Store Owner interview with Chaz Martenstein of Bull City Records
Store Name: Bull City Records
QRD Ė Why did you start your store?
Chaz Ė It was time for a move & a change
of scenery. Iíd spent the previous 5 years or so working in record
stores & Iíd known thatís exactly what I wanted to go out & do.
I wanted to open a record shop for some reason in the midst of everything
closing down & selling to corporate chains. I just love music
& since I canít write a song to save my life, itís the next best way
of being in the business. My girlfriend had moved to Durham &
had settled in, so I followed after she enticed me with a cheap space for
rent. I visited Durham & fell in love with it. Maxed out
some credit cards I applied for online & pulled the shop together.
I always loved the idea of not having a boss, even if it meant not taking
QRD Ė How does your store particularly appeal to your city?
Chaz Ė Not too sure, guess you gotta ask my customers. I guess the fact that Iím an independent shop run by one guy who just likes music helps. Durham has a great music base & I just happened into a great city with great music. Thereís a rich history here!
QRD Ė Whatís a mistake youíve made with your store that youíd warn others against?
Chaz Ė Maxing out credit cards that I applied for online. Ouch. Iíll be paying that interest back for a while now & it keeps the shop from new orders a little too often. I wish I had not gone into debt. If I could have just started small with a distro run out of my house or online & then used that to steadily grow a stock, I would have. I hate sending so much money to the banks each month. But hell, if it means I have a store now, it canít be too bad.
QRD Ė What do you think indie record labels could do to best help both themselves & indie stores?
Chaz Ė Honestly, I think the relationship they have right now is amazing. & getting better. Theyíre both paying more attention to each other & deepening their relationships as major labels & chains flounder. Itís a great bond to see strengthen. Iím lucky here because I have one of the best labels in the country in my backyard - Merge Records. Itís been great having them around when I get a little jaded by the whole system. Itís great watching them do what they do. & itís inspiring. I have a great relationship with my label reps, even if itís just over email, you still feel a sense of camaraderie between ya.
QRD Ė How was the representation of indie storeowners & customers in the movie High Fidelity accurate & inaccurate to your experience?
Chaz Ė Heh. Again, I guess ask my
customers - at this shop or any of the ones Iíve worked at. Itís
honestly pretty accurate in my opinion; someone definitely did their research.
Even down to the small part where Rob has the fantasy flashes of scenarios
for beating up Ian (Ray) while heís in the shop with that smirk on his
face. I get those flashes more than I should. But then you
just smile & say, ďThanks for coming in.Ē The customers are pretty
QRD Ė What type of research do you do to decide what to put on the shelves?
Chaz Ė Just base it off what people are asking for & what labels sell the most. Itís hard to stay on top of things as so many people have different tastes. Thatís the fun of the game though. Since I run such a small operation, itís hard to have exactly what everyone wants when they want it, so I end up doing a lot of special orders. Iím pretty thankful & lucky that people donít get more frustrated with me when I consistently donít have exactly what theyíre looking for.
Chaz Ė I like music, so I read about it
all day anyway. Pitchfork, Razorcake, MaximumRockíníRoll (yup, itís
still around), webzines, friends, & lots of blogginí. You can
be on top of every trend, but youíre still not gonna have everything everyone
wants. It takes a while to get comfortable with that when youíre
a new shop owner. I still take it personally when Iím lacking something
in the shop.
QRD Ė Is it ever difficult to find the right distributors to get something you want to stock?
Chaz Ė Not really. I try to order from a lot of different places to keep new stuff moving through the shop. This week Iíll place a garage order with Norton & Crypt & then next week Iíll place a punk/hardcore order with No Idea or Ebullition. I order directly from all the big indie labels too & a lot of them keep distros on the side. The only stuff thatís impossible to get is the self-released stuff & the out of print stuff. Everything else is accessible if you need it & have the time. A lot of smaller DIY labels are happy if you order directly from them, as long as you pull in a few copies instead of just one. Every now & then though Iíll hit dead end after dead end & just give up. Hmm.
QRD Ė What do you wish labels or bands or distributors did more of to work with you?
