A Look at the Iconic Record Stores of Yesterday and the Stores Still Thriving Today
September 29, 2011
Located in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, Rolling Stone magazine has singled out the store for its stylistic range, DJ equipment and the fact that it is an enjoyable hangout spot, a crucial element to the stores in the upper echelon of this list. The Sound Garden is also known for having a friendly, knowledgeable staff.
The Best Record Stores in the USA: The top 25 spots for unique vinyl and CDs, from San Francisco to Boston
September 17, 2010
Baltimore, MD: The role of Baltimore's central new-and-used, vinyl-and-CD, DVD-and-BluRay, music-and-more-music store has been comfortably played for more than two decades by the Sound Garden, in the heart of Fells Point, which stays open till midnight on weekends and features the city's biggest stock of physical music. It's an enjoyable hangout spot. Not only do the shelves teem with the latest in everything from hotly tipped indie rock to streets-approved rap, but also because the Sound Garden has one of the friendliest staffs you could hope for. And if you care to broadcast your finds, they sell DJ equipment as well.
Sound Vision -
Bryan Burkert's music store in Fells Point defies the odds in a downloaded world
By Stephen Kiehl
December 13, 2006
The first of them appeared at noon on a balmy day in November, young women, mostly, lining up on the brick sidewalk of Thames Street. They had cut work and skipped class to huddle for hours outside a record store for a glimpse of a rock star.
The Goo Goo Dolls can have this effect on people. The band has sold more than 10 million albums and played at such storied venues as Radio City Music Hall and the Sydney Opera House. But on this day, the Goos were at the Sound Garden, a scruffy but superb music store in Fells Point.
"Part of the reason the Goo Goo Dolls came to us is they appreciate record stores," said Bryan Burkert, who opened Sound Garden in 1994 with little money and no business experience. A bartender and freelance writer at the time, he's not someone you would have bet on.
But as music store chains have collapsed around him -- bye-bye, Tower Records; so long, Sam Goody -- Burkert has quietly shown how an independent, old-fashioned, bricks-and-mortar store can thrive in the era of iTunes, Amazon.com and illegal music downloads.
With a wide selection, a deep catalog and decent prices -- as well as good relations with the music community in Baltimore -- Burkert's Sound Garden is having its best year since opening. He said about 20,000 people visit the store each week, and an in-store stage Burkert built this summer has brought in hundreds of suburbanites to see artists such as Ludacris and Regina Spektor.
"It's one of the best record stores in the U.S., no doubt," said Michael Kurtz, president of the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of 11 independent retailers, including Sound Garden, that have 85 locations across the country. As big chains scale back, the remaining independents are filling a void.
"It's hard to find nice independent record stores now," said Tori Borland, 14, who came to Sound Garden from Ellicott City for the first time to see the Goo Goo Dolls. The suburban offerings, she said, are limited to large chains such as FYE and Best Buy. "It's become so corporate."
That's the last word that comes to mind when you enter Sound Garden, where visitors are greeted with a riot of colors, bright light streaming from the skylights and racks upon racks of CDs and DVDs. The walls are covered in T-shirts and posters of John Lennon, Tupac Shakur and Muhammad Ali. Hanging from the exposed ventilation shafts are a decade-old pinata and a plastic skeleton.
Even more diverse is the mix of customers. On a recent morning, a small girl in a Harley-Davidson jacket stood next to her father as they examined used DVDs. Next to them was a young man in dreadlocks. Meanwhile, two uniformed police officers entered the store to look around.
And then there's the staff -- a knowledgeable bunch that's the furthest thing from corporate. Manager Liz Felber has red streaks in her hair, round black shoes covered in white stars and as many piercings as Christina Aguilera. Felber was complaining recently to anyone who would listen about how she'd been called for jury duty.
"They're never going to pick me," she said. "They'll be like, 'Look at those shoes, whoa!'" (No surprise: She wasn't chosen.)
On the floor one morning last week, Felber deftly fielded a string of queries from customers. Looking for the Brian Setzer Orchestra? "Follow me," she said. Is the jumbo-size Nirvana poster for sale? "It's on back order. It should be here tomorrow." What about the American Hardcore DVD? "It's not out yet."
