Bull City – or Bull Cittay, as it’s sometimes known around here – is one of our favorite stores around. Owner Chaz Martenstein is everything awesome about independent record stores. His love of new music and his devotion to his local Durham scene are second to none and his store is far too awesome for one measly post but here goes…
1. Tell us briefly about your store.
Bull City Records opened up in November of 2005. I opened the shop myself (with the help of credit cards and my partner Rachael) after working in various shops in various cities and I’m currently still the sole employee. And I still love it. For almost six years, I sat up in an upstairs attic space off of 9th St in Durham, NC, but recently moved to an actual storefront on a nicely busy street just a few blocks around the corner. The shop mostly focuses on vinyl revolving around the worlds of indie, garage, psych and whatever other weirdo releases I can get my hands on. I still have CDs, but I really only stock a small selection of brand new independent releases or CD-only reissues.
2. What got you into the independent record store business?
Well, like most future record store employees, my high school years were spent flipping through the used CD bins at my local record shops. After I realized there was a whole new world outside of Tower Records and regular rock radio, I discovered Plan 9 Records, Soundhole Records and the local college radio station at the University of Richmond. I heard Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Fugazi and Superchunk for the first time and it was all downhill from there. A spark ignited in my head. There was a feeling of community, energy and experimentation embedded in this world of independent music that I’d never experienced. It was instantly addictive and freeing. A little to quickly it became obvious that I was destined to force myself into a world of tiny paychecks, but 24 hours a day/7 days a week of fun. The music world never slows down, there’s something new and amazing coming out every single week of the year. What other business can really offer that?? I wanted to be a part of that world and pass on that same electric feeling to anyone else looking for it.
As far as actual work goes, I worked my way up in the music retail business from pretty close to the bottom. I got my start while I was working in my college’s small independent bookstore in Williamsburg, VA when Barnes & Noble came in, bought it up and built a giant new building. As one of a handful of original employees, I was allowed to pick the department in which I wanted to work, so I of course picked the brand new music department. After I graduated I moved up to Cape May, NJ to kill some time and got a job working at the tiny ACRAT (Atlantic City Records and Tapes) there. That summer was a touristy blur of nothing but pop punk and Jimmy Buffet. It was a blast. From there I moved out to Boulder, CO and bugged Bart’s CD Cellar on Pearl St for about a year straight until they slipped a job my way. Bart’s was an amazing store to work in – it was always busy, it was two stories tall, my fellow employees were great and ridiculously knowledgeable in each of their own areas and Bart was one of the best bosses I’ve ever known. It was while working there that I got the inspiration to try a go at it for myself. Sadly, it was one of the shops that did not survive one of the many waves of record store closings.
3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary stores?
I’d have to probably base this on inspiration. I don’t get away from my own shop too often, but there’s an amazingly supportive group of indie record stores out there plugging away at it for the same reasons. For Bull City Records, I get daily inspiration from Harvest Records in Asheville, NC; Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC; Steady Sounds in Richmond, VA; Aquarius Records in San Francisco, CA; Speakertree Records in Lynchburg, VA; 1-2-3-4-Go! Records in Oakland, CA and Sound Fix Records in New York, among others. Celebrated Summer in Baltimore, MD is pretty rad too – it’s located in the back of a great book/comic shop. Oh! I also just recently visited a place out in Santa Cruz, CA called Metavinyl that was amazing! Solid vinyl shop for current indie and psych. It’s funny, even on short vacations away from my own shop, I still manage to somehow find myself in record stores every day.
4. How have things been going from a business perspective?
Things have been going pretty well actually. Moving into a ground-level space with a parking lot (and heat and A/C) has made a really positive difference. The store has a giant plate-glass window in front so it even manages to advertise itself when I’m not open. In the old second floor space, I had no way to really entice people to come in from outside. It was basically a destination-only space. With vinyl on the upswing as it is right now too, there’s finally a very real and positive hope for small shops like this to succeed and grow. It’s been a lot of fun to watch actually. The trends in music consumption and music production are always changing, which is another reason why I love this business so much. It was getting pretty hairy for a lot of folks a year and a half ago. I almost closed myself! That can really make a person cranky. So that’s definitely something to be happy about!
