This store in a struggling downtown California manages to thrive


Over the past decade, businesses in San Luis Obispo have struggled to stay afloat, leading to the closure of longtime local retailers and restaurants — many of which have been beloved for generations — one after another. others. Independent cameras, including Jim’s Campus Camera (closed, 2013); Marshalls Jewelers (2018, closed after being in business continuously since 1889) and Charles Shoes (2019), closed after more than half a century.

In 2021, the closures have only accelerated. Downtown lost Rolled Ice Cream Company, Yogurtland and Serengeti West Fine Jewelers.

Even larger chains with large physical footprints disappeared, leaving gaping holes in the neighborhood. Beverly’s Fabrics, which had been open for 48 years, closed in late 2020. Abercrombie & Fitch and Express both announced fall closures. And Ross Dress for Less, which occupied the width of a city block between Higuera and Monterey streets, closed permanently in early January of this year.

Amidst the empty storefronts, there is still one store that manages to thrive.

“We’re the resisters, man,” says Mike White, sitting on a concrete bench in front of the back entrance of Boo Boo Records, the store he’s run and owned for 36 years. The store became a downtown San Luis Obispo institution and somehow hung on, while others around it fell back.

The brick building facade is whitewashed and the concrete parking blocks are cracked with exposed rebar. The onset of industrial decay is triggered by Bishop Peak, towering and green, courtesy of late December rain.

White has an indulgent smile and a head full of salt and pepper hair. The wrinkles seem to be due to sun exposure rather than desk-type worries.

He first stopped at Boo Boo Records which had just opened as a rookie at Cal Poly in 1974. He said at the time that he was “pretty thrown” at the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan. Since graduating in 1978, he has worked full-time at the store, first as manager and then as owner.

He admits that luck and self-mockery really aren’t part of the formula for running a business, unless it’s a record store.

“Both help,” he said. “That, and you must have a lot of vinyl.”

Boo Boo Records’ used vinyl section in San Luis Obispo is both a hidden gem and one of the most popular spots in all of downtown SLO.

Photo courtesy of Boo Boo Records

White estimates vinyl sales accounted for more than 50% of the store’s revenue in 2021 – 40% new and just over 10% used, an “unprecedented” volume he hasn’t seen since the mid-20s. 80 years.

“[A decade ago] we were forced to turn to books, clothes, other non-musical lifestyle things, things that had better margins and appealed to students,” he said. “But now the trend is back to music – big time.”

White and Boo Boo Records belong to the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, a “small but mighty” coalition of independent record retailers who “decided the only way to survive was to band together”.

“We were all going through the same thing in the early 2000s – it seemed like it was over for the record,” he said, “and it’s now called Record Store Day.”

The first event was on April 19, 2008, and “from there it just started a wildfire.”

White explained that Record Store Day has also brought back a lost age group, a group that he says have also graduated and moved away to bigger metros, but seek out the store when moving in. city. “For a while people stopped buying vinyl and CDs and listened to everything on their phones,” he said. “But slowly they started to come back, and now, well, there’s a certain demo that’s still around with an armful of records.”

Miguel Avila, a clerk who started 17 years ago, says that while older collectors and those in town for a nostalgic trip are still mining crates of gold, he often helps teenagers looking for “random stuff, like anime or video game soundtracks”. .”

“It’s not an atypical scene to see someone walk in with a parent, especially when school is starting,” White said. “The age group, 12 to 18, the big record buyers when I was that age – they’re back. They know when the stuff is coming, where the hard-to-find stuff is. There’s a catch of consciousness, an intention, behind the purchase, behind the objects that they accumulate.”

A Boo Boo Records turntable is a favorite item from one of California's most beloved independent record stores.

A Boo Boo Records turntable is a favorite item from one of California’s most beloved independent record stores.

Photo courtesy of Boo Boo Records

Although vinyl records are now vintage technology, White refuses to get stuck in the past. He balked at the idea that record stores should declare war on streaming or online sales to survive. “I understand that the temptation is to paint us [as] the little guy who takes care of those things that are out of our control,” he said.

“We also have to change,” he added, explaining that he and his staff use streaming platforms as well as apps like Discogs and Instagram to stay up to date, promote the store and communicate with customers.

COVID has brought “another line in the sand are we going to get there,” White said, noting that technology has helped with that as well. The record store was able to sell more online and launch a curbside collection program when people couldn’t enter the store.

Today, Boo Boo Records’ back office is everything you’d expect, and exactly what you’d expect from the innards of a record store. Random cutouts of Bowie, Kate Bush, Darth Vader and Elton John watch over the staff. Beneath them is a dorm fridge pasted with the band and record company logos.

Owner Mike White and record store salesman Miguel Avila sort through new stock in the back of Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo.

Owner Mike White and record store salesman Miguel Avila sort through new stock in the back of Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

The small kitchen-sized space is the Platonic ideal of life in a busy record store. Three or four employees are constantly moving through floor-to-ceiling vinyl crates and 12-foot-tall CD shelves.

Back in one corner is Dustin Lehman, whose primary job is to buy and sell, package, ship, and receive records on the trade. Like owner White, Lehman began touring the record store as a freshman at Cal Poly. He never left. It was 17 years ago.

“I guess it’s, you know, a hobby that’s become a habit,” he said.

This mantra could just as easily be about White and Boo Boo Records himself. The long-time owner thinks he’s managed to stay in the game for the same reasons the store still exists today.

“I’m lucky to still have a store, even more to have a community that supports us,” he concludes. “All survivors are aware of this.


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