Manayunk’s independent record store defies the odds in an ever-evolving industry.
By Leo Dillinger
Photography by Alexa Nahas Photography (alexanahas.com)
Pat Feeney sits at his office desk in the backroom of Main Street Music, reflecting on 28 years selling records in Manayunk. In mid-conversation, he turns to his computer to look up the sales numbers of Ruston Kelly’s 2018 album Dying Star, one of his favorite albums in the past five years.
“I guarantee you no other store in the country sold more than 20 or 25 of that, even the stores in Nashville where he’s from,” Pat said as he strikes the ‘Enter’ key and reads the numbers on the screen. “I sold 63 copies of a record that nobody knows. Out of those 63, I guarantee 59 of them were me recommending it to people. And I wasn’t giving them the hard sell. I knew what they liked… That’s the joy I get out of the store. That is still the most satisfying thing.”
Pat opened Main Street Music on October 24, 1991 just six doors down from its current location. Working seven days a week and relying on his wife Joanne’s teaching salary to get by, Pat took the revenue of every CD he sold and reinvested back into his inventory. He had just two employees in those early years, Dave McElroy and Ken Buono, who played in the band Buzz Zeemer that Pat had managed prior to opening the shop.
He originally stocked up on CDs from Poison, Testament, Metallica, and other popular bands of the time. Pat soon realized his customers were more interested in the artists that WXPN was playing like Shawn Colvin, k.d. lang, and the Indigo Girls. He noticed the influence the radio station had on his clientele and immediately started advertising with them. Within his first year, he signed on as the exclusive partner for their “Album of The Week” series and became known as “the XPN store” around the greater Philadelphia area.|
As his inventory kept expanding, his shop felt smaller and smaller. His landlord, Dan Neducsin, told him about a larger vacant property located at 4444 Main Street. Though he was apprehensive to moving to the end of Main Street, Pat grew excited by the idea of a bigger space. On January 6, 1997, Pat relocated his business and has remained there ever since.
“People would come in and go ‘Man, I was hoping they would open a CD store around here. It’s about time you guys opened,’” Pat said with a laugh. “And I would say, ‘We’ve been here for about five and a half years just six doors up.’ It used to happen every day.”
Pat refers to the late 1990s as “The Heyday of Main Street Music.” The record industry was booming and the extra visibility of a bigger storefront helped attract more foot traffic. With a reputable selection of music and customers frequenting the shop every minute of the day, he watched his numbers rise a couple thousand dollars every week.
But with the turn of the new millennium came a series of troubles for the independent record store. Changes in technology and music accessibility led to a rise in illegal downloading and burning copies of CDs. Business had dropped off significantly as the 2008 recession rolled in and it seemed like the days of Main Street Music were numbered.
No matter how tough things got, Pat persevered. In 2009, his store manager of 18 years, Dave McElroy, announced he was moving away. With a bit of luck and convenient timing, Pat managed to find the perfect replacement. Jamie Blood had just been laid off from her job as a label representative for Universal Music Group and was looking for something new. Oddly enough, Jamie knew Pat for nearly ten years through her job and her boyfriend (now husband) Mark Ertter was already working at the shop for close to a year before she started.
“Before Jamie, I was kind of a control freak,” Pat said. “I ordered every unit that came into the store. She was really ambitious so I just gave her more and more responsibility. I’ve been on cruise control for a few years now because she can handle it. She’s definitely a big part of why we’re still open.”
Around the same time, the resurgence in demand for vinyl records practically saved Main Street Music. While 2019 now marks the first year vinyl has outsold CDs nationwide since 1986, Pat was slow to believe the trend ten years ago. Vinyl was more expensive than CDs and it was non-returnable, which meant if a record didn’t sell, Pat would end up sitting on “dead stock.” He also had a personal bias – he had switched most of his own collection to CDs back in the 1980s.
“At first, I was hesitant,” Pat said. “I had owned 5,000 records and I was a music nut since I was 12. I used to think like myself on the other side of the counter. I had trouble getting it through my head that it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what the public thinks.”
“We still sell CDs, but it has definitely declined and vinyl has picked up tremendously,” Jamie said. “We used to hardly see any used vinyl come in and now we’ll get three people in the same day bringing in used vinyl.”
Above everything else, it’s Main Street Music’s passionate customer base that helped them survive all these years. The shop is a destination for music fans of all ages and backgrounds. Teens and 20-somethings venture in to pick up the newest releases or rummage through the dollar bins. Empty nesters with disposable income won’t hesitate to purchase the latest box sets and reissues from their favorite bands. Most importantly, the shop acts as a resource for music discovery.
