As far as business goes, Real Groovy has transcended retail – it’s a cultural institution.
Considering those dedicated to music have worshipped in its Queen St store for 25 years, rifling through boxes of vinyl, it’s appropriate the store has moved into a former church.
Real Groovy is Auckland’s longest-running secondhand record store and one of the last of its kind in the heart of the CBD, outlasting stores like the Record Warehouse in Durham St West, the downtown EMI shop and Music City in Vulcan Lane.
According to AudioCulture, the 1960s and 80s saw dozens of records stores at any one time on Queen St alone. By 2014, there was just two left: Real Groovy and Marbecks.
Some may have expected Real Groovy to close down years before – and it did have a close call, going into receivership in 2008 in the midst of a recession and illegal downloading frenzy – but owner Chris Hart says turnover has grown consistently year on year since.
“We’ve essentially done two things: focused on selling vinyl – which has actually been building up for over 10 years, for those who think it’s a recent phenomenon – and deepening our range of pop culture merchandise,” Hart says.
“Both have continued to grow and have largely compensated for the deflation in CD and DVD prices.”
It was a shift that naysayers didn’t see coming: vinyl, one of the older forms of music consumption, turned out to be the store’s saving grace.
Radioscope reported record sales revenue grew 116 percent to hit $1 million in New Zealand last year.
Hart says new record sales have been growing at over 50 percent per year for a while now, and supply is the greatest challenge, rather than demand.
Although pop culture merchandise is a hot seller, Hart says music remains the focus.
“We’ve always been a music store – that’s how we started and it’s always been the core of the business. It’s the one thing that unites all of our customers and our staff, even though there are many different tastes and levels of passion. It’s the glue that binds it all together.”
Its fiercely loyal customer base has played a key part in keeping Real Groovy afloat through the tougher years.
Real Groovy has never shied away from emphasising its unique proposition to its customers.
It describes itself in Twitter bio as “An oasis of cool in a cookie cutter retail nightmare”.
Hart says it’s the store’s differences that give Real Groovy its strong following.
“We employ real people with their own personalities and we don’t try to impose any cookie-cutter conformity on them. So if someone from Real Groovy asks you how they’re doing, it’s because they want to know, not because ‘management’ has told them to. Not everybody wants to tell someone who doesn’t give a toss how their day has been so far,” he says.
Other drawcards include a live music act instore at least once a month and a special-order service, where customers can request obscure items for Real Groovy to order in.
In June last year, fans were rattled when it was announced the building Real Groovy was tenanting was set for demolition.
Any anxiety was short-lived, as a new home was soon found a short distance down the road in an unused Salvation Army chapel.
With the help of movers, Real Groovy’s team “went bananas” and moved and merchandised everything over the course of two days, Real Groovy manager Sarah Williamson says.
This included wrapping bins filled with records so they stayed in place while being moved, she says. She estimates some bins weighed about 100kg.
The new space at 369 Queen St is a bit less grungy and more polished than the previous store, thanks to its origins as a church auditorium.
Hart says the main differences from its previous shop are that this space is newer, cleaner, “not crumbling” and air conditioned.
Its footprint is smaller than its previous store, at 800 square metres, or 1400 square metres overall including behind-the-scenes areas.
The shop is spread across three levels, with pop culture merchandise, books, CDs and movies occupying the street-level of the store, while used CDs and DVDs are located on the upstairs balcony. The record collection is in the basement.
The biggest challenge they faced was getting everything to fit, Hart says, particularly with the “rabbit warren” of rooms, balconies and lobbies already in place.
The church pews had to go to make way for Real Groovy’s stock, but the altar, which doubles as a stage, has stayed, as have the ceiling lights.
There’s also more of an ambiance in the new store, thanks to the wood finishes, sky lighting and great acoustics, Williamson says.
“The way sound travels here means it’s less of being in a big shed and more of an intimate browsing experience.”
Artist Andy Derbyshire created the vinyl installation that adorns the wall beside the stairs, while a staff cartoonist illustrated the front panels of the counters.
A part of the store that hasn’t been realised yet is turning the store’s windows into a disco ball.
There are plans to light up two glass brick columns that face onto the street with coloured LED lights, which Hart says is reminiscent of a Wurlitzer 1100 Jukebox.
He says the lights, combined with Real Groovy’s iconic neon logo, will brighten up their end of town.
As for the future, Hart says his goal is to settle in, and then keep trying to make Real Groovy the best record store in the world.
He may not be far off that dream, either. Real Groovy was recently ranked number 12 on a list of the 30 best record stores in the world.
This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742.