Vatican City Vinyl: Maintaining the unholy home of rock ‘n roll records

By Jason Free, Executive Editor

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic and very old, had it not been for Magic Platter Compact Disc, a long-since closed music retail chain in Birmingham, AL, my life would have gone down a very different, probably very boring path. Without Magic Platter and its owner, Don Van Cleave, my music world would have been limited to what was played on the half-dozen radio stations running in town. (Think endless loops of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Huey Lewis and the News, Mr. Mister, Olivia Newton-John, Eddie Rabbitt and REO Speedwagon and you should get the idea.) By spending countless hours listening to music at the Riverchase store, flipping through releases and, most importantly, asking Don and his staff constant questions, I developed an appreciation of music and musicians that has served as the foundation for all the work I have done while studying the creative industries.

Magic Platter's influence went way beyond just introducing me to Guided By Voices, Sun Ra, and The Gerladine Fibbers. Don Van Cleave reached out to other independent music store owners to create the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), an influential chain of stores that exists even today. Unfortunately, like so many other music retail stores, Magic Platter closed. Don never left the music industry – he is currently the manager of Soundgarden – and his philosophy lives on within CIMS. Today, in Sarasota, FL, two people, Katelyn Booth and Christian Downing, have opened a vinyl record store with the same mission and ethos as Magic Platter: Vatican City Vinyl Records, The Unholy Home of Rock 'n Rock Records.

Jason Free: Who came up with the slogan of “The Unholy Home of Rock 'n Roll Records”?

photo 1Katelyn Booth: I guess I came up with it. It started off as a joke. We used it to sell records online.

We hope that it’s obvious that it is meant to be whimsical. It is meant to balance out the “Vatican City Vinyl Records” part of our name. We wanted to make sure people did not think we were a place to buy religious records. Anyone doing that would just get disappointed.

Originally, when we were going to open a store we were going to have a name change to Time Warp Records. We thought that would be better for our neighborhood because our community is kind of conservative. We did not know how the “Vatican City Vinyl Records” name would go over here. We did not know whether or not it would turn people off. We just rolled with it. In the end, it was a turned out to be fine. Not to mention, there was already a Time Warp Records store in Australia. Since we wanted to be international sellers, we did not want to cause any unnecessary confusion. As far as we know, there is no other Vatican City Vinyl Records.

Free: What is your educational background?

photo 2Christian Downing: I graduated from college. I have a degree in history with a minor in political science.

Booth: I was a sophomore when I left college. I was studying microbiology at the time, but now I'm undecided. I was going to go back to school in August, but I thought that a full load of classes along with running a new business would be too much. So my education is currently on hold for the business. My plan is to go back to college soon. It is just not a good time right now.

I have always loved education. I like self-education the most. I always thought of school in terms of what kind of degree can I get in order to get a good job? As I have grown up, I have learned that that sort of approach is not for me. A degree is great but I really think more about finding a job I love. What do I need to learn to get that job?

Free: Neither one of you have ever managed a store. Is that correct?

Downing: I have some experience in retail. I managed a jewelry store. I was also a manager at our school cafeteria as well. Those jobs had me managing, but not to this degree though.

Booth: The only other job I've ever had like this was when I worked at an animal shelter. Even though I was not labeled as a manager, I was acting as the manager. I was managing volunteers. I was coordinating adoptions, giving medicine, giving food, doing the walks, doing everything that I could just to make sure that the shelter was operating the way that it should.

Free: How was music a part of your lives before you opened this store?

Downing: Music has always been in my blood, I never expected to make any money off of it thought. When I was younger, I was playing music for a little while and, at the time, I was collecting records as well. Back then, I dabbled at selling records. It was great and it was cool to share music with people who had never heard of the things I had.

When I finished school, there was nothing around in terms of getting a good job. It was ridiculous. I was sick of working with people and with working for someone. Screw working for someone. “I would rather work for myself,” I thought. It dawned on me that the one thing that I've missed the most at my job was records and I know records. I know that, regardless of the circumstances, vinyl will never completely go away. I knew that from even back during the decline in vinyl. There are always collectors who collect records despite the general market being either up or down.

Look at baseball cards, for example. Despite them not being in full swing right now, there is still a market for them. There will always be a market of some kind for them.

Katie was working in some crappy, minimum-wage job. I then basically stole $100 from her and I bought a bunch of records.

Booth: Yeah, he was like, “Hey, do you want to buy some vinyl records?” And I said, “Who in the hell buys vinyl records anymore?" I didn't even know what a record really was. I grew up with CDs. I remember having some cassettes, and, by the time I was in sixth grade, I had an iPod. I knew my parents had vinyl records. And I knew that they were something that they kept in a closet. That was the life of a record as far as I knew at the time.

Free: So, music was a big part of your life too.

