Sound Vision

Bryan Burkert's music store in Fells Point defies the odds in a downloaded world

December 13, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

The first of them appeared at noon on a balmy day in November, young women, mostly, lining up on the brick sidewalk of Thames Street. They had cut work and skipped class to huddle for hours outside a record store for a glimpse of a rock star.

The Goo Goo Dolls can have this effect on people. The band has sold more than 10 million albums and played at such storied venues as Radio City Music Hall and the Sydney Opera House. But on this day, the Goos were at the Sound Garden, a scruffy but superb music store in Fells Point.

"Part of the reason the Goo Goo Dolls came to us is they appreciate record stores," said Bryan Burkert, who opened Sound Garden in 1994 with little money and no business experience. A bartender and freelance writer at the time, he's not someone you would have bet on.

But as music store chains have collapsed around him -- bye-bye, Tower Records; so long, Sam Goody -- Burkert has quietly shown how an independent, old-fashioned, bricks-and-mortar store can thrive in the era of iTunes, Amazon.com and illegal music downloads.

With a wide selection, a deep catalog and decent prices -- as well as good relations with the music community in Baltimore -- Burkert's Sound Garden is having its best year since opening. He said about 20,000 people visit the store each week, and an in-store stage Burkert built this summer has brought in hundreds of suburbanites to see artists such as Ludacris and Regina Spektor.

"It's one of the best record stores in the U.S., no doubt," said Michael Kurtz, president of the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of 11 independent retailers, including Sound Garden, that have 85 locations across the country. As big chains scale back, the remaining independents are filling a void.

"It's hard to find nice independent record stores now," said Tori Borland, 14, who came to Sound Garden from Ellicott City for the first time to see the Goo Goo Dolls. The suburban offerings, she said, are limited to large chains such as FYE and Best Buy. "It's become so corporate."

That's the last word that comes to mind when you enter Sound Garden, where visitors are greeted with a riot of colors, bright light streaming from the skylights and racks upon racks of CDs and DVDs. The walls are covered in T-shirts and posters of John Lennon, Tupac Shakur and Muhammad Ali. Hanging from the exposed ventilation shafts are a decade-old pinata and a plastic skeleton.

Even more diverse is the mix of customers. On a recent morning, a small girl in a Harley-Davidson jacket stood next to her father as they examined used DVDs. Next to them was a young man in dreadlocks. Meanwhile, two uniformed police officers entered the store to look around.

And then there's the staff -- a knowledgeable bunch that's the furthest thing from corporate. Manager Liz Felber has red streaks in her hair, round black shoes covered in white stars and as many piercings as Christina Aguilera. Felber was complaining recently to anyone who would listen about how she'd been called for jury duty.

"They're never going to pick me," she said. "They'll be like, `Look at those shoes, whoa!'" (No surprise: She wasn't chosen.)

On the floor one morning last week, Felber deftly fielded a string of queries from customers. Looking for the Brian Setzer Orchestra? "Follow me," she said. Is the jumbo-size Nirvana poster for sale? "It's on back order. It should be here tomorrow." What about the American Hardcore DVD? "It's not out yet."

Sound Garden's success has come at a transforming time for the industry. Sales of CDs and records are down by about a third in the past decade, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. At the same time, the number of songs sold online, through outlets such as iTunes, has exploded, to 366 million last year. Toss in the success of online retailers such as Amazon and illegal downloads, and the outlook appears bleak for retail record stores.

Tower Records, one of the most revered chains, is shutting all its stores this month. Sam Goody has announced the closing of more than a third of its stores, as part of a bankruptcy reorganization. But Burkert is not worried.

"Everybody can keep telling me that I'm not going to be here," he said. "But if I listened to what everybody said, I would have closed five years ago."

The revival of Baltimore's waterfront as a magnet for young people has helped Burkert, but his store has long been a destination for music lovers in Baltimore. Now, he's seeing more customers from the suburbs, where retail music outlets are disappearing. An die Musik, for instance, closed its full-service Towson and Ellicott City locations, and sells just jazz and classical music in its downtown store.

Part of Burkert's success was getting into the used CD market before some competitors. Burkert said he pays more than any other area store for used CDs -- up to $4 in cash or $5 in store credit -- drawing customers from across the region. And he makes more money on his used business than selling new CDs.

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