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For the Record - Off-Center Records & Collectibles

Read about a record store owner who began by selling records in a booth at a mini mall

Off-Center Records & Collectibles
116 Bleeker St., Utica, N.Y. 13501
(315) 738-7651


Off-Center Records & Collectibles grew out of John Keller’s passion for collecting records. Here is the story behind the store.

What was your first job?
John Keller: I had always worked in the health services field until a shoulder injury curtailed that. In the record field, I helped my friend at his record shop, sorting, etc.

What was the first record you ever bought?
JK: I grew up listening to my aunt’s collection that included things fron classical to Frankie Laine to [Harry] Belafonte, so my first listening experiences were fairly eclectic. I believe the first record I actually purchased was Black Oak Arkansas’ “Jim Dandy” on 45. I still have the very one.
When did the idea of owning your own record store first occur to you?
JK: As I had been collecting records all my life, I had a great many of which I had doubles of or didn’t listen to anymore. My friend at the local shop encouraged me to do some record shows. A few years later, he passed away, and I felt persuaded to continue an independent record shop for myself and in his honor.

What is the history of the store?
JK: In the late ’80s, besides doing record conventions, I set up a weekend booth at a “mini-mall.” I was selling $1 to $5 albums and T-shirts, plus odds and ends. A few months later I opened a small store in an indoor mall. The location was horrendous. After two years, I had to decide if I believed in myself and my store enough to move to a better location. I found this spot, and nearly 19 years later, I’m still here.

What does your store specialize in?
JK: I do carry pretty much every genre and category. I’d say that it’s 80 percent vinyl — a very large selection of jazz, but several hundred of country, rock, soul, soundtracks and metal. I estimate that I have about a quarter million [records], mainly between LPs and 45s.

Has the neighborhood where your store is located changed?
JK: I guess no places remain the same. But I think the most significant change has been the lack of small businesses. Most of the independent shops have left, and more offices and charity organizations occupy the spaces.

How has the music-retail market changed over the years?
JK: I find that a lot of people like to hold on to what they remember. All the years I’ve been here, vinyl sales have never decreased. Though I have carried CDs all the while, record sales have been very strong. I do find CD sales declining because of downloading, but more college-age people prefer the sound of vinyl.

Have you noticed a resurgence in vinyl-record sales?
JK: Definitely! High school and college students are discovering the benefits of better sound, larger type and how cool they are. Older patrons are realizing the nostalgia, as well as the reasons I just stated. It has been helped by the fact that many more artists are releasing their music on the format.

What does your store offer that few, if any, others do?
JK: Knowledge, for one thing. I keep myself aware of most of the newer artists, as well as most all music from the past. Customers can ask questions or talk about most any artist and not get a blank stare, but a fulfilling conversation. Another thing is diversity. Besides two floors of records, we also carry DVDs and videotapes, T-shirts, posters, pins, patches, memorabilia and collectibles — past and present. Plus we have a guitar-and-drum center. We also promote local music, heavily. We also have in-store concerts on occasion.

What changes has the store gone through over the years?
JK: Many. Over the years we have had a comic-book shop, a vintage-toy store and a vintage-clothing store within the main store. Since, we added the guitar center and videos.

Who are some of your favorite customers from over the years and why?
JK: That’s a hard question. There are a great many. I have several who have shopped here since Day One, and others who inspire great conversation with me or other customers. I guess some of my very favorite customers are those who continue to expand musically, always looking for new genres and voices.

What was the biggest day the store every had?
JK: There have been many good days, but I get a lot of customers from overseas (Japan, Germany, Greece) who tend to spend quite freely. At times, it has been $3,000-plus.

Ever had anybody famous come in and shop your store?
JK: Several. Little Stevie Van Zant, Michael Feinstein, MTV VJ Jesse Camp, members of Hot Tuna and Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa, among them.

What is the future of record stores like yours?
JK: I’d like to say infinite. And it could be, as long as people believe in the music instead of convenience. As long as artists believe in their fan base and what they want. And as long as people and government continue to support small business.

What’s the best part about being the owner of a record store, and what’s the worst?
JK: The best part, besides being your own boss, is being able to put a smile on people’s faces. When they come in looking for that missing piece to their collection and find it, it makes them and you happy. The worst part is the ofttimes long hours. Between being at the job, you’re out seeking and buying and cleaning and pricing, hauling box after box from here to there. But in the end, there’s the smiles.

What is the rarest record you’ve ever had in your store?
JK: I guess that would be The Beatles’ Butcher Cover. Over the past 18-plus years, I’ve been fortunate to have five copies come through — four monos and one stereo. Three were second state (covered) and two peeled. I currently have the peeled stereo for sale. But I’ve had many records in the several hundred dollar range.

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?
JK: If you’ve been doing this a long time, “strange” is commonplace. People who only want to buy one record of a double album because they only scratched one. One person asked if he could teach his children about records by touring the store. I think the oddest was a guy who wanted a particular bird sound and had me call my distributor asking to look on every birdsound record for it. I don’t remember the bird, but I do remember we found it.

What advice would you have for people who want to own a record store?
JK: Four major things to have before you begin: No. 1, knowledge. Know what you’re selling. Know your customer. Know the market. No. 2, diversity. Realize that no one item will always sell. The more reasons you have for people to come into your store, the better the potential for sales. No. 3, inventory. You will need a large stock with a wide variety of genres, all in excellent condition. Happy customers mean talking customers means more customers. And No. 4, money. To buy stock, advertising, payroll, fixtures, utilities, rent, etc. It takes a lot of capital to start from the ground up.



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