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Spinning old technology into new business venture

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Steve Howell owns Fat Kat Records & Books in Spotsylvania. His business has shifted from almost exclusively used books to almost exclusively vinyl records and laser discs, which he says are making a comeback due to their value as a collectible and their superior sound quality. / Photos by Suzanne Carr Rossi

Steve Howell owns Fat Kat Records & Books in Spotsylvania. His business has shifted from almost exclusively used books to almost exclusively vinyl records and laser discs, which he says are making a comeback. / Photos by Suzanne Carr Rossi

Renewed interest in vinyl records has helped turn around business at a Spotsylvania County store that once focused on books.

Steve Howell and his wife, Eileen, run a business out of a 3,000-square-foot space at 4513 Jefferson Davis Highway called Fat Kat Records & Books. That’s the third name the business has had in the past two years, but the first that emphasizes its new focus.

The previous iterations of the Howells’ business were called The Book Rack and Howell Books & Music, reflecting the original focus on new and used books.

When the Howells got involved in the business in 2001, they sold only books and book-related materials. The store was then at 10671 Spotsylvania Ave. in the Lee’s Hill Commercial Center before moving two years ago to its current location near the intersection of Harrison Road.

In the late 2000s, the store’s book sales began to slide as people gravitated to electronic readers, and that trend has picked up since then. Steve Howell knew that if he didn’t change the model, he would be out of business before long.

The store’s recent turnaround has come from an unlikely source: music albums produced on vinyl records or LaserDiscs. Sales of those supposedly outdated technologies have been picking up as part of a global trend.

“All the dead formats are back,” Howell said.

Howell, a former construction engineer who estimates he spends 100 hours a week working at his store, attributed the resurgence of record sales to several factors. Many believe that music sounds better in analog form than digital, and they like the artwork on album covers. Records remind some customers of their youth. They also have value as collectibles.

This spring, Howell plans to redesign the store to emphasize the new focus on records, LaserDiscs and other old-school music formats.

This spring, Howell plans to redesign the store to emphasize the new focus on records, LaserDiscs and other old-school music formats.

In some ways Steve Howell has been preparing his whole life for this business model. He fondly recalls his days listening to records as a teenager, and he’s been buying and selling them for decades. He’s used eBay and Craigslist to attract customers and wants to be the best-known record store between Washington and Richmond.

Howell, who has lived in the Fredericksburg area since 2001, tries to distinguish himself from the competition by focusing on consignments. He tells customers that they can make more money consigning their collections at his store than selling them in bulk to competitors.

He now has a regular group of suppliers who come across records at storage auctions and estate and yard sales. This spring he plans to redesign the store to emphasize the new focus on records, LaserDiscs and other old-school music formats. A parking-lot sale is planned April 12-13 at which thousands of records, LaserDiscs and other products will be priced at $1 or less.

Fat Kat Records & Books—the name comes from a beloved family cat named Anya who died a year ago—continues to sell books to its regular customers, but Howell is not optimistic about that product’s future. He does think certain kinds of physical books, including those geared toward children, will continue to sell, and paperbacks do better than hardbacks.

But Howell has more faith in the future of records. He also sells record players.

Howell isn’t the only one who has noticed increased interest in records among what he calls “millennials, hipsters and purists.”

Many media reports have made note of the international trend, which has led to some music groups re-releasing albums on vinyl and new records again being produced.

Bill Freehling: 540/374-5405

bfreehling@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/business/2014/03/02/2072/

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