A troubled economy is enough to threaten any small business. But neighborhood record stores in particular are faced with unique challenges. CD burners, internet piracy, digital downloads, and online retailers are just some of the reasons why fewer customers are buying their music from a local store. Many small shops have shuttered. Even big-name chain retailers like Tower Records have gone under.
But Falls Church’s CD Cellar, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, has survived and is even undergoing a renovation to refresh the long-serving music shop.
Co-Owner David Schlank thinks good fortune has played a part in the businesses’ ability to thrive – “luck has to have a little something to do with it,” Schlank says – and recognizes the support of the shop’s patrons, some of whom have frequented CD Cellar since it opened in the summer of 1992.
“We rely on the sort of people who want what they want, when they want it,” Schlank said. “They’re not willing to put their credit card out there, they’re not willing to wait three to seven days for something, and they want to support their friends, their local businesses.”
Since the business opened, CD Cellar has been located in a basement shop on West Broad Street. It may seem like a less than optimal location. There is no big-windowed storefront. Instead, a metalwork sign greets customers who walk down a staircase lined in concert flyers to a store filled with rows of bins and lined with racks of CDs and DVDs.
There’s no sunlight, but florescent lighting illuminates the space. The sounds of the businesses overhead can be heard in the store. Leaking and even flooding in heavy rains has been problematic in the past. But Schlank says the location helps to keep the business competitive; its affordable rent allows him to hire enough employees and to pay well for trade-ins and purchases.
What the store sells is a reflection of its customers, as most of its music and movies are bought from or traded in by patrons and supplemented by purchasing new releases. The store sells pop, rock, and alternative music primarily, Schlank says, and has long been a place to buy the essential pieces of a music collection, but it also has a sizeable customer base purchasing jazz and classical music.
The store’s stock ranges from popular sellers like Beatles’ albums to rarities like a box set of music by famed opera singer Maria Callas, long out of print and marveled at by collectors.
At any given time, the store has about 8,000 CDs for sale, as well as a few thousand records and DVDs, but that number varies widely since its selection depends on what items people bring in to sell. On an average weekend the store could bring in a few hundred CDs or, as was recently the case, buy a person’s entire classical collection and add thousands of CDs in a single purchase.
Schlank says making sure the store has a good stock of music means not only paying attention to what is and isn’t selling, but reading the right websites and blogs and listening to customers. He also calls upon the expertise of his staff, who are well versed in areas like the punk scene and ’60s and ’70s reissues.
“It seems like every six or seven years or so,” Schlank said, “something else comes along and makes us think ‘OK, what are we doing?’”
CDs were most popular when the store opened in 1992, but DVDs started coming out a few years later and the store expanded its stock to include them. About seven years ago, vinyl regained popularity and the store added records to the collection. It was about that time that the store began taking advantage of online retailing to sell extra stock or big-ticket rarities.
The space is currently undergoing a renovation, which Schlank hopes will be completed by Record Store Day on April 20, an international initiative to support independent record stores. During the event, participating stores will sell special releases only made available to those stores. CD Cellar has participated in the event in past years, and Schlank says it’s their busiest day of the year. They may do five times the business of an average weekend.
CD Cellar will get new bins, new carpets, and a new coat of paint during the renovation, as well as other cosmetic upgrades that the store hasn’t gotten in the past decade.
“We’ve lasted for 20 years,” Schlank said. “Why not make the place really nice for however many years we can keep it going?”