August 5, 2008

The Flip Side Has Managed to Stay in Business With the Help of Vinyl Records

By Brad Barnes, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.

Aug. 5--Scratches are the bane of records and compact discs.

Yet Columbus music store The Flip Side has managed to scratch out a living in the past couple of years, even while people aren't buying music from traditional record stores.

The place may be the oldest independent record store in Georgia. It predates Atlanta's venerable Wax 'n Facts and Athens' storied Wuxtry Records by five years. That it's still open at all seems miraculous in a century where most people download their music at home.

Today, the store shares floorspace with JudyBug's Books downtown. Its square footage is one-tenth of what it used to be when the store was located in Heritage Corners shopping center by the old Traffic Circle on Victory Drive. Its income is probably less than a tenth of what it was back then.

Its manager, Ron Brown, keeps the place open as a relic of a time that's almost completely evaporated.

Almost, sure, but Brown says he still feels a pulse.

"The reason I wanted to do it? I didn't think it was ready to close shop yet," says Brown, who took over the store when his son, Adam -- the store's previous manager -- had to find a job that offered a health insurance plan for his baby boy.

"We can't compete with the big guys," Ron Brown said, "but I think our customer service is better."

That's certainly what won them fans in the early days, said Dot Morris, who has been the owner since Day One.

"I remember somebody came in and wanted a song with the word 'love' in it. Can you imagine it?" she said. Not just any song, mind you. A specific song.

"And we found it for him," Morris said.

These days, Brown has found a bit of success from an unlikely source. People have begun buying the very thing the store started selling in 1971.

Vinyl records.

Side A

Record stores were still in their infancy when Flip Side first opened.

In-home stereos came from furniture stores, and as a result, "You bought albums at the furniture store," said Morris. "And you'd buy the 45s at the five-and-dimes."

Throughout the '60s, there was only one name in record stores in Columbus: Doctor Jive's Record City. One opened on the 1000 block of Broadway in 1961, and by the time the Flip Side opened its doors, there were five Doctor Jives around town.

But there were none near the entrance to Fort Benning, and that's what bolstered Flip Side's success early on. "Soldiers came here on payday. Clothing and music -- that's all they had outside of the military," Morris said.

Still, the small-town Georgia girl had her work cut out for her.

"When we opened the store, I'd never bought a record in my life," she said. The shop was the idea of her husband, Ron Morris, who was a customer service representative at Swift Spinning Mill. With their two daughters both in their teens, a startup business would give his wife something to do and give the family a second stream of income.

The record racks were padded with filler albums, stuff they got in great volume on the cheap that they didn't expect to sell. But it made the inventory look huge. "Some of them may be in the inventory still," said Morris, who quit running the business in the 1990s.

When someone would ask for a record they didn't carry, she'd get it for them quick. Often she'd order two copies.

"Your customers will tell you what you're gonna carry," Morris said.

Business boomed, the Morrises opened a second store in Opelika, Ala., and soon Flip Side was the signature place for touring artists to do their in-store appearances.

The guest list reads like a Who's Who list of popular music. Chaka Kahn rocked the joint "She was so shy. That surprised me," Morris said. Crystal Gayle came in with her brown (or blue) eyes. Cameo did their dance, did their dance. The Bar-Kays shook their rumps to the funk almost annually.

And then there was Prince's visit.

It was 1981 and the rising star was promoting a local concert. He was struggling to find airplay, thanks to the more-than-suggestive lyrics on his two latest records, "Dirty Minds" and "Controversy." But his fan base was growing rapidly.

Prince's personnel scoped out the store before bringing the star in, and they warned Flip Side that the four officers they had on-hand for security wasn't going to be enough.

Ron Morris rebuffed them. "We've been doing this for a long time," he told them. "We know what we're doing."

But the store was already full when Prince sneaked in through the back. Fans saw him, roared and bum-rushed him. More pushed in from the outside. The 5-foot-2-inch star was surrounded by fans.

Dot Morris was at a counter on one side of the store, selling concert tickets to the star's Columbus show. "He had been in the store 30 minutes before I got to look at him," she said.

Side B

When Ron Morris died in 1997, Flip Side's Opelika store had long since closed. Dot Morris carried on with the store though. Her daughters, Rhonda and Janet, each spent time managing.

