The late, great Paten Locke used to sell t-shirts that read, “I Grew Up on Tapes,” but that’s a whole other story. Locke was also notorious for owning one of the most mind-blowing collections of vinyl records living eyes have ever seen, and his role in spreading the gospel of vinyl to his dozens of disciples in and around Northeast Florida cannot be overstated. He would be pleased to see that his vision won out in the end, with records seeing unprecedented growth, both in sales and in sellers. Herein is a cursory glance at the hottest trend in music today.
Vinyl records earned nearly a quarter-billion dollars in the first half of 2019, a 13 percent increase from last year. That trend has held firm for several years, in fact. So much so that vinyl is outselling CDs for the first time since 1986. CD revenue has tumbled due to the rise of social media and streaming services, but those factors have actually contributed to the growth in vinyl, pushing sales growth in the double digits year-after-year for the past decade as fans raised on digital media have begun flocking to the refined aesthetic and enhanced sound quality of wax.
The market has proven flexible for consumers of all kinds, from grizzled purveyors of classic records by bands long gone, to neophytes seeking new releases by the hottest acts. Vinyl has a universal appeal that transcends most demographic boundaries. That dynamic is clearly reflected in the retail market in Northeast Florida, which has seen a dramatic increase in outlets and an enhanced profile for those that already exist. This market undergirds our region’s massive DJ culture, and animates a vibrant, passionate network of local collectors, each of whom could easily write this article themselves, with each version being dramatically different from the other.
The list of local record stores seems to lengthen by the week. (A new one, Tiger Records, just opened in Riverside.) The pace is such that even the most assiduous crate-diggers have trouble keeping up. Here are a few options as we cruise into the gift-giving (and gift-shopping) season. After all, Nov. 30 is Small Business Saturday.
So let’s begin with DJ’s Record Shop, which is probably the area’s longest-tenured record store (Big Al’s, RIP!). Nestled at the corner of Edison and McDuff, the labyrinthine space (more than 3,000 square feet) has been in business continuously since 1968, selling records, CDs, cassettes, DVDs, VHS tapes and even eight-tracks, in addition to a selection of vintage turntable components that can usually only be found on the internet, if at all. Owner Jerry West has always kept it real (or realistic—that’s a turntable joke). West has weathered economic storms and emerged unscathed into the light of a commercial boom. He has more competition today than he has in decades, but there is no touching the O.G.
Every record store has its own unique character and its own specialties reflecting the array of diverse and dedicated staffers laboring for the love of all things vinyl. We’ve seen this culture featured in films such as Empire Records and High Fidelity, and those of us who came of age in Jacksonville’s Urban Core lived that story at places such as Theory Shop, Stripmine, Now Hear This, Caribbean Connection, Moon Colony Razorblade and the more recently departed Deep Search Records. That dynamic remains in place across Northeast Florida today, and apologies in advance to anyone we forgot to mention here.
A particular favorite is Wolfson Equipment and Records. Co-founder Ron Johnston has run this space at 3801 University Blvd. W., Ste. 4, for four years, but his own background in the record business goes back nearly 50 years. It’s a cavernous, dusty place, loaded with tens of thousands of items in every conceivable format, in addition to t-shirts, collectibles and vintage hi-fi components; it’s very similar to Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven in Orlando, by way of comparison. Notably, they have probably the largest selection of jazz records in Northeast Florida.
Having run stores on both coasts of the country for decades, Johnston has seen the market shift but noted that it’s never really impacted his business. “When the CDs first came out, the vinyl did drop just a hair, but not very much,” he told Folio Weekly. “There were people unloading their collections, which they regretted later. But the albums did really take a spike in the last five to eight years, and now there just seems to be no end to that.”
The resurgence transcends generational boundaries, from retro boomers to Gen-X hipsters to millennial luddites and even children. “I see parents bringing in eight year-olds and showing them old Beatles records,” Johnston said, “and they’re into it. We’re getting a lot of young people in, but we still get those old-timers, too.”
The real selling point for vinyl is the sound quality, which just can’t be duplicated (literally). “The analog, it has a warmer, full sound, and it really is different than a CD,” said Johnston, whose tastes (like our editor’s) run more toward prog rock. “If you put one beside the other, it’s really noticeable.”
