Accidental Deaths

Customers wandering into VVV Records last week found one of Dallas' more venerable music stores in its death throes. Tables were cluttered with merchandise and five-for-one specials, and price tags hung from everything that could be hauled away. There was a distinctive smell in the air, a musty odor of defeat emanating from a blend of dust, old cardboard LP covers, and fading walls stripped of concert posters.

After 17 years, VVV owner Neal Caldwell was closing shop, the latest independent record-store owner in Dallas to look the future in the eye and realize his time is past.

Caldwell's store at 3906 Cedar Springs--tucked in a strip center, and not much bigger than a living room--once drew customers from as far away as Oklahoma. They came to find a meeting place of the like-minded: hard-core music aficionados who appreciated obscurity, and a store owner who could discuss little-known recordings at the most arcane level. Some customers respected Caldwell's expertise so much they would let him make their musical selections.

In turn, Caldwell, now 45, considered the store his tribute to music--local music specifically. He plastered the back wall with posters from Dallas shows featuring area bands, and filled his bins with artists such as the Telefones, the Doo, the Ejectors, and the Devices.

But no more. "I guess I'll have to get a real job now," Caldwell says. "Which may be promising, but probably won't be fun."

Like many independent shops run as much from the heart as the wallet, Caldwell's store generally operated on a thin margin. These days, that margin is slipping away.

Caldwell's is the third independent Dallas music store to shut down in the past year. Direct Hit in Exposition Park and 14 Records on Lower Greenville had already shuttered their doors by the time Caldwell gave up the business. The same scene is being repeated throughout the country as small stores succumb to the changing reality of the CD business.

Ironically, it is not the once-feared superstores such as Blockbuster Music that are driving Caldwell and others under. In fact, even Blockbuster Music appears to be teetering on the brink.

Rather, stores that sell only music and CDs--small and big alike--are becoming accidental casualties in a much bigger war, the battle for dominance of the lucrative home-electronics market.

Fighting for their share of customers out to buy computers, stereos, televisions, and home appliances, national chains such as Best Buy and Circuit City are using discounted CD prices to lure customers through the door.

Unlike stores which only sell music, the electronics-retail giants don't really need to make much profit on their CD sales. In television and newspaper advertisements, the chains trumpet bargain prices, which often undercut music-only stores by several dollars per CD. The idea is to get customers in the store and hope they are tempted by the other, more expensive merchandise to be found there.

As if that weren't enough, other retail chains are picking around the edges of the business. Discount stores such as Target now stock racks of the most popular selections. Chains such as Borders Books & Music incorporate a wide array of CDs, and handy listening stations, in their stores.

Mixing the sale of CDs with that of other merchandise is proving so successful that non-music stores now sell 28 percent of the CDs in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

The competition is proving too much for many smaller operators, guys like Caldwell who cannot match the fire-sale prices.

It is an exaggeration to say--as some do--that the days of independent music stores are over. Large chains naturally concentrate on big-selling albums, and there will always be some customers searching for hard-to-find recordings that aren't profitable for mass retailers to stock.

But the niche for stores like VVV is clearly getting smaller. Only the wily will survive.

Pagan Rhythms, another landmark independent store on Greenville Avenue, is hanging on for now, mainly because it traffics heavily in the secondhand market, buying and reselling used CDs. Located next door to a Blockbuster Music, the store has been run for seven years by Lavon Pagan.

"I will survive," he says. "If I have to buy CDs for a dollar and sell them for three, I'll do it. I will not be run out of this business."

Pagan need look no further than his own cash register to see the fate he is trying to avoid. Big Bucks Burnett, who used to own 14 Records, is now a salesman in Pagan's store.

"Dallas is a great example of what is happening in independent music retail," says Burnett, a 37-year-old who looks more than a little like Wolfman Jack. "Dallas needs to wake up. Three semipopular indie record shops have closed in the last year.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain