Vinyl is far from being a dead medium, which works out well for Aaron Levy, owner of the recently opened record store, the Vinyl Countdown. "At this point, the choice of how you get your music is online or vinyl," he says, pointing to the sales-by-format section of Billboard magazine. "From 2014 to '15, CD sales are down by 10 percent and vinyl is up 31 percent. Digital is staying flat."
The fact that records are popular again is simply icing on the cake for Levy, who gets to live the dream of being surrounded by dog-eared sleeves and stacks of killer music all day. When we stopped by the King Street store before its soft opening last month, Levy was expecting 260 new records to come in that day alone. Then one day last week, the front of the store was covered with liquor bottle boxes — a massive batch of vinyl singles fresh in from a former DJ. While Rio by Duran Duran played on the turntable, Levy showed us some of the shop's most special records.
"I have the original master recording of every Beatles record," Levy says. "This guy just had them for 20 years. He used to own a record store in Mt. Pleasant [Tunes Discs and Tapes], so when it closed down he just kept everything that he liked."
As Levy speaks, you get the distinct feeling he really knows his stuff — that's because he's been an avid record collector for most of his life. "I've been into records since I was 12 or 13," he says. "I remember the first seven-inch I bought. It was La Bamba from the Richie Valens movie. And then, you know, CDs came along and I started buying CDs."
But as he got older, he still bought records. Nothing could compete with the sound he'd get from the medium that seemed to be on its way out. "Anytime there was a record that I liked, I would just buy it," Levy says. "Like I would buy Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Crowded House and anything that was still being released on vinyl in the '90s."
For Levy, his penchant for vinyl wasn't just about the music. He hasn't necessarily even listened to every record he ever bought. "I just liked having them. I liked the album artwork," he explains. "I like that Soundgarden's Superunknown came out on clear-blue vinyl. I thought that was cool, you know? I would buy seven-inches of bands I'd never even heard of because the packaging was great. So it was really more the aesthetic that appealed to me for some of those things."
Though he's been a lifelong champion for vinyl, Levy's real job has always been performing as a musician, mostly with cover bands, and teaching guitar lessons. His old band, White Rhino, put out a CD of original music, In Common Places, in 2009 that did well, and songwriting continues to be his passion. But the gigging grind got to Levy after a while, so he decided to do himself a big favor.
"I had been playing a lot of outdoor gigs for the past 20 years of my life — during the summer, hauling gear, sweating, feeling like the first hour of the gig was fun and the next three hours weren't," Levy says. "Four hours is a long time to play in a cover band, and that's what a lot of these places want. And that's fine, but I told myself by the time I turn 40 I wanted to be doing something different. And I'm turning 40 this month, so this is kind of my birthday present to myself."
The idea for the Vinyl Countdown was sparked by the need to find a home for Levy's progressively enormous collection. At first, he considered a space at an antique market, so Levy started buying fixtures and even more records. "So basically I ended up buying up all the big lots of records I could find," he says. "I found a lady with her father's record collection — 1,500 pieces — so I was getting really good deals on used stuff, but everything just ended up in a storage unit for a long time."
So Levy started an Indiegogo campaign back in February to raise funds for his very own four walls, and that helped him gauge the interest in a downtown record store. Before long, everything began to fall into place and by September, Levy had found the perfect home for the Vinyl Countdown, which will celebrate its grand opening this Saturday.
The Vinyl Countdown is now filled wall-to-wall with both brand new and used records, some of which are so rare that merely giving folks an opportunity to see them in person is something that thrills Levy. There's a listening station to test some of the finds out on, and the store also carries new record players, used CDs, and merch from local artists like Tripping the Mechanism, SUSTO, Marcus Amaker, and the Silver Bells.
The store also features a CD shelf that magically transforms — Murphy bed-style — into a little stage for in-store performances. That's where you'll find Charleston acts like Del Sur, Haley Mae Campbell, and Rosewater performing this Saturday along with DJs Party Dad and JAZ.
Above all, Levy wants music lovers to feel comfortable in the Vinyl Countdown by providing a friendly, unintimidating place to chill and get excited about music. He says, "Bring in your own coffee or beer, use the free wi-fi, and just hang out."
The Vinyl Countdown is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., and Sundays from noon 'til 6 p.m.