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Easy Street bows out, but are local record stores really dying?

This is the last week for a fixture in Seattle’s independent music culture, as Easy Street Records’ lower Queen Anne store prepares to shut its doors Friday. But the move may not signal, as some fear, a death spiral for local independent music stores.

The Mercer Street location has been open for 12 years, and has stood out for the numerous in-store performances it’s hosted, from Macklemore to Lana Del Rey to Eddie Vedder. But founder Matt Vaughan is reluctantly letting the Queen Anne store expire, making room for a Chase Bank branch that made the landlords an offer they couldn’t refuse. Speaking from a comfortably cluttered office in the rear of the store, he said the move has little to do with the economics of selling records.

“That’s what you hear, is, well, you know, there goes another record store, or that’s just because the mp3 has taken over. And you know what? That wasn’t it whatsoever. We were coming off one of our better years,” Vaughan said.

Rising rents

To him, this is about real estate and changing neighborhoods, including his own, which seems to be catching the ripples from South Lake Union development. There are certainly fewer record stores in Seattle than in the 1990s – maybe half as many, say collectors. But that shakeout has largely already happened and the major players that remain seem pretty stable. Sales of vinyl records are surging, in fact, and with independent record stores accounting for the bulk.

Author and music chronicler Charles Crosssays retailers in Seattle may have more to fear from rising rents than from fewer people buying their product.

“To have a large enough selection to make it decent you need a fair amount of real estate, and there was a point where Seattle could support those kind of things. Where the U District was such cheap rent that you had six different record stores on the Ave.,” he said.

The in-store experience

Meanwhile digital music delivery and online ordering are keeping the pressure on local stores, a change Cross laments.

“There’s both a cultural price, an intellectual price and maybe even a spiritual prices. Because I’ve never once in my life signed on to and had a helpful clerk with a beard tell me to go check out this great UK band,” said Cross.

There will still be plenty of bearded clerks at Easy Street’s original West Seattle location, which isn’t going anywhere. And owner Matt Vaughan will hang on to the memories from the Queen Anne years, like the time Lou Reed played for the business’s 15th anniversary.

“To have a conversation with him and talk about music, and then for him to say hey, take me around and pick me up a dozen new CDs – going shopping with Lou Reed was pretty special,” Vaughan said.

Easy Street will close its doors on Friday, after a farewell performance by Yo La Tengo. The next day they plan to auction off much of the store’s hardware, including its signature stencil-painted plywood record bins.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.