VINYL SCOUT: Joe’s Record Paradise

For music buffs, combing through a reputable record store is an ethereal experience. Behind every vinyl sleeve there’s a story that either evokes nostalgia or, at best, offers an entirely new adventure. Joe’s Record Paradise, located in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, makes good on its namesake. On a good day, the sprawling shop contains over 100,000 pieces of wax across its 6,000 square foot showroom floor. Much to the delight of collectors, merchandise bubbles over the granular pine oak shelves, spilling into aisle narrowing milk crates placed on the carpet below. Their vast inventory is cluttered and disheveled, but according to the current owner and retail manager, 36-year-old Robert Johnson Lee, the thrill is almost exclusively in the hunt. “Some customers spend their entire day browsing,” he brags. “They joke about bringing a sleeping bag and alarm clock.”

The scruffy entrepreneur was named after iconic blues musician Robert Leroy Johnson. In an effort to avert long-winded antebellum discussions, he started going by his middle name. “You can imagine why I wouldn’t want to go by Robert Lee,” he says. “Every time I met someone they [would ask if I was related to the Confederate General].” Johnson inherited the business from his father, Joe, who the store is named after. In 2009, he made the decision to relocate from Rockville to Silver Spring after failing to reach an agreement with his former landlord. “The economy was crashing and the lease was up,” he recalls. “I asked [the proprietor] what kind of deal they could make to keep us there. They said the normal 3% upgrade. This was in 2009! I’m not going to be pressured to do anything [I’m not comfortable with] period.”

Johnson immediately scoured “every inch of the surrounding area” in search of a new homestead, eventually settling for 8216 Georgia Avenue. “There’s open lots everywhere,” he claims. “Half of the places that were vacant during my search three years ago are still available. So if they want to kick me out of here, I’ve got options.” Joe’s Record Paradise is a rolling stone. More than halfway into a five-year lease, a 20-foot pole anchored in the sidewalk just beyond the entrance still reads “Champion Billards.” It’s the last remnant of the pool hall that once occupied the unit. Johnson’s defiant managerial instincts lead him to simply forgo the cost of renovating or removing the banner, as he assumed “it would probably cost a million dollars.”

Paradise’s rap section is considerably larger than what you’ll find in the quaint vinyl boutiques clustered in Adams Morgan or secondhand bookstores elsewhere in Montgomery County. But the large majority of patrons mine their crates for rock, jazz, and soul records. Collectors that value rare and limited pressings will take pleasure in knowing the shop has carved out a small area specifically dedicated to their high ticket items. The most exclusive commodities are stored behind a 4-foot-tall countertop enclosure. A note attached to the chained corridor instructs customers to notify a staff employee before entering. Johnson insists, however, that the area is only partitioned to discourage petty theft. “We allow people to go in [without an escort],” he explains. “We just try to limit the traffic. People were bringing in cheap records and switching stuff up. It’s unfortunate, but some people will be the assholes they are.”

According to Los Angeles-based record retail support organization “The Almighty Institute of Music Retail,” 4,284 independent shops have went belly up since the turn of the century. Joe’s Record Paradise is one of only 1,600 record stores still planted on American soil. British stores have suffered a similar fate. The Daily Telegraph, a conservative-leaning London news publication, reported three-quarters of their vinyl circuit folded throughout the aughts. The bleak statistics beg the question of whether Paradise will prove to be a mainstay on Georgia Avenue for years to come, or merely a fleeting mirage. When asked to comment on the store’s financial performance since migrating 20 miles south of Rockville, the manager confidently assures that Paradise has been “surviving.”

Johnson certainly has reason to place faith in his consumers. Billboard Magazine declared that more vinyl albums were sold in 2011 than any other year since the introduction of SoundScan in 1991. While that isn’t exactly tangible evidence of growth in the music industry, if nothing else, the 3.9 million records purchased last year attests to definitive niche expansion. Joe’s Record Paradise is evidence of such gains. Not only does the shop attract clientele from the world over, they’re also doing their part to stabilize the global economy. “People from all over the world come [to furnish] their own record stores,” Johnson gloats. “We get Japanese buyers. English buyers. They’ll come here and purchase boxes of records, then go back to [their native countries] and triple the price. They make their money off of us.”

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  • Johnson Lee

    Well done, nicely written and on point. Thanks for coming by. I hope we can do a 50 year anniversary story! Keep digging…

  • Harold Stallworth

    Ha! Thanks Lee. 50 year anniversary sounds good. I’ll mark my calendar.