San Jose record stores can open under new health order, but will it be too late?
Paige Brodsky, manager of Streetlight Records in San Jose, files paperwork in her office while the store is closed on Friday morning.

    Owners and managers of record stores in Santa Clara County are relieved that curbside pickup is now an option for retail businesses after the county updated its stay-at-home order last week.

    However, some said curbside pickup can’t replace browsing in person, an experience that won’t be fully restored until quarantine is over.

    On Friday, Santa Clara County health officials started allowing certain retailers, including clothing stores, bookstores and music stores, to offer curbside pickup, aligning the county with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised May 8 guidelines.

    Whether the partial reopening of record stores, which already struggle to stay afloat in a rapidly changing environment, will be enough to save these small businesses amid the deadly virus remains to be seen.

    Allen Johnson, owner of Needle to the Groove record store in downtown San Jose, said curbside pickup offers an avenue to support other retail businesses but not record stores.

    “People want to go in and touch the records,” he said.

    Newsom provided some hope Monday that those days may not be far off, allowing the resumption of limited in-store shopping subject to the approval of local health authorities. It is unknown when Santa Clara County might take that step; the Bay Area has been slower than other regions around the state to ease public health restrictions.

    Customers’ desire to inspect used records in person is so strong, Johnson said, that at Needle to the Groove’s Fremont location, owner Dan Bernal keeps a microscope on hand for customers.

    While Johnson said he does not plan on offering curbside pickup to Needle to the Groove customers, Paige Brodsky, manager of Streetlight Records in San Jose, planned to begin offering the service Tuesday.

    “I really look forward to seeing customers’ faces again,” she said. “Or half faces, as the case may be when they have their masks on.”

    Brodsky initially doubted that curbside pickup would attract customers but now believes news coverage of Santa Clara County’s new policy could help spread the word.

    Offering curbside pickup isn’t the only change these record stores face. Health officials announced that everyone inside retail businesses will be required to wear a mask and that businesses can only have one employee per 300 square feet of space in the building.

    Johnson said he’s worried about the lack of space in Needle to the Groove, which is roughly 2,000 square feet. Instead, he said he’ll move his record sales online.

    Brodsky said Streetlight Records has more than enough space to comply with the rules. “We have one employee for every 1,000 square feet of space,” she said.

    Despite Santa Clara County’s easing of restrictions, the stay-at-home order has already affected local record stores’ profits and changed how they can interact with customers.

    Needle to the Groove’s sales decreased to between a quarter and a third of its monthly average during the shelter in place, Johnson said. “It’s crushing to lose that much income monthly,” he said. “It’s definitely a bummer to realize we’re not going to hit our yearly sales goal.”

    Brodsky said Streetlight Records has “weathered this storm” better than she expected thanks to its several avenues for online sales, including its website, a Discogs page and Amazon.

    Streetlight Records also set up a gift card promotion — after receiving calls and emails from loyal customers about whether the shop would survive — giving customers extra store credit for buying gift cards.

    When the stay-at-home order began in March, Brodsky furloughed half of the store’s staff, and the rest worked part time and focused on online sales.

    Concerned at first that he might not be allowed to leave his home at all, Johnson said he reacted to the stay-at-home order by bringing home a few hundred records from Needle to the Groove so he could continue shipping online orders. Now his routine involves helping his kids with their homework, bringing every record that had been ordered online home from the store, processing orders at home and dropping them off at the post office.

    While his employees are on unemployment, Johnson takes on responsibilities they usually handled, like graphic design, managing emails and updating websites.

    Along with forcing stores to focus on online sales, the coronavirus pandemic is making opening a new record store more difficult.

    Brian Hartsell, who owned The Analog Room in Campbell with his wife, Kate, for 29 years, closed the store in April and moved to Huntington Beach to be closer to family and help their son-in-law open a similar store.

    Although he plans to open his son-in-law’s store later this year, Hartsell said finding a location has slowed significantly because of COVID-19. “People are scared,” he said. “How are you going to get a Realtor to show off, open up a building to look at it?”

    While some local record stores are closed and others prepare to offer curbside pickup, safety standards are top of mind.

    A few weeks ago, Brodsky brought in no more than five employees at a time to work inside Streetlight Records after a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program allowed employees to prepare unlisted inventory for online sale to protect its value as part of “minimum basic operations” for non-essential businesses. She said she is aiming to keep employees at least 10 feet apart and that she hired a part-time cleaner.

    “That was a little bit different,” she said. “It smelled a little more like bleach and a little less like a record store.”

    Johnson said he expects shoppers to socially distance and keep each other safe when Needle to the Groove reopens, especially after 93% of participants in a Twitter poll said they would shop at a store that required them to wear masks and gloves.

    Hartsell, formerly of The Analog Room, said record collectors will wear masks and gloves to get back to record stores.

    “When they’re interested and really hooked, it’s part of their life,” he said. “They will go where they have to go.”

    Contact John Bricker at [email protected] or follow him @JohnMichaelBr15 on Twitter.

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