By Richard D. Smith
The Princeton Record Exchange had only opened three minutes earlier on the morning of March 18, but a customer, dressed in jeans, sweatshirt and hi-tops, is already on his knees, bowed toward a pantheon of compact discs, searching worshipfully for a special find.
A short time later, he walks to the front of the store and petitions the employees at the sales counter with some urgency.
“Excuse me, where are the cheap rhythm and blues CDs?” he asks, then points to a far corner of the store. “They used to be over on that wall.”
“They were moved,” staffer Mike Witwer replies reassuringly, directing him to a closer location.
Witwer explains that they had recently received a few big collections and they had to rearrange. The cheap CDs were relocated next to the full price ones in certain genres.
Known in affectionate shorthand as “Prex,” the store at 20 South Tulane Street is a place of pilgrimage for devoted buyers of new and—especially—used CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays and vinyl records. They come from all over the state, the nation and even the world.
And they must. Not only are Prex customers driven by a shared passion for great, often esoteric music and movies: Prex doesn’t sell via the Internet. This makes it an anomaly in the Internet era, just like vinyl long playing records seem archaic in the digital world.
But like vinyl LPs, which are experiencing an astonishing comeback in popularity, Prex is doing just fine, too.
Many audiophiles treasure the supposedly warmer sound of analog records over digital discs, and prefer the tactile rewards of delving by hand through bins of LPs or walls of CDs as opposed to clicking on a cold computer download. Similarly, they are drawn by the sense of community at Prex and other independent record stores that are thriving while chains like Tower Records have collapsed.
They’ll be sharing this love nationally during Record Store Day on Saturday, April 18. The Princeton celebrations at Prex will include an in-store concert by the band Wild Rice (described as “a heavy psych trio with a melodic edge”), which has current and former Prex employees in its lineup.
Prex customers enter the store beneath a flag showing a perky P-sweatered cheerleader bounding with a vinyl record in hand, through the doors and past advisory signs about checking all bags and backpacks and stowing cups in the Drink Box. They pass onto the main showroom floor under a bright yellow sign with black letters reading, “Bring in your CDs, DVDs, & LP’s for cash or store credit.”
The new arrivals section is by far the most popular part of the store, says Prex manager Jon Lambert. And when a major recording collection is acquired by Prex for resale, it often necessitates serious reshufflings, like the moving of the budget R&B CDs. “It’s a good problem to have,” he says.
As the day’s initial customers embark upon their quests through the mounds of records and CDs, the first background music of the day issues from the store’s speakers: an album by acoustic guitar legend Bert Jansch.
Other artists on CDs would spin later. Although the staff workers are an eclectic bunch with music preferences to match, they don’t argue over whose background music will provide the soundtrack for the work day.
“We just take turns,” Lambert says. “We all share a passion for music and try to be open-minded about other people’s tastes.”
The serious, almost reverent shoppers, the prominent sign soliciting pre-owned products, and the sense of the store as an inclusive community—it’s all very much part of Prex’s persistence and successful business model.
Princeton’s first record seller was the early 20th century barber, novelties purveyor and colorful local entrepreneur Christie Whiteman, who became an authorized dealer of Columbia records and phonographs. Well into the 1970s and ’80s, multiple outlets served as sources and learning libraries for mature music connoisseurs and young fans alike. The Music Shop was within the Princeton University Store on University Place (its name is still incised in the building’s stone facade).
The Princeton Music Center at 7 Palmer Square West was a good source for various niche genres, such as folk and international musics. And several record businesses occupied 195 Nassau Street, the last being Nassau Street Jazz, a hip destination for progressive and early fusion styles.
While the earlier stores were operating in the 1970s, Prex founder Barry Weisfeld was driving around in a van (which was also his de facto home) and trading in high quality used records. Weisfeld had created a circuit of 37 college stores that displayed and sold his products.
Not surprisingly, Princeton University was one of his best customers, so in March 1980 he set up shop and storage at 20 Nassau St., a popular incubator location for new businesses. But his venture had essentially outgrown that location by the time he moved in.
In August 1985, the Princeton Record Exchange expanded—exploded, really—into its present site at 20 South Tulane, previously home to an electrical supplies and repair business. Prex’s main show room has about 3,500 square feet. There is a 500-square-foot side stock room (a run of shelves, banker’s boxes, desks and general cacophony dubbed “the warehouse”) plus an additional 800 square feet of other rooms and offices.
With so many items moving through the store every day, Prex needs a way to keep track of the transactions and trade-ins.
