How does a strong Princeton-based company celebrate 40 years of success in 2020?
Simple: close the shop, fire the staff, rack up debt, and then try to figure out how to pay the bills.
That’s the way Princeton Record Exchange owner Jon Lambert commemorated the anniversary of one of the region’s most lively and culturally connected shops – with 13 full-time and three part-time employees.
“Ironies abounded,” says Lambert in a recent masked interview in a open-windowed side room in the one-story boxy building on Tulane Street.
He says he had a “grand plan” to celebrate on March 20, the same day “when COVID took hold and sales went down to nothing. On Friday night I bought champagne. On Saturday, I let everyone go.”
That is except for two people developing the shop’s online presence.
“We ramped up our online sales,” he says. “That enabled me to pay health insurance when I furloughed everyone and helped pay critical bills. We’re primarily a brick and mortar store, but we’re keeping our online up and running just in case.”
In this case, the team, using their site along with Discogs — a national company Lambert calls the eBay of music — saw online income rise from around 1 percent of their pre-COVID income to 7 percent.
That effort, along with a PPP grant from the State of New Jersey Economic Development Association, enabled Lambert to bring staff back when the state allowed non-essential businesses to re-open their doors.
“They’re all back,” Lambert says about the staff. “Everyone was enthusiastic about coming back.”
After saying, “Last thing I wanted to do is to fire someone during a pandemic,” Lambert adds, “If it wasn’t for the incredible knowledge of the staff and their sacrifice we wouldn’t be here. It takes a strong team, and I thank them for their dedication. Our turnover is incredibly slow. I have nine people who have been here over nine years.”
Lambert says the need for such commitment and knowledge may be missed by the community in general.
“It is a big operation. There is a lot of product here,” he says of the approximately 150,000 titles in the store’s 4,500-square-foot display areas and back rooms.
And with the store at 75 percent back to where it had been before the March closure and 25 shopping capacity, he says, “We buy and sell roughly an average of 40,000 titles a month. We buy an average of 20 collections a day.”
He says current sales have been helped by the resurgence in vinyl records. And while the store always lived up to is name by selling vinyl record, LP sales have increased and now lead.
For example, Lambert says, “10 years ago, we were generally 60 percent CDs, 30 percent LPs, and 10 percent DVDs. A few years ago LPs took 60 percent.”
Some of that change is related to selling rarities, vinyl recordings that command upwards of $2,000, and being part of an inventory whose prices range “from low to stratospheric.”
“What makes us a destination is the vinyl. (It) is fun to see the packaging and read the liner notes. It’s more fun to have a physical artifact. That’s what’s sexy right now.”
He adds that “classic rock and indie rock are by far the biggest categories. Jazz is a second – there is a lot of rare albums. Soul/funk and (heavy) metal are also popular.”
He says that the vintage rock records with groups such as AC/DC make it “almost like the ’80s all over again,” he says, quickly adding, “I started managing records stores in the ’80s in the Quaker Bridge Mall.”
Lambert says he was born in New York City to “beatnik” parents — a writer mother and artist father who both played bongos and frequented coffeehouses.
“They moved out when I was 1 year old and lived in Hopewell. And then they moved to Princeton in 1970. I lived with my mother here in town until I was 17 and dropped out (of high school) in 1979.” He later got a GED.
He says he then “stumbled” into working at the mall record shop where friends were working and encouraged to work to take a job there. There was a lot of turnover. “At 20, I got my job first managing,” he says.
He says the Shulman Record Company — owner of the Quaker Bridge Mall’s Listening Booth, Wall to Wall Sound, and Beakys Record Store — offered him the opportunity to manage a 5,000-square-foot store with 20 employees.
“I later moved on and managed a video rental store in Lawrence Shopping Center and eventually came here. I stared here as a clerk in 1988.”
The Princeton Record Exchange — aka PREX — was started by Barry Weisfeld. Described in a past U.S. 1 article as “a kid from Long Island with a marketing degree from the University of Hartford (Class of 1975),” Weisfeld tried his hand selling records at flea markets but found better results taking his van to college campuses and selling them in student centers or college stores.
In 1979 Weisfeld came to Princeton and evidently encouraged sales at the Princeton University Store. A year later he rented 20 Nassau Street and in 1985 set up shop on Tulane Street.
Around 2015, Lambert says, “Barry wanted to retire but wanted to keep the shop going. He offered a path to purchasing.”
Now, five years later, Lambert says, “I was in retail all my life and could run a store, but no one told me how to deal with the plague. It was tough to be closed for three months.”
“The biggest problem is trying to pay back all the money we spent when we were closed, the fixed costs,” he adds. “The debt we accumulated was substantial.”
That includes rent, which he reveals in a formula: “Name a monthly amount, double it, and then add some more.” (I named a high number and was wrong).
“I feel confident we can limp through the winter — if we’re not shut down,” he says.
A few things that would help him and other businesses in the region and around the nation is debt and PPE-loan forgiveness — a point he made in April when he appeared nationally on CNBC.
Meanwhile, he continues to maintain daily business while eliminating debt by “trying to tweak our systems to make them more cost effective” as well as “trying to keep everyone safe as possible as well as run the business.”
After saying “life goes on” and he couldn’t see “walking away from everything I worked for,” Lambert says, “It was unexpected to me how meaningful this place was to the Princeton community and the music-loving community in New Jersey and New York.
“I am grateful to our loyal customers. When we were closed people were buying gift cards and paid us ahead for merchandise. It was obvious people using our online were doing so to help us. The day we reopened we had a line. People missed us so much.
“This place has potent memories for people. People who shopped here as kids are now bringing their kids here. People who had their first dates here or met someone here have had wedding photos taken here. Sharing a love of art can be a strong bond and give a lot of depth to people, and we love being part of that.”
Perhaps it is because he met his wife when they worked together at the Quaker Bridge Mall, Lambert says, “For a lot of people, the digital world is a cold space. We’re trying to create a warm, inviting environment where like-minded people meet and have an experience. We’re trying to fill that need — a place where people want to be.
“We like to think of ourselves as an artistic store. And we do partnerships with McCarter, the Arts Council of Princeton, and Princeton Public Library. We partnered with WPRB for decades. We like to think of ourselves as an arts group.
“We’re here to make money, but our passion for music is what drives us. It’s great to be integrated in the community.”
That integration also included a town-supported 40th anniversary celebration with a PREX 40 blend coffee at Small World Coffee, a 40 stout at Triumph Brewery, a 40-themed ice cream offering at Bent Spoon, T-shirts, and other promotions.
“Maybe we’ll brew a PREX 41 blend,” he says. “But 40 years is a great accomplishment. There are very few places that have the longevity that we have.
“And, for me, being snot-nosed kid raised in town, to be a fixture in a community that really cares and wants to see me succeed, I really appreciate that.”
Princeton Record Exchange, 20 South Tulane Street, Princeton. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 609-921-0881 or www.prex.com.
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