Fingerprints record store: Thriving despite music industry woes
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In a sun-filled 7,200-square-foot space in the arts district east of downtown Long Beach, something extraordinary is unfolding: The record business is growing. Boxes long confined to dark storage see the light again. Bins brim with new and used CDs. Jazz swings in its own room. So does vinyl. Books too.
Someone apparently forgot to tell store owner Rand Foster that people pluck their music from the clouds now, rather than exchange cash for it in bricks-and-mortar emporiums such as Fingerprints. Not only has Foster’s indie venture survived 18 years of a drastically changing retail environment, but the soft-spoken entrepreneur also just doubled Fingerprints’ footprint, moving to this space two times bigger than its longtime Belmont Shores home. His key? Making the store a destination for a devoted clientele. ‘It’s not memorable where you buy the record on top of the charts,’ Foster says. ‘When you buy something you’ve never heard of that becomes a favorite record, or you buy a record you’ve been looking for 10 years, you remember that store.’
Unlike the volume-oriented chain store Borders Books & Music, which just declared bankruptcy, Fingerprints has carved a niche by focusing on hand-picked records and customer service. The store specializes in what Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson has called the ‘long tail’ of the new-media and entertainment economy -- not blockbuster hits, but items with consistent consumer bases: independent musicians, collectible vinyl, music and art books, toys for gruppies. With once-obscure acts such as Arcade Fire grabbing the Grammys spotlight, the time may have come for epicurean record boutiques.
‘The big chains dying off allows the mom and pops to expand,’ says Dave Brogan, drummer for the band Animal Liberation Orchestra.
Foster is a diehard music fan who supports new artists and small labels, and vice versa. The Southern act Sparklehorse -- a.k.a. Mark Linkous -- repeatedly launched its records at Fingerprints before Linkous’ death last year. . He’s one of several acclaimed artists -- including the Watson Twins, Cold War Kids, Rilo Kiley, the Hold Steady and Damien Rice -- who have recorded live albums at the store. (Sparklehorse’s remains unreleased.)
‘We’re big fans,’ says ALO’s Zach Gill. ‘Fingerprints is a stronghold of a special culture.’
Foster thinks big about small records. He found a kindred spirit in developer Kurt Schneiter, who owns the building and lured Fingerprints with visions of the store as a community center. Undoubtedly, Schneiter knows that record stores can be the first wedge in gentrification. ‘He’s a music fan and was familiar with what we brought to the neighborhood,’ Foster says.
A coffeehouse, Berlin by Portfolio, will soon fill the front corner of the Fingerprints building. Across the street stands an art supply store. Nearby, in what’s been dubbed the East Village Arts District, there’s a vegan restaurant, a punk record store, a sci-fi and fantasy retailer and a store that specializes in creative reuse of found objects. ‘It feels like downtown is exciting; it feels very electric,’ Foster says.
Moving from a highly trafficked neighborhood was risky. On a recent Saturday, the gamble seemed to be paying off as the two-story space hummed with activity. A middle-aged man tested records in the jazz room. A pair of pierced youths thumbed through the punk CDs. A small crowd of jam-band enthusiasts and their offspring gathered for an hour-long acoustic set by ALO. The day before, Foster says some 500 fans had visited Fingerprints in search of tickets to that evening’s surprise Arcade Fire show in Los Angeles -- the store was one of only three area venues selling those hot seats.
There’s history here: In the 1930s, the building housed a tabletop jukebox service called Magic Music. The stoner-friendly address of 420 E. 4th St. is across the street from where the famed indie label SST Records (home to Black Flag, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü;) was based. With upcoming in-stores by G. Love (Feb. 22), Michael Franti (March 2), the Dears and Eulogies (March 12) and Tapes and Tapes (March 13), Fingerprints plans to continue that legacy.
‘People say it’s like a museum,’ Foster says. ‘We tie people back to the artifact and the cultural relevance of this product we live to sell.’
-- Evelyn McDonnell
Top photo: Rand Foster, owner of Fingerprints Records. Bottom photo: Customers shop at Fingerprint Records. Credits: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times