This year is proving a difficult time to run most businesses, let alone launch a new enterprise. But the team behind Citizen Vinyl — a collaboratively envisioned vinyl-pressing plant, performance space, record store, craft cocktail bar and eatery — is moving forward with plans to debut the facility on the ground floor and mezzanine of the Asheville Citizen Times building. Its opening is set for Thursday, Oct. 8.
“I’m quite hopeful and excited about the opportunities [of] the project,” says local producer Gar Ragland, the company’s founder and CEO. The Citizen Vinyl team is “very interested to position ourselves to be a post-pandemic community resource. We can work closely with the independent musicians in town to give them some opportunities, when it’s responsible to do so: to perform, to get their records pressed and to partner with them to promote those recordings.”
Ragland is the president and co-founder of NewSong Music, which he relocated from Brooklyn to Asheville in 2012. In that line of work, he’s been a frequent attendee of the annual Making Vinyl industry conference. Three years ago, it took place in Detroit, where musician/producer Jack White, a keynote speaker, led a tour of his Third Man Records, which combines an independent record label with a record store and performance venue.
“I’d gone up there to see how viable the idea would be for doing something similar in Asheville,” Ragland says. “The combination of manufacturing, retail and in-store performances was a recipe that would work really well — both for our homegrown, music-loving community and for the culturally adventurous 12 million tourists who visit annually.”
He continues, “I felt like, if we could adopt a similar model [to Third Man Records], we would position ourselves as a must-visit attraction.” He partnered with a number of local business owners to create the space, including Karie Reinertson and Rob Maddox, co-founders of Shelter Collective; Susannah Gebhart, founder of OWL Bakery; and Graham House, former executive chef of Sovereign Remedies.
Gebhart describes the cafe she’s creating for the business as an iconic American deli. “We wanted to pay homage to … the manufacturing history and the roots of the building,” she says. “[We’re] thinking about what might have been found in lunchboxes throughout the decades of workers who might have been working here … and playing on that.”
There will eventually be a full coffee program, a food program that runs morning-evening and a commitment to quality ingredients and supporting local farms. However, due to COVID-19, the Citizen Vinyl team adopted a phase-in strategy that will span 12-18 months. The first phase, which will run through the end of the calendar year, will consist of a full, vinyl-themed bar with records playing. Gebhart and House co-created the bar, called Sessions, and Alex Smith has come on board to manage it. There will be outdoor seating in front of the building and indoor seating following state guidelines. According to Ragland, the generous square footage of the space means “it’s spread out by design.”
The multifocused venture “brings together so much that is the heart of Asheville,” Gebhart notes. “Music and food and community. That excited me. [It’s special] to be opening this space that had previously … not been open to the community. It’s such a beautiful representation of art deco.”
Design in mind
It’s the art deco motifs, as well as other architectural and philosophical attributes of the building, that spoke to Maddox, a veteran interior designer. “That building is really cool to begin with, so a prime directive was to take the elements that were there and exquisitely done to begin with, and bring that to the fore,” he says. The removal of partition walls revealed architectural elements such as glass blocks and metal railings, “bringing the shell back up to where the baseline of the space is as original as possible but also [feeling] like a cleaned-up version of what was there before” various renovations.
The lobby includes a terrazzo and brass mosaic map of Western North Carolina, which has greeted Citizen Times staff for decades. “That place started [informing] a lot of color tones that will come back into the space — smoky topaz and some sea greens,” says Maddox. “Our job is finding the things that are there and need to be honored … and making them fresh and new again.”
He adds, “We’re wanting to be able to create a new space that serves a different purpose but still is able to provide somewhat of a civic space at a time when civic spaces are going away. … We don’t build Grand Central Stations anymore.”
Motifs that Shelter Collective emphasized that can be found throughout include circles, squares and grooves. “That’s a record. That’s the disc,” Maddox says. “Bringing the record presses into a space where there were printing presses feels really cool.”
Citizen Vinyl planned to start with two new record presses, but the manufacture was delayed due to COVID-related shutdowns and limited production. Ragland says the delivery date of the first press, from a facility in Canada, has been a moving target and notes that the limited inventory of old presses and the costs of refurbishment prompted a couple of companies to manufacture new presses.
“On the manufacturing side, our clients consist of a combination of record labels, distributors and independent artists,” he says. “Because vinyl is back in vogue, a lot of records that were printed on CDs for decades … there’s now demand for these albums to be reissued on vinyl.”
He continues, “We aspire to have clients that represent the array [from] major labels needing 40,000 records pressed all the way to the local singer-songwriter looking to have their first-ever album pressed on vinyl.” Citizen Vinyl strives to be a full-service provider, also offering mixing and mastering.
An on-site record store will stock a combination of new vinyl, work by local artists, some records printed in the building and a well-curated selection of used vinyl for sale. Ragland suggests it will be an “analog lifestyle kind of store.”
But even as opening day nears, there are still obstacles to overcome. “As hard as the pandemic has been to the economy and to the thousands of families disrupted by sickness, our team [isn’t focused on] short-term profits,” says Ragland. “We’re keeping our eye on the prize. … It’s not like we’re bigger than the pandemic, [but] our project will endure.”
He adds, “Everybody has needed to adapt and move laterally, [but] there’s been zero hesitation by anyone on the team.”
It’s “digital fatigue” that Ragland credits with the resurgence of vinyl. “People’s desire to have tactile and collectible art … is the same cultural trend that is the reason why board games are back in vogue and journaling [is back],” he says. “Just because you can do something on your phone or digitally, it might be the most convenient way, but it may not be the most rewarding way.”
What the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the mix is that musicians, sequestered in their homes, have been pouring creative energy into new material that — when funds allow again — will need to be made into albums. “I think that will be really good for the recording world,” Ragland says.
While that objective remains a ways off, as does Citizen Vinyl’s slate of programming — namely live music — there’s plenty to be excited about as the new business launches. “We want to be as inclusive a civic resource as we can,” Ragland says. “Hopefully we can lift spirits.”
WHAT: Citizen Vinyl opening
WHERE: 14 O. Henry Ave., citizenvinyl.com
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 8, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.