The pleasure of listening to music on a record is hard for Phil Machemer to explain. For the 29-year-old owner of the new Revolver Records store on Hertel Avenue, it begins with the crackle of the needle touching the spinning vinyl disc on the turntable.
“It’s such a simple thing,” Machemer said. “It’s like magic.”
The reggae of Peter Tosh filled his store on a recent afternoon as a few collectors thumbed through boxes of records that lined the windows. A record album, like the one on the counter with Tosh looking out from a field, turns music into something three-dimensional, like a painting or a book.
“I see the music. I see the song. I see the length of it,” Machemer said. “Looking at the grooves. It’s a physical thing.”
Millennials like Machemer have put records back in business after decades of banishment in dusty closets and attic boxes. His store has done better than he imagined.
Every day, customers stop in his sunny storefront that debuted in November in a former dress shop where he installed a turntable listening booth in an old dressing room.
“It blows my mind that I can make money doing this,” Machemer said. “Some people come by more than once a week. They don’t want to miss anything.”
Still beloved by an older generation of collectors, records’ share of music sales is higher than it was in 1980s, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Between the beginning and end of last year, sales jumped from 7 percent to 30 percent of the market that is split with music CDs, streaming and downloads.
Buffalo has about 15 record stores capitalizing on the new vinyl resurgence, including Machemer’s store where vintage vinyl sales make up 75 percent of business.
Machemer got hooked on vinyl in 2005, after graduating from Niagara Wheatfield High School and playing guitar in a band. He remembers feeling like his music collection vanished when he uploaded CDs into his iPod. Records were an obvious step up when he noticed new albums came with free download codes.
“It was a no brainer,” said Machemer. “For a couple more dollars, I could have a much cooler way of playing music at my house.”
The long view
A few miles away at the corner of Main and Lafayette Avenue, Record Theatre remains one of Buffalo’s oldest stores from vinyl’s last heyday.
When it opened in an old Ford dealership in 1976, records filled the “World’s Largest Record Store’s” 30,000 square feet. Thousands showed up. Record company executives flew in for the occasion on private jets.
Owner Leonard Silver was so thrilled, he took a crowd of guests to the now-defunct Cloister restaurant. The next day the owner came to personally deliver the dinner bill for $19,000. An unfazed Silver quickly wrote a check.
“I guess it was a lot of money but I was so excited I didn’t even care,” said Silver, now 89.
Soon after Donny Osmond, Englebert Humperdinck, Debbie Boone made special trips to see the place.
“It was an exciting era,” said Silver, whose Amherst Records labeled signed artists like the local jazz fusion band Spyro Gira. “Everything was selling.”
After starting out selling records to drug stores from the trunk of his car in the 1960s, Silver developed Record Theatres into a chain of 22 from Rochester to Cleveland, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The business changed as CDs pushed out vinyl, digital music took hold and “big box” stores threatened. Record Theatres closed until only two were left in Buffalo – the original and on Main near the University at Buffalo’s South campus.
Manager Joe Ignielinski remembers shutting the Hamburg store in the summer of 2009, a month after Michael Jackson died.
“I felt like I was digging my own grave,” he said. “Everything came almost to a standstill.”
Adjustments at the flagship store included new walls so the space didn’t seem oversized. Vinyl was relegated to a side room off the main CD sales floor.
Then two years ago, Silver noticed records were selling again.
“Stuff would just fly out. We had to cut back on CDs, DVDs,” Silver said. “It’s amazing. It’s crazy in a way. But we love it.”
Records were 25 percent of store sales five years ago. Now they’re 40 percent. From last year to this year overall sales increased by 25 percent to 30 percent. Silver expects to double his inventory of 125,000 new and used records by next year. “It’s come back to life.”
“Record Store Day” gets some credit. Started nine years ago to help independent stores stay open, it is an international event when limited edition vinyl is specially released and sold on the third Saturday of every April at stores like Revolver Records, Record Theatre and several others local shops.
This year’s release list, nine pages long, went online recently with artists like John Coltrane, Johnny Cash and the Flaming Lips.
By the time Record Theatre opens at 9 a.m. that day, the line outside is usually a couple of hundred long.
“It’s like our own special Black Friday,” Igielinski said, “just for independent record stores.”
This year the store’s floor will be bigger. Recently the CD-era walls in the back went down. Behind them, as if expecting a comeback, the original walls still had a series of neon signs of record label logos – A&M, London, MCA, Philips – left over from the old days.
They were glowing in red, blue and yellow on a recent afternoon as customers ignored the CDs in the center of the room and stood along the wall to flip through records in the newly-installed bins.
Mark Jaccarino headed to the cash register with an album under his arm. He passed a rack with pop singer Justin Bieber and smiled.
“Who would want to listen to Bieber on vinyl?” said Jaccarino, 29.
His pick was a $23 alternative rock album by “Beady Eye” on sale for $14.
“Instead of hitting a button on the radio, you actually have to do something to listen to the music,” he said to explain why he was collecting. “I think it’s going back to the way music was supposed to be listened to.”
His girlfriend beside him agreed. He reminded her of a kid at Christmas when he put on a record.
“It does something different than the iPod or the radio,” said Alicia Anthony, 25. “You just have to work for it. It builds in the anticipation.”
Hard core collectors
That afternoon Machemer opened his shop early for three longtime customers from Toronto, where used records that cost $20 can be found for $1 in Buffalo.
“We don’t even stop to eat,” said Adrian Khan, 39, a teacher and music fan who remembers listening to the rap of LL Cool J when he was in fifth grade. “I was bitten by the hip-hop bug when I was a little boy.”
His $1 finds included a 1970s funk album with baboons in a surreal jungle on the cover.
“This is history,” he said.
They discovered Machemer on Craigslist and saved shipping costs by driving to the makeshift store Machemer set up in his garage about six years ago. Hertel Avenue was a definite upgrade. They liked the dressing room listening booth.
“As long as he’s here,” said Khan, “we’ll be here.”
Machemer’s square glasses gave him the friendly bookish look of a librarian. He enjoys the stories behind the old records he hunts for at estate sales.
His single biggest coup was a $1 record he spotted in a wine box at a Kenmore sale. He liked the 1960s look of the band photo peering out from the windows of cartoon country store. After some research at home, he woke up his wife to tell her he landed a record collector’s Holy Grail.
“Music Emporium” was the only record by a defunct Southern California group known for its organ-infused psychedelic rock. It pressed a few hundred albums before breaking up when the lead singer was drafted.
The record, unusual for its great guitar and musicianship, had a cult following. It was so valuable, he only played it a couple times.
After posting it online, Machemer rejected low offers and waited a few months until a collector in his early 20s drove up from New York City in the middle of February.
“He found out about it and became obsessed with it.”
They listened in his dining room to the music that Machemer imagined was what 1969 sounded like.
He celebrated the $3,800 sale by buying a big box of fat crayons for his daughter, putting a down payment on a gray minivan and deciding something.
Even though he was one of the youngest record dealers, he knew he was in the right business.