In less than seven years, Harvest Records has grown from a struggling upstart to an Asheville music institution.
In addition to serving the region's music-buying public, owners Matt Schnable and Mark Capon have released a host of albums on their own Harvest Recordings imprint, brought dozens of national touring acts to Asheville and spearheaded a successful music festival. Harvest has managed to thrive — even as CD sales plummet and the overall economy tanks.
Double the fun
Last year, in the midst of national unemployment, Harvest added two clerks. Now, it's defying the odds by expanding into the adjoining space formerly occupied by Custom clothing boutique, doubling the retail space. It's a bold move, one that illustrates that this record store is an exception to the increasingly common rule: People don't pay for music in the 21st century.
The expansion has been a long time coming, Capon says.
"Over the last couple of years, there have been far too many moments where we've either been like, 'Here's excess stuff we already have that we just have to throw underneath somewhere,' or, 'God, wouldn't it be cool to carry that?' but we just can't do it at all. This is sort of ideal in that yes, we're expanding what we already carry, but we'll also have more stuff, new stuff that we've never had before."
Along with the obvious — a broadened catalog of CDs and vinyl, including a "monstrous" collection of recently acquired used vinyl — the new room will house cassettes (yes, cassette tapes), a dedicated performance area, a new pricing station and an expanded selection of new and used turntables and accessories, which Capon points to as one of the most requested items being added to the inventory.
"Right when we started carrying them a few months ago, they immediately started selling," he says. "People want this stuff; they've been asking for it for years. I mean, daily, multiple times a day, people are asking about turntables and accessories."
But the move won't come cheap. Renovating the new space requires closing the store for nearly a week and, in addition to building new racks, commissioning a new sign, purchasing speakers and audio equipment and a variety of other incidental costs, Harvest will be tearing down half of a wall to create a smooth flow between the rooms. It's a major undertaking.
"It makes us nervous, for sure. Going into debt, borrowing money, it's daunting,” Capon says. “But it's also liberating in a way, because you can pay it off eventually, and you're all the better for it. I think that Matt and I have found ways over the last seven years to constantly present ourselves with new challenges. We thrive on that in a way. It's not like we're forcing ourselves into it. It seems appropriate. It's daunting, but it's fun."
While the business may be fun, borrowing money to expand is a gamble, even for a thriving store like Harvest. It's no secret that the music industry is still reeling from kegal and illegal downloading, and recently published sales figures reveal that while digital sales were up slightly in 2010, sales of physical albums declined for the tenth straight year, down 19 percent since 2009, according to Nielsen Soundscan. That's a nearly 70 percent drop since the industry's peak in 2000, and a trend that shows no signs of reversing.
Those numbers have had a very real impact on retailers, illustrated most notably by the closing of Tower Records in 2006, Virgin Megastores in 2009 and Borders this year. And if you think indie outlets like Harvest are a different story, think again. The impact on small, locally owned retailers has been just as dramatic. In the last five years, dozens, if not hundreds have closed their doors, including several in similar markets like Boulder, Co. (Cheapo Discs, All the Rage, Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes), and even some on our own back porch; Chapel Hill's Schoolkids Records, Wilmington's CD Alley and Greensboro’s My Favorite Things, to name a few.
Schnable and Capon are more than aware of these statistics. In fact, they bought a large part of their original inventory from one of their favorite college record stores that had just gone out of business. Capon says the decision to go ahead with their plan was one part determination, one part naiveté.
"It was pretty bleak for sure," he says of the climate. "Opening a record store then was pretty naive. We were young … er, and we were just sort of like, 'Let's just f—king do it. Why not?'"
There is one detail in the most recent figures, however, that suggests Capon and Schnable weren't totally reckless with their decision to open shop: the continued upsurge in vinyl album sales. It's a trend that appeared most dramatically in 2008, when vinyl sales grew a stunning 89 percent. That has leveled off (hitting 14 percent for 2010) and still accounts for less than 0.02 percent of overall sales. Nonetheless, vinyl remains the only physical format with any increase, reaching a high of 2.8 million albums sold last year.
That's good news for Harvest, which relies on the time-tested format for at least half of its business. But don't expect to see CDs fall to the wayside just yet.
"I would guess, especially having so many more records available with this expansion, that vinyl will pass CD sales for our store in 2011. But it's weird because I've seen other stores in the region, smaller stores, that are abandoning CDs entirely. That's not something that we're interested in doing. If it went that way, obviously we'd have to, but we still have a really strong customer base that's interested in new releases and new CDs."
Case in point: Scott Williams, a longtime Harvest customer who defies common perceptions of the average music consumer. Williams says he's never been much for downloading music and still buys CDs at the store about once a week.
"I'm not sure how much longer that will last," he cautions, "but for now, I'm still buying new releases on CD. I got rid of my vinyl collection several years ago. I just got tired of lugging around milk crate after milk crate full of records every time I moved. "
Now or never?
Though expanding had long been a consideration, Custom's departure marked a "now or never" moment for Harvest. Had they not seized the opportunity, it could have been years before the adjoining space was available, and moving to a new location was out of the question. Capon and Schnable have developed a close relationship with the building owners, surrounding businesses and residents of West Asheville. The space itself, Capon says, has come to feel like a second home.
