The turntable stops at Webster Records
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2012 - "I'm very good at the past. It's the present I don't understand."
That's a quote from Rob Fleming, owner of the independent record store, Championship Records, in Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity."
For anyone who has ever been obsessed with music - especially in collecting it, indulging in the search for rare finds in record racks and even working in a record store to support that musical addiction - Hornby's book perfectly captures the slightly bent world of record junkies - and the unique ambiance of the record store milieu.
Unfortunately for many small record stores, such as Webster Records in Webster Groves, an impressive history isn't enough to stay afloat in the chaotic economic environment of today's music industry.
Webster Records opened in 1953, and recently achieved the milestone of being the longest continuously open record store west of the Mississippi River. But that will all end when Webster Records closes its doors for the last time on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Roy Gleason first opened the store in the Old Orchard area of Webster Groves in 1953. The shop eventually moved to the Old Webster area on Lockwood in 1958, and then to its present location across the street at 117 West Lockwood in 1986.
Over the years, the store has had only two other owners. Gleason sold the store to Dan Warner in 1986, which coincided with the move to its present location. Then in 2006, Warner sold Webster records to Jennifer Bellm.
Warner, now part of Switzer Candy Co., has many fond memories of his 20 years running the store, especially of Dorothy Gleason, Roy's wife, who continued working at the store into her mid-70s.
"Owning Webster Records was one of the highlights of my life," Warner says. "And Dorothy was the heart and soul of the store and the reason for its strong foundation. She was a walking musical encyclopedia and helped give the store its integrity and reputation, which allowed it to outlast most other stores."
When Warner decided he no longer had time to run both Webster Records and work for Switzer, he decided he needed to sell the store. But he wanted to make sure the new owner would be an ideal fit for the store. He found that person in Jennifer Bellm.
"I ended up selling the store in 2006 to Jennifer," says Warner. "I could see that she had the same passion for music that I had, and that was important."
Bellm, who grew up as a dedicated music fan in Memphis, frequenting independent record stores in that city, was excited to have the opportunity to take over Webster Records.
"I grew up shopping for music at Poplar Tunes in Memphis," recalls Bellm. "Poplar is now closed - another shuttered classic record store - so I was really able to relate when customers shared their experiences with me about growing up shopping at Webster Records."
Although Webster Records had more than a half-century of history in the Webster Groves area, the difficult economic issues facing the retail record business eventually caught up with the store.
"There were so many changes that were challenges for the store," explains Bellm. The increasing dominance of digital music available on the Internet hurt. There's no sales tax on the net, and the record labels had a pricing structure that made it very difficult to compete with 99-cent songs available in iTunes and other sites. And we served several niche markets - classical music and especially traditional jazz - that had an aging fan base. In the case of classical, when the Classic 99 radio station was sold, that hurt as well."
Bellm decided to start buying and selling vinyl record albums and 45s over the past year, and that effort did attract younger customers who were interested in hearing music in that format.
"I had great fun with the resurgence in music on vinyl," she says. "Our 20-something customers think vinyl is the coolest, while our mature customers wonder who would want those old, bulky things."
But it wasn't enough to keep the store going. Bellm decided it was time to close Webster Records shortly after the holidays.
"I had actually been thinking about closing the store for about a year," she explains. "I made the final decision right after Christmas, and it wasn't an easy one to make. I was torn between fighting to keep the store going and moving on with other interests. The lease ends on Jan. 31, so that was the date I picked to close."
Bellm is moving on to manage a tax service, but she remains a music fan - and a major supporter of independent record stores such as Euclid Records, which is also located in Webster Groves.
"I think there always will be local record stores," Bellm says. "They may be fewer in number, smaller in size, but they will be there. St Louis has several incredible music stores. I encourage people to please support them and keep them going in your community. And I am honored that we could be part of their musical journey here at Webster Records."
As the days dwindle down until the closing on Jan. 31, Webster Records is offering great bargains on its remaining stock. All items are now 50 percent off. If you're a music fan - and especially a collector, stop by for some bargains - and say farewell to a great little record store.
Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who often writes about music for the Beacon.