For the music industry, 2021 was definitely a memorable year. With concerts and live entertainment essentially on ice for much of the year, consumers pivoted, directing their expendable income to physical products instead, resulting in a landmark year for record stores. Variety reported in March that 2021 marked the first year since 1996 that both “CDs and vinyl records experienced revenue growth in the same year.” This boom saw vinyl records breaking through the $1 billion revenue threshold for the first time since 1986 — an extension of the format’s resurgence, which has seen revenues grow for 15 consecutive years.
That trend has started to slow a bit in 2022, however.
“People aren’t hiding [from the pandemic] in their basement with their turntable anymore,” said Dennis Hite of NewBo Vinyl Emporium in Cedar Rapids.
Discretionary income is again being spread across other outlets as society regains its equilibrium, and wallets have become tighter due to broader economic trends. Various stores cited everything from rising inflation and gas prices to political uncertainty as reasons sales have slowed down.
“Now that people feel more comfortable going out and going to bars and restaurants and movie theaters again, some of that entertainment money is now going to other places,” said Nate Niceswanger of Zzz Records in Des Moines.
With the holiday season fast approaching, we spoke with a cross-section of those still waving the flag for independent record stores throughout the state to better understand what today’s record store ecosystem looks like across Iowa, and how record stores continue to serve local communities.
A quick head-count reveals no fewer than 30 stores around the state that sell new and used vinyl records. Yet while the format has largely returned to the zeitgeist, the evolution from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to digital took with it many retail casualties across the region. With the introduction of CDs 40 years ago, vinyl as a format was put on life support, and most albums lost the bulk of their value.
“Records were almost getting phased out when I was getting started,” said John Rohlf, who opened Metro Records in Cedar Falls 28 years ago.
“This is not an industry that is easy to survive in,” said Niceswanger, who noted Zzz Records has largely hewn close to its market in music and selling ephemera since first opening in 2000.
Current store owners and employees across the region frequently reflected fondly on other shops that have gone under over the years, such as Relics Records in Cedar Rapids, Peeples Music in Des Moines and Antiquarium, just outside the reaches of the state line in Omaha. Survival has been possible, however, even amid the rise and fall of various physical music formats. Many we spoke with persevered through not only the ebbs and flows of market trends, but also the generally unexpected nature of life.
John Blabaum of Marshalltown’s Wax Xtatic Record Audio Stereo Shop might be the poster child for perseverance when it comes to record stores in Iowa. After shifting from the first iteration of his business into a new building, the shop was among the many damaged after a tornado struck in July of 2018. Unsuccessful in re-opening at that location, he purchased a building of his own only for his reopening to be derailed again by pandemic and derecho. Wax Xtatic finally reopened its doors to the public in April of 2021.
Blabaum has been in the used vinyl business for over two decades.
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“We call them ‘pre-heard’ records here,” he said, with his trademark laugh. “Every one is cleaned and graded before it’s put in the rack.”
However, in the span of just a few years, Wax Xtatic has shifted from primarily selling a curated selection of used vinyl to mostly new records. This is one of the most alluring aspects to looking at the state’s selection of stores on the whole: They’re all in the same business, but no two have the same footprint in terms of selection, specialties or character.
Hite’s Vinyl Emporium offers a classic selection of some 7,000 records from the format’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, all hand cleaned and graded. But just a few hundred feet away in Cedar Rapids’ New Bohemia district is Analog Vault, which serves up a completely different selection and atmosphere.
Analog Vault owner Jeremy Vega explained that his approach is unintentionally different from Hite’s, to a point where they almost complement one another. For “a reissue from the ’90s or even something brand new,” Vega said, he would be the better option, while Hite might be better suited when it comes to his more period-specific selection and broad selection of audio equipment. Zzz Records, on the other hand, just filed its 350,000th piece of inventory (a CD from ’90s alt-rock staples the Lemonheads, for anyone curious), suggestive of a distinctly different business model.
“We do get some collector’s items, but I want to have a different store every time someone comes in,” said Niceswanger, “meaning that I want to buy a lot of stuff but I want to turn it over quick. … My philosophy from the beginning has been to sell most of our records for two to six dollars. I think that’s worked out well for us.”
The resurgence in popularity over the past decade and a half has brought with it several new names to help carry the record store torch. One of those is Rogue Planet Music in Des Moines. Despite both just having entered their 30s, co-owners John Pope and Jesse Pace have geared their selection to that of an earlier vintage, whether it be records that date back a century or decades-old audio equipment that has stood the test of time.
“We try to have a good selection of high quality vintage audio equipment,” Pace said, adding, “We also do our own audio repair. So, we fix our turntables, receivers, amplifiers, guitar amplifiers — we can do all those repairs in-house.” This makes for what he calls a “listening experience.”
One thing that several store owners, including Pace, share is particularly fond memories for one other record store in particular: Record Collector in Iowa City.
