St. Catherines’ Mindbomb Records brings in-store expertise online
A record store is not a store. Sure, you buy products there. But it’s more than that. Stepping into a record store isn’t just buying a record, it’s hunting for an idea, for a feeling – it has sounds, the slap of sleeves being pored over; it has scents, fresh polymer for new pressings and reissues, decaying acids and paper for the classics.
And it’s also an exchange, even when verbal exchanges between record store owners and customers are limited, a silent promise is made, a promise to support not just that store but an entire industry.
Buying a record is more than a purchase and that makes a record store more than a store. This, of course, is well-known to Chris Charkowy, owner of Mindbomb Records in St. Catharines. Charokowy has been working in record stores for 15 years, the last five years running his own shop.
“It’s a place where people meet up, you know? People bring a date here and flip through records and chat… it's a place to go,” says Charkowy. Even before the pandemic-fulled shuttering, extinction has been an unavoidable term for record stores. The music piracy of the late 90s/early 2000s hacked revenues for artists and changed the way the industry worked alongside artists. Music streaming services further shifted the tone of revenue generation for artists.
But vinyl, as we now know, is indeed final. It’s something Charkowy was hoping to celebrate alongside Mindbomb Records’ fifth anniversary on April 18. The physical store has always been the backbone of the business. “It’s the personal connection with the shop owner and being able to talk music and suggest things and having people able to physically flip through records,” says Charkowy. “We only incorporated online to hopefully up our sales a small percentage.”
But the coronavirus changed that.
“Relying on online sales has pretty much saved my business,” says Charkowy. “It's not the same, I'm definitely missing that interaction… it's weird when my regulars come to the door and I have to quickly pass off a record.”
This new reliance on online has highlighted the need for creating a more personalized experience on the Mindbomb Records website. Charkowy says he had his e-commerce site up and running well before the coronavirus pandemic. He’d been working alongside Digital Main Street, a program that combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities, to develop a more strategy for his digital strategy at the end of 2019.
“When the whole COVID thing happened, all of a sudden a lot of those plans went out the door,” says the record store owner. He funnelled all his attention to the website, using some of the money he received through Digital Main Street’s $2,500 Digital Transformation grant, to invest in the content on his website. The goal was to really capture the Mindbomb Records owner’s expertise by not just having the records for sale but including detailed notes about the records, the same sort of insight they’d get if they were standing in the shop talking to Charkowy.
“I've always wanted to do that to the website and just have never had time,” he says. “I work here by myself, I'm spread so thin, so it just was never gonna happen. I'm very grateful that I can have that money to actually pay someone to do that kind of stuff.”
He says it’s hard to gauge the effects of going through every record in the store and updating that info online but he has seen a major spike in sales since the pandemic. “We'd had the website up for a couple of years and I had only about a hundred and something orders,” he says. “(Since the pandemic) we surpassed 500 orders.”
But more so than that, online has allowed him to grow his community of record buyers beyond the aisles of his St. Catherine’s shop, passing along that feeling of fresh vinyl and continuance of that silent pact to support the music industry as a whole. There’s a new breed of “digital regulars” – people in places as far as Quebec that regularly scroll through his online selection.
“The pandemic has been a blessing in disguise because I feel like if I kept on doing things the way I was doing it… the website was kind of just a side thing,” he says. “But now when this is all done, I'm really interested to see if we will have a good balance of in the store sales while still maintaining these online sales.”
Written by Andrew Seale