Sound Garden's success has come at a transforming time for the industry. Sales of CDs and records are down by about a third in the past decade, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. At the same time, the number of songs sold online, through outlets such as iTunes, has exploded, to 366 million last year. Toss in the success of online retailers such as Amazon and illegal downloads, and the outlook appears bleak for retail record stores.
Tower Records, one of the most revered chains, is shutting all its stores this month. Sam Goody has announced the closing of more than a third of its stores, as part of a bankruptcy reorganization. But Burkert is not worried.
"Everybody can keep telling me that I'm not going to be here," he said. "But if I listened to what everybody said, I would have closed five years ago."
The revival of Baltimore's waterfront as a magnet for young people has helped Burkert, but his store has long been a destination for music lovers in Baltimore. Now, he's seeing more customers from the suburbs, where retail music outlets are disappearing. An die Musik, for instance, closed its full-service Towson and Ellicott City locations, and sells just jazz and classical music in its downtown store.
Part of Burkert's success was getting into the used CD market before some competitors. Burkert said he pays more than any other area store for used CDs -- up to $4 in cash or $5 in store credit -- drawing customers from across the region. And he makes more money on his used business than selling new CDs.
With the wholesale price on some new CDs at $12 or more, Burkert sells them for barely more than he pays. He'll sometimes even take a loss on new CDs, selling Justin Timberlake's latest album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, for $9.99, for instance, assuming the low prices will draw people into the store who will buy used CDs or used DVDs.
"If your whole business is new-release CDs or new-release DVDs, you don't have a business right now," said Burkert, who has wavy brown rock-star hair and favors Adidas warm-up jackets. "But our business has always been about the whole -- the depth of the catalog, the used market."
He also holds down prices by buying in bulk when a music or video company offers a discount. While other retailers may buy four to six weeks' worth of inventory at discount, Burkert may buy two years' worth. This involves some gambling on what will sell long-term, but Burkert believes he knows his customers.
When Elliott Smith's album either/or was released in 1997, Sound Garden sold more than 1,000 copies -- impressive considering that in its first year the album sold about 100,000 copies nationwide.
"But there's another side to the coin," Burkert said. "Sometimes Barry Manilow is the No. 1 album in the country, and we strike out on that like nobody's business."
Burkert, 39, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. His parents moved to Baltimore when he was in college. Visiting them in their new home, he realized Baltimore didn't have a full-service independent record store. So after he graduated, with a degree in mass communications from St. Bonaventure University, he decided to start one.
"I don't really know what made me think I could do it," he said. He rented a small store -- about 1,000 square feet -- on Thames Street in Fells Point. Why there? "It was where I lived. There really wasn't a lot of thought to it."
But he did think a lot about the kind of store he wanted. He wanted listening stations where customers could hear any CD in the store. He wanted a deep catalog, the widest selection in all genres but classical, lots of used CDs and racking that wasn't stacked -- meaning if he had 14 copies of the new Beyonce, he wouldn't put them all on the shelves, just one or two, leaving more room for other titles.
"I went around to every store I could find, and I started writing down what I liked and what I didn't like," he said. "And, eventually, I took everything I liked about the stores and put it into one store."
After a couple of years in its initial location, Sound Garden moved across Thames Street in 1996 to its present home, a 7,500-square-foot space next to The Horse You Came In On saloon. At first, Burkert didn't have enough inventory to fill the space, and he had to borrow heavily to make the move. He lost $80,000 the first winter in the new store.
But his customers found him, and he opened Sound Garden branches in Syracuse and Geneseo, N.Y., because he had good friends in those towns. The Geneseo store closed last year, Burkert said, because it was doing much less business than the other locations.
Burkert also owns Fletcher's, a bar and club on Bond Street in Fells Point. Some of the bands that play at Fletcher's also make in-store appearances at Sound Garden, and owning the club enables Burkert to build relationships with artists in the Baltimore music community.
"We get everyone as they're going up and everyone as they're coming down," he said.
Roman Kuebler, lead singer for the Baltimore-based Oranges Band, said Sound Garden is "relevant not only to all sections of Baltimore, but to all kinds of music fans."
Sound Garden carries 80,000 CD titles and about 20,000 DVD titles. Burkert won't disclose proprietary financial information, but the anecdotes are telling: The registers are always busy on weekends. The store sold more than 130 copies of Jay-Z's new album on its first day of release last month. And the store's single biggest sale came this past summer, when a teenager from the suburbs rolled up with his friends and spent more than $5,000 -- so much that it jammed the computer and had to be split into two sales. A copy of half the receipt, for $3,194, is taped to the ceiling above the front counter.
