In late September, after almost a decade of running South Street’s Spaceboy Music — and just months after moving it to a new location — Scott Ansill decided to chuck the tough life of owning a record store. His decision shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. “The music industry has changed, technology has changed, South Street has changed,” Ansill explained in a note he taped to the shop door. “For Spaceboy Music, it’s time for a change.”
“I didn’t have to close,” Ansill said when we caught up with him. But he wanted to go out on his own terms. It’s hard to blame him. These days, music can be found just about anywhere — from Wal-Mart to a friend’s hard drive — and getting people to show up at an old-fashioned record store has become about as easy as luring new car owners into taking SEPTA. Just ask anybody who worked at once-ubiquitous, now-bankrupt Tower Records. What’s surprising about the local music-buying scene isn’t that Ansill decided to get out; it’s that anybody else would want to stay in. Says Dan Matherson, who owns Repo Records on South Street, “If somebody tried to open up a store now, they would be crazy.”
Matherson has managed to survive by stocking new music by indie rock bands that your average BEN-FM listener has almost assuredly never heard of. Yet where he was once able to rely on popular records to continue to sell for six months, he now sees sales of even much-anticipated releases slow down after a month. And as it’s become increasingly tough to keep on top of trends, Matherson has had to alter the way he does business. He decided to close the original Repo location in Bryn Mawr last year to concentrate on the South Street shop. “I am not getting rich off of it,” he says. “It’s not stable at all.”
Mike Hoffman, who opened Old City’s A.K.A. Music in 1999, has a similar approach. He stocks virtually no Top 40 titles. And while he’s been successful enough to increase the size of his store in recent years, he also has to work harder than ever to keep up with the finicky tastes of the faithful.
Others are opting for even more dramatic changes. Siren Records, which opened in Doylestown in the mid-1980s, is preparing to move to a larger location that will include space for in-store performances. But not even the impending move has kept Siren owner Blair Elliot from thinking, and worrying, about the future. “It gives you a headache,” he says.