Alan Lee rings up a purchase at Roadhouse Oldies in Silver Spring.
Three may be a crowd, but record store owners in Silver Spring say the more, the merrier.
Roadhouse Oldies is one of three record stores in Silver Spring, and it’s been in town the longest. It sells CDs and cassettes in addition to records, and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month. Owner Alan Lee says the store has moved twice since opening in 1974 in the back of a bookshop on Sligo Avenue. But he hasn’t strayed from Silver Spring.
“Silver Spring is just a geographically advantageous location,” he says. “You know, if I want to go to a music store but I think about driving into downtown D.C. and what a hassle that is. Here I’m five minutes from the beltway.”
He says a few shops and chains have come and gone, but at least one thing has remained constant: Roadhouse Oldies’ dedication to oldies music.
“It’s interesting, when we first opened in ‘74, disco was hot and 70s rock music was hot at that time and we were kind of rejecting that kind of music and selling 50s and 60s music because me and my partner were collectors of 50s and 60s music,” he says. “As times have changed, now we sell 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s music, but we specialize in soul music. We always have. That’s our niche.”
Another store, The Record Exchange, moved to town in 1999 and four years ago, Joe’s Record Paradise joined the party. The three stores are within a 5-minute walk of each other, but the owners say their relationship is more symbiotic than it is competitive.
“We complement each other,” Lee says. “If somebody comes in here looking for rock music that we don’t sell, we send them over there. Hopefully if somebody comes in their store looking for soul music that they don’t have, they’ll send them over here.”
Sam Lock owns The Record Exchange, and says he was initially wary when he heard Joe’s Record Paradise would be moving into a 6,000 square foot space, just four doors down from his store.
“But they’ve done nothing but help us,” he says. “I mean, we sell more vinyl now than we did before they moved in, and I think it’s definitely worth the trip for your vinyl buying now to come up from D.C. to hit all three stores. They can get a little bit from each store, hopefully, and I think we’re all benefitting from the trifecta.”
Lock says business has doubled since Joe’s came to town. But he thinks the boost in sales can also be attributed to the renewed interest in vinyl.
“Vinyl is more in vogue right now and there’s a lot more youngsters buying vinyl than there were four years ago,” he says.
He also says that Record Store Day, a national event hosted in music stores across the country, is a big help. The annual event is scheduled for April 19 this year, and Lock says he’s expecting quite a crowd.
“We have a line outside our door each year,” he says, adding that it’s a fun day for vinyl record collectors.
“There’s limited releases on colored vinyl and all kinds of weird packaging, like last year there was a WuTang chess set that came out on one of their records and there’s a lot of fun things for people to collect,” he says.
Lock says Silver Spring, like other towns with multiple record stores, is a destination for collectors.
“We have people coming in saying, ‘oh yeah I heard Silver Spring is the place to come for vinyl because of the three stores,’ and ironically, up in Frederick now there’s also three record stores,” he says.
D.C. is also home to several music stores that sell vinyl records. Neal Becton owns Som Records on 14th Street, but says he’s been coming up to Silver Spring for 20 years to browse for records for his personal collection.
“Record stores tend to hang out together,” he says. “They tend to be in the same neighborhoods, which is good, like there’s four other stores close to my shop on 14th street, so it’s nice when you have a little grouping of stores together and you can park your car, take the metro and hit two or three stores and get more variety.”
He says timing is a big part of record collecting.
“Digging for records is different every day,” Becton says. “Every day you go to a store and a lot of it’s luck and persistence, and one store may have just gotten a really good collection in.”
Johnson Lee, owner of Joe’s Record Paradise, agrees that the cluster of stores is good for business. “When you’re all together it just makes it more likely people will come,” he says. “Instead of having just one choice, they’ve got three and soon to be four.”
Bump ‘n Grind is a coffee shop-record store that’s set to open in Silver Spring this summer. Unlike the other shops in town, this spot will predominantly sell new vinyl record pressings.
