Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, now in its third location in 21 years of business, has come to symbolize what’s best about modern Music City. It’s a trend-setter, a hang-out and a venue where bands from in and out of town introduce new music to the world. So anything that threatens the record store’s well-being is taken gravely seriously by the music community, and the coronavirus shut-down is such a threat.
The store laid off its staff in March in order to qualify them for unemployment benefits and with hopes to hire them back, which may now be sooner than later, thanks to a surge in online sales and prospects for re-opening becoming clearer. Last week, five weeks into Nashville’s local Shelter-At-Home order, WMOT spoke with Grimey’s co-owner Doyle Davis about the status of the store and its staff. The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
It looks like retail businesses in Nashville will be allowed to open in the next few weeks. How are you feeling about that?
I’m excited, and I’m kind of scared, to be honest with you. I don’t want to put my people on the front lines. It won't be like working in the grocery store, but it is retail. Before we were shut down, we were making people wash their hands when they came in the front door. We didn't have a lot of pushback, but we had some. People are calling every day and telling us how much they miss shopping at Grimey’s, and they can't wait until they can do it again, so I know the demand is there. They want to come back.
In the meantime, it sounds like your mail-order business has been significant.
The mail order business from our website and our Discogs.com store have been honestly enormous. It’s gratifying and a little bit terrifying looking at the (fulfillment and shipping) workload. It really puts me in a quandary. Should I bring back staff now? We applied for the PPP loan and we remain optimistic, and the first thing I'm going to do is bring everybody back and really ramp up our online efforts. I mean the modest efforts we've done so far show me the potential. I think we could replace a lot of lost revenue, maybe as much as 2/3 to 3/4. That's sort of like the bridge to the other side if you will. And it gives us the breathing space to figure out a plan for letting people come back in the store, which I think is a decision we will have to give a lot of thought to.
You also got some direct assistance from Taylor Swift. What exactly happened?
It’s a good example of what it’s like now. It’s very day to day. It seems almost impossible to form a routine. Every day, either something happens, or you learn something you didn't know the day before. So at the time, it was a ginormous weight off my shoulders when I was facing complete uncertainty about the future. Now that I know more about the future, I realize as significant as it was, it was not even close to helping to save the business. What she did was, her publicist called me out of the blue and said that Taylor Swift wanted to help Grimey’s out. And what did we need? I didn’t know how to come up with a figure. It took me a minute to get my head around it. So I just sent them the most immediate expenses that I was facing, from rent to health care costs for our group insurance plan. And I had just laid off all my employees, so they could be eligible for unemployment and no one knew when they were going to see any money for that. So they came back with an offer to cover our health care expenses for three months and direct relief to my staff. They did ask me not to discuss the direct amount. But it was a huge relief. (Davis reports that his staff also eventually got on state and federal unemployment.)
What do you make of the mayor’s plan for re-opening retail?
I wish there was testing to go along with it every step of the way. I don't want to play favorites or put people at the front of the lines, but if I'm going to open up my business to let people come in here, I want to first of all know that my people are safe. A lot of young people are asymptomatic. I've heard as much as 50%. I've got underlying health conditions. I've been terrified of getting this thing. I want to get tested, and I want every one of my people who's going to be back in the store working full time to be tested. So we're going to try to figure that out.
Could there be a shift during this crisis toward a faster growing market for recordings and physical merchandise to re-balance the artists’ need to be on the road so much of the year?
Well, I’m seeing the posts from my customers getting my packages just how pleased they are. I put a personalized note in every one. Mike’s been signing them. I’m kind of astounded at what I think the potential of my mail order business is, and I’m just now finding out truly how much Grimey’s is a nationally recognized brand. I realized I’m shipping 75 to 80 percent of these packages out of state. That’s amazing.
You mentioned Jason Isbell as an indicator of that surge.
That’s a story right there. We put up pre-orders for Jason Isbell's record yesterday, the day he announced that indie record stores would have it a week early, before it hit streaming. That's something artists could do too. and his fans are sitting at home chomping at the bit, and we sold 500 records in an hour. I have never seen anything like it. So, talk about really stepping up there to help the record stores and to help the physical format and to do something special for his fans and everyone down the chain. And we did Lilly Hiatt (too). She signed all the records and did a livestream playing some songs in front of her mural on the building and said get signed copies of my record at Grimey’s.com and bam, we sold them. It’s almost like it’s the new in-store. So I’m going to try to work all this going forward and keep the mail order business as strong as I can, because I see that’s the revenue I’ve been looking for to grow the business, to give more raises, to get to the next level. It’s certainly changed my thinking about what my business is, what its potential is. We’ve got to come back from this thing, and I think we will.
There was a lot of drama and disruption in the vinyl record business before Covid-19, including a crisis on the distribution side and a fire in a lacquer factory in California, affecting the manufacturing side. How’s the business generally?
Like most record stores, the first thing we did was quit ordering records until we could get a handle on the environment. I’ve not ordered much from the major labels in a while and that’s where all the problems are. (The indies) are great. They ship the same as they always have. It’s strictly a major label issue with distribution. It was starting to get better (before the crisis). The lacquer fire? It sounds like it’s going to bottleneck the business but not kill it. Almost everywhere in Europe they source lacquer from Japanese plants. Another thing is startups that are working on building anew like it was an opportunity that people weren’t aware of. That this product was needed at this scale. There are like three already in the works. And the sales for vinyl continue to rise. It’s not done.