Chaz Ė I think it works well how it is.
Theyíre very interested in indie shops, even ones as small as mine, Ďcause
weíre in it for the same reason. We just love music. At this
point in time the music business is correcting itself. No one in
the music business strictly for the money can make it in the game anymore.
Weíre all just foolish people who love music too much. The business
is weeding itself out.
QRD Ė What do you think is your storeís all time best seller?
Chaz Ė I donít know if I have one. Thatís a tough question. Too small of a store & I only keep track with pen & paper. I guess a good one would be Neutral Milk Hotelís In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; I havenít sold a ton, but itís one of the most consistent sellers. Usually sells within a couple weeks of me restocking it. Thatís a pretty awesome sign. Velvet Underground always sells. Beirut does real well. Just Gulag Orchestra though. Iím sure Iím forgetting lots of obvious ones. Theyíre all pretty much indie releases though.
QRD Ė What do you think most leads to a particular record being a good seller in your store?
Chaz Ė A little hype. Also if itís a record I really like, Iím more inclined to push it on someone or list it when someone asks, ďWhatís new & good?Ē I tend to force my friends to buy records I like a little too often. Local bands sell really well because theyíre always playing out. Plus, I guess the band has a lot to do with it too. I am peddling their art after all.
QRD Ė How does one get an independent release into your store such that itís recommended to the clientele instead of just sitting on the shelf?
Chaz Ė Good follow up question. Thatís
a tough one. I think itís kind of random, especially if thereís only
one person working at said record shop. If I really like something,
Iím gonna recommend it a lot. Itís also easy for stuff to get lost
on the shelves because I forget to listen to everything. Wow, yeah,
I guess it depends on if the employees like it or not, theyíre your best
arsenal. You canít force it though, Ďcause then theyíll badmouth
QRD Ė How do you feel about so many stores closing & how does it affect you if at all?
Chaz Ė Man. It sucks. Itís an interesting time. Shops with heavy overheads for running their stores are really hurting. I donít know if them closing affects me too much at all, aside from me just being sad for them. Iím a small shop in a small town. Once Best Buy & Wal-Mart finally decide to stop carrying records, Iíll be extremely psyched. Iíll have a huge sale. Iím too worried about keeping my own shop treading water that I canít really put too much thought on other shops closing. Otherwise you focus too much on the negative.
QRD Ė What type of competition do you get from the big box stores (Wal-Mart, Best Buy, etc.) & is it difficult to compete price-wise - i.e., do you find that potential customers will shop at the chain because they can afford to charge less for the same discs or do they support you if the disc is a dollar higher in price?
Chaz Ė The competition sucks. But
itís a part of owning a record store these days, so you canít dwell on
it. You just have to beat them in other places. Like customer
service & actually knowing your product. I donít mind hearing
what people like & then trying to match them to a new record theyíve
never heard. I get a thrill out of it. The employees at the
chain stores, though theyíre nice people, arenít there because they have
a passion for music.
QRD Ė With portable MP3 players & iTunes, is the concept of the album (in any form) dying?
Chaz Ė It was. But I think itís correcting itself now. People love convenience at first, but then they start getting sick of it sometimes. I think in the indie, punk, & garage world; itís actually having a positive effect. Bands are trying to create more reasons for you to get their full albums. That means better packaging & more focus on songwriting & concepts. Itís great. If you asked me that question two years ago, Iíd have had a totally different view.
QRD Ė How has the downloading scene impacted your sales - do you find that people buy less CDs now because they can download them for less or do you or do you think illegal downloads are more of a culprit?
Chaz Ė Luckily I opened on this side of
the downloading revolution, so I havenít seen any direct effect.
I opened up after it had taken its toll. Shops are adapting &
evolving as they open up on this side of what happened. We open up
expecting the lower sales, so any sale is a good sale.
QRD Ė Record & CD buyers tend to be of a certain age (21-34), as the upcoming people who will be of that age group are mostly download-buyers, would you like stores to eventually have ďiPod filling stationsĒ hooked up to an indie network that stores can be part of?
