When Buffalo Records abruptly closed down in September, it appeared to be indicative of something greater than just another local independent business going the way of the Republican Congress. It looked like yet another sign of the shift in music retail as a whole, as the entire industry seems to be moving online and the act of actually leaving the house to buy a physical object that emits pleasurable sounds quickly becomes the post-millennial equivalent of your grandparents trudging eight miles through snow to get to school.
As it turns out, though, the store never really went under; it just changed hands. And it’s even gotten bigger. So does that mean the state of the American indie record shop is not as bad as one might imagine? New owner Eric Kayser thinks so.
“It’s the bigger guys that are having problems,” he says, citing the recent decline of once-powerful chains such as Sam Goody and Tower Records. “They’re not into personal service and can’t respond locally. The opportunity is now here for the smaller guys who are passionate about music and know local markets to do well.”
A former college radio DJ, label head and marketing guy for Rhino Records, Kayser, 38, inherited the store from his longtime friend John Healy — whom Kayser first met back in the early 1990s when he put out a single by Healy’s band, Citrus Groove, on his own Honey Chain imprint — after Healy decided he wanted to devote more time to his family. Healy owned Buffalo for a total of seven years, spending five in Santa Barbara and two in midtown Ventura. But with one child and another on the way, Healy needed relief from the 24-hour job of running a small business. So he sold everything to Kayser, who relocated to Ventura in 2005 after becoming a parent himself and was looking for something new to try.
Kayser’s first decision was to move the store out of the desolation row known as Thompson Boulevard and into downtown. After struggling to nail down a lease on three separate buildings, he finally settled on the former site of Shoreline Cycles at the corner of Santa Clara and Oak streets, a space roughly twice the size of the old store. Aside from changing locales, Kayser is also expanding Buffalo’s inventory, keeping its indie rock base but also appealing more to families and to what he calls “the public radio listener.” Along with stocking children’s music (and even having a kiddie play area), the new-look Buffalo will also sell more albums by the likes of Los Lobos, Bob Dylan, et cetera — stuff that attracts a slightly older demographic. “Boomers still buy a lot of product,” Kayser says. And, like pretty much every other record store hoping to stay alive in today’s market, Keyser will also add a digital component to Buffalo’s sales model, offering 99 cent downloads through their Web site, buffalorecords.org, via Burn Lounge, a company with “a selection comparable to iTunes, believe it or not.”
But getting people off their computers and through Buffalo’s doors is Kayser’s primary goal. And as far as that goes, his plans for meeting that challenge are not much different than what was happening at the old location: continue having live in-store performances (now with a stage), autograph signings, art exhibits (with a designated gallery space) and, most importantly, “a friendly and knowledgeable sales staff,” he says. “I don’t think anything can really replace that.”