When Andrew Neerman opened Beacon Sound in Northeast Portland with Josh Tuntland last August, he was not concerned with the digital threat.
“The digital realm was already established,” he says. “Music Millennium had to deal with the upheaval. We’re riding this new little wavelet that’s almost running counter to the digital.”
Instead, Neerman was more concerned with whether Portland had hit its saturation point with indie record shops. With so many throughout the city, including one now less than a mile away, he had his doubts.
“It seems like a small miracle that we’ve been breaking even,” he says.
While most all of the shops earn enough to pay for themselves and any employees, owners say sometimes just barely. Many supplement their own incomes with side jobs.
“It’s a real scrappy business model,” Isaacson says, likening the small record-shop scene in Portland to that of the city’s food carts. “Get what you can where you can, and throw it together. It’s very DIY, and it’s very small-scale.”
Rachel Rhymes, owner of Record Room on NE Killingsworth Street since October 2010, works at least 60 hours a week without compensating herself for the extra time to keep her doors open.
“I’m the buyer, the grader, the pricer, the bookkeeper, the janitor and the promoter,” she says.
To attract additional business, Rhymes offers beer, wine, pinball and deejayed events in addition to records and cassettes.
“The idea was to be a space where people could come and hang out whether they were buying music or not,” she says. “It’s definitely month-to-month, but it’s wonderful and it’s growing and it’s going to be great.”
White at Clinton Street supports himself with side jobs like deejaying in Portland, Seattle and San Diego, and while he’s still paying off the store’s startup costs on his credit card, the shop funds itself completely.
“I carry pretty hard-to-find stuff,” he says. “I tell people I’ll find them anything and cater to them very directly, which is different from most places.”
For his part, Isaacson supports the Mississippi Records shop by running a record label with the same name from the back room. He has released 125 records, mostly reissues of old blues, gospel and international recordings. While 30% of his business comes through the store, 70% comes through the label.
“If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know that we’d be in business,” he says.
On a Saturday afternoon at Isaacson’s North Albina shop, the sun filters lazily through the half-closed blinds and Rocksteady Fever spins on the turntable. A customer brings three records and three mix-tapes to the sales counter.
“We’ll make it 60 bucks square,” Isaacson says, writing down the album names in the lined notebook he uses instead of a computer system.
The man pays and, leaving the shop, passes under a bright red, hand-lettered sign that reads: “Always … Love Over Gold.”
“It’s a cultural Portland thing,” Isaacson says. “People decide what their dream job is and just go for it, and they find a way to survive.”