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In Chapel Hill, record stores stay relevant in the age of Spotify


Pick out the album, take the record out of its plastic sleeve, lift up the lid, set it down on the turntable, place the needle on the vinyl — and wait for the spinning plastic to create an experience far different from listening to music from a smartphone. 

Record stores have weaved in and out of general popularity since the 1960s. When music began to be universally distributed through digital files in the 1990s, physical vinyl copies began to fall out of demand. 

Despite this, popular record stores in Chapel Hill are still in business and people keep coming back. 

Stephen Judge, label president of Schoolkids Records, said the record business has fluctuated over time. 

“The surge of records in the early 70s to downturn in the early 80s, only to see the compact disc surge in the early 90s, to some of our best years in our 44-year history,” Judge said. “To again a massive downturn and again the resurgence of vinyl over the last 10 years.” 

Mark Jones, owner of Generations Records, said he has felt similar trends. 

“When students are not here, sales are down because traffic is down,” Jones said. “And it’s not necessarily the students, but their parents and the people that come visit them.”

Despite the fluctuations of sales, record stores are still opening in and around the Chapel Hill area. 

“We are one of a handful that have survived,” Judge said. “But there are several hundred new stores in the country in the last 10 years, even here locally. Eight years ago we were one of the only stores in the entire Triangle, now there are about 15 different shops selling records.”

Liz Zarzar and Lydia English browse through records at Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill.

Record stores feel the impact of large corporations that sell records and the effect of more mainstream music being pressed.

Ethan Clauset opened All Day Records in 2009 and has felt the negative impact of mainstream record popularity.

“The stuff that we sell mostly is not the kind of stuff that gets a boost from that mainstream popularity,” Clauset said. “Really we see more of the downside of that popularity because it’s meant that the actual physical manufacturing of records has become more difficult.”

Alternatively, the recent increase of vinyl popularity can serve as a benefit to some shops. 

“I don’t know if it’s fair to call this reassurance of vinyl a 'fad' exactly,” said Zack Richardson, employee at All Day Records. “I think that like any social trend, it’s been pretty hot for the last couple of years. It will inevitably cool down. But some of the people who got into it out of curiosity or because it was the hip thing to do are going to stick with it, and that’s where the longevity is going to continue to be found.” 

Jones said people buy records not just to experience the music, but also as an appreciation of a specific aesthetic. 

“I sometimes have people that buy records — like stuff that’s not in good shape — strictly for the covers just to put them on the wall," Jones said. "The artwork of it is a big driving part."

The impact of record stores on the Chapel Hill and Carborro community is a large part of why they can sustain business.

“(There has) always been a really strong music scene around here,” Clauset said. “Once you open your doors, people come in and start selling stuff to you.” 

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Whether it’s purely for the music or a need to fill an empty wall, records offer a multitude of ways for individuals to experience music.

“I don’t know what got me into vinyl,” Jake Waits, employee at Schoolkids Records, said. “I don’t know what will get more people into vinyl, but some people just catch a bug and it’s like part of their identity. They want to express themselves that way.”