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Manifest Destiny

Demise of Carolinas' biggest indie record stores says it all about today's music business



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"It's almost like you're kicking the man when he's down," Benson said.

"If we were selling sneakers, and Nike said they wouldn't let us have their hottest model, we'd say, "Screw you, we'll sell Reebok,'" Singmaster said by way of analogy. "But when they say you can't have the latest music by the Rolling Stones, we can't say, "OK, we'll sell the customer Britney Spears instead.'"

All of these factors, and some exclusive to Manifest, led to Singmaster's decision, he said. Manifest actually began downsizing in January 2002, when the Clemson store closed after the university installed broadband in the dorms and business dropped by 30 percent virtually the next day. The Florence store followed suit after a Best Buy moved within a stone's throw down the block.

Singmaster is still paying rent on the shuttered Florence property two years after it closed, a factor that weighed heavily in his decision to quit. With all of the store's leases coming up for renewal this year (the Charlotte store, a former supermarket, costs $9,300 a month), Singmaster looked down the road five years and didn't like what he saw.

"I'm no longer willing to assume the risks," he said.

Another reason Singmaster chose not to go on is the current marketing mantra you can hear echoing throughout what's left of the industry: "Diversify or die!"

"The key is to have as many revenue streams as humanly freakin' possible," said Michael Martin, a 46-year-old collector who's bucking the trend and opening up The Music Spot, a new record store and bistro in Tampa, FL. "You need as many tricks as possible these days."

"I think the Moms & Pops are having to specialize and become better at what they're doing," said Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun Times rock critic and author of several music-related books, "and the start-ups are having to be more creative and better, and there's a weeding out of mediocre stores, which is still a sin. But a record store should not have to make cappuccinos."

Singmaster conceded that used CDs and sales of counter-front knick-knacks had helped make up some of the lost margin over the last couple of years, but it wasn't what he'd gotten into the business to do and if that was the successful model of the future, he wanted no part any more.

"I don't really wake up getting excited every day at the prospect of becoming the next Spencer's Gifts," he said. "And as an individual and music geek, if I can't sell new music also, I'm not that interested in the business. I could probably run a sub-standard store and still feed my family, but that does not fulfill my passion for the music. And all that downsizing would still have had an impact on all our great employees."

Human Toll
Singmaster's concerns are small solace for the employees, though, as he recently found out when some employees vandalized his car in Columbia after he announced the closings. Managers were given small severance packages, and hourly employees received $2 more per hour to ensure that he would still have staff to work with as the chain ceased operations. And though some employees understand what went into the decision, there is a great deal of anger and frustration directed toward a man many once held in high regard.

Even if Singmaster's decision makes sense from a business vantage point, the human cost is one that's difficult to quantify and doesn't fit neatly on a flow chart. Simply put, only those who've lost a job unexpectedly can know the toll it can exact on a bank account, a home, a relationship, a life.

Over 80 full-time Manifest employees have had the rug pulled from under their lives. Some are recently married, or just moved, or became new parents, or work two jobs, or play in bands and are reliant on their schedule's flexibility in order to play (one of the rare record store perks). Some will luck into other work without too much stress, some will have to re-tailor their lifestyles to fit whatever work they can find, and some -- and this isn't just hyperbole -- may see their worlds come unhinged.

"I uprooted my whole life to move here from Greenville," said Wishart, who became general manager of the Charlotte store during the hectic 2002 Christmas season and is considering starting his own smaller-scale music store. "I convinced my wife to leave a job she really liked and come up here, and for me to lose my job? It's devastating for both of us."

Wishart also inherited a dysfunctional store from his predecessor, who'd been fired after half the full-time staff quit to escape their old boss' arbitrary outbursts. Wishart had to retrain the other half, too. He knew exactly one person in Charlotte, and commuted every week to see his wife, who had stayed behind to finish a teaching contract. There were days, that first Christmas, when the stress of it all made him regret ever coming here.

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