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A survival tale: Silver Lake's Rockaway Records

September 24, 2009 | 12:46 pm

Pop & Hiss contributor Randy Lewis has a story in today's Business section on Silver Lake's Rockaway Records, chronicling how the indie shop has survived the CD downtown, as well as the arrival of Amoeba Records. Below is an excerpt.


Don't tell brothers Wayne and Gary Johnson the CD business is dead or that the brick-and-mortar record store has gone the way of the five-and-dime.

Or go ahead. Tell them. They'll just smile. That's because they run Rockaway Records in Silver Lake, one of the longest-surviving independent record stores in Los Angeles. It has successfully been trading since 1979 in various forms of music technology pronounced dead or dying in most other corners of the ailing music industry.

"I feel more confident than ever," Wayne Johnson said during an interview in the back office lined with memorabilia that reflects his lifelong love of the Beach Boys and their music.

As the bottom fell out from under the retail music business, the Johnson siblings witnessed the demise of Rhino, Aron's and other local independent record stores as well as onetime behemoths such as Tower Records and Virgin Megastores.

About 3,650 stores that sell music have closed nationwide in the six years since the Studio City-based Almighty Institute of Music Retail marketing research firm began collecting data. During that period, about 2,000 new stores have opened, but 70% of those have been big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy or chains including Borders and Barnes & Noble. That leaves about 600 free-standing music retailers.

Rockaway has sidestepped that fate with a combination store and online business where customers can find music as cheap as 99 cents or spend thousands for coveted pop music collectibles such as a copy of the Beatles' first album, "Please Please Me," signed in 1964 by all four band members and on display in a glass case. Cost: $28,500.

The Johnsons have survived, they say, thanks to a simple philosophy. "You have to know what you're doing," Wayne said. "You can't wing it anymore. It used to be easy to buy collections and turn them around and sell them for more than what you paid. But now, there are so many avenues -- people can go on Amazon or EBay and find out what stuff is worth. Now you really have to know the market."

Rockaway's calling card is collectibles, the same thing the Johnsons started out selling in the '70s out of the basement of the house they shared in Brea. Back then, they could pick up items in thrift stores or yard sales for 25 or 50 cents each and then sell them for $5 to $10 apiece to collectors around the country -- or the world, for that matter. (Last year it sold some acetates of unreleased Frank Zappa music to a collector in Andorra for $12,000.)

But, to the delight of sellers, Wayne said, "we pay as much as we can." They bought a collection of 100,000 albums from a collector in Hollywood several years ago for $600,000, their biggest purchase. "There are some collections I've seen that I'd be willing to pay $1 million for."

Their thinking since the early days: Word would spread among collectors that they pay fairly. It seems to work: Wayne said five or six local collectors approached Rockaway after hearing about the $600,000 outlay. Rockaway finances big-ticket purchases either through the seller or with help from a bank, Wayne said.

Several years ago Rockaway stopped selling new CDs when Best Buy, Wal-Mart and other major merchants began selling them for $9.99 or cheaper. That's $2 to $3 less than independents such as Rockaway could buy them for wholesale. But the Johnsons have kept Rockaway afloat by taking in used CDs, LPs, 45s and DVDs -- items that don't reach the "collectible" threshold but still create enough profit to make them worth stocking.

"A few years ago I was thinking the used-CD business would just go away," Wayne said. "But that has kind of changed, and the CD business has gone way up. A lot of that is because of what has happened to the competition. So many stores went under; there are not many places to buy used CDs."

Another such place is Amoeba Music in Hollywood. Amoeba, which opened in 2001, at first dealt a blow to Rockaway because of its massive size. But Rockaway recovered and in some cases has even benefited from the misfortune of other independent stores that went out of business and had inventory to unload.

For example, the Johnsons paid $150,000 for the entire inventory of 75,000 CDs from a store in Clear Lake, Iowa, that went under. "That kept our CD bins stocked for a long time," Wayne said.

Read more A survival tale: Silver Lake's Rockaway Records

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Wayne Johnson of Rockaway Records imitates Gene Simmons while showing off a guitar signed by the musician. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times