"You don't want to drop in for two seconds," said Tom Sellner, a DJ and dance teacher in Columbia who visits Sound Garden every other week. "You want to have time to find good stuff."
Over two hours at the store on a recent morning, Sellner combed the racks of new and used CDs, listened to a handful of selections and discussed '60s pop with one of the clerks. In the end, he walked out with three CDs, including one he discovered, by the Kings of Diggin', because it was playing on the store's sound system.
Kurtz, of the Music Monitor Network, said Burkert's partnership with Baltimore FM station 98 Rock to feature local bands at Fletcher's and his support for Baltimore music has helped build a loyal customer base.
"All of these things make him an integral part of the music community, which is one thing iTunes can never be," Kurtz said.
Burkert, who doesn't own an iPod, has his own criticisms of the online music business. He said the sound of downloaded songs is inferior to CDs and that because you don't get a physical product when you download music, your investment has no resale value. He also rues the fact that the vast majority of downloaded purchases are single songs, not whole albums.
"I don't think there's an appreciation of the full-length album," said Burkert, perhaps betraying his generational bias. "This is a body of work. This isn't a ring tone."
But Burkert is well aware of the forces shaping the music industry and grateful that his customers have stood by him.
"So many people who enjoy music, who work in the business, have lost their jobs," he said. "I think we all appreciate that we get to work in this industry."
BEST of 2009
Baltimore CITY PAPER
Goods and Services Winners 2009
Best CD Store
The Sound Garden
1616 Thames St., (410)-563-9011
Leaving your house to procure music may be less convenient than downloading, but the music on a disc will probably sound better, even ripped to your MP3 player. (Are you really gonna freak/geek out about the Beatles remasters and then download them? Thought not.) And we rarely flip through the shrewd assortment of hits and obscurities at Fells Point's venerable CD joint looking for something without finding something else we want, nay, need--usually several somethings--in a way that no "if you like this, you might like this" web-site widget has ever duplicated. Perennial Best of Baltimore winner the Sound Garden carries the best title-for-title physical selection of music in town, and if you're on a back-to-vinyl kick, well, it's got that, too.
PAST BALTIMORE CITY PAPER AWARDS:
Best CD Store 2008
Best CD Store 2007
Best CD Store 2006
Best CD Store 2005
Best CD Store 2004
Best CD Store 2003
Best CD Store 2002
Best CD Store 2001
Best CD Store 2000
Best CD Store 1999
Best CD Store 1997
Best CD Store 1996
Baltimore's Music Box
2004 - The Flywire
Rediscover the Music Lover in You at Baltimore's Best CD Store -The Sound Garden
by M. Evans Crump
Way before there were department store chains that sold music to the masses, there were music lovers. We existed through generations. Stirred by our ancestors' drum beats, quartets, big bands and orchestras, we played our air guitars, bands in the garage and basements, and turn tables in our homeboy's room. We sung lead in the mirror, on the corner or on the front porch with our crew dancing back up. We shouted, hummed and harmonized in unison in school or on Sundays with the choir. We survived through the 33s, 45s, 78s, LPs, boot-leg CDs, eight track, reel to reel home grown recordings, underground mixed tapes and cassette tapes of our favorite jams straight off the radio. We still exist.
Before acres of fluorescent lights and wall-to-wall carpet was the scene to shop for our favorite artists next to the computers and big screens; we bought, researched and longed for our favorite songs in warm, intimate settings. We immersed ourselves into the selections. The record store employees knew every album, artist, and sadly shook their heads if we picked up a loser and gently steered us to the real deal. "Hey you need to check this out. This is the truth." They were our musical ambassadors and helped to develop our self-proclaimed musical good taste of today.
If you cannot relate to these images, have some faith and believe that there is a music connoisseur within. For those who nod your head in recollection, those days are not lost forever. You can reclaim yesteryear at Baltimore's very own Sound Garden.
