July 5, 2006
Quimper Sound moves, expands to change with times
by Stephen J Barry
Toward the end of the first day of business for Quimper Sound at its new location at 230 Taylor St., owner Steve Wilmart appeared pleased with the popular independent record store’s new digs.
“Between 11 and 1 you could hardly get in here,” Wilmart said. “It was great.”
Quimper Sound’s home for more than 30 years was a prime piece of downtown real estate: a shop with large windows on the corner of Water and Taylor streets. When word got out that the business was moving, four area retailers vied for the spot.
Still, Wilmart did not have to wrestle with himself over the decision to move the store off the main drag to a site less than a block away. The old location didn’t have a key ingredient many small record stores are turning to in order to stay alive amid the growing prevalence of digital music players and CD burners: space for something besides music.
Wilmart added a couch, four tables, an espresso bar and free Wi-Fi in an effort to transform Quimper Sound from a record store into “Port Townsend’s second living room.” He expanded store hours – until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday – making the store one of the few alcohol-free hangouts in the city that are open late.
He’s also hired seven new part-time employees, added inventory and built a “Murphy stage” that folds down in one corner of the store. All told, the expansion cost him more than $100,000.
“In order for small businesses owned by local people to stay alive, they’ve got to be willing to invest to change with the times,” Wilmart said.
Times have certainly been better for record stores.
According to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a California firm that provides marketing programs and database services for music retailers and record companies nationwide, more than 700 record stores have folded in the United States in the last year. Of those, 250 were independent, like Quimper Sound.
The move and the expansion are an enormous financial risk for Wilmart, but he’s confident he won’t be joining the departed. He mentioned his 18-month-old daughter and his 4-year-old son.
“I wouldn’t have mortgaged their future if I didn’t feel like Port Townsend would support this sort of thing,” he said.
Record stores aren’t yet a thing of the past. According to the Almighty Institute, retail still accounts for 94 percent of pre-recorded music sales. Wilmart is banking on that business.
Still, the profit margin at small record stores is smaller than large chains or big-box retailers. Wilmart needs healthy sales and regular customers in order to stay afloat, he said.
With that end in mind, he’s aiming for an element of exclusivity. He’s adding more than $50,000 of inventory during the expansion, and “a lot of that is in vinyl.”
“That’s one of the things that makes us unique,” he said. “I put a lot of effort into finding things you can’t get other places.”
Wilmart said his selection of rare vinyl albums already draws regular customers from Seattle and Tacoma, and on occasion, from as far as Portland.
The espresso stand, of course, is another approach toward boosting business. Coffee has an extremely high profit margin, but it’s also one of the key ingredients in making the new shop a hangout. Wilmart said he’s fine with the idea of someone buying a $1 drip coffee and using the Wi-Fi for hours a day on a regular basis. The longer customers are in the store, the more likely they are to buy. Also, he thinks they’ll be loyal.
“When they do buy a record, they’re going to buy it here,” he said.
The biggest obstacle to record store profit is the CD burner, which Wilmart called “the bane of our existence.” On his blog at the store’s website, quimpersound.com, he expounds on this subject in an entry titled “CD Burning and the State of Independence.”
Wilmart writes that “nary a day goes by in the store when one of us doesn't overhear a customer say, ‘Oh, don’t buy that – I’ll burn you a copy of mine.’ Often they do this at the register! Most of the time it seems like folks don’t even realize what they’re saying in front of us. It is no different than going into the Co-op and saying, ‘Oh don’t buy those groceries – I’ll steal you some later.’”
Quimper bills itself as “Washington’s oldest independent record store,” yet there is another in Walla Walla that’s a few months older. However, it’s also a stereo and video outlet, and Jim McGuinn, owner of Hot Poop Stereo and Video, has no problem assigning the oldest store title to Wilmart. The name of that store, by the way, is meant to convey the fresh nature of the records for sale.
McGuinn said he has also felt the sting of the trend toward digital music and CD burning.
“It’s kind of like ice cream – now that people have refrigerators, they don’t have to go out to get ice cream,” he said.
McGuinn said Wilmart is taking the right approach.
“I do believe you’ve got to make it an experience in the store,” McGuinn said.
Wilmart is a seasoned veteran of record store ambiance. In fact, the only reason he ended up buying Quimper Sound was because he spent so much time hanging out there.
Ron McElroy, who owned the store for 27 years with his wife, Lynne, saw Wilmart around the shop so much that he thought he might as well pay him to be there.
“He just – unsolicited – called me at home and said, ‘Do you want to come work here?’” Wilmart said.
As a telecommuter, Wilmart had a flexible schedule and readily accepted the offer. Still, the thought of buying the shop didn’t cross his mind until McElroy expressed interest in selling. It became Wilmart’s on April Fools’ Day 2001.
He’s had the idea of adding an espresso stand for years, as he already had people hanging out in the store.
“Now it’ll be comfortable,” he said.
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