SEATTLE — It’s impossible to know how many miles are on the Easy Street Records van. The odometer on the 1990 Ford Econoline has turned over more times than your favorite Pearl Jam record.
Based on Seattle music lore, the old plumber’s van that Easy Street boss Matt Vaughan purchased when he opened a since-shuttered location has as many stories as a Rolling Stones roadie. Friend of the shop Eddie Vedder has driven it around after events at the store. Blues-rock hooligan Reignwolf mounted the van for a set in the middle of the field during the Sasquatch! Music Festival. Macklemore “climbed all over it” the day he and Ryan Lewis commemorated the release of their career-defining album “The Heist” with a performance on the since-shuttered store’s roof, Vaughan said.
And like the immortal Keith Richards, the sticker-splattered rockmobile is still ticking. With the help of some “bro deals” cut with the musichead mechanics Vaughan knows down the street, the Easy Street van is logging more miles than ever these days. With Washington’s nonessential brick-and-mortar stores closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vaughan has been making house calls, personally delivering online and phone orders with contact-free drop-offs in the Seattle area.
“Usually I have my 8-year-old son and my 6-year-old daughter helping me,” Vaughan says, “and we’re running ’em out like we’re dropping off the newspaper.”
Since the shutdown began in March, Vaughan — who’s been slinging vinyl since Macklemore was in grade school — has spent much of his days cruising the Seattle area. After mornings in the West Seattle shop, the longtime local music booster hits the road, often until his oldest (the self-proclaimed Amazing Record Boy) needs to go to bed.
Around the time Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered bars and restaurants to close, Amazon announced it would temporarily quit stocking new records and CDs (among other products) to focus on processing more essential items.
“Music is essential,” Vaughan counters. “That’s our mantra, that’s what we’ve always believed in and especially Seattle believes in that. We got no identity without it. … It’s a lot of what our heritage is about, beyond just being lumberjacks and fishermen.”
Having an adjoining cafe gave Easy Street “some legroom” to operate under the business shutdown, Vaughan says. Restaurants are permitted to remain open for takeout and delivery. (Hungry music fans coming by for curbside food can order their “New Wave O’s Rancheros” with, say, a copy of Shabazz Palaces’ engrossing new album on the side.)
Vaughan figured the initial record-delivery interest would be a fading novelty, but it’s been surprisingly steady, enough to maintain daily runs. Nevertheless, he’s had to let 23 staffers go, reducing the cafe and shop, which already did a fair amount of mail orders, to an eight-person crew. Between to-go food, mail orders and deliveries, Vaughan estimates he’s doing about 40% of his usual business — impressive given the circumstances.
“It’s enough to keep things going,” Vaughan says. “Now, is it enough to pay rent? Is it enough to take care of your overhead on top of the salaries you do have? That’s day to day.”
Like many other mom and pop shops, Vaughan says he’s banking on low-interest loans and relief funds to help weather the economic storm. But Easy Street, which has been in the heart of the West Seattle Junction for 30-plus years, is in a better position than many of its peers.
Ballard institution Bop Street Records is closing permanently in June. Owner Dave Voorhees, who started selling 45s out of his parents’ North Seattle house in 1974, had planned to retire in another five years. But with his lease expiring at the end of next month, he opted not to renew amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the street, Sonic Boom Records was one of the earliest stores to close voluntarily until the economy reopens. Owner Mike Pitts never even got the chance to personally lock up. Pitts, a longtime customer who bought the store in 2016, quit coming in weeks earlier, for good reason.
He was diagnosed with COVID-19.
An active 40-something with no previous respiratory issues, Pitts has been home since Feb. 29, when he left work feeling ill. The shortness of breath was unlike anything he’d experienced before. He’s “still struggling with the lungs a bit, but out of the woods,” he says.
While recovering, he was helping navigate the independent shop through an unprecedented situation. Two weeks ago, he received $44,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans. In order for the loan to be forgiven, Pitts needs to put staff back on the payroll immediately, even though there’s been no work to do at the shuttered store. “I’m not gonna complain about receiving this money,” Pitts says, “but I don’t know how thought out that was.”
With Gov. Inslee announcing a four-phase reopening plan in which retailers are expected to be able to offer curbside pickups, Pitts intends to reevaluate his options once he’s able to get those curbside orders up and running.
During the shutdown, some Seattle record stores have tried to bolster mail orders through websites like Discogs.com, a popular vinyl marketplace, or quietly arranged curbside pickups. However, Sonic Boom didn’t have a fulfillment process in place to safely handle mail orders, Pitts says.
“I feel OK about making it to whenever that (full reopening) date may be,” Pitts says. “The big question is what happens when we’re all out and about? Are people spending money? I know $25 records probably aren’t on the top of people’s list when they are not making much money.”
Just the latest blow
For independent music retailers, the coronavirus is just the latest blow. While vinyl’s made a comeback in recent years, it hasn’t offset dwindling CD sales in the streaming era. Last year, vinyl sales constituted just 4.5% of the revenue generated by recorded music in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Streaming services accounted for roughly two-thirds.
“We’ve been dancing on the edge of failure for years,” Vaughan says.
The past year brought on a new headache, as Direct Shot, the distributor that handles the three largest record companies (Sony, Warner and Universal), has struggled to fill orders correctly and on time. Record store owners across the country have complained about missing orders and receiving the wrong shipments, according to Rolling Stone. Pitts says disappointed customers would come in looking for new releases only to be let down again the following week when they still hadn’t arrived. “We got pallets of records a couple of times that were supposed to be in Louisiana,” Pitts says, estimating Direct Shot’s issues have cost him thousands of dollars in time and lost sales.
The pandemic also disrupted this year’s Record Store Day, typically the biggest vinyl sales day of the year. After initially postponing until June, last week organizers announced the annual vinyl-hunters holiday would be split up into three days between August and October. Though he understands the move, Pitts expects to take a financial hit by not having RSD in the one “big blast” that draws long lines from collectors hoping to snag limited-edition releases.
“I don’t know if (in) 2021 we’ll be able to have a day where 400 people are lined up outside and squeezing and sweaty in the store trying to get records in the morning,” Pitts says.
Once his shop reopens, Vaughan figures he’ll get a truer sense for just how many of his customers make the trip back to the store. In the meantime, he plans to keep putting miles on the 30-year-old Econoline that’s proven as resilient as Easy Street, delivering records and, occasionally, lunch.
“It seems like I’m always going by a Dick’s or having lunch there myself with my son,” he says with a laugh. Vaughan’s received a number of orders from folks who, for various reasons, can’t leave the house, asking if he’d also pick up some grub for them along the way.
“I love the smiles I get from people when I bring ’em just records,” Vaughan says, “but when I’m also bringing ’em a bag of burgers and a milkshake, they’re overjoyed.”
Who can blame them?