“You can ask any questions about music,” said Charlie Wellock, a regular at the shop since the first week it opened. “That hasn’t changed the whole time the store has been here. If people come in and they don’t know what they like, you can get a recommendation or they’ll play something for you. It’s like an education center instead of just a store.”
“Once you’re a regular customer of theirs and you get under their guidance, they’re going to point you in a direction of music you might have never heard of,” said Bob Aquilino, another customer who has shopped there since the beginning. “Because of their experience and they know what you like, you can take their recommendations to heart and listen to that music. Nine times out of 10, they’re going to be right on. You’re not going to get that from a box store or Amazon or any other website. It’s just that human relationship that’s hard to define and hard to find.”
Pat wouldn’t be where he is today if not for his passionate and knowledgeable staff. He credits much of his success to his two store managers Dave (for the first 18 years) and Jamie (for the last 10 years) who have supported him through his highs and lows and made his job look easy. From their frequent buyer cards and discounts for WXPN members to a brand new website for pre-ordering and in-store events like Record Store Day in April and Black Friday in November, the Main Street Music staff give their customers plenty of reasons to keep coming back.
“The prices here are insane,” said Edwin Perez, an employee for the last five years. “If you go to any other store, you’ll realize Main Street had it cheaper, whether it’s new or used. That’s what caught me as a customer before I even worked here. If you dig in the dollar bins, you will find gems.”
“I see people come in all the time who want to know what Pat is listening to,” Jamie said. “It’s really exciting being able to turn someone on to new music. If somebody comes in and buys this record, I can say ‘Oh well if you like this, you’re really going to like this.’ Then having them come back and say ‘Yeah, that was awesome. What else can I get?’”
“Pat’s been here for 28 years now. That’s some pretty insane experience and knowledge,” Mark Ertter said. “This is a good place to come if you want to find anything out about music. Pat knows a lot and has developed this customer base for years. There’s something to be said for that. It’s not just a record store.”
“The in-store performances are amazing,” said Tyler Asay, who was hired two years ago. “You never know who’s coming in here to play and hang out. It’s just a great community and everyone is here for the music.”
Main Street Music has hosted roughly 130 in-store performances from both local and nationally touring acts since the shop opened. These shows have provided some of the most intimate musical experiences among customers and employees alike. Some of the staff’s personal favorites include Tommy Stinson (of the Replacements), Billy Bragg, Rhett Miller, Ben Kweller, Baroness, Fitz & The Tantrums, Jesse Malin, Strand of Oaks, and Dave Hause.
Out of all the bands that have played at Main Street Music, some of the most memorable moments have come from California folk-rock band Dawes, who has played five shows at Main Street Music including the band’s first-ever in-store performance.
“They’re the nicest people in the world,” Pat said. “We had so many people outside that couldn’t get in. I asked Taylor [Goldsmith] if he would go to the door and sing a song for the people outside and he did it twice at two different in-stores. There are photos of them singing three-part harmonies in the doorway. That’s the kind of stuff that gives you goosebumps.”
While there are far too many stories over the last 28 years to fit to print, the one story that stuck out was the store’s 25th anniversary celebration at Lucky’s Last Chance. Jamie organized a surprise party for Pat, inviting family, friends, customers and former employees from all over, some who flew into town just for the occasion. It remains one of Pat’s favorite memories in the entire history of his shop, validating everything he has done to keep Main Street Music alive.
“He doesn’t give himself enough credit for the business that he’s built and for how long he’s stayed here and endured,” Jamie said. “Sometimes this street hasn’t been the easiest to be on, but he really has killed it keeping it open. We have people that come in and say, ‘Oh my God. I’m so glad to see you’re still here!’ and I’ll say, ‘So am I!’”
This last year has been particularly rough on Pat and the Main Street Music family. Last November, they lost “Big Tom” Lorman, one of Pat’s closest friends in the world, at just 56 years old. Tom used to work Saturday nights at the shop for roughly 22 years and would always call to check in and see how business was going. The team continues to feel a noticeable void since his passing.
There are also newer threats to the industry. Streaming services have made music more convenient than ever. Amazon has not only been crushing record stores, but brick and mortar businesses as a whole. And now, the three major labels (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) have consolidated their distribution to one single company, causing industry-wide delays for new releases to independent shops all over.
But Pat and the staff continue to provide a service that can’t be found elsewhere. In a world with so many musical options, Main Street Music’s customers trust the staff’s opinions on what to listen to. It’s not an algorithm deciding for you. It’s a human being catering to your musical needs, creating a priceless experience that so many music fans search for.
“I still believe Main Street Music has a name and a reputation and a history,” Pat said. “It does have a legacy and I’m proud of it. I always looked at it like it was my second kid. That’s probably why I still care about this store so much.”