Backstory

Backstory: Bull City Records finds its niche by rolling with changes

vbridges@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2014 

  • Advice from Chaz Martenstein

    • Customer service is easy to forget. Keep reminding yourself that is one of the most important aspects of your business.

    • The visibility of your location and accessible parking are key.

    • Monitor sales and your customer base and use the information to define your niche.

When Chaz Martenstein moved from Colorado to Durham, he knew it would be hard to find a job in a music store. So he opened his own.

He stocked a second-floor space on Perry Street, just off Ninth Street, with punk, garage and indie rock CDs and brought in some bands to attract traffic.

Over the next eight years, Martenstein, 33, used sales, customer feedback and a new location to shape Bull City Records into a sustainable niche store where old and young come to hunt for vinyl records that range from twangy and pop to indie rock.

“You listen to everything everybody says because the community and the people that are coming are going to tell you exactly the kind (of store) they want you to be,” Martenstein said.

After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 2002, Martenstein moved to Colorado with his girlfriend, Rachael Price. There he worked at a 24-hour convenience store and then a music store. Price later moved to Durham; Martenstein followed in 2005.

Martenstein said he wanted to continue working in a music store, but he knew his options would be limited because people in those positions held onto their jobs.

“Not for the pay, of course,” he said, “Just for the love of working in a record store.”

Before moving to Durham, Martenstein spent nine months crafting a business plan, which he presented to banks, and secured a roughly $30,000 line of credit. He used that and credit cards to stock the store and cover the first few months of bills.

Martenstein soon found it harder to sell CDs as people were finding music free or cheaper in the mp3 format online.

To address the challenge, Martenstein turned to customer service to differentiate himself.

“You have to kind of stay on your game and what’s new and good,” he said.

The increasing use of the digital format coupled with the recession created an even direr year in 2008.

Martenstein started using one of his credit cards again and shuffled his bill payments around a bit, but continued to pay down his debt, which he closed by 2011.

The downturn forced him to improve his ordering and refocus his business model.

Around 2009, vinyl records started to make a comeback as some music labels started including free mp3s with LPs.

“That is when we started to see something shift again,” he said.

Record sales continued to increase along with related pop culture references and promotions, such as the National Record Store Day that falls on the third Saturday in April. In addition, music lovers were getting frustrated with the mp3 format after losing entire music collections with the crash of a hard drive.

In September 2011, Martenstein moved to a new location on Hillsborough Road. He had scouted out the place, which included parking and a glass storefront, while it was occupied by popular frozen-treat business Locopops. When Locopops moved to a bigger space a couple of doors down, Bull City Records moved in.

Revenue doubled pretty quickly, Martenstein said.

Over the years, the shelf space for CDs has gotten smaller and smaller, as record sales now account for about 90 percent of his revenue, he said.

“Again, you are kind of letting the market define what you are,” he said. “What people want.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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