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Surviving the collapse 

Lunchbox Records goes hands-on in a digital world

If you buy the accepted wisdom about the record industry, then Scott Wishart could not have picked a worse career choice two years ago when he opened Lunchbox Records, his independent record store on Central Avenue.

But that's accepted wisdom for you -- always worth questioning. For his part, Wishart is happy with the way things have gone since Lunchbox went from dream to reality in November of 2005, after 8 years at Manifest Records.

"At the time, my other options were to go back to school or get some other shitty job in retail management -- in which case I'd maybe make more money than I do now, but I'd still be working 60 hours a week," he says. "I'd rather be poor and content than have money and be stressed out and unfulfilled. People tend to tell me I'm a lot nicer now."

The one-man operation epitomizes the golden age of independent record stores; the thousand-square-foot space is lined with hard-to-find new and used CDs, new and used vinyl, punk 'zines, rock books and little else not related to independent music. The tiny office in back is over-run with stacks of yet-to-be-sorted vinyl, CDs and a desk overflowing with paperwork. And rather than stock 200 copies of the latest major label buzz band, which big box retailers like Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart can discount for less than what Wishart pays wholesale, he concentrates on specific niches.

"When I opened the store my thing was to focus on things that I thought the other stores in the area were neglecting -- a lot of lesser-known independent labels, punk stuff, vinyl," he says. (He estimates vinyl accounts for 40 percent of his sales).

It's a business model that echoes Chris Anderson's influential book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, which posits that offering a broad range of narrower niches is the new key to survival in a virtual world.

Still, the numbers aren't encouraging. Billboard reported a 27 percent CD sales drop at U.S. retailers in 2006, and the L.A.-based Almighty Institute of Music Retail reports that over 900 independent record stores have closed since 2003.

For now, there's a steady enough stream of the 30-and-up club weaned on record-store browsing. He's also made concessions to the Internet through his Myspace site and taking on-line mail orders. But the trick, as Wishart sees it, is to convince younger customers -- who he estimates make up half his foot traffic -- that Lunchbox has something for them as well.

"I advertise more toward a younger audience, and a lot of stuff that older folks buy, I don't really carry," he says, citing pre-1980 R&B as one exception. In other words, shop the big boxes for Eric Clapton's 50th collection of greatest hits.

"Demographics tell them that older people buy more physical product," he says, "So instead of trying to embrace a younger crowd, they're just chasing after what's already there and preaching to the converted. That seems pointless to me because eventually that's not going to be there anymore, then what do you do?"

Instead, Wishart has focused on ways to appeal to young music fans, the first step being getting them into the store. He's done that by hosting over 100 bands at in-store gigs, split equally between touring out-of-town acts and locals. It doesn't hurt for exposure and occasional sales (most often by the touring acts), but it's not just marketing motivating him.

Wishart remembers years of being shut out of club shows because he wasn't 21. So for acts who don't want to play local 21-and-up venues because their younger fans won't get in, or aren't well-known enough to book a Tremont gig, Lunchbox offers another option.

"I wanted to do in-stores differently," he says. "So I made a choice to do mine at night and basically make it a show, a couple of bands in an intimate, smoke-free setting for all ages."

Where, it just so happens, they might also learn the finer points and joys of music shopping, too.

For more information on Lunchbox Records and the in-store gigs, log on to www.lunchboxrecords.com

HALLOWEEN GIGS: No shortage of shit to do this Hallowed Eve, folks: At Tremont, the all-ages Ska-loween, with Big D and Kid's Table, Whole Wheat Bread, The AKAs and The Fenwicks; at the Evening Muse, The Near Misses, the Verge and gogoPilot; at the Double Door Inn, AngWish, 2013 Wolves and 25 Minutes to Go; at the Neighborhood Theatre, the 2nd annual Halloween Hootenanny, with the New Familiars, Langhorne Slim, Paleface and Just About to Burn.

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