Permanent Records

Where and how brick-and-mortar jazz retail continues to thrive

Bob Koester of Jazz Record Mart
Jazz Record Center, NYC
Jazz Record Center, NYC

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In September, Amoeba Music, the California record chain with three locations, temporarily added a fourth via a 20-by-40-foot tent on the grounds of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Approaching its 55th year, Monterey is one of the most widely attended jazz festivals; the recent lineup featured Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman, Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and other A-listers. The event gave Amoeba the chance to extend its brand and expand its customer base in a space once held by Best Buy and Tower Records. Store traffic was spurred by a robust schedule of artist signings.

With locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, Amoeba is unique among independent music stores, but it’s not alone. As large chains like Tower, Borders and the Virgin Megastores leave the scene, indie shops are holding ground in an era when music commonly falls from cyber clouds. Riding the rekindled interest in vinyl, and playing to an audience that still wants music it can literally feel, these stores are filling an essential niche for jazzophiles.

The inventory at most stores offers a mix of fresh and vintage vinyl and CDs, with a heavy emphasis on bop-derived modern jazz to quench customer demand. Owners are always seeking to purchase collections stocked with original pressings that can sell for thousands of dollars once authenticated. Many owners and managers have acquired curatorial skills in assessing the difference between a $400 gem and a $6 reissue. Foreign travelers are drawn to the stores, especially the Japanese, in search of material that’s hard to get at home.

For jazz fans who would rather explore music in dusty bins than buy it with a few clicks of a mouse, the stores have become meeting places. “A lot of communities are missing a place to hang out and talk about music,” says Amoeba’s co-owner Marc Weinstein. Amoeba treats each genre as a separate store with its own buyers and staff. Jazz makes up between 10 to 15 percent of the inventory. When the large music chains crashed, Amoeba saw a significant jump in sales, which average between $20 and $30 million annually.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, rain pelted a canopy outside Jerry’s Records in Pittsburgh. Underneath was Jerry Weber, who spun 45s for three hours as part of a record giveaway, handing out some 44,000 vinyl LPs and singles to the public. The shop houses more than a million records, about 10 percent of which are jazz, and Weber’s got another million stashed in a warehouse about 15 minutes away. The freebies were being distributed in order to create space. Upstairs, patrons crowded through narrow aisles, flipping through Weber’s all-vinyl collection as the Temptations’ “You’re My Everything” played.

A few feet away, in a separate room, is a storehouse of jazz vinyl. Here, the aural vibe shifted on this afternoon to Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” An adjunct room stocks 78s. “We do a great jazz business,” says Weber, who’s owned the store for 35 years. “The sad thing is, a lot of the older people who used to buy big-band stuff are not around anymore. If they are, they don’t have record players. Now I’m being offered their collections. They’re passing away and moving from big houses to assisted living.” Weber says sales are nearly nonexistent for big-band and Dixieland recordings.

Bop, hard bop and postbop, however, are alive and well. Weber’s younger customers are avid buyers of midcentury acoustic jazz; in particular they devour music connected to Miles Davis. Weber supplements the shop’s income by holding private auctions over the Internet. “That’s what subsidizes the store,” he says. “If it wasn’t for [the auctions], I couldn’t sell the records.” The store’s yearly sales average about $220,000.

To keep the records spinning, Weber has teamed up with longtime friend Vince Bomba, owner of Galaxie Electronics in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill section. Galaxie operates in a room inside Jerry’s. Bomba repairs turntables or sells parts to fix them. “This is helping Jerry out and it’s helping us out,” says Bomba. “It is keeping this whole thing alive.”

In New Jersey, just off the sales floor of the Princeton Record Exchange, general manager Jon Lambert is hovering over a pricy record cleaner that can wet wash and vacuum dry vinyl in seconds. He’s just received a cache of jazz LPs and found an early pressing of Sonny Rollins’ The Sound of Sonny. He paid $150 for the 1957 release and believes it will sell for as much as $400. The rest were later pressings and reissues, priced for a few dollars, and are already in “new arrivals.” The store is a few blocks from Princeton University and has become a destination for East Coast collectors and dealers abroad. Lambert says at least 10 dealers from Tokyo visit every year.

For the past two years, Lambert made videos of significant finds and posted them on YouTube and the store’s site. They’re simple productions: a tight shot of the album covers as Lambert flips through the crate discussing the titles. The most watched, at 15,000 views, is about a 400-piece Blue Note collection, all in pristine condition. “It really grabs people in a proactive way,” he says. “We don’t sell anything online. Our philosophy is we want you to come into the store and shop.” The Record Exchange sells all genres in LP and CD, and has averaged annual sales of more than $1 million.

Bob Koester stands apart from other music purveyors. He owns the Delmark record label and a record shop. His Jazz Record Mart, about a 10-minute walk from Chicago’s Miracle Mile shopping district, is on the checklist of collectors traveling through the Midwest. His aficionado clientele is complemented by newcomers looking for certain mainstay recordings-for instance, Davis’ Kind of Blue, of which Koester sells about 1,000 units each year in various formats. He’s also benefited from the closure of corporate music retailers. “We felt it immediately when the chains all went,” he says. “We saw customers we haven’t seen in years.” Sales had been just shy of $1 million annually, but receded since the downturn. Unlike Weber, Koester sells big-band tunes on 78s at a steady rate. “It’s a tiny market,” he says, “but the swing dancers all want them.”

On a quiet section of West 26th Street in New York a man stares at a directory inside the lobby of an office building. He’s looking for the Jazz Record Center, an all-jazz music store filled with LPs, CDs, DVDs, books, T-shirts and artwork. After some guidance, the customer finds his way to Suite 804. “I’m fascinated by how people find us,” says owner Fred Cohen. “Unless you know where you are going, there is no way you know we are here; there’s no sign out front.”

Cohen isn’t trying to keep his store a secret; he’s been in business nearly 30 years, 18 at the current spot. Selling jazz above street level, he insists, is a defense against paying a premium for storefront property in New York. The unconventional setting hasn’t dampened business; yearly sales average $150,000-$200,000. Cohen’s shop features new and used recordings, and he says international travelers crave releases on small independent labels that don’t make it to stores in Europe.

Over the years, Cohen’s acquired expertise in sussing out original Blue Note material. He’s documented what to look for in an illustrated, 112-page book available on his site for $45. His interest mainly grew from intense customer demand for the label since he started the Jazz Record Center in 1983. “I don’t know why; it is a wonderful label, but so is Prestige,” he says. “But Blue Note seems to have a particular resonance with the buying public that no other label has or ever will, from the artwork to content, to all of the peculiarities of the manufacturing process.”