Clay Scales has been doing something he loved for years now — waving his own flag of independence as the owner and manager of 52.5 Records. This summer, however, he made the difficult decision to bring it to a halt and move on to new pursuits.
"It was difficult in that I am giving up a job that I've loved," says Scales. "It was difficult on a personal level, but not difficult from a business standpoint, not difficult in that I knew by making it that I would be getting rid of some of the more worrisome aspects of owning a small business and making ends meet day to day.
"It's like selling that old boat that you've loved for so long," he adds. "Like, 'Man, I am going to miss that boat.' And 'Man, I am glad I don't have to keep pouring money into it to keep it afloat.'"
In August, Scales announced that he was closing the King Street shop at the end of October. Things are winding down this week, and the doors will actually be closed a little earlier than expected.
"Maybe I feel like the guy in a veteran band who's at the end of one chapter and not real sure about the next one," Scales says.
Unlike the big-box chain stores, 52.5 Records had a very pro-customer approach and offered support to the local band scene. Their upbeat attitude and determined work ethic helped them adjust to the effects of the new digital age over the years — a phenomenon that both helped and hurt business at 52.5.
"It helped, in that people were able to discover new music far more easily and potentially purchase it from 52.5," Scales says. "It hurt in that people could discover music far more easily and potentially download it. It hurt in that the new format, for the first time, was one that can't be sold in a store."
Several recent events and market trends led up to Scales' ultimate decision to close the store. Last year, holiday CD sales were down again from previous years. The stock was running thinner than usual, too.
"The situation with the economy was sort of a double whammy, although I can't say whether the store wouldn't have closed if the economy had held," Scales says. "CD sales were heading down already, and everyone was aware of that. I was really aware of it this last Christmas. When kids aren't even asking for a CD as a Christmas present, that's really telling."
Last winter, Scales decided to return all titles that had gone unsold for two years or more to the distributors, hanging on to only a few discs he couldn't bear to send back. It was the first sign of what he saw as an inevitable decline.
"When I did that, it really cut down on the selection of CDs, and I felt like I could really see the store going downhill," he says. "Instead of continuing to get better, it was going to continue like that. If I'm seeing the selection go, and someone comes in and asks for a CD that's been returned, I really don't like that."
While the 52.5 staff embraced the challenge of mixing items and products to enhance the inventory — artwork, books, magazines, posters, DVDs, and collectables — they held firm to the fact that it was ultimately a record store. As stated on their website manifesto, the store's main goal was "to provide a good selection of music, focusing on artists outside of the commercial mainstream." They never strayed from that approach.
"We were never just a CD store, but what changed was a real need to make up for lost sales with some new item or items," Scales says.
Scales got his start in record stores as a teen in Statesboro, Ga. He moved to Charleston in 1989 from Columbia, where he'd managed a Record Bar. In 1997, after a few years as a staffer at the old Manifest Records, he opened 52.5 Records at 52½ Wentworth Street.
"I know how I felt about my local record store when I was growing up," remembers Scales. "It did mean a lot to me. I eventually got a job there when I turned 16. I hoped to have a few people feel the same way about my store. If I had one goal, that was it. I don't know what I was thinking back then other than, 'This is a pretty cool job. I could do this for a while.' "
In 2000, he moved down the block to a slightly roomier location at 75 Wentworth Street. He stocked the bins with a variety of indie releases and imports — indie pop, jazz, hardcore, punk, metal, electronic, and ska.
Scales and the staff moved to the location on Upper King Street in 2007.
"I've always liked a variety of music," says Scales. "My catalog of specific likes has greatly increased, thanks to owning the store and getting recommendations from customers, employees, and distributors."
Looking back, he admits he's found a few nuggets of wisdom that might be valuable as he heads into a new adventure.
"Owning the store re-enforced what I already knew about myself," Scales says. "My happiness, or success, if you will, is not connected to how much money is in my bank account at any given time. Don't get me wrong, I recognize that if you can't pay your bills and you are struggling to make ends meet, then you probably aren't very happy. If I'm getting the bills paid, though, the amount of money I have above and beyond my ability to do that does not make me any more happy."
Scales will be leaving Charleston in November and heading to New York, where he'll settle into a house in the Hudson Valley, an hour north of Manhattan. While he's not sure what vocation awaits him next, he's content with his experience with 52.5.
"I might have owned a highly successful chain of department stores and have been making a six-figure salary, but I don't think people would be stopping me in the street to thank me," he says. "And my six-figure salary wouldn't make me feel any more successful than the feeling of success that came from owning this little record store."
52.5's last day in business will be Sat. Oct. 23. From midday through the evening, remaining stock will be available for 52.5 percent off the original price. There'll be an art show and sale (proceeds will be donated to a music-related charity), plus live music from local guitarist Bill Carson and members of the Shrimp Records roster.
"I feel that this had been a success, but I look forward to doing something new," Scales says. "I will miss meeting people and having friends come and go throughout the day. But I look forward to focusing on some personal aspects of my life, and I look forward to achieving personal success again."