The Explorist Spins Back Vintage Vinyl — and Profits

Give me numbers: The Mission's very own record store is helping fuel the vinyl industry. Infographic by Christy Khoshaba.

Give me numbers: The Mission's very own record store is helping fuel the vinyl industry. Infographic by Christy Khoshaba.

En Español.

The year is 2013. The place is the Mission District. The scene is chock-full of iPhones, iPads and MacBooks — oh, and some of those round, black objects called vinyl records that became popular in the 1950s.

Vinyl record sales jumped 17 percent in 2012, to 4.6 million from 3.9 million the previous year, according to Neilson SoundScan, a music tracking information system. But the resurgence in vinyl sales began several years ago, with annual double-digit growth.

The Explorist International, the Mission’s own independent and easy-to-miss music store on 24th Street, is one of the businesses helping fuel the vinyl industry, even in today’s digital age.

Part of the growth in vinyl sales can be attributed to its rediscovery by college students and young adults who grew up with digital technology. As they’ve grown older, some are reclaiming vinyl through their parents’ or grandparents’ collections, said Jim Donio, president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.

Some of vinyl’s charm comes from its raw quality — scratches, screams and all. Just ask the programmers at radio station KPOO FM, which has an authentic soul program featuring vintage vinyl from the ’50s and ’60s.

Tapping into those allures comes at a price for the Explorist. “I have an art-for-art’s-sake budget,” said Chris Dixon, the store’s owner. In his early 40s, Dixon wears thick-rimmed black glasses on his scruffy round face.

Investing in his carefully curated inventory requires, for example, a trip to France, where he’ll search for rare French pop records from the ’60s that are hard to find in the United States. Artists like Francoise Hardy, France Gall, Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Dutronc are on his radar, and when he finds them he’ll pay around $5 to $7 for each and sell them for $10 to $15 each.

Dixon has been in the music industry for over 15 years as a distributor, seller and DJ, and will tell you that he’ll sacrifice profit margin, even “eat it” sometimes, for some of the better finds.

“You want to have those records where somebody walks in and says, ‘Holy shit, you have this!’” he said. Like the one he’s selling for $80 — the most expensive one in the store — a seven-inch vinyl with locked grooves by the band NON titled “Pagan Muzak.” With few remaining, it’s certainly a pleaser.

“Check this out, I think you’ll dig it” describes his style of curating rare vinyl, Dixon said. And customers get it. On the evening of Valentine’s Day, a brunette wrapped in a charcoal coat came into the store in a flustered state, explaining that she needed to find a last-minute gift for her beau. Dixon recommended the American solo artist Scott Walker. “[His records] make a great gift,” he said.

The record was among the standards — Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, ACDC, the Who — bought with the “money-for-money’s-sake budget.” To mix up his goods, Dixon also relies on people selling him their personal records. The sellers can rake in a quarter to a third of the selling price.

Sometimes prospective sellers come in with five to ten records, sometimes just one. Dixon looks for the person who will bring in a crate of them. “You just never know when that person’s going to walk in.” When they do, “It’s the greatest day ever,” he said with childlike excitement.

Sometimes Dixon will take home a record that’s come into the store after playing it just one time. When he came across a recording of the ’90s British band Stereolab, for example, he couldn’t resist. Sure, he had the album on CD — but not on vinyl.

That exemplifies the choices available to modern fans, said NARM’s Donio. They can listen to music however they want — on CDs, phones and tablets, via online streaming, or on vinyl — and they can listen to both CDs and records; the two are not mutually exclusive.

“The industry would be crazy not to give the fans what they want,” he said.

Where fans want to buy their vinyl also matters. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, more than 65 percent of all vinyl sales took place in independent record stores, according to Neilson SoundScan.

Record Store Day, an event launched in Mountain View in 2008 that takes place every year on the third Saturday in April, boosts attention to vinyl — as well as sales. The week after Record Store Day 2012, vinyl album sales at indie stores grew 183 percent, from 52,000 units to 147,000 units, according to a Neilson SoundScan report. The event can bring in more money for retailers than the holidays.

Well-known recording artists seize the commercial opportunity to release vinyl versions of their albums on Record Store Day. Last year, chart toppers like the Flaming Lips, Metallica and Katy Perry were among the crowd. This year, 2013 Grammy Award winners Mumford and Sons plan to release a vinyl recording for the event.

“There’s something very real about [records], like, ‘Oh I have to get up and touch it and flip it over,’” whereas an iPod “goes and goes when you shuffle,” said Chris Rolls, Dixon’s sidekick, who was sporting a cable-knit sweater, rolled-up denim and chestnut boots.

The record itself is just as tactile as its cover, said Rolls. “You’re holding art; that’s completely absent in the digital age,” said Rolls. He discovered vinyl through his mother’s collection and still has the insets from records by the Beatles and Pink Floyd. “I guess you could download the artwork from iTunes,” he said, shrugging.

Face-to-face interaction is lost when people download a record online rather than buying it in store. As its name suggests, the Explorist invites people to come in and search.

“Online, people have so much anonymity and it’s relatively private,” Rolls said. “Here you have to ask questions.”

The Explorist International, 3174 24th St. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.

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