Local Record Stores Play to the Sound of Success

by Shakeem Jones / Garnet & Black

The popularity of vinyl is spinning back into rotation, but is it helping record stores across America?

In the digital age where streaming music is dominant, more people across generations are finding the joys in the nostalgia of collecting vinyl. According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s year-end report, vinyl albums sold more than CDs in 2022. Even with the resurgence of vinyl sales, the record store industry is steadily decreasing. According to IBISWorld, there are more than 2,300 record stores currently open, but record store growth is declining and will continue to decline over the next five years.

Record stores in college towns, however, are singing a different tune. When looking at record stores located across the US, those that are successful tend to be in college towns or big, diverse cities. These places are often epicenters of different genders, races and ages, all looking to get a slice of the nostalgia. 

This idea applies to Columbia as well. Three local record shops around the University of South Carolina share how they are staying successful in a declining market. 

Papa Jazz has been at its Five Points location since 1980, said Woody Jones, manager of Papa Jazz.  

Papa Jazz Record Shoppe is a music store in Five Points that sells new and old vinyl, CDs and cassette tapes. The store first opened its doors in 1977 as Rich’s Record Exchange, named after then-owner Rich Josephs. Josephs operated the store until 1982 when he sold the shop to former employee and current owner Tim Smith, said Jones.

Jones, who has been manager for 13 years says he has seen vinyl sales go up every year in the store. 

“I would say we're probably stocking more new records than we ever have," Jones said. “And a lot of that has to do with living in a college town and catering to the tastes of the university students, who are some of our main customers.”  

Papa Jazz has bought a collection of 6,000 jazz records from a former USC professor that they have been pricing and putting out every week, Jones said. In addition, Papa Jazz is also gearing up for Record Store Day on April 20, which is when record labels put out limited edition records that are just available on that day. Jones explains the store will open early and should have a large line of people ready to buy some of those records.

Another local record shop close to the university is Scratch N Spin Records. Less than a 15-minute drive from Papa Jazz Record Shoppe, Scratch N Spin Records is located in West Columbia. While Papa Jazz focuses primarily on music, Scratch N Spin offers music, movies, games, comics, toys and more. In fact, Scratch N Spin has the largest selection of DJ 12-inch vinyl in the state of South Carolina, said owner Eric Woodard. 

Scratch N Spin celebrated 20 years of being in business in October 2023. Woodard credits the diversification of his store as a huge part of its success.

"We do lifestyle merchandise like T-shirts, hats, stickers, posters… it's like a music store mixed with a comic shop mixed with like a Hot Topic,” Woodard said. “We have folks that will come in and they will buy a record, but they also turn around and they might buy a CD or comic book… Diversification has really helped us survive and grow,” he said. 

Woodard said being in the center of a college town is especially helpful for business. 

“The successful record stores, especially the ones that have been in the game, for a long term, they have been associated with college towns or medium to bigger sized cities,” Woodard said. “It has the right mix of people to support that type of business… Everybody from blue-collar workers all the way up to college professors, you're gonna have students, you're gonna have families, it's gonna be a mix,” he said. 

Jones also said there are benefits to operating in a college town. 

“You know, it's not just the students. It's just sort of the environment. Lots of people visit the university in many different capacities. And so, we get lots of people from out of town who visit the store and that tends to help and drive sales. We do a lot of business with people that are just visiting the area because of the university,” Jones said. 

Away from the hustle and bustle of college town Columbia is Music Gator music store in Sumter. Music Gator sells vinyl, CDs and small gift items, said Phil Sports, owner of Music Gator. Sports opened Music Gator in 1995 because of his love for music and says he has been watching vinyl make its comeback for the past 20 years.

Sports said at one point he had all of his vinyl boxed away because it wasn’t selling. Then, young customers started coming into Music Gator, asking if he had vinyl for sale. After a while, his distributors advised him to add new vinyl to his store. 

“I started working in with the CDs, whatever I could afford," Sports said. "I just started adding vinyl the best I could and I put my old vinyl back out. People just started coming in for it. So far, it’s gotten bigger every year.”

Being in Sumter, which is an hour outside of Columbia, Sports says he doesn’t see much of the college town benefits on his music store.

“As far as music stores and sitting right up against USC and Columbia. They're gonna have a lot of college business… They're gonna get new customers every year. You know because students are constantly swapping out… Here in Sumter, the customers I have, it's almost the opposite, a lot of them will be leaving, even if it's temporary. But I do get college-age people… I get all ages,” Sports said. 

So how has Music Gator been able to remain open after almost 30 years in business?

Sports says a huge part is appealing to a target audience—music lovers. 

“These [independent music store customers] are the real music lovers. They like the atmosphere… And they help you build by returning. I've got several customers that still come in here every week since I opened back in ‘95. I got one guy that buys a jazz CD every week from me, he’s done it for 28 years… all of that is part of the music culture,” Sports said. 

Papa Jazz Record Shoppe, Scratch N Spin Records and Music Gator music stores have remained open for more than 20 years. What are their keys to success they say?

These local record shops say when operating a record store, the keys to success include: being in a college town or big city, catering to customers, having diverse content and lastly, having a passion for the business. All of these record stores have been able to foster a sense of fellowship with their local community in different ways, and in doing so have kept their businesses thriving. So consider stopping by and supporting one of these record stores when thinking about vinyl records. 

Local and independent record stores across the US and around the world can be found on Record Store Day's website