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Orpheus Puts Down His Lyre (No More Records)

Middle-aged man walks in to price a first-edition vinyl Bob Dylan album. Young woman collects a John Prine LP for her father. Longtime customer and vinyl enthusiast browses the latest rock reissues. And then, in a busy midday hour at Orpheus Records in Clarendon, the phone rings: It's the landlord, and the news is good -- sort of. Orpheus, already displaced from Georgetown in 1999 after a couple of decades there, is still going to lose its storefront on Wilson Boulevard, but the date of execution may be delayed.

Owner Rick Carlisle greets the news with a shake of the head. He is psychologically prepared for the end; a going-out-of-business sale banner is already waving outside. But the daunting task of somehow unloading 120,000 record albums weighs on him.

At some level, he knows it's time. The very concept of a record store is alien to a generation of listeners who obtain music without leaving home. Yet 2007 was Orpheus's best year in the past six or seven, as boomers rediscover the music of their youths ("Their kids are off to college and now the boomers have more time on their hands," Carlisle surmises), and a smattering of young people conclude that vinyl offers a warmer sound and a more fulfilling collector's experience than downloading bytes.

Time and again, the last remaining independent record stores have survived new technologies that were supposed to put them out of business. CDs came along, and still the old shops sold vinyl. Big boxes knocked out national record store chains, and the march of real estate development sent rents soaring, but still a hardy few independents -- about a dozen in the Washington area -- held on.

Now, with CD sales plummeting nationwide, some of the area's few remaining record stores see new opportunities, even as they acknowledge that the end is nigh.

"It would be easier to sell the stock and store if this was still a vibrant business," says Carlisle, the bearded, barefoot, denim-clad music lover who has presided over Orpheus since it opened in Georgetown in 1977, when there were a dozen music stores in that one neighborhood. "If music was still a vibrant part of everybody's disposable income, it might be worth finding a new location. But for a record store to have a real future, you have to sell on the Web, which I don't do."

In downtown Silver Spring at Roadhouse Oldies -- which traffics primarily in CDs of R&B tunes from the '50s to the '70s -- owner Alan Lee has no immediate plans to move. He too faces real estate reality, as his landlord seeks to replace a row of small shops with a full-block office and retail development.

But Lee, who opened on Thayer Avenue in 1974, is adamant that he will stay in business, even if he must move, for at least 10 years. "My goal is to be the last buggy-whip dealer in Washington," he says. "When the big boxes put the big record store chains out of business, that was actually good for us because the big boxes tend not to have deep catalogues. We survive by specializing and offering service."

Overall, business continues to decline because of the Internet, and "our customer base is certainly getting older," but "we're seeing more of the boomer crowd because no one is playing this music on the radio anymore," Lee says. He saw a bump in business especially after the death of oldies radio stations in both Washington and Baltimore (both Lee and store manager Scooter Magruder are former DJs on WQSR in Baltimore and the old Big 100 in Washington, respectively) as customers sought a way to keep listening to the music of their lives.

Roadhouse Oldies and Orpheus share the slightly musty, library-like smell and feel of a used bookstore. At both shops, the clerks are the key to success, pale record fanatics who hold in their minds encyclopedic knowledge of their own stock and a Google-like ability to answer customers' questions.

Better than Google, sometimes: "You can't hum one bit of melody and get the computer to tell you what that song was you just heard," Lee says. "Most times, if you have anything -- a lyric, a tune -- we can figure it out and find you that record."

Neither Carlisle nor Lee cares to sell online; they're in the business in large part because it allowed them to build a social world around music -- personal relationships that they found lacking when they tried Internet sales.

Lee is trying to capture younger customers with two electronic kiosks that let listeners create and burn their own CDs from a collection of more than 200,000 songs. People holding scraps of paper with hand-scrawled lists of favorite tunes line up at the machines; sure, they could do this on their home computers, but here, they have the bonus of being able to ask Lee and his staff for advice.

Carlisle made fewer concessions to the ways young people obtain music. By sticking mainly to vinyl -- the record shelves are stacked five-high through much of the shop -- he has made Orpheus the mecca for those who believe the LP offers the richest reproduction of sound. But while people still come in every day wanting to sell Carlisle their record collections, he foresees a time when records will nearly vanish from the market.

"They're not making any more originals of albums," he says. "Vinyl may disappear as baby boomers disappear. The obvious collectibles will keep growing in value, but the things that don't stand out will be forgotten. As the age group that supported that music goes, so does the market: The '50s collectibles have really lost a lot of their value. Buddy Holly records used to sell as soon as they came in. Now they sit around for a year or two."

