The usual afternoon thunderstorms are pounding the length of U.S. 19, but that doesn't stop a steady trickle of customers from stopping into Palm Harbor's Music Exchange to browse, buy, or just shoot the shit with the little strip-mall shop's owner, 35-year-old Jason Bandy.
A lanky teenaged kid with a tousled mop-top of brown hair approaches the counter with two copies of the new CD by Gainesville punk act Against Me! and asks about titles by two other, relatively obscure bands, Mountain Goats and Cursive. Bandy punches a couple of keys on the computer that doubles as his cash register; the Mountain Goats is out of stock, and the Cursive, released today, has yet to arrive.
"I'm short on some stuff, because I'm going out of business," Bandy explains. "I'm closing the store."
The lanky kid's face assumes the expression of a puppy that's not sure at all why it's being punished.
"You see?" asks Bandy. "You see that reaction? I'm not sad about getting out, but a lot of my customers are."
Music Exchange, which deals in both CDs and DVDs, is the last independent new-and-used music store in northern Pinellas County. Once, there were more — Record and Tape Outlet (better known to locals as RTO) and the spot on Gulf to Bay that housed Vinyl Museum, Planet Grooves and Park Avenue CDs over the years spring immediately to mind. But time and economics take their toll, and only Music Exchange, which spent nine years in a plaza at the corner of U.S. 19 and Enterprise before relocating three years ago to its current home a few miles north at the Seabreeze Plaza shopping center, remains.
But only until Bandy's lease runs out at the end of October, or perhaps even earlier, if he sells out of his inventory. Soon, he'll begin discounting the majority of his merchandise, and will continue to do so until everything is gone.
Like most indie music stores, Music Exchange was a result of passion rather than ambitious business strategy. A lifelong music fan who always wanted a record-store job as a teen, Bandy ended up working at several Bay area sound purveyors while attending USF. Eventually, with some financial and managerial help from his father, he left school to establish his own place.
"I just started going from pawn shop to pawn shop, across the whole state," he remembers. "I bought three or four thousand CDs, and started with that, plus a bunch of my own stuff."
Music Exchange grew into the archetypical cool alternative to the big chains. A haunt for hip kids. A destination for diehards seeking hard-to-find artists. A new option for non-regulars who just happened by. An employer of all manner of locals, from teens wanting a cool gig and young musicians to Bandy's first wife and even his mother (whom he says he fired on her birthday).
But with the new millennium came new changes in the music industry. Digital downloads and file-sharing emerged, and big-box retailers got into the music-sales business, offering below-cost sale prices that defied competition. Then came the post-9/11 retail slump, an economic shakeup from which some sectors have yet to recover.
"It all has an impact," says Bandy, who's gradually gone from a staff of eight to a staff of two, including himself. "But the Best Buys and Circuit Citys have definitely put a hit on things."
Still, it isn't the threat of bankruptcy that's spurred him to move on.
"It's not that it's not a profitable business," he says. "I just don't want to do it anymore. I've been doing retail my entire life, and it's gotten to the point where I have to be here all the time."
According to Bandy, who's earned his real estate license and plans on going into that line of work, there's been some response from parties interested in taking over Music Exchange. But he hesitates to call any of it serious. And he can't wait around, possibly forever, in the hope that someone will appear to keep the store going.
"We'll see if it happens; I know everybody would be happy if somebody did," he says.
"I still love music. But I don't want to have to talk about nothing but music to everybody anymore."
Down at the opposite end of Pinellas County, another independent music retailer isn't getting out of the business, but it's got to get out of its current location, and quickly.
Since '99, Daddy Kool Records has catered to shopping pedestrians and the music aficionados who attend shows at the nearby State Theatre — which, like Daddy Kool, is owned by the same folks who run venerable Bay area concert-promotion company No Clubs Productions — from the 600 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete. (DISCLOSURE: This writer spent a couple of years behind the counter at Daddy Kool before coming to work at the Planet.) The shop has moved once before, if only a few storefronts down.
But now, the long-rumored sale of much of the block has gone through; the building encompassing everything from the Crislip Arcade at one end to Daddy Kool at the other will be demolished to make way for condos. The record store is one of a very small handful of businesses still operating there, and has only a scant few weeks to find another home and vacate the premises.
"It's like you're a teenager, and your friend pulls up outside the house and honks, and as you're running down the stairs, your mom asks where you're going, and you just yell 'Out!'" says Manny Matalon, who's managed the shop since its opening. "We don't know where we're going, we're just going 'Out!'"
What Matalon does know, however, is that Daddy Kool's not going away. The name and products — new-and-used CD, DVD and vinyl sales, as well as various cool-lifestyle accoutrements — will live on, somewhere.
"Our business is better than it's been in a long time," says Matalon, who's already begun his own discount sale to help lighten the load for relocation. "We're actually experiencing growth, which is uncommon.
"Of course we're hoping for a smooth transition, but there's no guarantee."