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Surviving the record-store wars; Independents scratch by in fight against big chains.

This article was published in the Star Ledger on March 8, 1999

There are some prerequisites for running an independent record store nowadays. You need a lot of heart, a keen sense of industry savvy and the occasional Maalox cocktail.

And let's not forget the niche - and the fanatical fringe."We cater to the large number of people who'd spend their last dime on music, those who'd rather buy records than eat," says Barry Weisfeld, the 45-year-old owner of Princeton Record Exchange, a shop specializing in used CDs and vinyl.

Still, sluggish sales, low profit margins, manic consumer taste and the emergence of chains such as Best Buy and Circuit City, which lure customers in to look over big-ticket items by deeply discounting compact discs, have taken out record stores coast to coast.

The death toll? Some 1,000 stores in three years, according to Rolling Stone magazine. In the past decade, Jersey has seen the demise of legendary indies Sound on Sound in Highland Park and Pier Platters in Hoboken, to name just two.

That's not to say the big guys aren't feeling it too. Faltering chains are being gobbled up by bigger companies. Last fall, Camelot and Blockbuster Music were bought out by conglomerates Trans World and Wherehouse, respectively.

In New Jersey, independents compete with suburban mega-stores

and Manhattan collectors meccas. There's also the growing Internet market, which lets shoppers order from retailers anywhere, anytime. The chains are having trouble, but the tiny Garden State independents are a lesson in survival.

In spite of the slogans, Sam Goody's doesn't have everything, New York is expensive and while Internet shopping is certainly convenient, music hounds find ordering online is no substitute for record-store outings."The Net is more difficult to browse, and there's no tactile sensation - like blowing dust off an album," says David Haedeli via e-mail, a former New Jersey resident living in Germany but who shops at the Princeton Record Exchange during occasional trans-Atlantic jaunts.

Small stores such as Princeton Record compete by specializing in a certain genre, offering bargains on used CDs or serving customers who like to browse through brimming bins of vinyl. In other words, filling the gaps left by the chains.

For Weisfeld, vinyl is hardly a dead format. The audience includes DJs hunting "scratch and spin" material, collectors in search of lost classics or frugal music buffs. Hey, how else can you buy the entire Led Zeppelin collection for less than $20? ''It's the experience of flipping through the bins, looking at the art work, touching the vinyl, talking about music with other customers. A lot of it's about the memories. You look at a record, and it brings back certain things."

Princeton Record Exchange, which opened on Nassau Street in 1980 and moved to South Tulane Street in 1985, began as a hub for Weisfeld's used vinyl collection. Before opening the store, Weisfeld was a vagabond music man, selling records on college campuses. A Long Island native, Weisfeld decided to settle in Princeton because of its large student body and cosmopolitan downtown.

''You've got a unique market of people who live here, work here, educate here. It's a real community," says Weisfeld, an animated man with a droll wit. "But we've also got people who travel from New York and all over the country. People come from Europe on record-buying trips."

''Record stores here are extremely expensive," Haedeli says of Germany. Last year, Haedeli spent $200 on music at the Princeton shop during a brief visit to the States. "I'll spend the day there (if my wife lets me). Finding an album that is out of print or that you once had . . . is like finding an old friend."

The hunters Inside this 4,300-square-foot store are some 30,000 new and used CDs and more than 100,000 used records. Back in the vinyl section, rummaging hunters riffed on Yes while two middle-aged men sat splayed on the carpet searching boxes of jazz overstock.

Still, the majority of the customers were hunting the bargain and used CDs, priced between $4 and $7. No surprise to Weisfeld, who says two-thirds of the $1 million-plus yearly sales comes from compact discs.

''If I'd have known that compact discs would decimate vinyl, I'd have called the store Princeton Compact Disc and LP Exchange," says Weisfeld, who maintains that he will carry vinyl as long as there's a demand for it. "The store works well the way it is, a mix of formats and genres. There's a synergy to it. People don't necessarily just want new or used, they want both."

[... edited for relevance and brevity ...]

"We do okay. There's a lot more out there than what's on the Billboard charts."



This Article was written by Judy Peet and Published in the Star Ledger on 03/08/99. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend New Jersey's largest newspaper to all of our customers.


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