BELFAST, Maine — A horn-filled cover of a Radiohead song filled Wild Rufus Records recently as a longtime customer flipped through the store’s vinyl section and shot the breeze with owner Nathaniel Bernier.
It was a scene that could have taken place at any time in the music store’s storied 31-year history in midcoast Maine — allowing for changes in the music selection and the fact that Wild Rufus last summer trucked its inventory north from Camden to a new location on High Street in Belfast.
But Bernier was telling customer Justin Case of Union that Wild Rufus will close for good at the end of the summer — and that seemed to add a minor note to the happy song that was playing.
“I have to say, Wild Rufus is the first record shop I walked into,” Case said. “If there’s music I want to get, I come here. I’m sad to hear it’s going by the wayside.”
Bernier, who has owned the shop since 2001, said that in the last 10 years, he has watched the music industry change “really dramatically.”
“I’m closing the door,” he told Case. “And I’m going to sell the inventory online, where everybody’s buying it anyway. What I’m doing is deleting the overhead.”
He recounted an anecdote that, to him, underlined and highlighted the writing on the wall.
A customer came in around Christmas and asked about new Latin music. Bernier showed him some new albums and talk to him about the music.
“He said, ‘Thanks, I’m going to go home and download them now,’” Bernier said. “He said that to my face. I don’t want to fight that anymore.”
‘Doom and gloom’
Independent record stores such as Wild Rufus are facing many pressures now, industry experts say. Those include cheaper prices offered by big-box retailers and the changing buying habits of music fans. People who likely would have purchased an album from a record store 20 years ago now may be more inclined to buy a track from iTunes or download or pirate the album on other music-sharing websites.
Those pressures are affecting record stores all around the country, said Melanie Nipper of the Alabama-based Coalition of Independent Music Stores, which advocates and arranges marketing programs for its members.
“Every store that I speak with is facing new challenges every day,” she said. “There’s a ton of doom and gloom in the media regarding record stores.”
But Nipper said that all the news isn’t bad. Her organization promotes special events, including National Record Store Day, held the third Saturday in April, and that day has helped to encourage what she calls music “superfans” to come back to the stores.
The group also has been working on what she calls a digital solution — or “answer to iTunes” — for some time. There now is a website, www.thinkindie.com, where music customers can buy tracks online with a portion of sales delivered to their local record stores.
“At the end of the day, you really can’t beat the experience of going to record stores and thumbing through vinyl records,” she said. “And speaking with these owners who have been in the business all their lives, and it’s their passion.”
Don Menninghaus of Dr. Records in Orono is one of those people. He has been selling music out of his small, jam-packed store in the basement of the former Masonic Building on Main Street since 1984. Generations of University of Maine and Orono High School students have received their musical education while flipping through records, cassette tapes and compact discs in the store’s crowded shelves.
“Any business is a struggle,” he said. “Current trends are actually favorable at this point. When you do it a long time, you tend to take a longer view. The pendulum swings one way and then the other way.”
Although Menninghaus said he wasn’t sure how many more swings of the music industry pendulum he would witness, what he appreciates about his job has stayed the same, regardless of the continuously evolving technology.
“I think what’s always been the driving force is connecting people with music they get excited about. It doesn’t have to be what gets me excited. We’re all looking for the same thing from music — we’re looking for an emotional release.”
End of an era
Bernier, a gregarious and tattooed entrepreneur, became the sixth owner of Wild Rufus Records after he had started the “world’s largest” reggae website.
“I’d loved Wild Rufus for a while,” he said. “But I wanted what we call in the business ‘click and brick.’ I wanted to have the physical store as well as the website, so I could do both.”
After doing everything for a while — including selling music over eBay — an overwhelmed Bernier turned off the reggae website. It’s a decision he wouldn’t make today, he said ruefully.
“With the advent of the Internet and downloading ability, the music industry was doomed,” he said. “I am doing 25 percent of the sales that I used to do.”
He moved from Camden a year ago in search of cheaper rents and a funkier vibe in Belfast.
Even though he has felt welcomed with open arms by the community — City Manager Joseph Slocum dropped by the store on his second day of business in Belfast last June to say hello and order a CD — he simply hasn’t been selling enough to make the store worth his while.
The decision to close Wild Rufus has been coming for a long time, Bernier said, but he’s going to miss the human interactions very much.
“I’m a musical educator,” he said. “I’m like a three-dimensional version of Pandora.com.”
That is the online radio station that customizes its musical selection to each listening through a ratings system.
Bernier said he’s intentionally not having a “fire sale,” but instead is going to start selling off his 100,000-piece inventory of vinyl records and CDs over the summer. After Wild Rufus closes, he will sell the rest online — through eBay and another store at a website called www.half.com. He is no longer ordering new music for customers.
“It will take me three to five years to sell this,” he said, gesturing at the loaded shelves around him.
He’s sad about the demise of another small business in a world that seems more and more to be looking to the Internet to do its business.
“When I’m making money, I’m spending money locally, too,” he said. “Little towns are really going to suffer eventually.”