Newnan, Georgia, is the little town I live in, just south and slightly west of Atlanta. It’s not so little—the census counted 38,000 of us in 2016—but it’s not so big either. We moved here twelve years ago to split our commutes, mine to Spelman in the ATL, my wife’s to LaGrange College further south. One of my Spelman colleagues had an acreage nearby; he kept horses for his daughters there. We thought, well, okay. There was a Starbucks inside the city limits, but no Whole Foods Market. Twelve years later, we have two Starbuckses and still no place to buy overpriced produce. For that we drive to Peachtree City.
What we do have: lots of new friends. Some of them sing and play instruments, some have horses. Some sing and play and have horses. Wait, that’s not quite right. We have one guitar-playing friend—he’ll be on tour in New England when you read this—whose new bride is a veterinarian, and she keeps horses, which she rides extremely well in competition. (For the record, neither I nor my wife ride to the hounds. Yet.)
Here’s what we also have in Newnan: Vinylyte Records. They started out two years ago in the basement of our guitarist friend’s music school but now occupy their very own hip renovated storefront on courthouse square. (Check out their facebook page.) It’s a welcoming space. Alongside abundant bins of new and used vinyl, Vinylyte offers a selection of starter turntables and vintage audio equipment. Plus, they share space with ace guitar maker/restorer “JB” of Brown’s Guitar Mill, plus they host Newnan Unplugged at least once a month; there’s a nice stage tucked away just behind the record bins. Newnan is the hometown of at least two genuine music celebrities, country singer Alan Jackson and classical pianist Charles Wadsworth. So you’ll forgive me for imagining that one of the youngsters planting her feet behind a mic at Unplugged may be the next Alan or Charley or Charlene. Newnan seems like an unusually diverse yet close-knit community, which—considering its own history and our nation’s current troubled state—is worth celebrating. A venue like Vinylyte is not just a happy accident. It’s needed; it represents.
I chatted with owner Jesse Yates right before and after Record Store Day this year. His story may ring a bell or two for you. Jesse started out as a collector. He kept lists of records he really wanted. Also lists of records he really, really wanted. A few times a year he would head to St. Augustine and buy stuff on his lists. When the internet came along, it proved a boon to collectors like him, as well as to retailers and ordinary citizens who had records to sell. Good times!
Then the vinyl resurgence really, really got underway. Eventually Jesse realized he could deal directly with labels, distributors, and aggregators of used product—and he wouldn’t ever have to drive to St. Augustine again. In fact, he could open up his own brick-and-mortar store on courthouse square in big-enough, small-enough Newnan. A Malcolm Gladwell-ish tipping point had arrived. Jesse’s store was brought to you because a critical mass of locals rediscovered their love of vinyl, and that attracted Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen (see Gladwell). So, Maven Jesse Yates leveraged his Connecting skills to become effortlessly great at Sales, i.e., connecting music lovers with more of what they’ll love.
It’s working. Vinylyte’s inventory continues to expand. They end every month in the black. Music lovers have a go-to spot where their tastes are respected and they’ll get good advice. Yates and company are helping create and sustain a community.
He and I didn’t talk philosophy, though. We talked nuts and bolts. April 21 was National Record Store Day. In spite of local events that prompted other downtown stores to close, Jesse opened for business earlier than usual. At 8 a.m. the line already stretched around the block and down Jackson Street. He got some nice press for that, but he doesn’t think of himself as a hero. He just has, you know, values. Here’s a bit of our chat:
LS: Who do you get product from?
JY: I try to collect as many direct accounts to record labels as I can. Some of the majors, like Sony, Sony Legacy, and so forth, they make it a little hard. Then there’s WEA, which is friendlier, and under their umbrella there’s ADA, which handles distribution for a lot of independent labels. For most of the other records I’m looking for, I may have to go to a one-stop, so called because they handle everything. They’ll have the record, but their prices are higher. The markup on new vinyl is minimal, by the way. You do not have a big profit margin there. So I try to buy from labels, especially Matador, Sub-Pop, the other indies.