"It's a huge risk, and who knows if it could backfire," he says. "But at the same time, it just seemed like the perfect storm. We had to do it. We couldn't not do it.
"Even if there was a place across the street that opened up, I just don't know if that would be good for us," he says. "I think that people have responded well to the atmosphere in the store, and this is sort of like a … it's pretty much the same thing. [The new room] doesn't have the exposed brick, but other than that, it'll be the Harvest Records that people already know, and hopefully enjoy. It will just be bigger."
Tripp Weathers, another longtime Harvest shopper, echoes that sentiment.
"There's something kinda homey about Harvest," he says. "You walk in and you feel welcome, as opposed to going into Best Buy or just downloading it online."
Capon acknowledges that foot traffic can be limited in their current locale, but notes that being a "destination spot" has its perks. Occupying a storefront on a major thoroughfare would likely increase the number of people coming and going, but he isn't convinced that it would translate into sales. And Capon, for one, takes it somewhat personally when customers leave empty-handed.
"Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I think that would wear on my psyche," he says. "I'd be like, 'How did we fail that person?' I think that a lot. It happened today: Somebody came in, walked around, didn't really say anything and then walked out 10 minutes later. I thought, 'Shit, what did we do? What was he looking for?' I wish I had talked to him."
Snarks need not apply
Capon's sensitivity to customer service is indicative of Harvest's approach to business. He points to a close relationship with patrons as a hallmark of the store's success, and notes that he and Schnable have gone out of their way to disassemble the stereotype of snobby record store clerks (think Jack Black and John Cusack's snarky, condescending characters in High Fidelity).
Weathers couldn't agree more. He says Schnable and Capon are the number one reason he's returned at least twice a week for more than six years.
"I think that, in general, customers like to go in there because they're just really nice guys," Weathers says. "And they've got a lot to offer as far as music; they bring a lot of shows to town, all that kind of stuff. But generally, people feel comfortable when they walk in there. [Schnable and Capon] typically know everybody's names. I think that's why they've done so well."
Harvest's attention to customers goes beyond remembering names, though. Schnable and Capon strive to be a source of discovery for the music-obsessed. As veteran collectors will attest, half the fun of shopping indie record stores is the possibility of stumbling upon something unexpected.
"We're both pretty obsessed with trying to stay up on new things or things that we haven't heard before: new albums, new artists," Capon says. "People walking in our store hope to see something they haven't seen before. That's the goal, to keep giving them opportunities to find something interesting."
Apparently, it's working. Both Weathers and Williams cite variety and discovery as a major factor in their loyalty.
"They don't discriminate," says Williams. "You might see some young kid buying a Godspeed record and next in line there's an older man buying a Neil Young record. A lot of places make you feel uncomfortable if you're not buying a certain kind of album, but you don't get that at all with Harvest. They're pretty open to everything you could imagine. And you can't beat their selection. They've got stuff you can't find anywhere else in Asheville."
Weathers says he appreciates the personalized guidance Capon and Schnable often provide.
"They'll say, 'Hey, have you checked this out?' And a lot of times they'll known my music taste, so they'll say, 'Hey, check this or that out, you'll probably like it."
Harvest will mark its grand re-opening in style. On Friday, March 4, the public will get their first peek at the new space, and later that evening, Schnable and Capon will continue the celebration with food and drink, christening their newly erected performance area with the experimental psychedelia of Memphis' Cloudland Canyon.
The event will also serve as a "collaborative" opening for nearly a dozen area artists, whose work will be displayed in both rooms. Leila Amiri, a local mixed media artist and Capon's girlfriend, is organizing the exhibit.
"It should be interesting because there aren't any restrictions on size or content," she says. "I can't exactly say what it will look like."
It promises to be an eclectic display, with a roster of local artists that includes Alli Good, Andrew Hayes, Carley Dergins, Dennis Smith, Anna Thompson, Nathan Northup, Anna Jensen, James Monahan and the Xpress's own Nathanael Roney. Featured works will range from painting and sculpture to stained glass and video.
All the added room (and wall space) presents opportunities beyond an expanded record collection, and Amiri says the openings will be a regular fixture of the new Harvest Records.
"From here on out, there will be an opening the first Friday of every month," she says. "And it won't always be group shows. We have a couple of solo exhibits booked for the coming months that should be really interesting."
Capon goes a step further.
"Maybe that even becomes more of a bigger first Friday neighborhood thing, who knows. Certainly, with a little performance area, that will really open us up to different opportunities. I mean, we could even show movies in here. It could become a spot. That's certainly the goal, not to make it some community rec center, but yeah, it's just more room to have cool things happening."
What would have been?
Whatever happens with the expansion, Capon is sure of one thing: He will have no regrets.
"Let's say a year goes by and it was a total failure, and we have to spend money to put the wall back up, at least we did it. I don't want to have to look back on my life and wonder what would have been."
— Dane Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
what: Harvest Records grand reopening celebration, featuring an art show and music from Cloudland Canyon
where: Harvest Records, 415 Haywood Road
when: Friday, March 4 (11 a.m. to 10 p.m. harvest-records.com)