For Phonoluxe Records owner Mike Smyth, surviving the downturn in music sales hasn't been a case of changing his store's "business plan" as much as it has been an opportunity to get back to what drew him to record retailing in the first place. "I've never been terribly strategic about marketing," says Smyth, "because I'm going to be fooling around with records no matter what."
With Phonoluxe fast approaching its 25th anniversary, the longtime purveyor of used vinyl, CDs and movies of all varieties is holding up just fine by doing what its owner and employees know best: selling records to fellow collectors. A change in their hours and focus went into effect last year with the shop being open Friday through Sunday only, but each weekend brings a new supply of vintage LPs to the racks of Phonoluxe's sprawling record room.
For die-hard vinyl junkies, Phonoluxe has gained a bit of a mysterious reputation over the years. The massive brick building on Nolensville Road has certainly had the goods, but unlike many other record stores, it has never cultivated a "hipster" image. Largely because of Smyth's self-admitted lack of interest in marketing: "From the day I opened, I've never tried to sell anybody anything that they didn't want," says Smyth.
A native of London, Smyth credits seeing Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis on British television at the age of 11 as being a life-changing moment. "I started buying records when I was about 12, but I started seriously collecting when I was about 17 or 18," he says. Smyth's passion for music soon led him to some of the legendary record shops of London in the early '70s.
"There was one place in London called The Swing Shop that was run by a jazz guy named Dave Carey that was notorious for seeming to never be open," Smyth says. "It was a jazz store basically, but he had some blues and R&B. There were quite a lot of stores like that which were open eccentric hours, or when the owner wasn't talking about jazz or blues with his mates across the street at the pub."
Another major influence was Ted Carroll's Rock On Records, which specialized in blues, R&B and early rock 'n' roll and would eventually evolve into the powerhouse reissue label Ace Records. Smyth credits Carroll with introducing him to the used-record business when he offered to buy the surplus from Smyth's growing collection. In 1975, Smyth began journeying to America on record-buying trips as he dealt records through mail order and at record shows. But after 10 years of traveling, he was looking for a possibly less hectic life in the country that gave birth to his favorite music.
Phonoluxe Records opened in August 1987. Initially the store was a partnership between Smyth and future Los Straitjackets guitar ace Danny Amis. Amis moved on to other projects after a few months, just as the glory days for the black plastic discs that Smyth loved seemed to be drawing to a close.
"We had structured this whole thing and built all these bins for records," says Smyth. "Then, all of the sudden, by about '89 we had to completely retool for CDs. Records started being perceived as obsolete. By the early '90s, LPs were often considered trash. People were frequently just giving them to you."
With CDs came the gravy times for used-music retailers. The demographic of people who bought used music exploded. "There was no downside to it," Smyth explains. "A lot of people that would never have touched a used record — because they were susceptible to being scratched or whatever — would buy used CDs."
Despite the rush to CDs, Smyth never lost faith in vinyl, keeping more than half of Phonoluxe's floor space devoted to records and continuing to buy LPs, even when some of his own employees pleaded with him to stop. "A lot of records were dumped all at once in the early '90s," Smyth says. "Perhaps people's needle broke and they couldn't get another one or whatever, so out went the record player and the records. And the media consensus was that nobody will ever want these again. Being a record nut, I said, 'Well, I'll take them.' My biggest problem was where to put the bloody things."
Smyth eventually found space wherever he could in the jam-packed back room of the store. But when the tide turned and CD sales began to decline in the early Aughts, Smyth found himself on top of a mountain of "black gold" — but that also meant changes had to be made.
"I thought about it for about two years before I actually did it," Smyth says. "The days of selling lots and lots of this stuff to lots and lots of people are over. So let's run it accordingly." That led to the decision to open only on weekends, strip his staff down to two full-time employees — Danny Koss and store manager Jeff Knutson — and a handful of part-time help, along with the new emphasis on getting previously unseen treasures from his vinyl stash in the racks every week.
But of course, becoming the odd store — in an out-of-the-way place, a store that has the goods but is open limited days — was a path back to those bohemian London record shops that Smyth loved so much in his younger days. "It's obviously not the 24/7 Walmart model, but we're not trying to be that," he says. "I have a stock joke for when people ask me how we're doing: better than Tower and better than Media Play."
Phonoluxe Records is located at 2609 Nolensville Pike. Visit their Facebook page for hours and upcoming events or announcements.
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