Stepping into Sound Garden took me back to my pre-teen days where I spent my allowance on 45s and my college days where I secretly dreamed to be a club mix master. At Sound Garden, music ambassadors are still in full swing. It has that inviting neighborhood feel and caters to all music lovers. Opened in 1993, Sound Garden is located in historic Fells Point and is open late seven days a week with thousands of new and used CDs and DVDs with a wide selection of music and movies in all genres. Its stock carries new releases, imports, major and independent labels, vinyl, hard to find titles, t-shirts, accessories and posters. The Scarface poster collection (for you bachelors) is mind-blowing. Research and test out new and old sounds at the audio stations that allow you to listen before you buy. Also sell your used CDs and DVDs for good money. Visit Sound Garden for yourself and rediscover the music lover within...and find out why City Paper named it Baltimore's Best CD store for 10 years straight.
BEST RETAIL FACIAL HAIR
MARCH MUSTACHE MADNESS
2004 - City Paper
Every Spring, the mighty men of the Sound Garden CD store curb their razors and indulge in Baltimore's finest retail facial-hair tradition -March Mustache Madness. "All the guys are required to participate," says blissfully exempt female employee Liz Felber. "Our guys look creepy. They grow the creepiest mustaches they can grow. Seventies porn 'staches, you name it." Dave Policastri, who sported a "straight cookie duster" this past MMM, is quick to set forth the tradition's main rule. "Basically, we don't allow any chin hair. Just all mustache. Some guys try really hard and they can't grow very much of a mustache, but we accept all mustaches."
Now approaching its fifth year, the annual ritual is starting to spread to other establishments. "One of the guys at Holy Frijoles is roommates with one of the guys here, and he grew a huge scary one," Felber says. Even the promotional posters decorating the store's walls and CD bins have fallen prey to MMM, bearing felt-tip pen Fu Manchus and handlebars well into wintertime. "They'll draw them on every poster we have in the store," laughs Felber. "I mean, Macy Gray has a big honking mustache. No one is safe."
ART IN THE CITY
Sep. 6, 2004 -The Towerlight
by Lauren Tilley
September 06, 2004
You’ve got Sam Goody, Tower Records, Musicland and Best Buy. Pretty much the standard places to buy CDs or DVDs. But shopping at these sometimes-pricy locales doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the best possible deal.
But perhaps a better place to find your favorite music and CDs would be Sound Garden. Not the former band Soundgarden, but the Fells Point music store. It is the home to a number of CDs, a wall filled with DVDs and even a vinyl section. It also buys and trades used CDs and DVDs. It’s a lot like Record and Tape Traders, but with a better selection, a bigger used CD section and a wonderful downtown atmosphere.
This music store sells it all. Whether you are looking for metal, blues, R&B, rap, hip hop, country, rock, jazz, electronic, folk, punk, movie & Broadway or local music, Sound Garden has it.
The store carries all the most popular bands, but for every mainstream CD, there is an indie one to match it. If you’re into indie and cannot find a certain CD anywhere, you’re likely to find it at Sound Garden.
Over half the store is stocked with second-hand CDs. The used section is huge, the prices are lower and all the CDs are guaranteed. The store boasts careful inspection before buying a used CD, and proudly exclaims, “less than one in 1,000 is returned.”
A listening station equipped for about a half-dozen people at a time is available, so if you’re not sure about one of those used CDs, you can hear it for yourself.
The selection of DVDs is smaller, but remember, this is a music store. Yet, it is something to call home about. The used DVD wall is even bigger than the new DVD section.
And the prices are very reasonable, no matter what you’re in the store for. If you’re destitute but need something to listen to, there are always cassettes and the $1.99 CD bin.
Sound Garden also sells T-shirts, posters, magazines, pins and stickers. Like the CDs, there’s a lot of variety with these items too. You can buy a Linkin Park sticker anywhere, but where else might you find a sticker for the Pixies or Fugazi?
The coolest thing about Sound Garden, even after all those deals and variety, is the atmosphere.
Set in historic Fells Point, it’s bound to be great. The small store lighted by a skylight is decorated with posters, hanging T-shirts, stickers, Christmas lights and music artifacts.
Music plays overhead through the speakers, but doesn’t blare techno like in Abercrombie and Fitch. The music features random favorites at the perfect volume so you can still hear yourself think.
Sound Garden, “Baltimore’s Best since 1993,” is located at 1616 Thames St. in Fells Point and has ample parking.