“This is our log book,” explains Witwer, who is standing at the sales counter. The log is a three-ring binder with pre-printed, spreadsheet type pages where items traded in by customers for cash or store credit are recorded in ink. “Every day people sell us their collections…”
Seemingly on cue, a man enters the store with a plastic bag of DVDs to trade.
As Witwer logs them in and starts his examination, he explains that the appraisal rests on two things: the title (a blanket term for the specific recording and artist) and the item’s condition. Items that have scratches or other imperfections may be unplayable, and thus have no value.
For example, a DVD disc can play despite scratches, but a single oily fingerprint will cause it to skip.
Witwer says that they perform spot checks, but don’t have time to check every single item when someone trades in a collection. In cases where someone buys an item that’s defective, the store offers a full satisfaction guarantee.
Under that guarantee, a customer can return a broken item within two weeks for a store credit (no cash refunds, however).
If a staffer doesn’t know Prex’s usual price for a trade-in, they look it up in a database they subscribe to called RecordTrak, a proprietary system by TRAK Systems, that lists all items worth more than $5.
RecordTrak was developed specifically for record stores, and handles inventory, point of sale, and returns.
Anything valued at less that $5 goes to an area of the store set aside for cheap music. The higer-valued items go into the bins or wall shelvings appropriate to their artist or for their genre. Items that don’t sell for an extended period of time are outsourced.
According to Lambert, the main thrust of Prex’s advertising is to get collections coming in. “We could not survive on new products alone. This is what happened to the big chain stores.”
As Witwer process the trade-in, another staffer, Jim Eden, evaluates a collection brought in by a man whose father had sent him to the store to trade in some of his vinyl records and VHS tapes.
“There were a couple of empty sleeves and some with water damage,” Eden reports to the seller after going through them. “And we stopped buying VHS.”
“That’s okay,” the seller replies acceptingly.
While this seller accepts the prices he was given, almost every day people come in with trades only to be disappointed with the prices they’re quoted.
“They usually misunderstand,” says Prex staffer Laura Smith. “They think it’s worth a lot more than it is. Especially if they’re attached to their albums and they love them. It can be awkward.”
But unlike many establishments that require customers to bring their merchandise into the store before telling how much a trade-in is worth, Prex encourages initial phone inquiries.
Staff tries to help the customer decide if it’s worth their while to come in, Lambert says.
Again almost on cue, the phone rings. A caller asks about VHS videos. Lambert tells him to donate them to the Salvation Army, and explains that most stores, including Prex, have stopped buying them. They also don’t buy cassettes tapes either, because the oxide layers on old tapes go bad and they become unplayable.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the store, a customer (who declines to be interviewed) sits cross legged in front of a rack marked “DVDs and Blu-Ray New Arrivals & Recent Markdowns.”
With pursed lips and an expert eye, he records items with his iPhone and looks up information online. Soon he walks to the counter with his shopping basket overflowing. A staffer puts it aside and hands him another one. He goes back to plumb the depths of Prex.
There are some customers who live on resale, looking to buy low at Prex and sell high somewhere else, Lambert says, referring to the man. “We’re fine with that.”
In fact, many of Prex’s customers buy, enjoy, and then sell back their music. Some find creative ways to make money with trades.
For example, one regular customer, who gave her name only as Chris, came in with a long box of CDs to trade in for her boyfriend.
He gets them from a radio show he hosts at a Pennsylvania college, she explained, and receives more promotional discs each week than he can possibly keep. The ones they don’t need any more, he sells.
But people looking to be notified when an item they’re looking for comes in are out of luck. Prex declines requests, even from big spending customers, to be on the lookout for certain records.
“We’re very egalitarian here,” Lambert says. “We’re first come, first served. We don’t say, ‘Oh, you’re a high roller, we’ll set that aside for you.’ I can’t find any way to do it that would be fair and economical.”
The rare and unusual
Are there ever “Holy Grail” finds at Prex? Yes, both going and coming.
Rob Geddis, a collector who is also a soundtrack contributor to the National Public Radio program, “This American Life,” stops by during his lunch hour. “I’ve been coming to Prex since age 14,” he says. “It’s my favorite store.”
“Yesterday,” Geddis reports, “I found a record I’ve been looking for, for 20 years. The first LP by Kool & the Gang. That’s not easy to find.”
The price? Only $3.99. Geddis smiles broadly, anticipating the next question. “Yes, I definitely made some friends jealous.”
