Dayton Indie Music Stores Build Community Through Commerce
By Kyle Melton
Much like any community throughout the United States, the Miami Valley once boasted a number of small, independently-owned record stores that prided themselves on customer service and a character that set them apart from their competitors. From downtown Dayton and out into the small towns throughout the region, music lovers could visit any number of stores to find a wide array of titles and knowledgeable staff to help them navigate the racks.
As music moved into the digital age, independently-owned record stores found it increasingly difficult to stay afloat as big chains such as Best Buy and Border’s moved into the region and technology shifted toward digital media and online sales, further diminishing sales in a continually slumping music industry. By the beginning of 2010, only a handful of independent record stores remained in the Miami Valley, as stores such as Dingleberry’s, CD Connection, and Gem City Records closed their doors in recent years. Among the independents left standing, Gary Staiger of Omega Music serves as the old guard of Dayton indie record stores.
“In 1983, I was between jobs and I actually bought a thrift shop on the corner of Richmond and Delaware for $300 and got all the stuff that was in it,” recalls Staiger. “Then I had an opportunity to move up on North Main Street into one of what was to become one of seven locations I had [for Omega Music]. In 1999, I moved across the street to the last store I had which was at the corner of Marathon and Main. In the last ten years, things got progressively worse up on North Main Street. By the late 90s, we went from doing a lot of business to doing no business. Then about a month and a half ago, I came to the realization that if I didn’t do something, the last man standing was gonna fall.”
Before Staiger would allow Omega Records to fail, he contacted John Huffman, owner of the building that formerly housed Gem City Records at the edge of the Oregon Arts District. With the building sitting vacant since January and Staiger seeking to relocate, the two negotiated terms that allowed Omega Records to move into the space, opening its doors in late October. Although Omega Records continues to stock titles on CDs, Staiger admits that it’s his stock of vintage materials that continues to attract customers.
“Vinyl never went away and I’ve always sold records because I think MP3s suck and CDs aren’t much better,” admits Staiger. “Then there’s the whole thing about the tactile part: looking at the artwork and handling it. There’s a whole experience that goes with playing the music that goes with it. [At the Oregon District location], we’ve sold almost 1,000 records in the first week. Easily 60% of our sales.”
As vinyl sales have continued to hold steadily over the past decade, despite conventional industry wisdom suggesting that it was a dying format, new stores such as Toxic Beauty Records, which opened in Yellow Springs in 2007, focused on vinyl as a preferable sonic experience.
“I opened [Toxic Beauty Records] in June of 2007,” explains Josh Castleberry, owner of Toxic Beauty. “My main goal in opening a record store was simple: getting music out to people. I wanted to carry new release LPs, re-pressings of older LPs, and a wide variety of genres in used vinyl records. I’ve shied away from carrying a lot of CDs in the store but my customers know that I will special order any title in vinyl or CD, that is in print. When I made the decision to open a record store that actually carries vinyl, I took a gamble that people would go back to quality sound and the warmth of vinyl records. My 3+ years in running the store have shown me that music lovers have begun to demand quality for their listening experience and are choosing vinyl over MP3 music files.”
In addition to big chains offering numerous titles in CD format, local indie record shops face additional competition from online retailers such as Amazon and Insound. Although there is some appeal to buying music digitally in this increasingly fast-paced era, there is an experiential element that is lost through this method of music consumption.
“It’s great that I can go to a website like Amazon.com or Insound and do a quick search and find the record I’m looking for, order it and have it at my door in 5-7 business days,” explains Juliet Fromholt, WYSO on-air personality. “However, that sort of experience is only part of the way I buy music. There are plenty of times when I know I want something new, but I don’t necessarily have a particular album in mind. That’s where the online experience simply cannot compare to the record store experience. When I’m in a record store, I’m shopping for music. Plus, there’s the experience of flipping through racks of records or CDs, looking at the artwork, and picking up an item in your hands that clicking through tiny picture on a website cannot compare to.”
“I’ve purchased records and CDs online, and I’ve purchased items from FYE, Best Buy and other retail chains, but the majority of my collection was purchased at locally-owned Mom & Pop shops,” says Don Thrasher, a local music journalist for Dayton Daily News. “I grew up just a few miles from the original Dingleberry’s store in Centerville, and even before I could drive I would bug my parents to take me over there whenever I had a few extra dollars. Dingleberry’s became much more to me than the neighborhood record vendor. I’d just browse the record crates, getting lost in the experience, flipping through stacks and stacks of records, breathing in the fruity smell of incense, and bopping along to whatever musical selection the counter clerk had selected for the stereo.”
“In my teens and 20s, I enjoyed hanging out at the local record store to find out what new bands were coming out and to hear the employees’ favorites playing through the store’s sound system,” continues Castleberry. “Shopping at an indie store offers customers more obscure bands, albums and more collectable titles. The big box stores are only going to carry the more mainstream bands, while an indie record store will offer bands that are just breaking. Indie stores will also dig deeper into an artist’s catalogue and carry the lesser-known albums in the catalogue in addition to the better-known titles.”
While only a few indie record stores remain in the Dayton area that continue to stock new releases as well as used vinyl, there are a handful of other independents that focus strictly on used music in various formats, oftentimes sold alongside various other media and vintage items. Stores such as Feather’s Vintage offers used vinyl, while Second Time Around focuses on used CDs, in addition to used movies and video games, and Game Swap offers used CDs, vinyl, games, and movies. For these types of stores, it is the variety of media and merchandise that enables them to continue operations.
“By not being a store that deals exclusively with music, our extremely diverse selection of various forms of video, music, and gaming media allows us to appeal to a much wider range of customers than many area stores,” explains Johnathan Gallienne of Game Swap. “It helps us, because we aren’t limited by a corporate or business plan like stores such as FYE, GameStop, and Blockbuster. The biggest challenge for us, being an independent store with limited financial resources for advertising, has simply been letting people know where we are and what we do.”
Perhaps one of the most crucial functions of independent record stores is their relationship with the local music community. For musicians operating on a DIY level in the Dayton area, having their music placed in a chain store is a remote proposition. However, indie record stores have long offered Dayton musicians an essential opportunity to find new listeners beyond the reach of nightclubs.
“I think it’s important, because without local music you don’t have national music, Staiger observes. “Everybody has to get their start someplace. It’s critical. The only other place [a band has to promote their music] is when they’re playing out, and it’s hard to get a place to play. So, this is a steady opportunity to have your music visible to the public.”
“Record stores are traditionally a sort of homebase or townsquare for a local music community,” Fromholt continues. “There were plenty of times when I didn’t have enough cash to buy a band’s disc at their show, but a few days later, I’d be buying something else and that band’s disc would be on the shelf and I’d buy it.”
For many, the convenience of one-stop shopping at big boxes and at various online outlets is simply conducive to the accelerated pace of living in the modern era. For others, however, the experiential component of visiting an independent record store and connecting with something more tangible than an MP3 is worth the extra effort. As homogenization of culture runs rampant, seeking out a local indie music shop and finding out what is unique about one’s own local music community is an unparalleled endeavor.
“Indie record stores are the link between band and fan,” Castleberry concludes. “Music lovers will always need a place to buy their music, get turned on to new music and have somewhere to talk about their favorite bands with others. From the smell of stacks of vinyl to the pleasant, rocking or just plain weird music being played by the store’s employees, there is nothing like entering the intimate setting of an independent record store after being accustomed to buying one’s music from the internet or a big box electronics store.”