By day, Sherry Lee works for the photography supply store Freestyle Photo in Hollywood. So when she opened her new downtown Los Angeles vinyl-only record store, Pop Obscure Records, with husband and partner Dustin Lane in July, she was well acquainted with the trials of running a retail outlet devoted to once-nearly-dead analog media.
“You can see that the fight is over,” Lee said, her tangle of blonde dreadlocks evoking the glory days of ’90s alt-record-store clerks. “By now people have embraced both analog and digital, or either. It doesn’t have to be a fight anymore.”
Today’s messy music retail world is defined by strategies like Frank Ocean’s surprise digital album drop over the weekend. On the other hand, even a resurgent vinyl format can’t save everyone — as seen by the shuttering of beloved stores like Origami Vinyl.
Pop Obscure (735 S. Los Angeles St.) isn’t a grand new bet on a rising format. It’s just a big, old-fashioned, mostly used record store, right at the edge of skid row and the fashion district. With neighbors like Whole Foods and in-development Soho House not too far in either direction, it’s an unpretentious and un-“curated” outlet that evokes a shaggier corner of Amoeba.
Can it hang on despite all the turmoil in music retail and development downtown?
Lee and Lane are veterans of the record store business (they each worked for the national chain Wherehouse), but had ventured into other cultural fields in recent years before rediscovering their interest in slinging wax. What made them finally take the plunge again?
“Being in the film business,” Lane said, laughing. “[Record stores] have always been our real passion.”
It’s not the first record store in the current crop of downtown L.A.’s commercial revival. The Last Bookstore nearby boasts a large attached vinyl section, and stores like the Arts District’s Descontrol and Chinatown’s Ooga Booga stock compelling rarities (that’s not even mentioning Urban Outfitters and its racks of new LPs down the block). Other nearby neighborhoods like Highland Park and Echo Park have several stores apiece.
But if you squint when you walk into Pop Obscure’s storefront (on a Los Angeles Street location that’s mostly budget-suit vendors but trending toward vegan breakfast sandwiches), you could swear it’s Aron’s or Rhino all over again.
Their 10,000-strong stock is deep with punk, new wave and industrial (Stooges, Joy Division, and racks of underground curiosities at around $10 apiece), with walls covered in selections from their own personal poster archives.
There’s a solid jazz section, even though they admit to a genre learning curve (“People kept asking for it, so we weren’t shy about asking customers for recommendations”), an attached upstairs gallery from music-themed exhibits and a small stage for live sets in the main room.
As downtown development pushes into skid row, and fancier shops take over the well-established corridors, stores like Pop Obscure are often the first to redefine a block in a sometimes-dicey area. Hence a store that’s rumpled but freewheeling. Lee, for instance, parks her motorcycle right in the middle of the floor when she gets in to work.
Yet it’s clear that the vinyl boom (which has seen yearly growth for the last decade, up 30% in 2015) can’t sustain every ambition. If it seemed remarkable for a first wave of vinyl stores to open at the onset of the resurgence, now it might be even more challenging.
When owner Neil Schield shuttered Origami Vinyl earlier this year, he described the store as a “labor of love” and noted it had been losing money. Schield said at the time that new records have only a 30% to 35% markup, while used records have better margins, sometimes much better for collectors’ items.
That may be Pop Obscure’s saving grace.
“We know firsthand exactly how difficult it is to yield a profit from selling primarily new records," Lance Barresi, who co-owns Permanent Records, told The Times in March. “It took us a long time to comfortably switch our focus from new to used.”
Some promotions, like Record Store Day, which spurred interest in indie vinyl stores in the past, are now shunned by some outlets for encouraging too-high retail prices and conditions for participating. And while downtown L.A. commercial rents now go for an average of close to $3 a square foot. Lane still said it was downtown or bust for them.
“There was nowhere else we wanted to be. Everywhere else already had its own store, and I know that people have gotten sick of only shopping for records online.”
"I work in the building and it's so nice to see a new [record] store opening here," said Brigitte Smith of Echo Park. She was shopping for a Beach Boys album for her boyfriend after work on Tuesday. "It's definitely going to help clean up the area a bit too."
The challenge will be for Pop Obscure to get a foothold in the neighborhood and end up something like Permanent Records — a thriving, multi-outlet minichain specializing in used LPs and a keen sense of its clientele. But just a couple months in, it’s an unexpected but welcome gesture toward a new downtown that’s not just luxury shops, and a physical music medium that’s still interesting and affordable.
“People are like, ‘Oh my God, a real record store.’ They don’t want to go to Urban Outfitters,” Lee said. “I love it when people don’t know we’re here, and when they come in they get this look of nostalgia. I’ve watched parents bring their young kids in here and explain what a record store is to them.”
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