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Looking back at three decades of The Record Exchange

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Running an independent record store in the 21th century is hard work. So many factors conspire against you, whether it's big-box stores selling CDs at a loss (hoping you'll buy a major kitchen appliance while you're there), the labels that work hand in hand with such stores to bury the independents, or digital downloads. Add to that the newer generations who don't own anything resembling a home stereo, and the factors exist to force local record stores into extinction.

To survive, The Record Exchange has become one of the major threads in the fabric of Boise. In the course of its 30 years, the store has grown from a 400-square-foot, one-man shop to the 7,000-square-foot landmark it is today. One could argue that the downtown store has been able to flourish because it is based in a town that has seen intense growth over the last 30 years—but in actuality, this has little to do with it. Countless other independent stores have gone extinct during The Record Exchange's existence. The store has managed to stay relevant, its staff and fans say, because of a sense of grit and determination, and an ability to evolve and diversify.

Michael Bunnell opened the store in 1977 with business partner Al Benton, a carpenter. Bunnell's rationale for having a partner was to split up the work.

The Record Exchange's first receipt - COURTESY OF THE RECORD EXCHANGE

"I wanted to travel three months a year," Bunnell said. "I figured that Al and I could split things up. Thinking I could do that shows how little I knew about running a business when we first opened." After realizing that it wasn't that easy to hand off the business to someone else, it wasn't long before Bunnell was solo at the helm.

The first few years were low-key. The music retail industry was booming. According to Bunnell, the market was singles-driven; you could only get singles on a 45 vinyl record. In the 1980s, the format changed to cassette, and the labels continued to grow. For The Record Exchange, this meant more dollars for advertising and other business through co-operative relationships. The business expanded and, at one time, operated three separate locations in town.

In the 1990s, the format changed to CDs. The zeitgeist of the time was to replace all of your old vinyl and tapes with CDs. That meant a lot of sales. But as the century turned, the public began turning to big-box stores more, or began using mp3s as the medium of choice. The Record Exchange responded by focusing on promotions and advertising, such as letting customers use gift certificates purchased at one of the big stores in their shop, and began putting on special events like in-store performances.

One of the unique aspects of The Record Exchange is reflected in its name—customers have the ability to trade old music for new. It's a vital part of the business and something it has fought for throughout its existence. Years ago, country music superstar Garth Brooks went on a campaign with Capitol Records to stop the sale of used music. The Record Exchange staff responded by burning a life-size cut-out of Brooks and shoveled his ashes into the garbage.

But even with their tenacity, there have been bumps along the way. When the Franklin store first opened, the staff realized the new phone number had previously belonged to a risqué massage parlor.

"We got some weird calls," said Lee Flinn, a former employee.

Or there was the time Bunnell finally stopped allowing employees to have tabs.

"I had managed to tab several hundred dollars worth of stuff," said a laughing Tim Johnstone, also a former RX veteran.

But there have been many more examples of The Record Exchange looking ahead and setting the curve for the industry. It was one of the first record stores in the country to digitize its inventory.

"The computer system we bought was originally for a hardware store," said Kathleen O'Brien. "I had to enter every piece of product into that computer, and that is how I managed our re-orders and sales."

The Record Exchange also evolved from being a music marketplace into a brand that used art to sell its product, whether it was in the logo, its approach to advertising or the new mural on the building. O'Brien credits designer Will Spearman for that particular innovation.

Now The Record Exchange has its feet firmly planted in adulthood. It is, as Bunnell puts it, "a lifestyle store" where you can buy everything from collectible vinyl to a punching-nun action figure.

Bunnell says his main goal in having the store is to provide a place in Boise where anyone can discover something new musically or culturally, "and maybe have a laugh along the way."

That sense of humor, coupled with a relentless push for evolution, may be one of the greatest secrets to The Record Exchange's success.

See Also:

The Timeline

The Veteran: Tim Johnstone

The Veteran: Lee Flinn

The Veteran: John O'Neil

The Music: In-store shows rock TRX

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