Booth: I have always been into music, but my head was all wrong about what music really is. I was just like all of my friends. I downloaded tons of music. More than I care to admit. I soon saw that there is only so much that you can download. I not only took tons of music. I spent so much money on downloads and it was just so mindless. All of your friends tell you to just take the music that you want. That was just what you did.

Downing: I have never stolen music. But I do know that bootlegging goes way back in the history of the music industry. If it wasn't for that sharing of music, we would not be here, musically, today because people would not have been able to learn new interpretations from other artists living somewhere else in America unless it had not been for that bootleg cassette, vinyl, reel to reel or whatever.

Bootlegging can allow for a great deal of growth. People need to stop bitching about it. I understand it's all about money. Everybody wants to be like Gene Simmons or Paul McCartney and be one of the richest people in the world, but they have to understand that it just will not happen for most of us. We need to keep things in perspective because while bootlegging can hurt, it also has done a whole lot of good for us all.

Free: Katie, you mentioned gathering MP3s on your iPod. Many have said that music has become something to accumulate rather than to appreciate and that quantity is now more important than quality.

Booth: I use to have 80 GB of music. It was all crap. Seriously, who needs the whole Lil Wayne discography? I am not going to listen to any of that. Why did I download that? I guess I did it because I could.

Free: Did your relationship change your views and appreciation of music? It seems the punk background of Christian could clash a bit with Katie’s MP3 background.

Downing: It did and it didn't.

We have that sort of “we want everything” mentality. Go look in the back room of our store and you'll see what I mean. Katie really appreciates hunting and finding a record and that enthusiasm can be contagious.

I guess, and I don't want to speak for Katie, but I think I helped her to see that music, especially on vinyl, is very intimate.

Booth: That's right. We’ve talked about this before.

MP3s, when you think about them, are very impersonal. They're so easy to find and to use mindlessly. CDs, for that matter, aren’t that much more personal in nature. There is something about vinyl, and I learned this through Christian, that takes things to a different level; a more personal level. Even some of the things that are now in our dollar bin right now, I can tell you how I got each one. I can tell you about how I got that really cool Boston record over there. I mean Boston. Who my age listens to Boston? I know it may seem sort of lame, but it’s really cool to put that record on a turntable and listen to the music. With MP3s and CDs, you don’t seem to get that same experience. It's hard to explain.

Free: After you two met, how did you to start selling records together?

Downing: Shit, man. We just started. The only hole in our equation to selling records was that we needed a store. Obviously, we needed a store so we went to this kind of crappy, little record store in Bradenton Mall. We went there to flip some Elvis 45s.

Booth: They were my grandparent’s records.

Downing: That's right. We were just trying to make some money so that we could buy some other records that we could sell. The guy at the mall offered us just a little money, trying to lowball us. We went back and forth and the deal ultimately fell through so we had to find another way to sell them.

Booth: That is why we went to the Internet.

Downing: We said, “Screw it. Let's sell them on eBay.”

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Booth: And that is where Vatican City Vinyl Records came from. We had to make a name to create an eBay account. The Unholy Home of Rock ‘n Roll Records is the name we came up with.

Downing: We began to sell stuff, and then buy more stuff to sell.

Booth: The first record we ever sold was a Metallica record. We learned that metal is something that people want. And we started to sell a lot of hard rock and psychedelic music too. We knew that we could get this type of music at a pretty good price, so we thought we could earn a little more for one of these records, as long it was in pretty good condition.

Downing: We had barely anything in those first days and the only way anybody would ever find us is if they were searching for a specific title that we just happened to have at that time. No one knew who Vatican City Vinyl Records was then.

Free: What were some of the advantages, and some of the disadvantages, in those early days using eBay?

Downing: Money.

Booth: It helped us make money, but it was not always easy. When PayPal started out, they would actually hold your money. You would not actually get your money right away you had to wait 30 days. That sort of made things difficult at first to really get going.

Downing: It helped us reach a new market that we could have otherwise never touched. But it sucked too. There are way too many fees involved with eBay. I understand that overhead costs have to be paid, but sometimes they can be really ridiculous in terms of their expectations.

Booth: Using eBay has been an on and off struggle for us. Also, we never wanted to be labeled as eBay sellers because eBay is seen as kind of an evil, and it is evil, honestly. It has been nothing but problems for us, especially when dealing with some customers.

Free: What do you mean?

Booth: When you are dealing with an item that people cannot physically see at the time they are purchasing it, like when they are buying a vinyl record from us online, it can sometimes cause problems. Some of the items we have sell are used. On top of that, we are selling records. Not everyone has the same type of record player with the same type of needle and they do not get the same type of sound. There is always a difference of opinion in terms of condition of a record and sometimes it is just a matter of people not understanding what you have to do to take care of your records and your player. Someone can think that the record is skipping, but really it is just that they have not cleaned their record properly or they may need a new needle.

