Round and Round Again

The resurgence of the vinyl listening experience

Jeff Amberg

For tweens and teens growing up in Columbia in the late 1960s and ‘70s, Meri’s Record Store in Richland Mall held a magical appeal. Vinyl records were the only way to listen to music back then. Having a little babysitting money or a gift certificate to pick out a record made dreams come true for a preteen with a crush on Bobby Sherman or for an older teen wanting to groove to Led Zeppelin or the Beatles. Going to the record store was an experience, not just a shopping destination.

The Gergel family owned Meri’s from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. “Our family had two toy stores –– one in Five Points and one in Forest Lake Shopping Center,” says Richard Gergel, son of the owners. Richard is now a U.S. District Court judge living in Charleston. His 95-year-old mother, Meri, who lived in Columbia but recently relocated to Charleston, still loves listening to music.

Richard’s parents started selling records as just a side item in the toy stores. Eventually, album sales grew to the point that the family opened the stand-alone record store. They chose to locate to the “then-modern,” newly built Richland Mall, an open-air shopping center anchored by White’s department store and a grocery store.

For many years, Meri’s thrived not only in the business but also on the experience of vinyl records. “The studios would even send recording artists to these independent record stores to help promote their records. These small stores were the only game in town,” Richard says.

Dorothy Fowles Kendall recalls Meri’s in the mid ‘70s when she was a young teen. “I can still feel the weight of the LPs rhythmically fanning under my fingers as I pretended to shop. The whole point was to get in the store, hear the music playing, and eavesdrop on the older teens and adults.”

Once big-box retailers like K-Mart and Sears got into the business, however, the face of the industry changed completely. “These large retailers could buy in bulk and knock the little guys right out,” Richard says. Meri’s, and many others like it, simply could not compete. The history of Meri’s mirrors the rise and fall of vinyl records. Sales of new LP records hit their all-time high in 1978, according to Recording Industry Association of America, the national industry trade group that monitors record sales. Sales fell to a low in the mid-1990s.

For the next three decades, albums were primarily a territory for collectors. A few independent record stores survived, and their customer base was mostly niche buyers. As preferences for music listening moved from records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs, the vinyl market continued to shrink. The arrival of digital music, streaming services, and online delivery further sealed the fate of vinyl records … or so it seemed.

Skip ahead to today where everything old is new again. Record sales started creeping back up in 2008. By 2015, vinyl sales had increased 32 percent to their highest point since 1988, according to the RIAA.

So what has fueled this transition? According to many in the industry, it is the sound quality plus a wave of nostalgia.

Woody Jones is the assistant manager at Papa Jazz, an iconic store for record buyers on Greene Street. He says the nostalgia is rooted in not only the sound but also the experience of listening to a record on a record player. “Everything now is so digital with tiny screens. We’re seeing sort of a backlash against that. Listening to a record is such a tactile experience, an active experience compared to listening on a phone, which is passive.”

High school senior Anna Bradley Bird agrees. She is a big fan of vinyl records and says listening requires paying attention in a different way. “With a record, you have to listen from start to finish instead of having all your music on shuffle. You can hear themes and stories you normally wouldn’t hear.” Plus, attention is required to place the album on the turntable, set the needle on the record, then take it off when it gets to the end.

“With records, you are more engaged,” says Sean McCrossin, who has a record store in the back of his coffee shop, Drip, in Five Points. “You have to get up and turn it over.” Owning a combination coffee shop and record store has been a dream of Sean’s since his young adult days in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Kyle Michel, a Columbia attorney who runs a “pop-up” record stand operating out of his Main Street storefront office, has been collecting and selling records since he was a teen. “I was always the kid who had more records than everybody else,” he remembers. His personal collection exceeds 15,000 records. “Although, I wish it were closer to 10,000,” he says.

The basic technology of vinyl records has not changed much since 1948, says Kyle. “The reason vinyl never completely went away is because sound quality is just better than any other medium. Digital is all x’s and o’s. Sound on vinyl blends and flows in a way you can’t get on CD, and tape will degrade over time. Reel to reel sound was unbelievable, but tapes just don’t hold up.”

