TECHNOLOGY lovers can stay inside and download music to their hearts’ content but there’s something special about a record store, the kind you actually walk into. It’s where you come across unexpected treasures, meet fellow music fans and actually get out of the house.
”Our emphasis over the last 10 years has been to try to make this store not only a comfortable place to shop, but an event in itself,” says Jon Lambert, the general manager of the Princeton Record Exchange. Prex is celebrating 30 years selling new and used records, CDs and DVDs in Princeton.
It’s an unusually hot April day and Mr. Lambert is in one of the store’s back rooms. Classical music CDs are stacked on a long counter, and vinyl LPs line a wall of shelves. The iPad was released days earlier, yet another new device to tempt music lovers away from CD players and turntables, but Mr. Lambert speaks confidently of the store’s place in the market as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
”You can come here and spend a couple of hours, spend a day, spend 20 bucks and have a really great time,” he says. “You plow through things you’ve never seen before, you get to look at great covers, you hobnob with like-minded aficionados, you see all different walks of life, you hear music you’ve never heard before. It’s a dynamic, interesting, inviting environment.”
On April 17, the store, at 20 S. Tulane St., will celebrate Record Store Day, a nationwide celebration of independent record stores. The festivities will include a concert by Chris Harford with His Band of Changes, Dinner and Richard Barone. The concert is also part of the Princeton Library’s Earth Day celebration and will take place at Hines Plaza at 2 p.m.
Collectors cherish Record Store Day for the 150 limited edition releases that will be distributed exclusively to independent music stores. This year’s haul includes viny l 7- and 10-inch singles from Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, two Elvises (Presley and Costello) and others. Mr. Lambert says Prex is ordering as much as it can, but won’t know what it has until days before Record Store Day. (Last year’s Springsteen and Bob Dylan offerings were gone within 20 minutes.)
April 17 will also kick off eight days of raffles, starting small with T-shirts, gift cards and moving up to merchandise, a USB turntable and the grand prize of both the mono and stereo Beatles boxed sets.
Mr. Lambert says last year’s Record Store Day was one of the busiest non-holiday days of the year. “The fans just poured out,” he says. “It was so heartening to see that they just wanted to be here to say, ‘Yes, record stores stay in business... We don’t want to just shop in a mall or online.’”
Barry Weisfeld, the store’s owner, started selling records at flea markets and college campuses in the 1970s. He opened his first store (on Nassau Street) in March of 1980. He relocated to the current location — bringing along an inventory of 100,000 records, 5,000 cassettes and 100 CDs — in August of 1985.
He says he didn’t know much about records when he started, he was into ‘60s and ‘70s music, mostly single 45s. But he figured out the business to the point that years after chains like Sam Goody and Record World have become virtually nonexistent, his independent store draws music fans from all over the world.
”You’ve got to know the music, you’ve got to know the DVDs, you’ve got to buy (a product) for the right price and you have to sell it at the right price,” he says. “If you pay too much for it, you’re out of business, if you pay too little, people hate you, so you have to find a happy medium.”
A big factor of the store’s success, according to Mr. Weisfeld and Mr. Lambert, is selling used merchandise, which accounts for about 70 percent of sales. Most used CDs are priced under $9 and most used DVDs are under $12. The store offers thousands of “cheap” CDs and DVDs, priced below $5.
”If you sell it too inexpensively you left money on the table,” Mr. Weisfeld says. “If you try to sell it for what you really want to sell it for, you’re not turning enough over, and there’s no space to put the new merchandise out, so you’re frozen. It’s a really delicate balance.”
Mr. Lambert says there are three main contributors to the store’s longevity: “Breadth of selection, quality control, low prices.” It sounds easy: buy some records, put them on a shelf, sit back, and talk about your favorite Who albums.
But it’s much more involved than that. In another back room of the store on that April day, six of Prex’s 15 employees were sorting through purchases, checking inventory and cleaning records. The music of Brazilian folk singer Gilberto Gil played on a CD player as Mr. Lambert updated Prex’s Facebook page, where visitors can share their first concert experiences, get a glimpse of interesting album covers and get updates of new shipments.
”If it were ‘High Fidelity’ we’d be out of business,” says Mr. Lambert, referring to the Nick Hornby novel that centers on a record store owner and was later made into a movie starring John Cusack. “That image of laid-back pot-smoking hippies doesn’t fly. We work hard here.”
In putting together the store’s impressive stock of merchandise, Mr. Weisfeld travels to collectors’ homes for bigger purchases. One huge purchase took place earlier this year on the NFL’s championship Sunday. He and a buyer left for Manhattan at 6 a.m., arriving at a Park Avenue apartment at 7:30, and purchased about 10,000 CDs, 2,000 DVDs and 2,500 records.
”When I had everything in the van, I couldn’t close the van,” Mr. Weisfeld says. “The hand truck was in the back and I didn’t want to bust a window. So finally I found an angle for the hand truck, and I was barely able to close it.”
And while technology has hurt the record business, Prex is using the Internet and social media to draw in new customers. In addition to the Facebook page (which has 2,501 fans as of this writing), the store has a MySpace page, videos on YouTube, a newsletter, and a Web site (www.prex.com). It’s all designed to get people into the store.
”My feeling always is if you like music and you like movies,” Mr. Lambert says, “and I get you through the door, then I’ve got you for life.”
The Princeton Record Exchange will celebrate Record Store Day at its location at 20 S. Tulane St., Princeton, April 17. A concert featuring Chris Harford with His Band of Changes and Dinner and special guest Richard Barone will take place at Hinds Plaza next to the Princeton Public Library, Witherspoon Street, Princeton, 2-4 p.m. 609-921-0881; http://www.prex.com.