But part of the appeal is purely aesthetic, since the gatefold vinyl allows more options for the cover and inside art, not to mention the wide range of colors in which vinyl is now being pressed. Some folks will just put the record in a frame and stick it on the wall, like one might see at Hornski’s in St. Augustine, one of the area’s most unique retailers and a personal favorite. What’s really cool is the craft beer on tap; as you know, alcohol always enhances the shopping experience. Best of all, they have a selection of vintage arcade video games as well as Skee-ball.
Another great vendor in the oldest city is toneVENDOR, which is a great place to pick up fresh, first-run vinyl. If you hate that dusty sheen your hands get after a length dig, this is probably the cleanest and best-smelling record store on the First Coast, a meaningless honor that still merits a mention.
Up in Fernandina Beach, House of Vinyl boasts the largest collection of vinyl in Nassau County. Joe French, the House’s proprietor, stocks classic rock from the 1960s and ‘70s, as well as gems from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
As one might expect, the vinyl rabbit hole runs deeper than the stacks at Matt Caulder’s house, and the retail market is hardly confined to proper storefronts. Take, for example, the region’s various flea markets and antique malls (Ramona, Pecan Park, among others). Each is delightfully weird in its own special way. You can also rejoice in the fellowship of other vinylphiles at any of several conventions held across Northeast Florida on a regular basis. The next one is at Hyperion Brewing Company in Springfield on Saturday, Dec. 14. Folks such as John Lackey and Jay Peele usually organize these, and of course there’s always Trash Panda at Rain Dogs.
In addition, many stores own eBay pages, where you can buy all kinds of treasures unavailable on shelves, and many private collectors do the same. “It really helps a lot,” says Johnston, who estimates that e-commerce now accounts for about 20 percent of his trade. “My business partner, Jeff Wolfson, runs the mail order, and I run the storefront. It’s changed a lot. We didn’t have computers in the old days. We had to buy postage stamps, Xerox little books and mail them out to whatever addresses you had built up over time.”
Since people are buying more records, it stands to reason that more records are being produced as well. The stratospheric sales trends are not being driven entirely by the vintage market, although that is certainly a factor. More and more record labels are getting literal, with new music by new artists being pressed onto hot, fresh vinyl in numbers unseen in a generation—and, of course, the First Coast is following suit. We have only one such firm right now: VINYL Record Pressing, owned and operated out of the Atlantic Beach area by Jonathan and Maria Berlin and their friend Walter Hill. They have pressed more than 300,000 records during their four years in business, encompassing more than 300 projects, ranging from local acts to national artists like Ben Folds and Joey Bada$$. According to Jonathan Berlin, best known as leader of the iconic local band Sunbears!, vinyl fever is less about the product itself, and more about the emotional appeal of the technology. “I don’t think sound and aesthetics enter into it as much as we think it might on a surface level,” he told Folio Weekly. “I do think that it has to do with a bit of Golden Age thinking: simpler times and harkening back to our grandparents. Millennials are leaving their cell phones at home, picking up film cameras, and jamming vinyl records.” VRP was featured in these pages back in May 2018, so go read that again.
One way you know record stores are truly a thing again is they command their own category in Folio Weekly’s Best of Jax readers’ poll, which had more votes cast this year than any before. True Till Death Tattoos Art & Records took the top spot, with 145 votes. The category was rounded out by Yesterday & Today Records, Eraser Records, Young Loud & Snotty, and the Jax Antique Market. Altogether, among Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties, and in addition to Gainesville, Orlando and Savannah, there are dozens of utterly unique record store options within a couple hours’ drive of wherever you are right now. Don’t even get me started on Athens, Atlanta, Tampa and Miami—you already know!
Browsing the varied stacks can be a vastly rewarding experience to visit them all, even if you don’t actually buy anything. But you will, even if you don’t plan to, because the stuff is irresistible and quite possibly addictive in the truest sense of the word. With Black Friday mere hours away, this is a great time to reiterate how important it is to shop local. No matter who is on your wish list this holiday season, there is a shop somewhere nearby that carries a record with their name on it. Or, even better, just buy them a turntable. They’re cheaper and easier to use than ever, and many come with USB ports for digital collusion. The classic saying, “Everything old is new again,” has never been truer than in this particular case, at this particular time.