Backstage in South Florida: Never Open a Record Store

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: the depressing realities of a business breakdown.Let's start with some free advice. Never open a record store. Of course this may seem obvious now, especially...
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Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: the depressing realities of a business breakdown.

Let's start with some free advice. Never open a record store.

Of course this may seem obvious now, especially in the digital age of downloads, ITunes and IPods. However, those things didn't exist when I opened my shop, quaintly dubbed the Heart of Rock 'n' Roll, in the mid '90s. Yup, Huey Lewis was still big in those days. CDs were the medium of choice (as they still are for me today), vinyl was the forgotten medium, and physical record stores still flourished. Well, some flourished. Mine floundered.

Nevertheless, I felt the time was right to pursue my dream of being an entrepreneur. I had recently been laid off from Capitol Records after a seven-year stint. I had been in the music business my entire adult life and was unprepared to suddenly shift to "civilian" status. 

I had a host of industry contacts (none of whom could help me get a job with another label unfortunately!). I had helped manage a successful store, Viscount Records, upon graduation from college. And hell, I figured it would be a grand way to make a living while being around music all day. Sadly, it was that last supposition that did me in. 

First off, owning your own business can be a real pain in the ass. Ask any budding entrepreneur and they'll tell you the same. There are all the attendant responsibilities that accompany being a proprietor - inventory, ordering, advertising, paying the bills, paying the help... oh wait, I was the help... and I didn't get paid. Sadly, I never got to that point. All the small business seminars in the world won't help when you don't have customers. No traffic, no chance. 

Not that the store didn't show promise back in the beginning. Friends like Rich Ulloa and Bob Perry had done well with their individual enterprises, Yesterday & Today and Blue Note, respectively. Both offered encouragement and assurance that I could find my own niche. So after selecting a spot on South Dixie Highway, just south of a fairly busy strip mall dubbed Suniland South, I felt like I was ready to go. Sadly, I didn't realize how much further south my plans would go. And Suniland wasn't nearly as sunny as I had hoped. 

Things started off well enough. The opening celebration garnered family and friends and the store looked impressive enough with its shiny new display cases, poster-covered walls and ample stock of new releases. All that was missing was the customers. 

Daily sales rarely hit the $100 mark and while the shop had its hangers-on, they offered little more than their company and companionship. Unfortunately though, company and companionship don't pay the bills. Soon enough I came to resent them for simply wasting my time in idle conversation without any attempt to dig into their pockets and actually subsidizing that time in any way.

Other days, I found myself alone in the store, left to my thoughts of failure. I'd watch people passing by on the sidewalk and battle the notion of seizing them by the scruff of the neck and physically yanking them inside my shop to demand they buy something. 

Ultimately though, it was a frustrating feeling knowing that I was powerless to lure customers through my door unless they were so inclined. I didn't have funds for advertising, there were limited monies for buying inventory and virtually no allowance to pay staff. It was me alone, left to deal with the disaster I had conceived. 

To make matters worse, I was married with a child, and a second one on the way. I tried to shift my stance, opting to specialize in a mix of heavy metal - Slayer, Iron Maiden and Metallica being the bands of choice -- and new wave bands (think Duran Duran), two genres that the high school kids in the area professed to prefer. But high school kids don't have bottomless wallets and most days I still struggled to bring in more than $50 in revenues. 

During the holidays, things brightened a bit and the daily sales would climb to a few hundred dollars, which compelled my dad to proclaim, "You just might make it yet!" Sadly though, as soon as the holidays were over, things resumed their dismal slide and the prospects appeared as bleak as ever. 

The saddest thing about this whole affair was that I couldn't even sustain the store for an entire year. Eleven months after opening, I closed the doors, grateful that my landlord allowed me out of my lease a month early. It took me awhile to sell my stock and all the fixtures, but once it was disposed of, I was immediately relieved. Incredibly, I recouped some of the savings I had invested unexpectedly. 

An unforeseen legal settlement - the result of being socked in the jaw at a Metrozoo concert - replenished my bank account to the meager level it had been prior to pouring funds into the store. So while the previous eleven months had been among the most miserable of my life, at least I was able to recoup and restart my career. 

To bring my family some income I had joined a public relations agency, leaving my wife and a part time worker (one who I later came to suspect of raiding the cash register) in charge of the store while I worked my day job. Now it was all behind me and I was able to focus on finding a career. 

That proved tougher than I thought. But that's a tale best left to tell another time.

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