Carlisle laments the passing of the rituals of record-playing, "the whole experience of the album cover art and actually expending effort, cleaning the record, discovering the less famous songs on an album."

Even though he may close as soon as April, Carlisle still entertains offers from people who want to sell him their collections. "I buy if it's the right stuff," he says. "I don't want to go the next couple of months without Led Zeppelin records in the store."

By Marc Fisher |  January 26, 2008; 7:31 AM ET
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"They're not making any more originals of albums," he says.

This might be true of Led Zeppelin, but there are innumerable new vinyl releases, and several times as many re-issues, every year. Still.

And I don't get the resistance to selling online. It is more labor intensive, but overhead is close to zero, and you have access to a worldwide market. If you put the work in, it can be just as rewarding for both the seller and customer.

It's sad to see a venerated shop forced to close, but this isn't the end of anything. It's a guy retiring.

Posted by: End of Nothing | January 26, 2008 11:05 AM

I believe Orpheus dates back longer than its Georgetown location--I remember shopping at the store when it was on Connecticut Ave. in the mid-70s, before it was displaced by the Farragut North project, or thereabouts.

So I was saddened to drive by Orpheus in Clarendon yesterday and see the going-out-of-business sign. But that's the nature of the music business. Everything's online now. Tower Records may have been my favorite place on earth 20 years ago; I didn't even go to its going-out-of-business sale--I couldn't imagine what I'd buy there. Times change, and vinyl and CD are antiquated technologies now.

Posted by: Mark | January 26, 2008 11:13 AM

A contemporary of Messrs. Carlisle and Lee, I recognize and understand their resistance to selling online, though I do not share it. I respectfully suggest they consider partnering with a young person to handle that end of the business. Used book dealers have done this with success and found it even brings live human beings of all ages into their brick-and-mortar stores. Younger customers come to regard visits to niche retail stores like their other "meet-up" events with like-minded individuals, but with an opportunity to buy stuff.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 26, 2008 1:35 PM

I really do honestly believe that with the speed of delivery and accessibility of music comes the devaluation of music as a mere commodity. In 1999 a coworker who was in college converted all his cds to mp3, which sounded tinny as all mp3s do, and sold all his cds. Can anyone age 40 and older imagine a time when a college student would sell all their cds? People were shocked by that story in 1999, but in 2008 no one cares anymore.

My niece and nephew are in Junior High and they know High School Musical and Britney Spears and American Idol, but they don't know music as a form of rebellion. Their parents rebelled by listening to rap. Rap is no longer rebellious. Heavy metal is no longer rebellious. This is something that just about every other generation knows- music as a way to rebel. Since the death of Kurt Cobain and Tupac there has been no rebellious music that wasn't heavily retro in some way.

So that leaves a new generation with all the music they'd ever want at their fingertips, only they don't want any. They have videogames and social networking instead of music.

So the totem of music in general means nothing to them, let alone physically owning this music.

Posted by: DCer | January 26, 2008 10:19 PM

I remember Orpheus well from when it was in Georgetown. I remember trying to see if the Frank Zappa "We're only in it for the money" was available for less than $15.
There were other stores in the area, esp. in Bethesda and Wheaton, Bowie and Annapolis where you could bootlegs, like many of the Beatles and of Bruce's concerts. (And had Bruce ever made released a recording of the concert, I'd have bought it like I did with Bob Dylan 1966 concert).

Posted by: Ted | January 27, 2008 10:59 PM

Can I pour one on the curb for George Gelestino from Vinyl Ink Records in Silver Spring?

What about Yesterday and Today records in Rockville, with a larger collection than Orpheus ever had. Skip Groff went online at:

What about Anton's Record and Tape Exchange? I bought more $0.99 records from him than I ever thought possible.

What about Second Story Book's Rockville warehouse? I found some great $20 lps there for $0.50. Of course in 2008 who's buying rare lps?

Lastly, Joe's Record Paradise is still operating and the last time I was there, was a great place:

Posted by: DCer | January 28, 2008 9:15 AM

and don't forget that Joe Lee from Joe's Record Paradise has more Montgomery County bonafides from the Lee family, THAT Lee family, than any of us newcomers.

Posted by: DCer | January 28, 2008 9:17 AM

I have heard that Vinyl was actually making a comeback; that a 25% increase in sales of vinyl was expected in 2008. While I understnd the reluctance to sell on-line , I think the medium is still viable and will be for some time.

Posted by: Rich | January 29, 2008 2:03 PM

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