ENCINITAS — Lou Russell, owner of Lou’s Records, was pricing some used vinyl records several weeks ago. While examining an old Judy Collins record, the original receipt from 1969 slipped out. The price? $3.99. Adjusted for inflation, the record sold for more than $23. “Back then, people’s idea of what a new record was worth was way higher,” Russell laments. “No one is going to spend $23 on a new record or CD today.”
A stone’s throw from Lou’s Records, the story is the same at Ducky Waddle’s Emporium, an independent bookstore that’s filled with specialty art, gifts and books.
“Both Music and books have been devalued,” said Jerry Waddle, the storeowner.
Ducky Waddle’s Emporium and Lou’s Records are fighting to survive. Lou’s once included three connected buildings.
Now he’s only selling music from one. Compared to 2007, sales are down significantly at both stores.
Independent book and music stores have different business models. Still, Ducky Waddle’s and Lou’s share more than a parking lot — common threads run through their struggles.
The most obvious comparison is the digitization of books and music. Russell said online piracy and digital music sales from services like iTunes began taking a toll on his business in 2005.
The arrival of e-books hasn’t hurt Waddle’s business as much. Though Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers may be an unstoppable trend, physical books still largely account for most U.S. sales, according to a 2011 study by Forrester Research. But Waddle also has to contend with print-on-demand, a digital service that allows sellers to easily print rare books that are limited or have since disappeared from bookshelves.
“I specialize is things that are hard to find,” Waddle said. “If I have a hardcopy book from the early 20th century, it can now be duplicated online.”
Not all physical media is dying. A resurgence in vinyl records in recent years has kept Lou’s afloat. But the increase in new vinyl record and turntable sales hasn’t been enough to offset plummeting CD sales.
A new generation of music fans favor vinyl’s “warm sound,” superior audio quality and artwork. Is there hope in a similar throwback to print books once print-on-demand and the e-book revolution have set in?
“We’ll see in a few years,” Waddle said. “I think there will always be people that like books — books aren’t going to go away. Bookstores may go away.”
Waddle noted that art books and other books rich in illustrations are less likely to be poached by print-on-demand sellers. However, some rare art books can found at websites like Amazon or at big-box retailers.
Russell and other independent record stores have also felt the squeeze from chain stores. He said that customers went from independent record shops to large retailers and haven’t come back.
“The big-box stores don’t carry CDs anymore,” Russell said. “Customers don’t retreat back to the independent record store, partly because their habits have changed. And partly because the record store may not even be there anymore.”
Waddle, who opened his store about 15 years ago, said there’s more to his store’s decline than advances in technology and large retailers. There’s also the economy.
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years and I’ve never seen it this bad,” Waddle said. “It’s hard holding out.”
With less cash flowing into the stores, it’s more difficult for each owner to restock their inventories and purchase new items.
But in the event of an out-of-stock item, Russell said many of his customers are understanding.
“If a customer comes in and can’t find something we’ll offer to order it for them,” said Russell, who started Lou’s in 1980. “Most will take us up on that because there are a lot of people who don’t want us to go away.”
Waddle and Russell both discussed the last five years in bleak terms. But they perked up on the topic of customers. Both said they were grateful for many customers’ unwavering support.
Outside of Lou’s, Adam Bradshaw, a 28-year-old San Diego resident, carried a vinyl record he had just purchased to his car. He has supported Lou’s for about four years thanks to its large selection of vinyl.
“I love the whole atmosphere and talking with the employees and other people in the store,” Bradshaw said.
He added, “It would be a shame to ever see it go — it’s pretty irreplaceable.”
As a point of differentiation, many independent book and music stores are increasingly emphasizing the value of community. Waddle has held more events in the last year.
Surrounded by thousands of unique books in an intimate setting, Waddle hosts poetry readings, art shows, book signings, concerts and lectures (visit Ducky Waddle Emporium’s Facebook page for a list of events).
“I think we still play a vital role,” Waddle said. “Small businesses are the lifeblood of any neighborhood.”