The Stranger: Matt, you said in your blog post announcing the Queen Anne store’s closing that 2012 was a good year for business. To what do you attribute this turn of events?
Matt Vaughan: 2008-2011 had been tough, like it was for most during the recession, but for us in Queen Anne it was more difficult than most parts of the city. The Sonics left and with that a lot of the civic pride, [Blockbuster] was gone, Fun Forest disappeared, Intiman Theatre was no longer year-round. Add in the Mercer Mess and various demolition and construction [projects] in the area and it took its toll on the shop, but we adjusted and faced the challenge and by 2012 things were looking good again.
It’s a good used market right now: vinyl, CD, DVD. People are unloading their collections. People are purging; [we keep hearing they] have a smaller living space and need more room, they lost their job and need the money, or they’ve moved on to a different format (vinyl or digital). The margins are good with used; the used market will continue to be good for another five years or so. Vinyl sales are at an all-time high, both new and used.
CD sales weren’t so bad, either. To put it in perspective, at the QA store alone, we sold 1,000-plus copies each of Macklemore, Brandi Carlile, Live at KEXP, Vol. 8, and Jack White and 500-plus each of Allen Stone, Lana Del Rey, and Of Monster and Men. Until MP3s can get the bit rate up, the CD and/or LP still produces the best sound quality. To the serious music listener, this still gives the CD format some life. Furthermore, they are cheaper than they’ve ever been. I think the record labels reacted too slowly to the downward sales trend, but now that the prices have dropped, the downward trend isn’t as severe as it once was.
The Mayor’s award and proclamation and King County’s Small Business of the Year Award gave us a lot of recognition; our morale was at an all-time high. That transfers into good sales. My staff here are all great friends and love what they do. We’ve had a lot of fun this year... and that transfers into good sales, too. Fun is good for business.
Our stock and inventory had been the best we’d had in three years. Our vinyl catalog was massive, to where we had to add another 10 bins earlier in the year. Our general CD stock was healthy, too. [Let me address] your Line Out post where you mention we’ve slipped and don’t carry as much experimental and let go some people and tightened budgets. Our electronic/experimental inventory did take a dip, but that was simply because that is the trend, not because we didn’t care or just let it go. We were one of Decibel’s first sponsors and continue to support them each and every year. We recognized that our experimental/electronic customers were headed more and more to the digital market, so rather than continuing to bring in product and have it sit, we had to cut back. Jefferson [Petrey, former new product buyer], who was one of my favorite employees, would tell you the same thing. We found ourselves returning damn near as much as we were selling.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “changes that had affected the neighborhood” being one of the reasons for not wanting to sign a 10-year lease that the landlord offered?
There is less retail in the neighborhood. We still miss the Seattle Supersonics. There has been a lot of development. That should be a confidence booster, I know, it’s progress, right? I’m just not so sure it would benefit Easy Street so much. When you are a business owner looking at the notion of a long-term lease, you have to be a bit of a weather man, too. I just can’t predict sun and blue skies if I was to stay in LQA. I do think LQA and the Seattle Center are on course to have a resurgence. I think there will be more traffic, but I’m just not sure it’s gonna be our audience and, furthermore, we can’t pay these new rates. This has been a wonderful neighborhood for us, though, no question about that. We accomplished more than we ever dreamed of.
Will you be looking for another location or will you just focus on the West Seattle store for the time being?
I did look at other locations. I looked on Capitol Hill, I looked in Belltown. I even looked in Los Angeles (Venice, Silver Lake), and New York. Our Queen Anne store holds a dear place in my heart and it would be very difficult to replicate. I have to just let it go, cherish the memories, and be proud of what we did there. It had its time and place. It’s like a Dada artist who loves the creation and what it stood for, but the destruction of it, he finds glory in that, too. We’ll party this out. It isn’t like there aren’t great stores around still. You have Sonic Boom in Ballard, excellent vinyl selection at Jive Time in Fremont, Silver Platters will still be on Queen Anne, Everyday Music on Capitol Hill, and the longstanding Wall of Sound, too. I’ve been on go for 25-plus years in this music-retail game. I was recently married, I have an 18-month old son. I just signed a long-term lease in West Seattle. It’s time to spend some more time over there and try to improve on that store.
What do you think are the keys to the West Seattle store’s longevity and seemingly promising future? (A 15-year lease is a huge vote of confidence.)
Great location, fair lease, and the history we’ve had with the community there. When we first opened there on the corner, there really wasn’t much happening in West Seattle, but it has blossomed into one of the best areas to own a small business. Also, we have a café; people like to eat. Music, food, coffee—it all goes well together.
What’s your fondest memory of the QA store?
Oh, there’s a few. When Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, from the Clash walked into the store to check out the N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams) in-store, that was kinda cool. They looked like they had just popped off the cover of Sandinista! Mick bought a bunch of stuff, but I stumbled all over the cash register a bit, to where I just put it all in a bag and gave it all to him for free. Macklemore on the roof a few months back, on the street date for his Heist record. We had come a long way from Ben consigning his tapes to now being a platinum-selling artist—fun to witness the journey. The career of Brandi Carlile, from doing her lil’ shows at the Paragon on top of Queen Anne hill or busking in front of the Pike Place Market. She has done street-date in-stores for each of her records with us. Witnessing the progress in her career and the connection she has made with her fans has been very special. A true grassroots love story and one we’ve been very proud to be part of. Street-date in-store with Head and the Heart. We had already sold a couple hundred copies of their record on consignment and here they were with their Sub Pop debut, they were so excited, the record had just come out officially, one of the guys in the band told me that if they hadn’t been able to have a street-date in-store at Easy Street that it wouldn’t have felt as though the record was really out. That kinda stuck with me. Their fans were so supportive of them. Was fun to play a part in their career.
Having Lou Reed pop in the store and read “The Raven” on a 90-degree day on our 15th anniversary, signing autographs for four hours, and talking people up. At the end of the day when everyone had left, he grabbed my arm and said, “Can we go do some record shopping now.” Patti Smith “rocking the vote” a few years back, doing a Q&A. It was like 90-percent teenage riot grrrls—it was so cool to see the influence before our very eyes. She would later walk through the aisles, came to the counter with a Jimi Hendrix boxset and she said to me, “It just hit me, this is Jimi Hendrix’s hometown, huh?” With that she kissed the sky and said, “I miss you, Jimi.”
But fondest memory would have to be when we opened the store. Our grand opening was with Paul Westerberg. The turnout went around the block. A week later, Elvis Costello did an in-store—same thing. Then we had a guy, Jack Johnson, not too many people had heard of yet, on a lil’ indie label; he had no shoes on and just his acoustic guitar, and that packed out, too. We were onto something; not only could we have legends feel comfortable here promoting their new record, their career, and meeting their core fans and new fans, but we could also have new indie artists and we could help be a platform to get them off the ground.