second reason is less tangible.

The benefit packages are great and they allow us to be adults. But there is also little bit of arrested youth here, I guess," says a slightly aging 'lifer' with a shy smile and a toss of his longish rock-and-roll styled hair.



This Article was written by Diane Landis Hackett and Published in the Princeton Business Journal on 10/04/05. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend Princeton Packet Publications to all of our customers.


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