July 16, 2006
For a "Dinosaur", an Exuberant Second Life
By MARCELLE S. FISCHLER
JUST for a moment, Karl Groeger Jr. considered calling it quits. After all, 36 years was a fine run for a record shop. And it wasnít the best time for a mom-and-pop music store faced with competition from discount chains like Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart, especially in an era when digital downloads are sucking the air out of compact disc sales.
On Aug. 30, a fire had gutted Looney Tunes, a 5,000-square-foot clubhouse for pop culture that had drawn generations of music lovers who liked to thumb through bins of CDs and LPs, listen to home-grown bands and collect autographs from national acts like Incubus that played on the storeís stage.
Mr. Groeger looked at the shopís charred hull, its warped CDs and melted, mangled guitars, and came to a startling conclusion.
He was going to rebuild.
I canít let a faulty extension cord and a fire destroy what we have done here, said Mr. Groeger, 38, who, 15 years ago, along with his brother, Jamie, 35, took over the business that their father, Karl Sr., 58, started in 1971 with an emphasis on a wide selection, personalized service, low prices and support for local musicians.
Back then music stores dotted just about every village on the Island, including Looney Tunes locations in Massapequa and Hempstead, which are long gone. According to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a music industry research and marketing firm based in Los Angeles, there are 20 independent record stores on the Island today.
A lot of people said to me: ĎYou shouldnít open up again. There is no way that you are going to succeed,í Mr. Groeger said on a recent afternoon before the storeís reopening. In the last few years, even giants like Tower Records and Sam Goody have been shuttered.
We are a dinosaur, Mr. Groeger said. We are the way it used to be. But we are a dinosaur that still has a million years to live.
On Dec. 1, music was thumping as 700 audiophiles and collectors rushed under an archway of balloons into the newly rebuilt shop with its freshly painted red and black walls, new custom-made browsers stuffed with 30 percent more CDs, a larger selection of vinyl, racks lined with DVDs and a $40,000 sound stage with multitrack recording capabilities. His insurance reimbursed him for the loss, Mr. Groeger said, but he spent hundreds of thousands on the reopening.
Among those combing the aisles were Ryan Mulholland, 14, of Deer Park, picking up rock CDs of the Foo Fighters and Serj Tankian. His parents and sister were hanging out on plush lounge chairs up front by the four listening stations. The original Looney Tunes was the best music store I ever went to, said Ryan, who has 7,000 songs on his iPod, from Johnny Cash to Slayer, but still prefers to collect CDs.
Ryan was at the music emporium a few days before it burned, he recalled, and tracked the progress of its rebirth on its Web site, www.looneytunescds.com, where photographs chronicled the reconstruction and counted down the days to the grand reopening.
They said they were going to be better than ever, Ryan said. They were right.
Mr. Groeger has long been swimming against the music industry tide: Since 2003, about 1,200 independent music stores nationwide have closed, with 2,600 still in business, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail.
Mr. Groegerís strategy has been to turn the shop into a combination concert site and hangout for punk and heavy metal fans as well as Beatles aficionados. To help stay afloat, he also sells body jewelry, incense, band-themed clocks and Led Zeppelin sweatshirts.
Though 15 percent of Looney Tunesí sales are through its Web site, the store is our vehicle to get the word out on bands, Mr. Groeger said.
We make little bands big bands, he said. Without us, those bands donít have a chance. Bands donít get broken on iTunes; they donít get broken at Best Buy.
Brand New, an alternative rock band from Merrick that went national after playing at Looney Tunes, will perform on the store stage on Monday.
Point Blank, a metal band based in West Babylon and Lindenhurst, was scheduled to make its fourth appearance at Looney Tunes last Thursday. The band released both of its CDs at the store.
Janine Maloney, Point Blankís manager, said Mr. Groeger was like the bandís godfather. At a performance last year, Mr. Groeger let them videotape the concert, featured it on his Web site and promoted the band to record labels, she said. (The band has not yet been signed.)
Among his revolutionary ideas for the reborn store, Mr. Groeger said, was a new pricing structure. All single CDs are either $13.99 or on sale for $9.99 ó $2 below his cost, he said. And a new customer service policy allows opened CDs and DVDs to be returned for a 50 percent credit.
Lost to the fire were 47 guitars signed by artists like Ozzy Osbourne; 50 drumheads, including one signed by Ringo Starr; and dozens of autographed plaques and gold and platinum record awards that made the old shop look like a Hard Rock Cafe.
There is a renewed emphasis on old-fashioned records, including turntables for sale and an LP listening station; 15 percent of the inventory is vinyl, from the Dix Hills jazz legend John Coltrane to the Beach Boysí Endless Summer album.
Don Van Cleave, president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, based in Birmingham, Ala., which represents 60 record shops nationwide, said that while it was a scary time for independent music retailers, Looney Tunes remained an institution on the Island.
He noted the outpouring of grief and support from customers and the community when the store burned.
It would have been a giant hole for a lot of young bands if they hadnít reopened, Mr. Van Cleave said.
The old-timers also came back. Sue Keating, 53, of West Babylon, said she bought her first cassette at Looney Tunes in 1972. She brought her daughter, Kaitlin, 17, to the reopening.
Itís homey. Itís your town place ó a mom-and-pop shop, Ms. Keating said, describing herself as a fan of Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg but selecting Josh Grobanís NoŽl for herself while Kaitlin settled on As I Am by Alicia Keys. You never get too old for it.
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