By Earl Mays
Bruno Mars’s soulful vocals greet customers as they enter Harmony Records on Unionport Road in the Parkchester area of the Bronx. Inside, a musical oasis awaits. Shelves are filled with vinyl records, eight tracks, cassette tapes and CDs. Customers can whet their appetites with rap, reggae, reggaeton, rock, and R&B before they are greeted by owner, Glenn Velger. For music lovers, the store is much like a museum, showcasing the evolution of musical style and technology.
Harmony Records first opened in 1956. Small record stores are rare finds; they have been made virtually obsolete by MP3 technology and online music stores like Apple’s iTunes. But Velger hopes to maintain the business despite a dwindling market.
“I am a music lover and have a passion for music,” Velger said. “What you get here is great customer service and expertise.”
Velger’s love affair with music began in the 1970’s. When he was 8 years old he would frequent the store in search of the latest records. In 1985, after he graduated college, the store’s original owner, Nat Israel, offered Velger a job.
Velger then attempted a venture with His Master’s Voice, a chain entertainment store, which failed. In 1997, he bought out Israel and became the owner of Harmony Records.
“I know my niche market and cater to those customers,” said Velger. “How do I stay afloat? Three words: old-school music.”
Velger’s love of a variety of musical genres, as well as his business savvy, have helped sustain Harmony Records.
The store’s clientele consists largely of adults, 30 and older, with customers occasionally coming from as far away as Long Island, Connecticut and upstate New York.
Juan Dejesus is one of Velger’s long-time customers. “Digital music loses its authenticity” over time, says Dejesus about why he prefers vinyl. “There is something about the original that is special – you feel connected.”
Velger is highly selective about the music the store carries.
“I’m selling more of the old stuff that’s been around 30, 40, 50 years than I am the new stuff,” said Velger. “Young people for the most part are not buying vinyl.”
Alliance Entertainment, based in Coral Springs, Fla., has been Velger’s only distributor since he took ownership. Maintaining a rich record collection is his biggest expense after rent.
Harmony Records is one of only two New York stores that are still members of the National Entertainment Retailers Association, which sponsors promotional events for musicians. The events provide a networking opportunity for record store owners as well as an opportunity to connect with new artists and to stay informed about future artist releases. This alliance is part of his survival strategy, says Velger, as are word-of-mouth recommendations.
Velger sells CDs for roughly $10-$16. Vinyl records sell for $20 to$80. The challenge lies in ordering records that will sell without having to return large quantities to his distributor incurring an additional fee.
To avoid returns Velger carries classics such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Brown and the Supremes at all times. He also takes custom orders for clients looking for specific items.
“When the CD came out, the industry was telling distributors to stop selling vinyl. I never did because I knew the true music lover would always make room for vinyl,” said Velger.
According to Nielsen Sound Scan, which provides market data on what people buy, vinyl sales were up 18 percent in 2012, selling roughly 316 million records and bringing sales back to a peak not seen since 1998. Some of the sales uptick can be attributed to record labels’ increased vinyl releases since 2008. Vinyl makes up about 5 percent of overall record sales for the American music industry
Since the start of the recession in 2008, nearby Metropolitan Avenue in Parkchester, has seen at least six small businesses fail. More mainstream stores, such as Carter’s—a baby clothing store—are replacing the old mom-and-pop businesses.
Despite this trend, Velger plans to stand his ground. But his challenge will be to lure young music aficionados.
“Once the older generation stops buying, there is going to be no one to replace them,” said Velger with a sigh.