Downing: There are also cheats and scam artists out there trying to take advantage of you. You develop an eye for them but you still have to be careful. When you use the Internet as a place of business, you have to have a different perspective of what you see than if you were just surfing the web in your free time. My bullshit radar is strong.

Booth: I remember one time we had an Abbey Road record that was in really bad shape which was why we only sold it for five dollars. The guy who bought it said that it was useless. He ended up throwing it away and he wanted a refund. We told him, “Well, if you want a refund, you're going to have to give us the record. Since you just threw it in the trash, we cannot give you a refund.” Those are the sorts of things that stick out in your mind, but we have been very lucky, overall. When we first started at a table we had in a little store, we had to deal with the same types of problems.

Free: When did you start thinking about a physical, brick and mortar store?

Downing: We did not have any intention of a store anytime soon. We were acquiring bits and pieces of things so that, possibly, in the future we could work towards something like a store, but it was never a short-term goal to get a brick and mortar. You had to be making real money for that kind of thing and we just had a box of records.

As Katie alluded to before, we soon had a table at a hole in the wall store. It was a dive that was a complete mess. It is amazing that anyone ever found us. They had no sign. They had no advertising at all.

Booth: It did use craigslist. That was our biggest source of advertisement.

Free: How did things develop for you at this table?

Booth: In a short amount of time, the owner started seeing a lot of activity at our table. We did not really understand at that time that we probably should not have had a single customer. People today even come up to us and say the only reason why they would ever go to that little store was to buy a record off of our table.

Booth: That place was a bookstore, an art store and a record store. The place was all of these different things. We wanted to just be music. We wanted to focus the place as a music store. That is what we were trying to convince the owner, at least. He was working on a movie script at the time, so he was not really in the proper business mindset. He was more like, “I am writing a script. I need to focus more on my script.” He let his business fall to the side. In addition to that problem, we were selling things but, due to our arrangement, we were not seeing any real money. We decided to cut our losses and we began looking around for our own place.

Free: What were the first steps you took?

Downing: In the beginning, we were really just dreaming. We started thinking about moving far away. We wanted to go to Colorado. We wanted to go to Wisconsin. We wanted to go to a place where there was a large college community. We knew those sorts of people would want to buy our records, but we found out that established record stores already existed. Then we thought maybe we could go to a suburb and there won't be as much competition. We just wanted to be a real thing. We did not have to be a big thing.

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Booth: We started to look around town in Sarasota. We looked around, but everything was just too expensive. People who knew that we were looking around mentioned to us that a store was available. It was right across the street from Ringling School of Art and Design. I called the owner and he said it was going to be $900 a month. It would be $2,700 to walk in the door. We thought that price was a little high so we decided to just sit on the decision for a while. We thought maybe if we waited a bit longer we could negotiate with the guy for a better price because we knew that the store had been on the market for a year. A few days later, we drove by our current location and saw that it was available. It was only going to be $800 a month; $1,600 to get in the door. We went back to the other guy to renegotiate, but not only was he firm on his price, but he would not let us take out the green carpet too. That was a big thing for me. We could not have a record store with green carpet. That really bothered me. So we just ended up getting this place.

Downing: We started renting here in the middle of September. And the owner gave us a free month. October 1, 2013 was our first day open.

Free: What were your first days like in terms of creating your business?

Booth: When we got into the store, we realized we had a lot less inventory than what we needed. We only had about 1,100 records on the shelf. Today, we have 11,000 items in our catalog. We did not do anything with CDs. As you can see, we have about 5,000 CDs.

Downing: It is going great. We have a lot of loyal customers. We did go through a small dip over the summer. But we know how strong Christmas was last year, and we know that a lot of people give records for Christmas, so we know that surge will help in the coming months.

Free: Were some of the first things that you did in terms of marketing and getting the word out that you were open for business?

Booth: During our hard opening we had live music and we got some good press out of that event. We put out flyers at the local colleges. We created a craigslist ad and that got some good response. A writer from a local newspaper came in and he is a big record fanatic. He wrote a piece about us. Soon after that, we were on television. We have been on, maybe, five different local television stations. Oh, we were on government access. I didn't even realize that government access channel still ran on television.

Free: What are the percentages of your current sales in terms of online versus the brick-and-mortar shop?

Booth: It’s about even. Some days it's better online. Some days it is better in the store.

Free: What is it like being your own boss?

Booth: I remember when we first started doing this, I felt great about being my own boss. I thought I could come in late. I can go out whenever I want to. I could leave and no one will hassle me. Over time, my attitude has changed dramatically. I am the boss. I need to be here all the time. I need to be the one in charge. I am definitely more self-discipline now being my own boss than I have ever been in my entire life.

Downing: In terms of the job responsibilities of running this place, I do not see them as a burden at all. They are a blessing. Everything is an experience. I am learning as I go. Day by day. Minute by minute. Katie and I just keep on trucking.

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