…when the news came down in mid-December that Gem City Records, the last of the local indie record shops, would close on January 29, 2010, we were obviously stunned and saddened. While we’re still wrestling with what it all means in the short- and long-term for the local music scene, we’re fairly certain that the demise of the store will impact individuals, businesses, and the community immensely. In trying to comprehend it all, we were able to speak with store manager and the face of Gem City Records for some 20 years, Dale Walton. Here’s what Dale had to say about the past, present, and future of Gem City Records….
The Buddha Den: How long have you been affiliated with Gem City Records/worked in record stores? As manager? How did things change when Value Music bought Gem City Records in 2003? Do you feel that the change affected in any way your ability to cater to local music?
Dale Walton: I started working in the record business in 1977. I was hired by Tom Weiser (owner of the legendary record store “The Forest”) at the time he was the buyer for the Goldman’s which owned a chain of department stores in the Dayton area as well as the Golden Rod music stores. He had a test that you had to take that was basically a music trivia test, very hard I might add, but as a kid growing up I absorbed music. I bought every album I could, read the liner notes, studied the credits knew who produced what, who played on what song, what label they were on, etc. The test was 200 questions and I scored a 197. John Huffman also passed the test and worked in one of their stores, that’s how we met. We both worked at the ‘Forest”, “Bullfrogs” (a shop that specialized in 45’s), Golden Rod, and “Disc Location”.
The Goldman’s eventually went under and I started working for a Pittsburgh based chain called National Record Mart while John went on to do mail order and record shows out of his house. His inventory grew so large he had to have a place to store it so he rented the space at 337 E. 5th St. (across the street). In 1981 he decided to open a store, small but a great place to buy the latest vinyl. In 1985, John came to NRM which I was a 3rd key manager in the Salem Mall and asked me to work for him. I jumped at the chance and with help from some other great record store guys like Todd Robinson (owner of Luna Music in Indianapolis), Dave Barber (Cityfolk), and Tim Frueh (The Record Changer) we built a great store. We moved across the street to present location in 1990 and that is when I became the store manager. We have always encouraged and sold local musicians product, myself included.
In 2006, we were bought by Value Music which actually was a very positive and exciting time. Things were not going so well and John wanted to get out of the business so he sold the store. They were all about store promotions and so was I. We started doing our Acoustic Showcases which not only gave local musicians a place to sell their work but also a place to play. I am proud of this and learned so much from all the fine local talent in this area.
TBD: What were the circumstances surrounding the closing of Gem City Records? What was Value Music’s official position? What were your feelings regarding the closing of the store at this point in time?
DW: We were certainly affected by downloading and the general economy. The labels with high list prices on music made it much easier for our customers to buy on line or at the big box stores (Wal Mart, Best Buy) where you could buy music cheaper than what our cost was. The idea that box stores could sell new music for $7.99 because they sold tons of refrigerators and TVs hurt all independent record stores. I built this store with John. As far as Value is concerned, I really cannot speak for them. They were put in an unfortunate situation and did not want to close us but times are tough. We were not the only ones, they closed 25 stores. The store was profitable but sometimes that is not enough.
TBD: How has the changing climate toward digitized music [iTunes, Rhapsody, etc.] affected record sales in your store? Have you noticed a shift in recent years towards a renewed enthusiasm in vinyl? Do you feel there is still a place for a local independent record store in today’s music business?
DW: Yes, the internet has had a huge impact on music sales. You have a whole generation of people out there that have no conception of what an album is. They want one song and don’t want to pay for that. The artist creates this body of work and wants it to be heard as a whole so not only does the artist suffer, the listener suffers and doesn’t even realize it.
TBD: How do you feel that Gem City Record’s closing will affect the local music community? How important do you feel it was for local bands to have a place where their records could be discovered by the general public? Do you think that resources like iTunes and Myspace can fill that void?
DW: When the news came down that we would close the first thing that entered my mind was, “OMG! Where are people going to buy music?” I mean there is still Second Time Around, and Gary at Omega but they are primarily used stores. Good stores indeed, but we had developed into a great indie store as well as a vinyl junkie’s dream.
Vinyl has made an unbelievable comeback and we did extremely well with album sales as well as turntables. Truth be known albums sound so much better than CD’s and of course cover art is so appealing compared to the little 6 by 6 insert you get with a CD. A lost art, not to mention you could read the liner notes without a magnifying glass.
TBD: With the closing of so many independent music stores in the area over the last few years [Dingleberry’s and all CD Connection locations], do you feel that Dayton can still support an independent record store? What niche do you think keeps an independent record store viable?
DW: Dayton could and hopefully will support a good store but it must be more of a specialty store that specializes in special orders, vinyl, collectible, current hits and most importantly a knowledgeable staff that knows music inside and out, a staff that knows what instrument Coltrane played or who did the song “Frankenstein” or who played the theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies. That is what set us apart and I am so proud of the employees I have had over the years. We knew our stuff and gave legendary customer service, a term I learned from Rob, the owner of Value Music Concepts. They are not to blame, a tough economy and a changing world are at fault.
TBD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
DW: Music is the ultimate escape. It can take you places, it can change your mood, it can create a picture, it can teach you, it can conjure memories or create new ones, it can save your life or kill you if you let it. It guided me from The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to Bruce singing Born To Run, Seeing The Who at the music hall in 1969 to hearing and sharing my son’s passion for Death Cab For Cutie (of course I reveled in the Beatls reference). I became a musician and songwriter because of all this and to this day can be found in my basement, volume set on throttle and listening to the Dave Clark Five. From the scratchy sound of a Bobby Darin 45 to the bop of a new Eric Alexander CD, I am proud to say I am still absorbed in music.