On the other side of the coin, says Lambert, a customer recently came to Prex with items for sale. For one a particular vinyl he was given — much to his delight — a steep $280. Why? It was a soundtrack album created by famed drummer/producer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie for, “Lialeh,” one of the first black pornographic movies. This genuine rarity may fetch from $700 to $800.
Although Prex might sell a music soundtrack for an adult film, it will never carry a DVD of that movie.
“Nothing X-rated,” Lambert points out. “This is a family place. I would make a little money doing it, but it would change the tone of the store.”
It would also require a separate room, and an employee to monitor it and check identifications.
Lambert adds that integrity is important. For example, not knowing the value of the “Lialeh” soundtrack LP, the seller might have accepted a few meager bucks, but Prex volunteered a hefty premium. “We want to play fair and our reputation is important to me,” Lambert says. “I think that’s one way stores succeed, by treating customers fairly.”
In fact, Lambert always asks prospective employees what the world “integrity” means to them. “I want a high quality of human being working here.”
Prex also takes care of its employees by offering benefits such as medical, dental, vision, 401(k) accounts and paid vacations to its 15 full-time employees. (There are also five part timers.) “One of the reasons people stay forever,” Lambert noted,” is that you can actually be an adult here.”
The vinyl phenomenon
At the counter, Witwer is busy with the task of putting new plastic cover sleeves over used LPs before they go into the new arrivals bins. He gives a slightly pained laugh. “There are days when my hands are a little tight. Lots of repetitive motions.”
But that repetitive motion goes into pause mode when Witwer stops to admire a copy of the classic “Brazilian Byrd” album by jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, its cover featuring the musician with a brilliantly-plumed parrot.
He’s not the only one who appreciates the aesthetics of a LP’s album cover. Vinyl is in vogue. High school-age youngsters are coming in and buying stacks of vinyl LPs, maybe for their retro cool. But many older listeners also prefer records over CDs, and vinylmania shows no sign of mellowing.
Lambert reports that every month for the past 14 months Prex has sold more new vinyl than new CDs. In fact, LP vs. CD sales are back to ratios last seen three decades ago.
Although sales percentages and inventory varies with the seasons, the store moves between 30,000 and 50,000 items every month. About 50 percent are CDs, 35 to 40 percent vinyl and 10 to 15 percent are DVDs. Although Prex is famed for its indie rock and other far flung genres, classical recordings are the solid third best-selling genre in CD formats after rock and jazz.
But weren’t those old vinyl record and turntable formats supposed to have become extinct in the new age of digital disc systems?
That’s far from the case, Lambert says. Besides what they perceive as vinyl’s more pleasing sound, many buyers cherish LP covers as expansive canvases for imaginative artwork, with easily read liner notes on the reverse. Old LPs are also treasured historical artifacts. For example, an original copy of the Beatles album “Rubber Soul” at Prex bore a price of $89.99.
Prex and its communities
With such customer enthusiasm, Lambert says, “It’s easy to get complacent and think everyone knows about you. But it’s a very transient community.”
To that end, Prex has a table each year at Communiversity, is a sponsor-supporter of WPRB-FM at Princeton and WRSU-FM at Rutgers, and has collaborated on numerous concerts.
A recent triumph came in 2012 when it was approached about organizing a show by the popular indie band They Might Be Giants. The Princeton Public Library provided a stage and other vital logistical support and some 1,300 enthusiasts filled the adjacent Albert Hinds Plaza.
Prex has also participated in win-win cross promotions with the New Jersey Opera, McCarter Theatre and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, among others. David Haggerty, production technician and coordinator for the Arts Council of Princeton, arrived at the store on this particular day to discuss cross-promoting a concert series showcasing local musicians.
Lambert and Haggerty conversed and planned, all basics and practicality.“There’s really no space to set up a table,” Lambert says, but soon was framing with gestures a shelf-like space above the New Releases bin and visualizing a sign: “Something really eye catching that says ‘Local Artists’. People look at this section.”
Cross-promoting community events is not just socially generous. It helps populate a loyal customer base.
“People like coming here because it’s an event,” Lambert says. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. That’s another reason people like to shop in a store. I hear customers talk to each other all the time; ‘Oh, if you like that guy, he’s on this other album here.’
“It’s things you can’t get on direct digital download.”
And the conversations do flow across the bins, all to the sounds of the latest in-store music selection, the constant clack of CD cases on the checkout counter, and the call of “I can help the next person down here…”
Informally viewed during recent weekday and weekend visits, the Prex demographic seems young, but not exclusively so. Blue jeans- and sweatshirt-wearing teens and 20-somethings mix with fashionably dressed couples and distinguished-looking professor types. The ethnic mix is a rainbow, befitting a store decorated by a spectrum of colorful promotional posters and handbills announcing local music and art events.
