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Sound Vision

The Baltimore Sun

The first of them appeared at noon on a balmy day in November, young women, mostly, lining up on the brick sidewalk of Thames Street. They had cut work and skipped class to huddle for hours outside a record store for a glimpse of a rock star.

The Goo Goo Dolls can have this effect on people. The band has sold more than 10 million albums and played at such storied venues as Radio City Music Hall and the Sydney Opera House. But on this day, the Goos were at the Sound Garden, a scruffy but superb music store in Fells Point.

"Part of the reason the Goo Goo Dolls came to us is they appreciate record stores," said Bryan Burkert, who opened Sound Garden in 1994 with little money and no business experience. A bartender and freelance writer at the time, he's not someone you would have bet on.

But as music store chains have collapsed around him -- bye-bye, Tower Records; so long, Sam Goody -- Burkert has quietly shown how an independent, old-fashioned, bricks-and-mortar store can thrive in the era of iTunes, Amazon.com and illegal music downloads.

With a wide selection, a deep catalog and decent prices -- as well as good relations with the music community in Baltimore -- Burkert's Sound Garden is having its best year since opening. He said about 20,000 people visit the store each week, and an in-store stage Burkert built this summer has brought in hundreds of suburbanites to see artists such as Ludacris and Regina Spektor.

"It's one of the best record stores in the U.S., no doubt," said Michael Kurtz, president of the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of 11 independent retailers, including Sound Garden, that have 85 locations across the country. As big chains scale back, the remaining independents are filling a void.

"It's hard to find nice independent record stores now," said Tori Borland, 14, who came to Sound Garden from Ellicott City for the first time to see the Goo Goo Dolls. The suburban offerings, she said, are limited to large chains such as FYE and Best Buy. "It's become so corporate."

That's the last word that comes to mind when you enter Sound Garden, where visitors are greeted with a riot of colors, bright light streaming from the skylights and racks upon racks of CDs and DVDs. The walls are covered in T-shirts and posters of John Lennon, Tupac Shakur and Muhammad Ali. Hanging from the exposed ventilation shafts are a decade-old pinata and a plastic skeleton.

Even more diverse is the mix of customers. On a recent morning, a small girl in a Harley-Davidson jacket stood next to her father as they examined used DVDs. Next to them was a young man in dreadlocks. Meanwhile, two uniformed police officers entered the store to look around.

And then there's the staff -- a knowledgeable bunch that's the furthest thing from corporate. Manager Liz Felber has red streaks in her hair, round black shoes covered in white stars and as many piercings as Christina Aguilera. Felber was complaining recently to anyone who would listen about how she'd been called for jury duty.

"They're never going to pick me," she said. "They'll be like, 'Look at those shoes, whoa!'" (No surprise: She wasn't chosen.)

On the floor one morning last week, Felber deftly fielded a string of queries from customers. Looking for the Brian Setzer Orchestra? "Follow me," she said. Is the jumbo-size Nirvana poster for sale? "It's on back order. It should be here tomorrow." What about the American Hardcore DVD? "It's not out yet."

Sound Garden's success has come at a transforming time for the industry. Sales of CDs and records are down by about a third in the past decade, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. At the same time, the number of songs sold online, through outlets such as iTunes, has exploded, to 366 million last year. Toss in the success of online retailers such as Amazon and illegal downloads, and the outlook appears bleak for retail record stores.

Tower Records, one of the most revered chains, is shutting all its stores this month. Sam Goody has announced the closing of more than a third of its stores, as part of a bankruptcy reorganization. But Burkert is not worried.

"Everybody can keep telling me that I'm not going to be here," he said. "But if I listened to what everybody said, I would have closed five years ago."

The revival of Baltimore's waterfront as a magnet for young people has helped Burkert, but his store has long been a destination for music lovers in Baltimore. Now, he's seeing more customers from the suburbs, where retail music outlets are disappearing. An die Musik, for instance, closed its full-service Towson and Ellicott City locations, and sells just jazz and classical music in its downtown store.

Part of Burkert's success was getting into the used CD market before some competitors. Burkert said he pays more than any other area store for used CDs -- up to $4 in cash or $5 in store credit -- drawing customers from across the region. And he makes more money on his used business than selling new CDs.

With the wholesale price on some new CDs at $12 or more, Burkert sells them for barely more than he pays. He'll sometimes even take a loss on new CDs, selling Justin Timberlake's latest album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, for $9.99, for instance, assuming the low prices will draw people into the store who will buy used CDs or used DVDs.

"If your whole business is new-release CDs or new-release DVDs, you don't have a business right now," said Burkert, who has wavy brown rock-star hair and favors Adidas warm-up jackets. "But our business has always been about the whole -- the depth of the catalog, the used market."