5. What do you think spells the survival for an independent record store today?
Customer service. Knowledge of stock. Those are the two biggies for me. At the root of it all, you really have to have a wild passion for music itself and be open to the ever-changing forms of music. If you can really figure out how to present good customer service, your love of and excitement for music can be shared with your regulars and newer customers. At Bull City Records I try to work within the niche of indie, garage and psych, so I’m constantly trying to read, listen to and explore new stuff. The fact that discovering and talking about music can still be a full-time job in this day and age is pretty amazing. Sometimes when things outside of the shop get ya down, it’s hard to remember the importance of customer service. There are days where it’s easy to slip, but you have to constantly be reminding yourself that it’s job requirement #1. Basically 100% of our stock is available for free online, so we really have to work at giving people a very real reason to come in. To me though, that’s half the fun of it! Connecting with people over this stuff is what keeps me going.
6. What are some of the coolest thing labels have done with you? Instores? Promotions? Sales?
To tell you the truth, Matador is one of my favorite labels to work with – and I’m not just saying that because you’re asking me the questions. There are a handful of indie labels out there that really act like partners with the stores who always give us more incentive to work hard or challenge us outside of our normal routine. Recently Rough Trade set up an in-store with Jeffrey Lewis when he came through town. Rather than playing songs, he set up a slideshow detailing the making of the artwork for his brand new record (which is great by the way). He even brought original ink drawings of his comic-style packaging to display. This was one of the best in-stores I’ve ever attended just because it was outside of the usual “come in and play a few songs before your full set of more songs later that day” box. It was a blast! Labels will also hold display-making contests in which we get to compete with other stores for most creatively designed display. It’s a great way for the labels to get their albums more display space and attention, while the stores are wrestling it out for hopeful credit with the label. I hope that’s not disclosing too much of a trade secret!
7. Why do we need record stores?
Wow. This is a heavy question. Like a good bookstore, it’s a breeding ground for culture I believe. Friends are made in the record store, connections are made in the record store, networking is done in the record store, a community is felt in the record store. Think about how boring and monotonous it would be if we only knew what was being pushed in the iTunes market or Pandora Station. We’d have no music to share with friends, because we’d all be seeing the same ads for the same bands! Ha! I feel that record stores must still be important and relevant to the growth and development of modern music too. There are still a bunch of new bands being formed every day who still say they’re influenced by hanging out in their local record stores. If you’ve got a good little shop in your town, chances are they’re playing some good, weird shit over their store speakers right this second! Go hear it!
On a more economically level, it’s also better for your city and state’s economy to shop independent and local. Plus, it keeps local folks employed! Those are really just general reasons to shop with independent stores anywhere though. I think it’s important to remember that we basically vote with our money. Enough preaching though. We all know that already!
8. What kind of taco is your favorite?
I’ll probably catch some flak for this, but honestly I can’t get enough of the taco tripa over at my local taqueria (one of the best in Durham), La Vaquita. The runner-up is always the taco chorizo. Their torta cubana is pretty out of this world too, but I need a strong, empty stomach on days that I go that route.
9. Who are your top 3 favorite bands right now?
This is definitely not a good question for a record store employee! It changes daily. Three of my favorite bands in general until the end of time: The Replacements, The Reigning Sound, the Velvet Underground. However, some of my most listened to current bands are: Wooden Shjips, Heavy Times, Kurt Vile, War on Drugs, Hiss Golden Messenger, Ty Segall, Woods, The Beets, Mount Moriah. It’s not a fair question, so I give a not fair answer.
10. What is your favorite thing about your store? And you can’t say the customers. That’s like saying Einstein or Ghandi when asked “If you could meet one person, living or dead…”
I can listen to music all day is a good place to start. I can bring my dog to work with me every day, that’s pretty important to me. It’s really hard not to say the customers, because none of us would exist without our customers… they’re more essential than we are! I really like the small world that it presents too. The connections with labels and people you make are amazing. It’s a whole culture and spiderweb of people who just enjoy what they do on a day-to-day basis. The fact that I get to interact with idols from my teenage years is pretty heavy too – Mac and Laura from Superchunk will stop in for records sometimes and I get packages from Sub Pop addressed from Mark Arm himself! Six years later, that’s still extremely exciting to me for some reason. Don’t let those packages stop coming, Mr. Arm! The basic act of passing on new music always gives me a thrill too. Apparently that’s another hard question!
11. What are your goals for the future of your store? Long term and short.
Simply to keep the doors open and the music moving. Obviously, I would love to keep growing my stock until it overwhelms the store too. Constant new vinyl coming into the shop keeps me pretty happy. I also wouldn’t mind growing my blog into a more interactive place for discussion. I’ve got some ideas, but I’m still reeling from the excitement of my new space!
12. Tell us about the cool used and collectable action you have going on over there.
This sounds like a question coming more from Mike than from the Matador Blog. You’ll just have to stop by the store to find out! Ha!