Even the occasional baby carriage is wheeled into the store. Does it contain a future customer? Or even the fruit of a union begun in Prex’s narrow aisles? Maybe both. Several engagement photo sessions have been shot at Prex, the happy couples posing outside with the Princeton Record Exchange logo and then inside with the record bins stretching behind them, like endless cradles of happiness.
“They found it at the Record Exchange,” smiles staffer Ned Higgins.
Walk In vs. Online
Okay, vinyl is trendy and analog record turntables (which Prex also sells) are nice. But we’re living in a material world, and it’s a digital world. Even with its loyal core of walk-in customers, can the Princeton Record Exchange ignore the interconnected global community?
Prex has a website, of course. And it’s on Facebook, with around 11,000 followers. About 5,000 people are signed up for its monthly email newsletter containing news on store events, promotions for community non-profit groups, and the new acquisition of significant collections.
It also has a YouTube channel with 60 videos that have attracted about a quarter-million total views.
But Prex currently sells nothing online. The store, says Lambert, “dabbled in eBay” a few years ago. But fees — plus all the staff hours spent monitoring the site, completing transactions and shipping product — made it unproductive.
There is a chance, though, that Prex might someday become an Amazon “store” (an independent but affiliated vendor) to sell some of more esoteric, pricey but slower moving categories (such as movie soundtracks).
For now, the deliberate business strategy is to stay offline and attract business off the street.
“We don’t want to cull our best stuff and take it out of the store,” Lambert says. “If I get a customer who comes all the way from Germany or Japan, I want them to have the experience of finding that special item here. And they’ll buy other things as well.
“How do you get foot traffic in a digital world? That’s our challenge. I think we do a pretty good job of it.”
Prex’s dynamic duo
Lambert came to the Princeton Record Exchange as a staff employee in 1989, bringing solid if bittersweet previous experience in retail. While managing a 5,000-square-foot record store with 30 employees at Quaker Bridge Mall in the early 1980s, Lambert started a special bin for New Wave genre music.
It was a huge success, drawing customers throughout the tri-state area and contributed mightily to his profits. But a regional manager ordered this money making section removed. Why? Inconsistency. The other stores in the chain didn’t have one.
But Lambert found an innovation-friendly business at Prex. With his managerial knowledge, he proved adept at streamlining the cash register and inventory systems. Soon, it was obvious that he was the best qualified staffer for interviewing job applicants — in fact, the only one interested in doing it.
Owner/founder Barry Weisfeld promoted Lambert to general manager, which left him free to pursue his visionary horizons and locate major record collections with high resale potential. It’s proved a good fit. “It takes a certain kind of energy to be an entrepreneur,” Lambert says with appreciation of Weisfeld. “I’m more methodical, into the day to day minutia.”
And during that day to day, Lambert says, “We never know what is going to walk through that door.”
And at 5:30 p.m., that person is Weisfeld himself.
He’d been expected, of course. Weisfeld had been on the road looking at a jazz CD collection that ultimately yielded more than 1,000 individual CDs plus 40 special boxed sets, and a separate rock collection of about 1,300 LPs.
It’s no wonder that the 2007 silver gray Chevy van that Weisfeld had pulled up to the warehouse section’s garage door has been specially reinforced with heavy shock absorbers and a metal safety divider. One box of CDs can weigh 50 lbs. and a box of LPs 70 lbs. And now Weisfeld, Lambert and two staffers lug dozens out of the truck and into the building.
Weisfeld now spends a lot of time on the road, evaluating major collections and then hauling them back to Prex. “If they can’t come into the store, I figure you come to them,” he says.
Fortunately, he doesn’t have to shuttle buyers to Prex. Total customers buying items on this particular day were 195 (and since not everyone buys something on every visit, and customers often come with friend, actual traffic foot might have been triple that, Lambert said). A total of 21 collections came into the store.
All of which perpetuates the puzzle encountered by the day’s first customer: with Prex’s growing community of customers and fecund population of product, sections will again have to be rearranged to make room.
Says Weisfeld: “There’s no way we can expand the store unless we put pull-up bars in the ceilings.”
Richard D. Smith is a journalist/researcher/author based in Rocky Hill. He is a frequent contributor to both local and national publications. His latest book is “Legendary Locals of Princeton” (Arcadia Publishing, 2014).