Bucking the Trend, a Record Store Launches in Deep Ellum
There's no one here. Just Bill Wisener sitting in his normal spot behind the front counter of his South Lamar Street store, a DVD stuck on opening-screen repeat, a cigarette in his hand, and dozens of butts littering the floor he ashes upon.
Bill's Records might as well be closed right now. But no, Wisener will remain here, at least for a few more hours, rocking back and forth in his desk chair, hoping that someone—anyone—will enter the door of his store on this Saturday night, looking to peruse the oddball collection of long-forgotten vinyl, used compact disc or locally produced albums.
He knows it's not too likely, though. "Saturday nights around here are pretty lonely," Wisener admits.
The Pete Best Band performs Friday afternoon at Bill's Records.
He's not surprised by that fact. Not really angered by it either. Just...disappointed. If that, even. He wishes things were better for the few brick-and-mortar record stores that remain in Dallas and beyond. But he knows enough not to bank on that wish becoming fulfilled.
He stands up slowly and ambles toward a picture frame that houses an article Billboard magazine wrote about his shop back in 1993, when it was still housed in its North Dallas location. It's a flattering article, praising Wisener's store for its massive, if seemingly haphazard, inventory. But there's more to the story of that article. Something the writer never included. Something Wisener says the writer told him after stopping in for a tour of the store—but only because he appreciated what Wisener was trying to do with the place.
"He said that, by the year 2000, there would be no more mom-and-pop record stores," Wisener says.
Wisener tells the story not to brag, but rather to put things into perspective. Early last week, another landmark Dallas record store, Greenville Avenue's CD World, closed its doors for good. Again, Wisener wishes the news surprised him. (CD World's sister store on Belt Line Road in Addison closed at the same time.)
"In reality, it shouldn't be a surprise if any of us close," he says, furrowing his brow, perhaps trying to find a silver lining.
"I just don't see how any of us can survive with the overhead costs. Not enough people are buying music anymore."
Mike Schoder, owner and operator of the Granada Theater and, until last week, CD World, had seen that decline firsthand in recent years. "From 1992, when we opened, until 2000, we saw a consistent, steady increase in sales," he says. "From 2000 on, it did the opposite. [Before closing] we were doing the same amount of business in a week that we used to do in a day."
Hearing Schoder discuss the figures is a little depressing. He's broken up by his own decision to close the store, calling it "the last thing [he] ever wanted to do." But he doesn't know how he could've kept it alive—not in today's Internet age.
"It takes someone terribly un-technologically savvy to not download," he says. "It takes maybe an hour of research—at most—and you can find whatever you want online, for free."
For Schoder, it no longer made sense to keep the business alive. In an interview posted to Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer's news blog, Schoder explained that, in the last few years of CD World's existence, maintaining the store had become more of a hobby than anything else. For Wisener, the same is true.
"I'd probably be better off if I closed and sold all this stuff on eBay," he says, without even a hint of a smile. "But I've done this for so many years; I'm 64 and, if I ever closed, I'd have a hard time figuring out what to do with my life. I'd miss all the people and the memory of how much fun people used to have around the store."
For now, he does what he can to try and muster up those feelings of nostalgia in his former customers—many of them still unaware that Bill's ever switched locations—by going further in the hole and booking in-store performances, as he does every Saturday afternoon.
"It's good for morale," he says, "but it doesn't translate into sales."
Still, this week, Wisener does have an act stopping by that could bring in a crowd: On Friday, Pete Best, the Beatles' original drummer, will bring his Pete Best Band by Bill's Records for an afternoon performance. But Wisener, perhaps a learned pessimist thanks to the current state of his business, doesn't expect his sales to benefit directly from the show.
"I see it as a thing that could bring some life back into the store," he says. "When something like that happens, it makes people remember how things used to be."
That's as far as Wisener will allow his hopes to go, given today's market.
And that's why this news is so surprising: Just about a month ago, in Deep Ellum, a new record store opened.
Jason Guereca, owner of Remix Records, has given himself a year to see if, just maybe, he can turn his interest in dance music into a profitable business in Dallas. To his credit, his new store—which will primarily specialize in mostly vinyl dance records marketed toward club DJs—has a fairly successful pedigree. Remix Records, which is located on Elm Street, right next to Zini's Pizzeria, is the direct descendant of R-Type Records, a Fort Worth store Guereca closed in July after figuring that he'd have more success running the store in Dallas, where more of the region's DJs live and work.
"I survived in Fort Worth with a following of bedroom DJs—and that's pretty much it," he says with a confident shrug. "Fort Worth doesn't have what Dallas has. Dallas has nightlife and a knowledge of this type of music."
Guereca, a DJ who performs around the region under his Jason X moniker, sees his store's dance specialty as a benefit, and he has a point. Because he doesn't have to follow the Top 40 market, he won't have to waste money promoting albums forced upon him by record labels to a crowd of walk-in buyers. Instead, Guereca anticipates that the bulk of his consumers will be regular customers: DJs who want to feel like they're a part of a community and who want to have a place where they can talk about the latest underground and rare releases with others who share their knowledge.
"Dance music right now is kind of like hip-hop in the '80s," Guereca explains. "It's groundbreaking, and it's really good, but it's largely underground."
Like Wisener and Schoder before him, Guereca says he's entered the Dallas record store scene because music is his passion. But he's also fairly cautious. He signed a two-year lease, but was able to agree with his landlord on a buy-out clause 12 months in.
"I know the volatile market," he says. "I know that, right now, it's hard to own a small business. And I know that, for our customers, buying this stuff is a luxury. When times get tough, we're the first thing that gets cut out."
But, for now, he's choosing to stay optimistic on his prospect, just as any new business owner should. "Since we opened here, the whole area [of Deep Ellum] has been bugging out over us," Guereca says. "The owner of Moda came over and was like, 'Are you kidding me? We need this!'"
That encouragement—plus the 40,000 still-packed records, the digital download kiosks still scheduled to be installed in his store, and the disc jockey hardware that he hopes will be in stock by Christmas shopping time—is going a long way toward Guereca's peaceful state of mind. And even though, just like at Bill's Records, there wasn't a soul but Guereca and his manager within Remix Records' walls on Saturday night, he's looking forward to what the future will bring.
"With our personal touch," he says, "this business can go a long way."
For his sake—and for the dire sakes of his contemporaries around town—he better hope so.
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