The new retail hope: nerds

Monday, April 22, 2013 at 12:45am
By Steven Godfrey, City Paper correspondent
041913 Record Store Day topper.jpg

(Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm)


Consider this a holiday season of pop culture: Friday marked National Record Store Day, while May 4 will mark Free Comic Book Day. If this is news to you, I won’t judge, because nothing’s more insufferable than a neo-Luddite nerd. Carry right on with your Kindle.

We like to think of these events as a celebration of the stubborn and enlightened. After all, in this digital era you can go online and purchase (or easily steal) your media of choice. That’s why there’s no more Tower Records or Borders or Blockbuster Video. More importantly, that’s why scores of independent book, music and comic and hobby stores across the country are fighting to survive.

The forecast is inarguably gloomy — music, films, video games, books, comics and every other currency of the Mom’s Basement Crowd are cheaper and more accessible digitally than almost anything offered by Nashville outlets like Grimey’s, The Great Escape, Rick’s Comic City and Comix City Too.

But thankfully, there’s a thriving culture of folks like me who bemoan the fact that a copy of R.E.M.’s criminally under-recognized 1996 LP New Adventures In Hi-Fi is scarcely found on vinyl. And it helps to complain about such travesties in a live group setting.

Meanwhile, another set of Nashville nerds are ailing over the fact that celebrated writer Geoff Johns is leaving DC Comics’ after the May issue. This unease is combated only by reading a physical, printed copy of the issue immediately upon its release and debating its merits with other concerned citizens.

So with a seemingly archaic, doomed business model Grimey’s has expanded to a new annex, Grimey’s Too, offering more music, plus books and a coffee bar courtesy of Frothy Monkey. And while major comic book publishers have begun to promote digital sales at the expense of independent retailers, Comix City Too is packing patrons for Friday night Magic: The Gathering card game tournaments that create customer purchases.

The secret to this success is twofold: 1) By virtue of this city’s (pop) cultural DNA, there’s a high density of practicing and closet nerds. And, 2) socially stunted hardcore geeks of all persuasions — ironically — actually desire a sense of community and old-fashioned customer service.

“We like to think we’re more Empire Records and less High Fidelity, Grimey’s co-owner and resident vinylist Doyle Davis jokes about the stereotype of the snobby record shop employee.

Davis says Grimey’s business has grown every single year, save for 2008 in the deepest part of the recession, and that sales increased even more after the opening of Grimey’s Too allowed for more space and less clutter in both stores. And in a bizarre stroke, vinyl sales have skyrocketed in recent years. That means not only your grizzled Captain Beefhart connoisseurs, but college students and teenagers raised entirely in the iPod era. Granted, the Katy Perry crowd might not be shopping for turntables, but Mumford and Sons albums can’t seem to be pressed into wax fast enough. Davis credits the teens and twentysomethings for “this vinyl revolution,” not the fogeys.

Certainly pre-digital-generation music fans know the worth and value of a vinyl record, but enthusiasm from the touch-screen boomers borders on unexplainable. Comic shops hoping to find a similar trend of new consumers opting for tactile over download are still searching for ways to make that happen.

That’s why Free Comic Book Day is designed to draw in kids and comic virgins with curiosities piqued by Hollywood. It’s also a retail homecoming for lapsed fans and infrequent “Easter-Christmas” comic shop customers.

“From the time I bought this shop I’ve known that there’s nothing in this store you can’t buy from online, probably even cheaper,” said Comix City Too owner Mark Angell, who predicts May 4 will be his shop’s biggest day of 2013.

“So we’ve tried to create a ‘nerd clubhouse’ effect, where you can play games and sit here and talk about comics. Yes, you can get some of that from the message boards online, but then you find out you’ve been getting trash-talked to by a 12-year-old.”

All booksellers, whether they peddle Thoreau or Deadpool, are battling the recent rise in tablets the same way record shops stood against the leviathan MP3 revolution of a decade ago.

“As soon as you make something digital, you should be prepared to give it away for free,” Angell says.

But just like the music industry, there’s a chance to adapt, and to correct poor business practices. Despite their properties making billions at the box office annually, comics themselves are tough to navigate for newcomers and even former readers. There are myriad crossovers, scads of backstory and a thicket of continuity.

The companies themselves have relaunched all their major titles to combat this, and Free Comic Book Day will offer, among other titles, a Superman comic built specifically for folks interested in the upcoming movie. Plus, there’s that tiny TV show called The Walking Dead, based on a comic book that’s been reprinted in trade paperbacks for easy access.

“You can’t underestimate the zombie culture. It’s bigger than anyone thought it ever would be,” Angell confides.

One clique might scoff at the other (although as I can personally attest, there’s a strong overlap), but the sentiment is the same, regardless if you’re asking about Morrissey or Iron Man.

The shops themselves also provide a social amnesty of sorts. Regardless of what happens to be cool or not, or the embarrassment of knowing ridiculously too much about how The Downward Spiral was recorded, or what inkers best complement the pencils of Greg Capullo on Batman, you’re among your own kind. Nestled among anonymous strip malls, here are your people, safe inside a real live embassy of shared obsession, and they want to talk about what you want to talk about.

“I like to think it’s community, encountering other human beings to share that passion rather than doing it all by yourself and that thrill of not knowing what that next record will be when you’re flipping through,” Davis said.

It won’t get more communal than Friday, when a host of local acts will play Grimey’s for National Record Store Day, headlined by natives Paramore, who last played town at Bridgestone Arena. The kicker will be the Poplar Grove Middle School Ensemble, which will perform portions of Beck’s Song Reader. Perhaps as a swipe against the digital era, Beck’s latest “album” was released only in sheet music, with the artist encouraging musicians to make their own interpretations.

“I’ve told the kids they’re going to open for Paramore,” Davis beams.

The performance will not be available on iTunes.