For Music Record Shop, Growth Comes Even as Rivals Falter

Jan 11, 2017 at 6:00 am
Music Record Shop owner Mark Carter, vinyl superfan, in the store's new Locust Street location.
Music Record Shop owner Mark Carter, vinyl superfan, in the store's new Locust Street location. PHOTO BY DANIEL HILL

When Music Record Shop fell victim to an overnight burglary at its Washington Avenue location in mid-December, owner Mark Carter didn't spend much time dwelling on the smashed storefront or the fact that the perpetrator, confusingly, stole nothing but a single set of headphones. In fact, within a day of receiving the 5 a.m. phone call informing him of the incident, Carter was already setting out for greener pastures.

"When we got the phone call, we were gone the next day," Carter says.

But Carter wasn't driven from the location by the crime. He was already driven — by an ambitious plan to take his record store to the next level. The break-in just moved his timeline up a little.

Even before the incident, Carter had secured a spot in the .ZACK building, the new multi-use space in Grand Center (previously home to Plush) that includes an arts incubator, music venue, theater and more, operated by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. The store's location in a Kranzberg-owned building on Washington Avenue was always meant to be temporary, to allow renovations to the .ZACK space.

Clad in a black hooded sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, Carter is chatty as he shows off his store's new space, which sprawls across two floors of the .ZACK building. The record shop has come a long way since its August 2014 opening in the Grove, rapidly outgrowing its original home's 1,100 square feet and amassing an unwieldy collection of records in the process.

"It was a smaller store, and we really wanted to get all the vinyl under one roof, because we had it at storage units all over — I had three or four different storage units just full of vinyl," Carter says. His salt-and-pepper hair reveals his age (48) much more than his demeanor; as he speaks, he's a flurry of ideas and dreams delivered with youthful fervor and hope. "I needed a place where I could just get it all under one roof, take a look at it and start assessing what we have. Because, you know, we just kept buying."

Music Record Shop takes up a little more than 3,500 square feet of the new building's 40,000 total. The retail area will ultimately be located on the second floor (currently it's on the third, while construction continues downstairs). Also on the third floor are offices, an all-purpose room with a table and kitchenette meant for hosting artist signings or similar small events, and a room stacked floor to ceiling with unprocessed records waiting to be sorted and priced. The doors haven't yet opened for business — the store's soft opening is slated for January 17 — and already Carter is surrounded by vinyl and wondering if his inventory requires even more space.

"We're talking about taking space down in the basement and caging it off so we can just leave raw stock down there, because we're looking at — I think, sleeve-wise, I've got an order in for 100,000 of just outer sleeves," he explains. "You times that by ten, that's a shitload of boxes and weight. And, you know, where are we going to put it?"

Music Record Shop's vast collection is sourced from a combination of overseas and domestic distributors, in addition to Carter's fondness for buying up massive used record collections whenever he gets the chance. Carl Daniels, one of Carter's employees, is still sorting through the more than 5,000 records purchased in the summer of 2015 from a woman who inherited them from a local DJ. In the old shop, it was hard to sort such bulk purchases efficiently. Now that they have the room to spread out, they're finally discovering what they have.

"Yeah, we found Michael Jackson promos," Carter says with a grin. "Carl will come out every now and then and he's just like, 'I can't believe we have this.'"

Music Record Shop's collection is so large, in fact, that Carter uses his stock to supply other record stores across the country. He estimates there are 20 to 30 retail stores he can contact who would buy stock "right away." His store originated as an online distributer, and that portion of the business remains quite strong. Another employee, Phil Tucker, attends to that, quietly sitting at a computer and thumbing through records.

The setup is the secret to Carter's success. With distribution channels across the world, Music Record Shop is able to make the ease of online shopping work for the brick-and-mortar, rather than against it.

Prior to setting up shop in St. Louis, beginning some twenty years ago, Carter worked in Los Angeles as vice president of sales at New World Digital, a packaging company that initially primarily serviced contracts from the U.S. Government Publishing Office before securing a deal with Warner Bros., which thrust the staff suddenly into the music business. Carter found his calling.

But by 2012, he recognized that the industry was changing with the decline of physical media. The surest way to adapt, he believed, was to begin importing records from overseas and setting up his own distribution channels. He packed up and moved to St. Louis, starting what would ultimately become Music Record Shop as an online distributor.

His former employer's practice of securing contracts to everything from government work to a major entertainment conglomerate's CDs and DVDs taught Carter the importance of staying diversified — of making sure that if one side of the business suddenly tanks, other aspects are capable of keeping the ship afloat.

Even today, he sees that approach as a key to long-term success.

"We have a whole accessories side of the business that we're doing. We've started to manufacture inner sleeves, outer sleeves, anti-static sleeves, ten-inch, seven-inch, twelve-inch — we're shipping that stuff now worldwide and buying in bulk, and we just need space," he explains. "We're getting into licensing music also, so we're starting to import more music. We're talking with [Netherlands-based record label] Music on Vinyl about taking on their catalog to bring it on for a licensing deal here in the States. So we'll see what happens."

When Carter is asked about his five-year plan for the business, Tucker interjects with a simple goal: "Pay Phil more money."

Carter laughs and agrees. "Phil needs a big raise. It's definitely get these guys more money," he says of Daniels, Tucker and fellow employee Daniel Sexauer, who is manning the register today. "I mean the biggest thing — it's all these guys."

When pressed about the future, though, the ever-driven Carter flashes a coy smile.

"You have to turn the recorder off for that."