It wasn't easy to leave, though. To this day, she misses the interaction with customers she knew by name, and she tears up when she thinks too much about it.

The summer of 1998, the Flip Side hired a guy who was dating one of Morris' granddaughters.

That was Adam Brown, who injected the store with youth and would go on to be its manager through its most tumultuous years. Yet when he started, "I was going to work just that summer because I was in college," he said.

Morris considered selling the business and retiring. But then, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 just like in practically all entertainment-related retail, "the bottom fell out," she said. By the time the economy started rebounding, Morris and Brown realized that people's CD-buying habits had gone the way of the LP, thanks to the iPod, Napster and other online music revolutions.

In 2004, when the store's landlord at Heritage Corners told Brown rent was going to increase to $4,000 a month, he made the decision to move from the complex that had been the store's home for more than 30 years.

"We tried to talk them down on the price, but they wouldn't budge," Brown said. "That was Nov. 1, 2004. Now it's 2008 and that building is still empty."

The Flip Side set up shop at 1034 Broadway, just two doors down from the long-darkened doors of Doctor Jive's. They hoped the college audience from Columbus State University's fledgling downtown campus would inject culture and life back into the business.

Still it floundered.

When the downtown streetscaping limited parking, throttled access to the business, and made it unpleasant to stroll by for months on end, Brown entrenched. He scaled back and moved the store into a corner of JudyBug's across the street.

Things didn't improve.

"There's nothing I'd rather do than stand around, listen to, talk about music," Brown said. But he had a wife and new kid to think about, and he was set to close the store for good in December 2006.

At the 11th hour, his father stepped in to run the show.

Hidden track

Records don't have hidden tracks, of course. That's the stuff of compact discs.

That's a fact that highlights a key difference between the old format and the digital age. Drop the needle at the start of a record and you'll hear a pop, then maybe a quick plastic squeal as the needle finds the groove, then the familiar crackle of white noise as the stylus drifts toward the first track.

There's no hidden track because you can see all the songs in the patterns on the black platter.

Records are a tactile experience. You hold them with two hands. You don't skip forward on songs -- it's less convenient to do so. You listen to the whole album, one side at a time, and you hold the record jacket in your hands, reading the liner notes and lyrics while you listen.

It's a dedication to music that some are seeking again. New indie rock bands like the Drive-By Truckers and Okkervil River put their stuff out on high-quality 180-gram vinyl. So do established artists like Beck and Buddy Guy. Elvis Costello issued his last album only on vinyl and through online download -- indicating that the record might actually outlast the compact disc.

Some sell records with coupons for free MP3 downloads, so fans can have the music in both formats for one price.

In 2007, vinyl sales jumped nearly 37 percent over the year before, the Recording Industry Association of America reported. Wired magazine heralded the return of the record, though, in fairness, its sales are still a small percentage of the overall music market.

"Vinyl has carried Flip Side for 36 years," Adam Brown said. "As long as vinyl holds on, so will Flip Side."

When Ron Brown stepped in, he was a familiar face downtown. His previous downtown business venture was the three-year run of the Playwright's Cafe on Broadway.

Today he carries a handful of new releases on record. The Beck runs $13.95. But he's had a lot of success selling used records to folks willing to experiment with what they're listening to.

"Some of the college kids come in, and they'll look at the folk music, they'll look at the classical music. When you're only spending two or three bucks for an album, you can do that. You can experiment a little," Ron Brown said.

"Somebody was looking at the records and said, 'Oh, if only I still had a turntable, I'd buy some vinyl,' " he recalled. So he started finding old record players, getting them refurbished and selling them.

You can still find new turntables from audio electronics stores, too., a boutique Web site catering to the vinyl resurgence, offers a record player with a USB port to connect straight to a computer, in addition to the traditional RCA plugs on the back. That turntable, complete with computer software to let fans convert their old records into MP3 files, runs about $120.

Brown hopes to cater to that scene. He's started carrying sarongs and incense to cater to a counter-culture crowd. "I still envision a Little Five Points listening room," he said.

"There's always going to be that person who wants to hold that CD in their hand, or that vinyl in their hand," he said.

Whether this new market will sustain Flip Side long enough to reach its 40th year, no one is sure.

"Business is business no matter what you do," Ron Brown said. "We've had to reinvent the wheel a couple of times."


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