Almighty Press

September 23, 2008
Independent music stores haven't yet disappeared from suburbia

Halle Cox brings a compact disc to the counter.

"Is this any good?" she asks.

Steve Warrenfeltz, co-owner of Kiss the Sky records in Geneva, tells Cox a bit about the CD, which is by alternative country group Devil in a Woodpile. Cox looks doubtful.

"Mike loves these guys," Warrenfeltz says, referring to the other owner, Mike Messerschmidt. "Do you want to hear some of it?" He loads the disc into the store stereo system.

"Ah, great choice!" Messerschmidt shouts from across the room. "I love these guys."

Cox has been a devoted Kiss the Sky customer for years, precisely because of moments like this.

"It's the personal service, plus I always get great recommendations here," said Cox, a St. Charles resident whose musical tastes run from classic rock to jazz to "psychobilly," a mix of punk and rockabilly that Messerschmidt turned her on to. "You can't find all that anywhere else."

Go back 15 or 20 years, and just about every suburb had a record store like Kiss the Sky. The local record store was a place to buy music, of course, but it also served as a kind of real-world chat room, a spot where fans could discuss and debate and exchange information about the latest bands.

Today, just a handful of record stores remain in the suburbs, and those that do have to fight and claw to stay afloat in the age of big-box retailers and digital downloading.

Going toe-to-toe against the mighty iPod in 2008 might seem like a suicide mission, but suburban record store owners have accepted the challenge. At the very least, they know they'll have fun doing it.

"It's a battle," said Mark Paradise, owner of Sunshine Daydream records in Mount Prospect. "But it's one that's worth fighting."

Passion for music

Paradise, 42, got into the record store business for a simple reason: He loves music. He bought Sunshine Daydream in 1997 and moved it to its current location on Euclid Avenue in 2001.

"I was the type of kid who would listen to all four sides of Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' back to back, wearing those big chunky headphones they had back then," Paradise said. "Other kids I knew collected baseball cards, but I bought records. I can't play music myself, so owning a store was the only other option."

Now a Lake Zurich resident, Paradise grew up in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. He spent much of his childhood at the Flipside Records store at Foster and Kedzie.

"My mom would drop me off at the store and then do some errands. She would have to drag me out of there when she was done," he said.

The store gave Paradise a place to share his passion with people just as into music as he was.

"I'd read all the album covers and ask the people behind the counter what they thought," he said. "They'd point out other stuff I might like, and we'd just sit there and talk music. It was great."

Messerschmidt and Warrenfeltz can relate. Friends since high school, the pair grew up in the South suburbs. Their favorite record store back in the day was the legendary Hegewisch Records on the far southeast corner of the city.

"We'd go in there and walk out with armloads of records," Messerschmidt said. "It was a fantastic place."

As die-hard music fans, the two friends, now 56, often discussed owning a record store together. But it wasn't until they were in their mid-40s that they made it happen.

"We were both doing the corporate thing and weren't very happy with that," Messerschmidt said.

Warrenfeltz said there were some sleepless nights when they started Kiss the Sky in a Batavia strip mall 12 years ago. The store moved to downtown Geneva in 2006.

"I took a big hit in income to start this," Warrenfeltz said. "But it's been so much more rewarding than anything else I could have done."

Grim marketplace

CD sales have been dropping for years in the United States, while downloads have skyrocketed. In April, Apple announced that its downloading service, iTunes, had surpassed Wal-Mart to become the No. 1 retailer of music in the country.

This digital competition, coupled with the low prices offered at Wal-Mart and Best Buy, has put the squeeze on independent record stores. Since 2003, roughly 1,300 independent stores have closed across the United States, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, an industry research group. There are less than 2,500 stores left.

Grim facts, to be sure. And suburban stores haven't been immune to the trend.

"I look around this area sometimes and think, are we the only one left?" Messerschmidt said.

The changing market has forced record stores to overhaul their inventories. Kiss the Sky, for example, offers just about every genre of rock. But it has also become a destination for heavy metal fans by stocking obscure albums not easily found online or at Best Buy.

"We hear from metal fans who tell us they've driven a long distance to visit our store because we have stuff no one else does," Warrenfeltz said.

Sunshine Daydream caters primarily to fans of classic rock and contemporary "jam bands" like Phish and Umphrey's McGee. Like most other stores, Sunshine Daydream supplements its music offerings with T-shirts, posters and other products.

Other suburban stores are taking similar measures to stay vital. Vinyl Frontier in McHenry offers guitar lessons; Rolling Stones records in Norridge provides listening stations where customers can preview new releases.

"You have to do everything music-related you can in order to compete," Vinyl Frontier owner Tim Wille said.

Positive signs

While CD sales are down in stores, local owners have noticed some positive developments recently.

First, vinyl LPs - new and old - have made a comeback. And not just with older fans still using their 1970s dorm-room turntables.

Contemporary bands like the Drive-by Truckers, Radiohead and the White Stripes have recently issued music on 180-gram vinyl, which is both sturdier and better-sounding than the LPs of old. Some new vinyl releases come with a free digital version of the album, and many of today's turntables include software that allows users to download LPs onto their computers.

"I see a lot of young fans, people in their teens, getting into vinyl," Paradise said. "They like the packaging, they like the artwork, and they like the warmer sound."

Vinyl is still a niche product, and new releases can cost $20 to $25. But because record stores are the only place to find vinyl, the trend gives them an edge.

Store owners say they're also starting to sense that for devoted music fans the pendulum is shifting away from downloading and back to buying music in stores.

Messerschmidt points out that downloading is a solitary experience. Fans enjoy the convenience of it, but they also like the chance to walk into a store, look at the posters on the wall and debate the latest releases with other music fans, he said.

"Downloading isn't going away. It's here and it will stay here. But it seems to be leveling off a bit. I think fans realize that there's something missing from the experience," Messerschmidt said.

Paradise said the atmosphere inside a good record store also makes it a more attractive shopping experience than getting a CD at a chain store.

"Things sometimes look bad in this business, but I'm not pessimistic. I'm hopeful," Paradise said. "I hear enough times from customers who say, 'Wow, this place reminds me of a great store I went to in the '70s or '80s.' I think there are enough people out there who want what we offer."

Suburban record stores

Here are a few of the independent record stores still alive and well in the suburbs:

Kiss the Sky: 301 W. State St., Geneva. (630) 232-1888

Sunshine Daydream: 2027 E. Euclid Ave., Mount Prospect. (847) 299-2622

Vinyl Frontier: 1326 N. Riverside Drive, McHenry. (815) 363-8230

Rainbow Records: 714 S. Northwest Hwy., Barrington. (847) 304-0721

Rolling Stones: 7300 W. Irving Park Road, Norridge. (708) 456-0861

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Article List

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December 30, 2012 - Detroit News - As one record shop closes, vinyl music plays on in another

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January 3, 2010 - Delaware News Journal - Delaware music shops get creative to compete with downloads, chain music stores

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August 20, 2009 - CNN Money - You can make money off online music

June 14, 2009 - New York Times - Retailing Era Closes With Music Megastore

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April 18, 2009 - Charlotte Observer - Record stores band together

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