Independent record stores aren’t just stores. They’re places where music fans can connect with other music fans as they dig through stacks of CDs and crates of vinyl. With the decline of the music business, those types of stores are now a rarity.
Despite the change in the record-buying public’s shopping habits, the Exchange, a chain of local stores owned by John Shahinian, has continued to thrive, and the chain now boasts close to 30 stores and features locations in four states. This year marks the store’s 40th anniversary.
Shahinian clearly still loves the job. During a recent stroll through the Mayfield Villlage office and warehouse, he jokes with employees and talks about the number of years each person has worked for the company. He’s even created a chart on a couple of pieces of cardboard chronicling the longevity of each employee. A few workers have even crossed the 25-year mark. His sister Marina, brother Richard and mother Katherine started working with him from the very beginning. Other family members work there now too and Shahinian treats his employees as they were family.
Shahinian initially moved to Cleveland in the early ’60s. Though only a child, he quickly started buying records.
“I love the way the music took you on a journey,” says Shahinian, who recalls buying his first record in 1963 when he purchased the Johnny Rivers single “Memphis” and fondly remembers going through the 9 cent stacks at Silverman’s Surplus City in search of other 7-inch singles. “When I found that Chuck Berry was from St. Louis and Johnny Rivers was from Memphis and all this stuff was coming out of Chicago, like Chess Records, it made me realize it was all connected.”
Shahinian would get into the business on a whim. One day while he was a student at Ohio State University, he walked into a record store and asked them for a job. The clerk told him he had just opened and said he couldn’t pay him. So Shahinian offered to work there on a volunteer basis.
“No record store would ever hire me at that time because they always told me I had to know something about classical music, and I liked rock music way too much,” he says one recent afternoon from a conference room that has vintage rock posters on its walls and stacks of Star Trek toys on the floor. “I knew all the people who worked at the stores from haunting the local record stores.”
Inspired by the experience, he returned to Cleveland for the summer and opened the first store, then called the Record Exchange, on Coventry in 1975.
“That summer, my brother and I decided to start our own store,” he says. “It was difficult without any real backing. We made a deal to rent a space to sell records at the back of Sun Tree Arts Center, which was at the corner of Mayfield and Coventry. The promise was that we would give the landlord $125 at the end of the month whether we succeeded or not. She took the deal. We just put up a sign that read, ‘We buy, sell and trade records.’ We had a few things from our collection and things that we had acquired from haunting all the record stores.”
"My record collecting addiction started with the Record Exchange when they first opened," says WJCU DJ/Auburn Records owner Bill Peters, who now works for the Exchange. "My dad used to drive me and my friends out to Coventry from the west side on Saturdays to shop. He would drop us off and return to pick us up three hours later. I was only 15 at the time. I would usually end up bringing boxes of albums home. I was just starting to build my collection back then, which now totals over 50,000 albums. It was always such a rush looking through the used album bins. Sometimes my friends and I would find an album we both wanted and reach to grab it out of the bin at the same time. We would literally be in a tug-of-war match in the middle of the store for it. I usually won those battles. On one occasion, though, we accidently tore a rare import Budgie album cover in half. I still have half the cover in my collection today. You just don't get this kind of fun and excitement shopping online. Retail is where the action's at!"
Since they had to return to college in the fall, they hired Tim Hellwig, a guy who lived across the street, to manage the store in their absence. Their mother, sister and father would help out too.
“When I first walked into that store I saw maybe four crates of records and the free box on the floor,” he says. “I started there about five months after they opened up. I think I made a dollar an hour and could take whatever I wanted home. That was like the Golden Goose.”
Shahinian says he didn’t want the store to have the hipster vibe of other record shops.
“One of the first revelations I had with my brother was that girls wouldn’t go into them,” says Shahinian. “We knew if we could get girls to come into the store, the guys would follow. It was important to be girl friendly. Most record stores were like dungeons. That was very cool. I loved Melody Lane and the Music Grotto and, of course, Record Revolution. But let’s be honest. Post-war parents didn’t want their parents going into those places. The smell of incense and the darkness was more rock ’n’ roll. We just tried to keep our stores neat and orderly and well-lit. And we didn’t play a steady diet of Uriah Heep and Ted Nugent. We tried to be more accessible for everybody. We didn’t want to referee what people were purchasing.”
Shahinian opened a second store in Maple Heights and opened a Pittsburgh store in 1995. Along the way, he created his own computer program to keep track of inventory. He’s proud of the company’s self-sustaining approach and boasts that he’s never bought a box because he’d rather recycle old boxes than buy new ones. The Exchange always supports the local music scene and charity events for the community. It regularly sponsors the Cleveland Metal Holiday Food Drive, WNCX's annual Blood Drive and WJCU college radio fundraisers.
“It’s all based on people,” Shahinian says. “There’s just something magical about shopping at an independent store. It’s the element of surprise. It’s something you won’t get a Target or Walmart. We’ve been lucky enough that our customers can still find magic and it’s a positive experience. It knocks me out how many people will come in with kids and grandkids. You can watch people grow and fortunately we’ve grown together. When we say we’ve been here for 40 years, we mean 40 years together. You just can’t beat independent shopping.”