April 13, 2016

How Some Athens Book and Record Stores Have Survived

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Courtney Malone looks through used CDs at Wuxtry.

When asked why Bizarro Wuxtry is internationally known, Devlin Thompson, manager of the comic-book store, says plainly, “Because we’re still here.”

The upstairs comic-book portion of Wuxtry opened next to the main store in 1990, and two years later moved into the larger space up the concrete steps behind Wuxtry. It was an expansion of the opposites, according to Dan Wall, co-owner of Wuxtry Records and overseer of the Athens location, which opened in 1976 and celebrated 40 years in March.

“It’s the bizarro version of us,” Wall says, referencing the fictional DC Comics universe in which everything is the opposite of the “real” Earth.

Though the two may feel opposite from one another and boast differing atmospheres in their stores, they share a connection by being brick-and-mortar establishments dedicated to providing quality products and quality service.

As everyone knows, traditional stores selling records, books, comics, etc., started a downward trend after the surge of online sales. Millions of songs are available for free or a small monthly fee online. Amazon, the international everything website, is a difficult force to reckon with for small business owners, and many people turned to the convenient click-of-a-mouse way of buying things, the ease of not having to leave your bed to shop and now the intriguing prospect of having your packages dropped on your porch by a drone.

In the same way, streaming services have decimated video stores. Last year, the Homewood Village location of Vision Video closed, following the closure of the West Broad Street location in 2013. (The Eastside location remains open.) The used bookstore Jackson Street Books also closed last year, and downtown lost Barnett’s Newsstand in 2008. The closure of Schoolkids Records in 2011 left Wuxtry and Low Yo Yo Stuff on West Washington Street as the only locally owned record stores in town.

Chains have felt it, too, with the Borders on Alps Road and Circuit City on Atlanta Highway closing, and Best Buy downsizing to a smaller store in Oconee County’s Epps Bridge Centre. (2nd & Charles, a chain that sells used books, records, CDs and instruments, took up some of the slack when it opened on Atlanta Highway in 2014.)

But in the traditional Athens manner, locals challenge the idea that you can’t walk into a bookstore and run your hands over rows of spines, or check the record you’re about to buy to see if it’s really in mint condition, which Wall says is a major reason people still prefer buying vinyl from a shop.

Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, is one of those challengers, along with Wall. 2011 saw the opening of her physical location on Prince Avenue, in an old building behind the old firehouse. “I feel like I’m in You’ve Got Mail,” first-time customers often tell her, she says, charmed by the intimate atmosphere.

When Geddis was scouting locations for the store, Athens was the perfect place, she says. The city has a strong library system and a lot of locally owned businesses; life for an independent bookseller is viable in a town like Athens.

While Wuxtry’s prime location on the corner of College Avenue and Clayton Street is a huge key to its success, the city itself was also a major force in its sustainability. The record store started out being the only place to buy local, DIY Athens music, solidifying it in the hearts of the vast music community that calls Athens home.

In addition to the main floor space and the upstairs comic-book shop, the two-year-old Sidecar, a small room to the right of Wuxtry, offers further discounted records. Wall says they plan to transform it into a vintage stereo shop in the future.

Among the reasons Wuxtry continues to prevail is because it is “deep shelved,” Wall says, meaning they have things others don’t have. And if it’s too taxing to sift through crates of records, each employee is knowledgeable in a different area of music, so you're almost guaranteed to come out with what you were looking for.



Greg Phillips mans the register at his used bookstore, Walls of Books.

Another local bookseller, Greg Phillips of Walls of Books on Chase Street, relies on this idea in his business. Though the store is a franchise and part of a small chain in five or six states, it feels local. “The idea is to be in between a mainstream bookstore and a library,” he says.

Phillips, who also builds bookshelves for the chain, owns the Athens location with his wife, Stephanie. They opened their doors last August, and he says they already have loyal customers and plans to engage the community with in-store book fairs.

Phillips keeps costs low with a store credit system for customers who donate books or buy a book and return it after it’s read. His mission, he says, is to provide a place readers can buy books on a budget.

Phillips doesn’t view Avid as a competitor and says that “we want to be a good neighbor.” Walls of Books’ specialty is used books, with only a limited selection of new releases, and they don’t hesitate to send customers to Avid to find the new book they’re looking for. But for those looking for a particular book, perhaps an older title, Phillips’ access to large warehouses of used books helps him find ones that are difficult to locate.

Local Athens businesses know that service and knowledge of their products are what makes them special and keeps people coming back. “Everyone here loves books,” Geddis says, just as the employees of Wuxtry love music and those in Bizarro love comics.

If the enchantment of a story is lost when it’s read on a screen or the pleasure of music is lessened by the impersonality of a download, there are places for you. When your brain hurts from the plethora of choices offered by Amazon or the big box stores, there are still locals who can put the perfect book in your hands or guide you to the crate of records you’ll love.