Sean says, “The nice thing about vinyl is how it is manufactured. It has grooves, and the deeper the groove, the more dynamic the sound.”

But albums do not survive over time if not cared for properly. Kyle advises collectors to stand the records upright and keep them in a temperature controlled part of the house. “Records that get hot in attics sometimes warp, and the jackets degrade. A stack of records more than about 20 high will warp if they are sitting on each other.”

Old records abound in people’s attics. Some are worth selling, but most are not. “Most of what’s really worth money is not going to be your Beatles or Rolling Stones. All sorts of things go into the value of an album in addition to its condition,” says Woody. “There are lots of online sources to figure out market value. The vinyl market is just like anything else and driven by demand. Six years ago, Led Zeppelin was in the $5 bin. Now it’s a top seller.”

But it is not only used vinyl that is flying out of the record bins these days. Sean’s record store in Drip only carries new records. He retails a diverse collection that includes just about anything but classical. “More and more we’re seeing new releases coming out on vinyl in addition to digital formats.”

However, used vinyl can be a great way to experiment. Sean says, “If you like the cover, like the name, give it a try. It may stink or may be the soundtrack of your life.”

Plus, browsing a record store is just fun. Papa Jazz has not changed much in the 38 years it has been located on Greene Street. “It’s just a cultural institution. It helps that the décor hasn’t changed. We move things around, but nothing really changes. It’s really comforting,” Woody says.

Sean says he has taken his daughter to record stores many times. “It’s a good family experience. I’m showing her things I listened to. What was hip to us is often now hip to kids today, too. Buying in a record store is such a different shopping experience than buying something online.”

Woody says the trend toward online sales in so many other businesses is not a concern for Papa Jazz. “The online world isn’t really our competition. It’s about being a destination and an experience. There was a period 10 to 15 years ago when online was a much bigger deal for our business than now. Maybe it’s the market correcting itself. Perhaps people are reacting to the digital culture by saying they just want to walk down to a record store and browse.”

Making record buying –– and browsing –– an experience comes in many forms around Columbia.

While Papa Jazz’s compact size and tight aisles do not exactly lend themselves to live events, performances have still happened at the store. “We have a video series on YouTube where local, regional, and touring musicians come through. In partnership with S.C. Scene, a local website promoting local music, we invite people to play,” shares Woody.

Woody also recalls that back in the ‘90s, recording artist and USC student Amos Lee worked in the store. “His band played a concert at the counter during his last visit to town.”

At Drip, customers can grab a coffee and a bite to eat and then choose to sit at the counter, or they can browse through record bins in the back. “We are a coffee shop first, and the records offer nice eye candy,” Sean says, “an attraction to people who may not come in otherwise.”

Sean also has a record production company, and his love of music has spilled over into a project he has worked with the Nickelodeon Theater to stage. “I really love rockumentaries, and I’ve worked with the Nick to curate a music documentary series called Sound and Vision with a movie screening followed by a live music performance. We started with every other month and will go to once a month next year with some great documentaries about some unknown bands.”

Kyle, too, brings his love of records to Main Street. During the monthly First Thursday events and the Saturday Soda City market, Kyle sets up his pop-up stand in front of his Main Street law office. “I have a small, but dedicated, following. They are mostly regulars who come to buy.”

Kyle says he has a theory about why listening to records that were popular during teen and young adult years appeals to people as they get older. “Because of the intensity of that period of life emotionally, music makes connections in your brain that last a lifetime. Your emotions were flying, and it stamped memories in you that are connected to your music. People reconnect to their memories when they listen to their old music.”

It is like the experience that Dorothy described of Meri’s. “I love to remember how we would loiter on Saturdays after my mom had dropped me off at the mall to meet up with some other seventh grade girls. It was around 1975, and we were all kitted out in bell bottoms and ruffled shirts.”

That same kind of memory is possible from just cranking up the old turntable with friends, Kyle says. “I tell people to go buy a record player and invite your friends over who are about your age and open a bottle of wine and play your records. You will not go to bed early that night.”

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