Chaz Ė No way. Whatís the point of the record store then? Why would someone fill their iPod there if they could do it at home while surfing the internet? Doing what they do on there. I think itís a waste of time & money. Record stores are meant to deal in the interaction of music. The buying of a piece of wax & talking with the clerk. Thatís their job. I donít think those stations are gonna happen, but leave it to Wal-Mart & Costco if they do. The music buying experience has become sterile at that point & doesnít belong in record stores. I think it was an idea hatched a couple years ago that has missed its chance. Itís too late, people are already getting back into physical copies again.
QRD Ė With the increase in digital downloads, low prices in mega-chains, & so many online specialty stores; what is the job of the local indie shop now compared to in the 1990s?
Chaz Ė Same as itís always been.
Weíre just seeing a return to how it was in the 60s & 70s... &
90s for that matter!! Smaller mom & pops with knowledgeable clerks.
We might not have exactly what you came in for, but weíll recommend ya
something youíll like if you donít want to leave empty-handed.
QRD Ė What are the biggest misconceptions people have of record stores in general & yours in particular?
Chaz Ė That weíre all mean, opinionated people who will laugh at your request. I really do want to know what youíre looking for so I can grow the shop. Even if you think itís silly, Iím not in a position to judge, I have my guilty pleasure records in highly accessible spots at home next to my record player.
QRD Ė What is the most frustrating &/or frequent question you get from customers?
Chaz Ė Ha! The obvious & worst
one of all - ďWhatís new & good?Ē If youíre in a bad mood, that
question is like fingernails on a chalkboard. You want to throw something
at the customer. If youíre in a good mood, it gives ya a thrill.
Itís strange that such a short & common question can carry so much
weight for a record store clerk.
QRD Ė How do you decide who to hire as an employee & when you need one?
Chaz Ė Man, Iíd love to hire one right now! Just canít afford it. Gotta pay the bills first. When you start getting burned out is a good time to decide you need one. I passed that point a little too long ago. Luckily I have a handful of friends that are willing to watch the shop for a couple records if I need to go outta town.
QRD Ė If you werenít in the music business, what would you do?
Chaz Ė Be in a crummy job making a paycheck that I complain about & making excuses to the boss why I didnít get whatever I needed to get done done. Pretty simple. Right back where I started. Iím glad to be at where Iím at.
QRD Ė How did your schooling & previous work experience prepare (or not prepare) you for your store?
Chaz Ė Ha-ha. I graduated college with an Art History degree from William & Mary in Virginia. This is where I am now. I guess while I was getting that degree, I was working in a Barnes & Noble music department, I guess that got me motivated. I studied business books at the library while I was writing my business plan a few years later, that was kind of schooling. I also helped manage a record shop - Bartís CD Cellar - out in Boulder, CO & that gave me more experience than I needed for doing what I do. I took a lot of distributor contacts with me from that job. I also helped out at ACRAT (Atlantic City Records & Tapes) in Cape May, NJ & that gave me the confidence to order.
QRD Ė Have you ever refused to sell something purely because you disliked the music, even if it was popular & would sell?
Chaz Ė Ouch. Can I pass? Iím stubbornly opinionated, more than I should be.
QRD Ė What is your personal ďholy grailĒ? (i.e. the one rarity youíve been looking for forever.)
Chaz Ė Changes from day to day. Whichever out of print LP influenced my favorite band at the moment. Iíd love to get back a copy of the Flesh Eaters - Minute to Pray, Second to Die on vinyl. & maybe that Plugz record. Thatíd be cool. I think I only have one more Replacementsí album to go on LP & then Iíll be complete with that. But none of that stuff is really super duper rare. It would not be good for me to dwell on hard to get records.
QRD Ė What makes you feel like you had a good day at the store?
Chaz Ė Good conversation, good sales, no stress, the majority of my customers finding what theyíre looking for, minimal phone calls & a soda. If I leave with a smile on my face & Iím still happy that I own a record store, itís been a real good day. Luckily, thatís the majority of the days.
QRD Ė Anything else?
Chaz Ė I donít think so. Thanks for letting me do this! It was quite therapeutic. & thanks for being patient with my lazy ass too!!! Time to go to sleep!!!