Re-Tales #17: Going where the music lovers are

Is combining a record store with a hi-fi dealership a radical idea? Maybe not: It could be a way to reel in new, music-loving hi-fi customers where they’re most comfortable, in record stores searching for music.

Brick-and-mortar hi-fi dealerships need customers in their stores—now more than ever following pandemic closures. The hi-fi industry’s long-term survival depends on bringing in new blood. New, music-loving customers might begin as casual listeners. In time, a few will advance to full-blown audiophilia; everyone has to start somewhere.

Why shouldn’t their first experience with better sound happen when they walk into a record store—or when, after shopping for records, they wander next door to an adjacent hi-fi dealership and ask to listen to one of the records they just bought?

I recently spoke with two dealers who show and sell hi-fi equipment in record stores. The two share some common ground, but they’re located in different markets, take different approaches, and—for the most part—serve different kinds of customers.

Barry Perlman owns Supervinyl, a record store cum hi-fi shop in Los Angeles. He has been in the retail business since he was 17 years old. You may have heard of one of his companies: He co-founded the Lucky Jeans brand in 1990.

Perlman has always loved music (footnote 1). He opened Supervinyl about a year and a half ago in Hollywood, on N. Sycamore Avenue near Santa Monica Boulevard, a neighborhood where many new businesses are opening: cafes, restaurants, fashion boutiques. Foot traffic is increasing. The store is near the Record Plant recording studios and XM Satellite Radio’s broadcast offices, so Supervinyl gets walk-in traffic from people in the music industry.

Local traffic also walks in to BEK HiFi, a hi-fi shop in Allentown, Pennsylvania, that shares a dual storefront and some interior space with preowned vinyl specialist Double Decker Records.

Thirty-something Erik Konigsberg—EK—manages BEK Audio, a business his father Barry—that’s the B—founded as a home-based dealership in 2005. Since 2013, BEK has rented space in a partnership with Double Decker, which opened 25 years ago.

“I get a lot of walk-in traffic,” Konigsberg said; he told me that about 20% of his sales come from walk-in customers. He also estimated that 70–80% of Double Decker’s record customers at least take a peek into his hi-fi room. “They are at least intrigued enough to look over, to see my stuff,” he said. That starts conversations. “The interesting thing is, it’s repeat business,” he told me. “There are a lot of people getting into vinyl, the vinyl craze.”

Perlman had wondered why record stores don’t sell audio equipment—something better than the Crosley players occasionally seen for years in record stores—so he decided to do so himself. From the outset, he planned for Supervinyl, which focuses on new vinyl, to carry turntables.

Perlman told me he doesn’t consider himself an audio dealer—at least not in the usual sense. “There are already a lot of good audio stores in L.A.,” Perlman said. “We’re sort of an outsider on [the audiophile scene].” Supervinyl is first and foremost a record store. “We sell lots of cool records and boxed sets, and [we] sell gear to complement that. It feels a little different” than a dealership.

Supervinyl has a small listening room where Perlman demonstrates select McIntosh components. He also sells Rega and Andover turntables, including an automatic model. He displays turntables—some of which local artists have hand-painted—displayed on round merchandise tables among LP boxed sets. He encourages touching. “People can try them out,” he said.

Some newbies will get hooked; some won’t. That’s fine; the audiophile hobby isn’t for everyone.

Konigsberg, too, wants to bring new customers into the hobby, but for him it’s not just about newcomers: He enjoys building systems that appeal to seasoned audiophiles, to bring them back in, give them “a sense of joy and elation about music again.”

Perlman has a personal connection to the equipment Supervinyl carries. “I’ve known McIntosh as a brand. I always aspired to it as a kid.” He has also owned a Rega turntable for years.

BEK, too, carries Rega turntables. They also carry classic marques like Luxman and Harbeth, niche brands like Brinkmann and Simaudio, brands from nearby areas like DeVore, Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA), and Rogue. Konigsberg likes having direct access to smaller companies’ designers. “I can ask them why they do certain things: ‘What’s your thinking behind this?'” he told me.

While Supervinyl’s brick-and-mortar store is Perlman’s primary emphasis, the store also sells equipment online—all the store’s lines except McIntosh and Sonus Faber.

Perlman has spent some time in hi-fi dealerships. “It was never a real pleasant or friendly experience,” he told me. “They’d have three records. They never played what I wanted.”

Perlman wants Supervinyl to be different. He wants to get people involved and make audio “fun and easy to understand,” to make it make sense for those starting out. “They sell Teslas at Century City Mall,” Perlman said. “It’s time for doing things differently.”

Konigsberg doesn’t sell online. “We want customers to come in.” He, too, aims to make audio fun. “People are already intimidated by this hobby a little bit,” he said. It’s all about piquing people’s interest, providing that first experience of better sound. Those demos he puts on are really fun for him, he says.

“Younger generations in general have never heard what good audio can sound like,” Konigsberg told me. “They’re blown away. This is real. This is how music can be. ‘Go tell your friends and your parents!'” Even in an online era—or especially in an online era—word of mouth is powerful.

It’s mainly music that brings music lovers in the door. The opportunity to hear their favorite music on a good audio system encourages them to stay. A few of them will want to take it home.

Footnote 1: Launched in 1996, his company’s Lucky Brand Foundation held fundraising events including performances from Jackson Browne, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, and others to support children’s charities.

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