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Success In A Failing Industry

Numerous+famous+people%2C+including+Francis+McDormand%2C+Tom+Waits%2C+and+Chris+Robinson+have+visited+Red+Devil+Records.+
Numerous famous people, including Francis McDormand, Tom Waits, and Chris Robinson have visited Red Devil Records.

Numerous famous people, including Francis McDormand, Tom Waits, and Chris Robinson have visited Red Devil Records.

Numerous famous people, including Francis McDormand, Tom Waits, and Chris Robinson have visited Red Devil Records.

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Starting a new business can be a real challenge. You need an idea, time, a generous stipend of money, patience, a detailed plan for how to make capital, research, and a bit of luck. You constantly worry about maintaining interest in your work, making costly mistakes, and turning a profit. Even the most popular of industries and businesses are difficult to start up. So imagine the seemingly endless burdens of choosing to start a company in an industry that has been tanking for over 30 years. That is the decision that Barry Lazarus made in 1998. But instead of the difficulties that so many who chose the same line of work have experienced, Lazarus has defied the odds to be successful in an industry that he loves.

In the 1980s, records were everywhere: they most popular way to listen to music. People loved the beautiful sleeve casings the records came in. It was an experience to carefully place the precariously created record on the record player and watch the needle fall into the groove; emitting a distinct and previously heralded sound. But as CDs and tapes became more common, record sales began dropping. In 2007, record sales hit an all time low, as online music services–many of them free–permeated listeners’ ears. In recent years, however, sales have risen slightly, though not nearly to the extent of three decades in the past.

This is the worldly context of my interview with Lazarus as I walk into Red Devil Records on Tuesday, February 21 for our first interview. There are a few people in the shop, browsing records. Lazarus stands behind the counter near the entrance, working on his computer. As I approach, he seems to recognize me from our exchanged emails, offering me his hand and suggesting I put my bag down next to the counter, away from the potential route customers take to the register; he is clearly always thinking about business. The interview is terse and to the point, yet covers a great deal of topics. Initially short and seemingly bothered, after a few minutes Lazarus opens up about his store and its successes.

He started Red Devil Records in Petaluma in 1998.

“I had a stressful job before,” he explains. “I tried to think of the opposite of that, so I chose a record store in the North Bay. Getting out of the hectic dirty big city and coming to a smaller, quieter place and doing what I liked doing.”

In terms of the name Red Devil Records, he says, “I figured it just kind of rolled off the tongue well and it would make a good logo. We’re not satanists.”

Lazarus was pragmatic at the start, trying out different business tactics before settling into a groove that eventually saw his store’s success.

“It took time because I wasn’t really sure what direction I was going to go in when I first opened. The store was half empty–or half full, if you want to be optimistic–when I opened because I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it yet. It took a while for it to get going,” he explains.  

In 2004, Lazarus moved Red Devil Records to San Rafael, on a bustling street corner. This spot, due to its great location and Lazarus’ gathered experience, was successful from the start.

“My store is very busy and does very well,” he says. “I pay a lot of attention to detail and you have to have a knack for it, you have to have a good natural business sense, and you have to make wise decisions.”

Some of these wise decisions include being very careful about which records he orders for his store. He doesn’t want to order records that no one will buy. In addition, during Record Store Day, (where limited edition vinyl becomes available for one day in April) Lazarus is careful to not be leftover with extra, useless records at the end of the day.

“I know there are other [record] stores that get stuck with thousands and thousands of dollars worth of inventory left over, and so I don’t want that.”

Lazarus is very serious about music and his store, though his general attitude and salesmanship is a bit out of the ordinary. Most record store owners or workers are animated and cheery, all the while lamenting the decrease of worldwide record sales and perhaps a bit good-naturedly annoyed at the millennial generation. Lazarus does not fit this mold — he is far more relaxed, quiet, and indifferent about the international state of records. But when I ask him about the very recent resurgence of records, he has something to say.

“I guess in these modern times that people want something more old fashioned, more old school. And I think people love music, and records look and sound so much better,” explains Lazarus. “People have started to find that out and they wanted to go back to what sounded and looked the best.”

Although he does not follow the lively yet contrived greeting that Walmart employees use, that does not mean he does not want people in his store to buy his records. No matter how one feels about Lazarus’ style, one cannot dispute that he has found a way to operate his store that has been successful and unique.

After we finish, he goes immediately back to his computer, perhaps exploring for the best records to order for his store. There’s a good chance he’s not going to think about our interview very much in the future, if at all; there are far more important matters on his mind. However, the music and business protege offers a unique angle on records and how one can make a generous profit in an industry that doesn’t offer many others such success.

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