The story of Record Collector, and the store’s founder Kirk Walther, has become nothing less than local lore, starting from the time Walther began selling used records out of the back of a comic book shop called Barfunkels in 1982.
“I’ve been going down there for years,” said Vega. Asked what would happen if the store closed down for good, he quickly shot back, “Do you know the hole that would leave?!”
“At the top of my list would be Record Collector,” said Niceswanger when asked for his favorite stores around the state.
“I would go in the Record Collector there on Linn Street every other day,” said Pace, reflecting on a period when he lived in Iowa City. “[Walther] was always the overseer of the store. I’d like to think he tucked some things away for me to find.”
In 2017, Walther died from cancer, working at the store right up until he passed away. Since then, Alissa Witzke and Bobby Larson have continued to carry on his legacy as co-owners of the store.
“One of my favorite things that Kirk ever said was that he collects collectors,” said Jo Adams, who has worked at Record Collector for eight years. Those collectors were Larson, Witzke and the other staffers Walther invited aboard in creating his wonderland of music.
“The selection that he brought to the Record Collector — it was always eclectic and it was alive,” said Pace. “He brought in so many different artists that you just wouldn’t really see in the region.”
“He wasn’t always stocking best sellers,” added Adams, speaking to an ethos that continues on in Walther’s absence. “He was looking for new and exciting things.”
The store celebrated its 40th anniversary this past May and saw an outpouring of support in celebration of the milestone.
“Record Collector isn’t a place I am just nostalgic for,” read one Facebook comment, which summed up the thread’s overwhelming sentiment, “it’s a place that still fills my heart with joy every time I go there.”
About 80 miles southeast of Record Collector, another record store will be celebrating its own 2022 milestone. Weird Harold’s in Burlington marks its 50th year in business in November. The store was founded by Danny Bessine, who turned over the reins of the shop to its new owner Andrea Fritz about three years ago.
“She’s a perfect fit,” he said of Fritz, who had worked at the store since 1994.
Five decades ago, Bessine decided to take the plunge into opening his shop after a stint in Las Vegas, where he was introduced to 8-track tapes. He returned to Burlington, noticed there was only one other store selling them, and recognized an opportunity. It wasn’t long before he rounded out his selection by stocking vinyl.
In the following decades the store saw numerous trends come and go, but records have never left. Now over 50,000 of them are available to browse across the store’s two floors of retail space. Fritz and Bessine (who continues working at the store) estimate that vinyl makes up some 90 percent of their business. They have seen a shift in their customer base, however, as records returned to the mainstream.
“A new breed of people are coming into this era,” Fritz said. “College-aged kids are really getting into it.”
When asked how it feels to reach this milestone, Bessine said, “It gives me a lot of, I don’t know what you would call it,” before trailing off and pausing. “I get emotional about it.” Weird Harold’s 50th anniversary celebration will take place Nov. 19.
It can feel cliche to praise the merits of buying local, but what record stores provide goes far beyond merchandise: They are a safe space that represents a generational tradition of sharing sounds and stories that inspire. Having the world’s library of music at our fingertips with an internet connection is a thing of magic, but record stores exist to change a listener’s relationship with that music, to take it out of the ethereal and make it something you can explore with all of your senses.
“We’re like the barber shop of old,” Blabaum said, “where you weren’t always getting a haircut but you could just go and hang out.”
“Where can you go, other than your immediate group of friends, in town, and find people that are into the exact same thing you are?” asked Vega. “At a record store.”
“I think there’s something just to coming through and flipping,” said Adams. “And even if you don’t buy it, taking a picture and going home and listening to it. There’s that act of discovery that I think is magical and we just kind of miss that when we’re online looking for a specific thing. … We’ve got everything that you could ever want and things you didn’t even know you needed.”
Record Store Day
Black Friday, Nov. 25
Iowa stores listed on the Record Store Day website:
Vinyl Cup Records, Des Moines
The Dig Inn*, Reinbeck
Metro Records, Cedar Falls
The Underground Rock Shop, Des Moines
Moondog Music*, Dubuque
Vinyl Cafe, Ames
Odds N Ends Music Movies & Video Games, Marshalltown
Vinyl Cup Records, Cedar Falls
Ragged Records*, Davenport
Record Collector*, Iowa City
Marv’s Music*, Des Moines
Secondhand Story, Algona
Wax Xtatic Record Audio Stereo Shop*, Marshalltown
Rogue Planet Music, Des Moines
Zzz Records*, Des Moines
Jays Cd and Hobby*, Des Moines
Weird Harold’s Records*, Burlington
Unforgivable Records, Dubuque
*This store signed the Record Store Day pledge not to gouge customers or sell online
Chris DeLine is a writer living in Cedar Rapids. He also curates Iowa-centric playlists at villin.net. This article was originally published in Little Village’s November 2022 issues.