LS: Is the physical quality of the product linked to the distributor?
JY: The short answer is, not usually. I do have a connection to Quality Record Pressings, Chad Kassem’s production outfit; they supply Analogue Productions and other labels. Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions distributes both in-house recordings and many others. But ASI/AP/QRP is also distributed through ADA, meaning WEA, which is what we use! By and large, our customers shop for the music, not for “physical quality of the product.” Although they don’t want warped records, obviously.
LS: I have noticed that a lot of local bands offer LPs, but typically the mastering and vinyl quality remind me of, you know, the ‘70s.
JY: You need to remember, maybe their label does it for them, maybe the band arranges for production itself. When you have a strong local following, the important thing is to have vinyl available for that niche. It’s not an audiophile thing.
LS: Sounds like the landscape is shifting all the time.
JY: Label affiliation doesn’t matter as much as who’s distributing it. Radiohead is a perfect example. They were on Capitol/Parlophone: weirdly, we could get product directly from Parlophone but not from Capitol. Eventually they went back to their original label, XL, under the Beggars label group, handled by Matador. Our costs came down significantly once we were able to deal directly with them.
LS: How about something like Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqams, on ECM? It made TAS’s Super LP List, and I didn’t even know it was out on vinyl.
JY: I think that’s UMG, another outfit that can be hard on dealers. We would probably have to buy ECM from a one-stop, which raises the price. And, you know, I understand the issues. Imagine you have 3,000 small shops, each ordering maybe two to five copies of a disc. A corporation that large, they don’t want to bother. They can’t afford to bother. Even with WEA, we have a yearly number we have to hit. If we don’t spend a certain amount with them, we don’t get to buy at all—although I’ve never had a problem meeting their minimum.
LS: Speaking of sales, you did pretty well on Saturday! What were your big sellers?
JY: The Johnny Cash box set was one. That was the Folsom Prison concert in its entirety. All Columbia had ever given people was one LP. But there were two full concerts, a bunch of guest artists, June Carter of course, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers. So, finally! In the box set you got four LPs of the concerts, and one LP of Mr. Cash and other artists rehearsing at the El Rancho Motel in Sacramento. And then the mono Pink Floyd Piper at the Gates of Dawn, that was a hot one. The Run the Jewels Stay Gold box, we sold out of that in like fifteen minutes.
LS: Anything surprise you about what people like?
JY: No, I think we’re startin’ to figure it out—I hope.
LS: That’s dangerous.
JY: No, no, it’s all geographical. This time was kind of weird, because of the publicity we got. People came from a considerable distance, which was great, but I was buying specifically for what we normally sell, as well as some of the more obscure requests that we got. But nobody really left feeling dissatisfied. Pretty much, we had something on everybody’s list. The quantities are the most nerve-wracking thing. Will I have enough? Will I have too much? It’s just a huge gamble. Part of the fun, but you can tie up a lot of money in inventory.
LS: It’s a nice experience, being able to come in here and go through all the bins. I can remember being in LA in the mid-70s and making pilgrimages to the Tower on Sunset. Impossible. Overwhelming.
JY: One of my favorite stores in Atlanta is Fantasyland, on Pharr Road. You’ll have a list, whether it’s in your head or however you’ve compiled it, of what you want, and the second you go through that door, it all goes away. Mind-blowing quantity. That’s why Discogs helps.
LS: What do you enjoy most, day to day?
JY: This may surprise you: pricing. I like figuring out what a record is worth. There’s a lot of research that can go into it, especially if that record hasn’t been logged on the Internet. Sellers can come in with some interesting stories. One conversation I don’t enjoy having is where I try to explain why I’m not going to spend $500 on your Sgt. Pepper. And I’m pretty well-versed on how to explain that. I mean, I certainly know why it’s not worth what you think, but I wish it was easier for you to understand that. Of course, I’m in the business of buying your record so I can make money from it on the back end. There it is. I’ll take you around the store, show you how things work. Maybe you’ll trust me enough to sell me your precious memory, and maybe not.