As Vinyl Sales Rise, Local Record Store Barely Brothers Thrives
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As Vinyl Sales Rise, Local Record Store Barely Brothers Thrives

It opened in 2014 after the two men were reconnected by a mutual friend for their deep love of music.

As Vinyl Sales Rise, Local Record Store Barely Brothers Thrives
David Grandmougin

In the doorway of Barely Brothers Records lies a jet-black Labrador Retriever named Susie taking her afternoon nap as kids leave the small restaurant a couple doors down, running up to pet and play with her. Susie’s playful spirit adds a warm touch to the small but lively record store located on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul.

The store, which sells new and used vinyl records, as well as a couple used turntables, is owned by Spencer Brooks, 53, and Mike Elias, 55. It opened in 2014 after the two men were reconnected by a mutual friend and bonded over their shared love of music.

“We started talking about the store about five years ago,” Brooks said. “We were both doing different things and wanted to do something new.”

After applying for loans from various banks and getting denied, Brooks and Elias decided to use sums from their retirement savings to fund their business venture. Previous to opening the store, Brooks owned his own pet care business and Elias worked at a brewery.

“Honestly, banks just didn’t like our business model,” Brooks said, “so we just decided to each put up money for the place.”

In the quickly changing music industry, CDs are fading out, paving the way for streaming and paid subscriptions. They are joining eight-tracks and cassette tapes, relegated to historical archives and the scrap heap of music platforms. But alongside this decline in CDs, there’s been a renewed interest in vinyl records.

According to the Nielsen 2017 U.S. Music Year- End Report, vinyl saw a surge in growth for the 12th consecutive year, making up 14 percent of physical album sales. With renewed interest in vinyl, record shops like Barely Brothers are able to stay open and provide a nostalgic space for both older and younger consumers.

With an estimated 600 customers per month, about 20 paying customers a day and the average price for a vinyl peaking at around $20 for new and $9 for used, Brooks said the business has been going strong since its opening, bringing in a “low six figures” in sales annually.

“It’s a steady climb," stated Brooks. "We’ve done a little bit better every year.”

One of the reasons the store’s been able to thrive through the digital music era, Brooks believes, is because music lovers still want to hear it at its highest quality.

“We were told the CD would sound better,” Brooks said, “and it didn’t. People want the sound of analog because it’s the best.”

While the store is doing well and the men are able to put food on the table, times do get hard, and the owners are faced with tough decisions to keep the place running. With new records coming out weekly, Brooks and Elias have to come up with the money to pay for them, and that can be a real struggle.

“We’re a really small business, so all the money we make gets put right back into the store,” Brooks said.

If the store is in particularly tough waters, Brooks said the owners will skip a paycheck to make sure the bills get paid.

Mike Ryan, a small business development center consultant, said the largest problem small business owners face is growing their sales, and that’s when entrepreneurs turn to them.

“Their sales aren’t growing,” Ryan said. “That’s why much of the advice we give is regarding marketing to help them sell more of their product or services. That way they’re able to hire more people.”

With over 10 record stores in St. Paul, one located right around the corner, Kal Hogenson, one of two part-time employees, isn’t particularly worried about Barely Brothers closing anytime soon. Working for Brooks and Elias since day one, Hogenson believes the vibes the store has curated over the years and its unique costumer service is the reason people return time and time again.

“We hold records for people when we know they’ll want one,” Hogenson said. “I also think Electric Fetus is too big and you don’t get that experience of coming back and seeing the same friendly face.”

New costumer Danny Fryberger agrees.

“I feel like I’m being paid attention to and not ignored,” Fryberger said. “Unlike some of these other places.” Fryberger said what attracted him to the store was the old vintage feel and collectable items, stating, “You’ll find stuff here you won’t find at other places!”

Brooks agrees that the store provides a smaller and personal experience for its customers, but shies away from the idea that they’re in competition with other shops, saying, “We’re all different and give the costumer something different to offer.”

Looking to the future, Brooks said that he hopes the store will still be open in five years, not because of plans to open new stores, but just for his own personal enjoyment.

“I get to listen to music all day," said Brooks. "It’s something I love.”

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