David Fogel is the co-owner of Bump ‘n Grind. He says he and his partner already frequent the trio of stores and want to add to, not detract from, Silver Spring’s vinyl culture and community.
“As regular record purchases ourselves, we’re excited about where vinyl culture is going right now and the direction that it’s going in,” he says. “There’s been a resurgence and re-interest in vinyl and we have a lot of friends and colleagues who are pressing vinyl releases and we want to share them with people.”
He says setting up shop in Silver Spring makes sense on several levels.
“We really appreciate the music culture and in particular, the record buying culture that currently exists here… and the fact that people come to this community already to buy vinyl was just another feather in Silver Spring’s cap.”
But while vinyl has made a comeback, the guys over at Joe’s Record Paradise, The Record Exchange and Roadhouse Oldies share concerns about what redevelopment could mean for their stores’ futures.
Joe’s Record Paradise got its start in 1974 and has moved around since then. Silver Spring has been home for four years now, and Lee says he’d like to stay. But if rent prices spike, he might not have a choice.
“If we get pushed out because of rent, you know, once we move from here if I can’t find another place that’s affordable, we’ll move on,” he says. “It’s just kind of the way the business goes.”
Sam Lock at the Record Exchange is also worried.
“We’re coming to a crossroads in Silver Spring because in two years they’re going to knock this block down and build condos and retail,” he says. “So we have to decide, do we want to find another location in Silver Spring or do we want to move back into D.C.”
He says he doesn’t expect to get cheaper rent in D.C., but if the cost is the same, he might be swayed to relocate there.
“I’d like to stay in Silver Spring,” he says. “I would like to actually move up to maybe somewhere on Colesville next to the Fillmore. I think that would be a good fit…But again, it depends on what rent is.”
And over at Roadhouse Oldies, Alan Lee is also facing the prospect of relocating yet again.
“Our landlord has told us eventually the building we’re in now will come down, but you know that could be two years away, it could be five years away,” he says. “Eventually we’re going to have to make the serious decision of whether to move or just call it a day.”
Unlike Record Exchange and Joe’s Record Paradise, Roadhouse Oldies has another issue to worry about: attracting new listeners to old music.
“Our customers are literally dying away and moving to Florida,” Lee says. “Kids find oldies cool but there’s not a lot of 20-year-olds that buy 50s doo-wop music or 50s rockabilly or that kind of stuff, so if we had to rely on the kids, we’d be in big trouble.”
Lee says his vinyl sales are shrinking, as older customers, his main client base, increasingly prefer CD’s. But Roadhouse Oldies caters to those interests too.
“We’re, as far as I know, the only music store in the East Coast that has a kiosk that’s similar to iTunes and has a quarter of a million songs in it and people can come in and make their own CDs, their own compilations, completely legal, artists get the royalties,” he says. “So we’re known for that. People love that because previously if you wanted to buy three songs, you’d have to buy three different CD’s and it’d cost you 50 bucks. Here for a buck a song you can make your own compilation, so that’s been very, very popular.”
Lee admits that his customers aren’t the most tech-savvy bunch.
“Everything pretty much that we sell is available online, and that’s why business isn’t as good as it was 20 years ago,” he says. “But there are a lot of people that don’t want to fool with that, don’t want to do it, don’t have grandchildren that can do it for them, and we’ll be more than happy to help them make a CD here in the store.”
The Internet has not been a friend to another nearby music store. Dale’s Music Company sells sheet music and instruments rather than records or CDs. The store has stood at its current location on Georgia Avenue since 1953, but after more than 60 years in Silver Spring, the shop recently announced that it will be closing this June. Alan Lee says he’s sad to see it go.
“Boy that was, that was really tough to hear,” he says. “Internet is killing them. Internet is killing us. Internet’s killing everybody, so it’s very unfortunate.”
It’s unclear what the future will hold for Silver Spring’s music store scene. But it seems that, at least for now, record collectors can revel in this one-stop-spot for vinyl buying.
Music: "Love for Sale" by Keter Betts from Bass, Buddies, Blues