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National Record Store Day has become an increasingly serious day of observance of late, growing substantially since its humble beginnings in 2008. And Fort Wayne’s undeniable ringleader of the record store circus is Bob Roets, owner of Wooden Nickel and local music maven. After more than 30 years at the helm of Wooden Nickel, he’s become the face of local music at a time when CD sales may be waning but, somewhat improbably, vinyl sales are soaring. And there to help lead the charge is Roets, a savvy businessman and enormously enthusiastic music fan.
Though Roets is firmly ensconced in Fort Wayne and a devoted fan of the Indianapolis Colts, he came to the city from Madison, Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, it was a record store that brought him to the area. While still a student at University of Wisconsin, Roets worked at two different Playback Music stores before moving onto manage Slatewood Records on the main drag near campus. After he graduated, he was given the chance to manage a Slatewood Records in Fort Wayne, a store that was located in the North Clinton building that Wooden Nickel now calls home.
But not long after his arrival, Slatewood’s owner decided to sell the business in favor of a video rental concern, a response to the hot ticket of the early 1980s. Roets, who had long hoped to one day open his own record store, took matters into his own hands.
“When he closed the stores, it left all of us high and dry,” says Roets. “I was 23 years old and went six weeks without a job. I had hoped to run my own record store by the time I was 30, but I had some money saved up, and I had a personal collection of 2,500 albums. I also knew a guy who had a warehouse full of cut-out records, records that weren’t selling but couldn’t be returned to the distributor. He said I could sell those. So I filled the store with my records and those cut-outs. It didn’t come close to filling the store, but it was a start.”
At that moment in 1982, Wooden Nickel was born. Roets might not have imagined that he and his family, which eventually included wife Cindy and his sons Christopher and Andrew, would have a business they could call their own more than three decades later. It’s even more remarkable when one remembers that Fort Wayne had nine record stores – both locally owned and national chains – at the time. Roets recalls four in the adjacent Glenbrook Square alone. But always a good host, Roets began filling Wooden Nickel with music, via the newly introduced MTV which aired constantly in the store, and a clever little novelty that has become iconic.
“I always say that the smartest thing I did was those Wooden Nickel tokens. They were a nice discount, and people like that. But they were also a conversation piece. It was like a calling card, except instead of me handing you my business card, I could hand you a Wooden Nickel. That whole thing blew up really well and has been great for us.”
Roets also positioned himself on the front end of the CD wave, picking up an early Genesis CD when they were not yet available in the States and getting one of the first CD players when they arrived at Lehman Electronics. That additional novelty, and the fascination that accompanied a new technology, helped boost foot traffic as well.
“The bulk of our profits came from the introduction of the CD back then, and it really peaked when the Beatles catalog came out on CD. We had a big event when Sgt. Pepper’s came out, put black lights in the building and had lava lamps like it was 1967. It was a lot of fun. CDs were just killing it. We had six stores opened by then, and 1988 to 1992 were our best years.”
But after years of growth, there came a time when Roets admits the business suffered. When Best Buy arrived in 1992, it introduced discounts that the locally owned shops couldn’t match and, along with Target and Walmart, came to offer special edition CDs which contained bonus material. It was hard for independent shops to compete.
“That hurt us a little bit because when Best Buy opened it took one-quarter of our business away. Then Napster came along and nobody wanted to have to pay for music anymore. We eventually had to close three of our stores – the ones at Georgetown, Dupont and Southgate.”
But help was to come from an unexpected source. Vinyl, which had seemed all but dead with the arrival of CDs and digital sources like mp3s, began to slowly catch on again – and not just with the oldsters who still fondly remembered the format, but with a whole new generation who hardly remembered it in the first place. Wooden Nickel’s North Anthony location, which carries as many albums as CDs, became a favorite stomping ground for those looking to expand their vinyl collection, and the vinyl offerings at the other two Wooden Nickel locations has slowly begun to encroach on the CD shelves too.
“A couple of years ago, I started seeing parents who had given their kids turntables for Christmas and they were coming in together to buy vinyl to play on them. And they weren’t just buying brand new releases; they were getting the same thing kids were getting when I was buying albums and rediscovering classic rock and 60s hits and Motown. It’s really a compliment to that time and how eclectic the bands were back then. I get a big kick out of seeing the music I experienced as a young lad being discovered by kids now.”
An additional source of strength for Wooden Nickel has come recently with its inclusion in The Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS). Created to help promote indies against the huge corporate competitors by providing some of the same benefits available to large retailers, interest from CIMS was a surprise to Roets, who noticed that most of its participating stores were in large markets like Los Angeles. But the folks at CIMS became aware of how much product Wooden Nickel was moving, as well as the in-store appearances by local bands, something Roets had suggested to the members of CIMS when they were first introducing National Record Store Day.
After passing through a long process, Wooden Nickel is now a member of CIMS and can offer discounted new releases just as the “big box” retailers can. Another recent benefit is the addition of sampling stations where shoppers can scan a CD and hear a small sample of the music before buying.
Greater web presence and social media awareness has also come thanks to CIMS, and Roets can now move merchandise that had been relegated to a warehouse and better promote in-store appearances and, of course, Record Store Day. The recent event saw the highest foot traffic ever, with Roets counting at least 50 heads in the store at any given time. With 18 bands booked, some were calling the event “Nickelstock,” and while Roets chuckles at that name, it can’t be entirely denied either. Where he once had to beg bands to play, he now begins to hear from them shortly after Christmas each year, asking to be included in the day’s full schedule.
The addition of Dogfish Beer as a National Record Store Day sponsor meant a beer truck stationed outside the North Anthony store, and businesses in the area provided their own celebration of the day. Clearly the love of records has become big business again, and Roets is starting to see that it isn’t just a fad – and that he and Wooden Nickel have survived the lull.
“Vinyl has really gone mainstream. I’ll tell you when I knew it was really moving that way was when a 16-year-old girl starts coming to a record store to buy vinyl when she grew up with mp3s. When that starts happening, you know it’s not just a fad anymore. I was not confident three or four years ago, but when you see double-digit vinyl sales increases each year, you have to say it isn’t a fad anymore.”