Princeton Packet: Princeton Record Exchange News
This article was written by Pat Summers and published in the Princeton Packet on August 24, 2007
PRINCETON - In an age of music downloading and big box stores, the Princeton Record Exchange remains an independent success story.
Rolling with the punches and making lemonade when life hands you a lemon: two popular clichés for dealing with circumstances that are less than ideal. Jonathan Lambert, general manager of the Princeton Record Exchange (aka PREX), is a veteran at both bouncing back and mixing up a big, refreshing pitcher.
The latest cliffhanger had to do with whether the store would lose its home of more than 20 years. Change and development all around its Tulane Street site had caused customers to wonder if PREX would survive. Answer: With the recent signing of a long-term lease, it will.
Not only that, but even if a new building goes up in the parking lot next door, Mr. Lambert's hoping for more foot traffic. His rose-colored glasses come with his practiced positive attitude — one that seems to have served him and the business well for 18 years.
At about 3,500 square feet (with another 1,000 more for warehouse and offices), PREX buys, sells and trades new and used CDs, DVDs and LPs. Its distinctive yellow-gold bag is as packed with information as the store is with music and movies: 140,000 titles in stock; more than 20,000 CDs and thousands of DVDs for under $5, and 20,000 LPs under $2.
Huge swings in merchandise, like the collection purchases that brought 20,000 items into the store in only two weeks last month, bolster the believability of such numbers. So do the e-mailed newsletters heralding new arrivals. The store's stock levels and busy-ness only sound like hyperbole.
What Barry Weisfeld founded in 1980, and still owns, began in a small space on Nassau Street at the other end of town. It moved to Tulane Street 22 years ago while growing into "one of the largest independent music stores in the USA."
As general manager, Mr. Lambert has faced challenges like a long, narrow store increasingly crammed with merchandise and a tin roof that calls for a mighty air conditioning-filtration system. But that's the small stuff. External changes have been more threatening lately.
Four years ago, the Record Exchange's CD and DVD inventory was a 50-50 split between new and used, Mr. Lambert says. Then, as music downloading picked up, the sale of new CDs plummeted dramatically. Given that shift, Mr. Lambert says, "If we were going to rely on new merchandise sales, we'd be out of business today."
That's why the store's current inventory is 65 to 70 percent used, and 30 to 35 percent new. "People don't want to pay full price for CDs or DVDs," he says. And they'd rather recycle music and movies they're through with than fill up landfills. Which is where PREX comes in. The store actively seeks opportunities to purchase used music and movies, and sellers and buyers alike are drawn from out of town, state and country, besides from the Princeton area.
Around noon on a Saturday earlier this month, four people in the store illustrated the client base Mr. Lambert had sketched: mostly men, who dominate both music buying and serious collecting; lots of kids; and women, who have broader tastes and are more open, he says. In appearance, customers can range from sporting Mohawks with tattoos and piercings to strait-laced-looking business people and teens with backpacks.
Brandon Bryant, from Queens, was selecting 45 RPM singles that went for $1 or $2 apiece. For starters, he had Gene Pitney, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel and George Harrison, and he seemed pretty happy despite having to grope through boxes at floor level.
As with top shelves, the store avoids using floor-level shelves, except for cheaper stuff, Mr. Lambert says. Constant turnover cuts the dust that might be expected, and the floors are vacuumed "all the time" because of the heavy traffic. Even so, some customers wear sweats and bring rubber gloves.
Allegra Martin, of Boston, recently earned her master's in choral conducting, and filled her blue basket with about 25 "really cheap" CDs, mostly choral music. Her tab came to $170, or "the rent," she said, with no apparent worry.
"We really want people to run across things they didn't know they wanted," Mr. Lambert says, so new and used are mixed together. For much the same reason, music in the cheap sections is grouped by genre only, not alphabetized. "People take out 20 to 30, then put some back," he says; it would be impossible to keep up.
Space is the biggest challenge at PREX, and constant shifting makes floor maps useless. Just-bought collections can hit the inventory like an avalanche. And in two work areas most customers don't know about — a warehouse the length of the inside wall and a small office on the opposite side — innumerable CDs, DVDs and records are processed before they go into bins or onto shelves.
The warehouse space is filled with crates, security cases and shelves and stacks of CDs — and sound. All the sale preliminaries happen here, to musical accompaniment. "Everyone has a passion for music, but we don't always share the same taste," Mr. Lambert notes.
Because condition's more important with records than CDs, the area allotted for LP processing includes strong overhead lights for a visual check that precedes pricing. Questionable items are simply pitched — probably explaining the store's return rate of less than half of 1 percent.
Will Henry and Sungho Youn checked out new rock CDs and DVDs in stock, as they regularly do. Both are area high school students, and Will works at Kopp's Cycle on Spring Street.
The many shopping styles at PREX include "setting up camp for a day — and many people do," Mr. Lambert says. Or, while one partner shops elsewhere in town, the spouse browses here. Still other customers come in every day at lunchtime to "spend 20 minutes checking out new stuff." (New releases are date-coded so even newer ones can replace them.)
"It can be overwhelming when you first walk in," Mr. Lambert concedes. But everything's categorized and the main sections (not the cheap/budget stuff) are all alphabetized. With enough titles, albums are grouped by artist within a letter; otherwise they go at the end of that letter.
Steve Fletcher, Rider University's swimming and diving coach, has shopped at PREX for 16 years, usually for CDs and LPs. He uses the store's "huge variety of titles and artists" to trace formation and dissolution of various bands.
Sales occur only in the store — not by Internet, e-mail or phone. "Our emphasis has always been buying the stuff, pricing it as fast as possible and putting it out for our legions of customers," says Mr. Lambert. The existing database captures title and artist only for new and used CDs above $6 and all new LPs.
It takes nearly 20 "exceptional" employees to get the PREX job done, and Mr. Lambert seems proud to mention a number of "lifers" and only three part-timers. The benefits are great and the pay's good, he says, and everyone on staff can indulge their music passion.
There's even room for artistry; witness the handmade signs, usually yellow like the store's signature bag. "We like the homemade look," says Mr. Lambert.
Earlier experience in corporate music stores, where creativity was stifled in the interests of consistency, taught him that "being an 'indie' allows more freedom to try ideas." In the past year, PREX began selling turntables and music-related accessories. And its DVD department has expanded to offer the area's largest selection, especially used.
Wearing jeans, shirt and sneakers, and exuding casual expertise about all things PREX, Mr. Lambert offers well-honed responses with friendly authority. Almost reflexively, he ticks off the store's three main strengths: breadth of selection, quality control and low prices.
Sounding like a man with a new lease on life, he says, "You can walk into a store like ours and buy a lot of used merchandise as cheap or cheaper than downloading. You have the physical object, you have the liner notes. More importantly, you get the fun of browsing. There's something exciting about the hunt!"
The Princeton Record Exchange is located at 20 S. Tulane St., Princeton. Store hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (609) 921-0881; www.princetonrecordexchange.com
This Article was written by Pat Summers and Published in the Princeton Packet on 08/24/07. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend Princeton Packet Publications to all of our customers.