He also holds down prices by buying in bulk when a music or video company offers a discount. While other retailers may buy four to six weeks' worth of inventory at discount, Burkert may buy two years' worth. This involves some gambling on what will sell long-term, but Burkert believes he knows his customers.

When Elliott Smith's album either/or was released in 1997, Sound Garden sold more than 1,000 copies -- impressive considering that in its first year the album sold about 100,000 copies nationwide.

"But there's another side to the coin," Burkert said. "Sometimes Barry Manilow is the No. 1 album in the country, and we strike out on that like nobody's business."

Burkert, 39, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. His parents moved to Baltimore when he was in college. Visiting them in their new home, he realized Baltimore didn't have a full-service independent record store. So after he graduated, with a degree in mass communications from St. Bonaventure University, he decided to start one.

"I don't really know what made me think I could do it," he said. He rented a small store -- about 1,000 square feet -- on Thames Street in Fells Point. Why there? "It was where I lived. There really wasn't a lot of thought to it."

But he did think a lot about the kind of store he wanted. He wanted listening stations where customers could hear any CD in the store. He wanted a deep catalog, the widest selection in all genres but classical, lots of used CDs and racking that wasn't stacked -- meaning if he had 14 copies of the new Beyonce, he wouldn't put them all on the shelves, just one or two, leaving more room for other titles.

"I went around to every store I could find, and I started writing down what I liked and what I didn't like," he said. "And, eventually, I took everything I liked about the stores and put it into one store."

After a couple of years in its initial location, Sound Garden moved across Thames Street in 1996 to its present home, a 7,500-square-foot space next to The Horse You Came In On saloon. At first, Burkert didn't have enough inventory to fill the space, and he had to borrow heavily to make the move. He lost $80,000 the first winter in the new store.

But his customers found him, and he opened Sound Garden branches in Syracuse and Geneseo, N.Y., because he had good friends in those towns. The Geneseo store closed last year, Burkert said, because it was doing much less business than the other locations.

Burkert also owns Fletcher's, a bar and club on Bond Street in Fells Point. Some of the bands that play at Fletcher's also make in-store appearances at Sound Garden, and owning the club enables Burkert to build relationships with artists in the Baltimore music community.

"We get everyone as they're going up and everyone as they're coming down," he said.

Roman Kuebler, lead singer for the Baltimore-based Oranges Band, said Sound Garden is "relevant not only to all sections of Baltimore, but to all kinds of music fans."

Sound Garden carries 80,000 CD titles and about 20,000 DVD titles. Burkert won't disclose proprietary financial information, but the anecdotes are telling: The registers are always busy on weekends. The store sold more than 130 copies of Jay-Z's new album on its first day of release last month. And the store's single biggest sale came this past summer, when a teenager from the suburbs rolled up with his friends and spent more than $5,000 -- so much that it jammed the computer and had to be split into two sales. A copy of half the receipt, for $3,194, is taped to the ceiling above the front counter.

"You don't want to drop in for two seconds," said Tom Sellner, a DJ and dance teacher in Columbia who visits Sound Garden every other week. "You want to have time to find good stuff."

Over two hours at the store on a recent morning, Sellner combed the racks of new and used CDs, listened to a handful of selections and discussed '60s pop with one of the clerks. In the end, he walked out with three CDs, including one he discovered, by the Kings of Diggin', because it was playing on the store's sound system.

Kurtz, of the Music Monitor Network, said Burkert's partnership with Baltimore FM station 98 Rock to feature local bands at Fletcher's and his support for Baltimore music has helped build a loyal customer base.

"All of these things make him an integral part of the music community, which is one thing iTunes can never be," Kurtz said.

Burkert, who doesn't own an iPod, has his own criticisms of the online music business. He said the sound of downloaded songs is inferior to CDs and that because you don't get a physical product when you download music, your investment has no resale value. He also rues the fact that the vast majority of downloaded purchases are single songs, not whole albums.

"I don't think there's an appreciation of the full-length album," said Burkert, perhaps betraying his generational bias. "This is a body of work. This isn't a ring tone."

But Burkert is well aware of the forces shaping the music industry and grateful that his customers have stood by him.

"So many people who enjoy music, who work in the business, have lost their jobs," he said. "I think we all appreciate that we get to work in this industry."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Bryan Burkert

Born:

Buffalo, N.Y., Feb. 8, 1967

Education:

Bachelor of Arts in mass communications, St. Bonaventure University, 1989

Family:

Lives in Columbia with his wife, Andrea, their daughter, Holland, 8, and son, Ryder, 7

Personal tastes:

Indie and classic rock, such as Matthew Sweet, Elliott Smith, the Flaming Lips, Led Zeppelin

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