New Business, Old Ideas [Pt 2]: Cairo’s thriving record shop in the age of Spotify

New Business, Old Ideas series focuses the lens on newly-established and highly creative businesses selling products and services as old as time, some even thought to have become obsolete. Yet with very inventive and innovative approaches, these businesses have found success and flourished.

The second part of this series features Retrograde Records, a record shop in Zamalek that sells vinyl, used books, artwork and a range of vintage equipment including typewriters, turntables and tube radios and televisions.

Tucked away in a leafy street in Zamalek, comfortably sitting on a corner, is a small shop with no sign, yet it will still most certainly grab your attention. Its front is lined with an elegant amber-colored wood, curtains draped along the sides of its large windows which reveal the contents of the shop’s interior. Contents that you will surely rarely find anywhere else in Cairo.

While physically nameless, the mysterious shop is in fact called Retrograde Records and is one of the most unique businesses in the capital, let alone the central island district of Zamalek. It is small, tight and packed with all manners of interesting items, yet feels cozy and comfortable when you stand inside.

While Retrograde Record’s primary order of business is selling vinyl records, it would be inaccurate to describe it as just a record shop. Every corner and almost every piece of space in Retrograde Records is occupied by all kinds of tech from the previous century including CDs, cassette tapes, typewriters, antique radios and televisions, as well as turntables, amplifiers and speakers. There is also an impressive collection of used books, old comics and magazines, artwork, antique ornaments and vintage movie posters.

It would be easy to mistake it as a shop that has been around for the best part of the last 50 years and somehow managed to survive into our present era of all things digital and streamed from the internet. In fact, Retrograde Records’ history only goes back to 2017.

The shop’s founder, Clinton Alexander, an American expat from Texas who moved to Cairo to work as an art teacher in 2015, was renting the upstairs apartment when the space downstairs was not being used. His landlord happened to be an engineer who repairs all kinds of old tech, especially turntables, vintage audio equipment and typewriters in his own shop just around the corner. Alexander happened to have a small collection of records and books. Being an artist as well, he began to use the downstairs space as his own personal workshop.

His landlord then started to display his repaired equipment in the space with the hope of being able to sell them. It then just snowballed from there. “This was my workshop for about a year and then my landlord […] was interested in selling some of his equipment in my studio and then it became quite successful. I thought it was a pretty unique concept to have art, books and music all in one location and so that is how it began and so far it is doing pretty well.”

In 2018, the shop (which still did not acquire its current name of Retrograde Records) went on a year-long hiatus when Alexander returned to the United States for family reasons. There was no one to run it for that time. However, upon his return in 2019, it came back to business with the rebranding and a much bigger stock of items to sell, along with even more success.

“I returned and wanted to reopen. I started collecting more and more stuff. Started buying inventory. We reopened and we took off from there six months ago.”

Thanks to the dynamic range of the items they sell, there is always something that is doing well while the other is not. “The books are kind of keeping us alive when the records are slow because you obviously have to have a record player to buy records but anybody can come in and buy a book,” says Alexander. Each of the different categories of things they sell fill in what he calls “gaps” in demand.

Before Alexander left in 2018, the shop attracted buyers and clientele almost exclusively through word of mouth and passers-by. Regular customers were added to a WhatsApp group to be informed of new products that were just brought in, a system that Alexander still employs to this day.

In its current incarnation as Retrograde Records since mid-2019, their inventory still specializes in the 20th century, yet they have taken a very 21st century approach to marketing themselves through an Instagram page, which Alexander says is now their main way of reaching potential customers.

“We started an Instagram account and about once a month we will do a promotion,” he says, a move which has helped the shop gain a significant boost in its popularity. “Instagram is just a wider audience,” he continues.

Based on the answers he gets when he asks new customers how they heard of the place, Alexander deduces that nearly 90% of them hear of the shop through the social media platform. “Probably another 10% [are] just walk-ins and passers-by or their friend told them about the place.”

It has proven to be a very successful method of attracting new customers and keeping business going. Despite exclusively selling products that many would have previously thought to be obsolete, Alexander says the little shop has been doing better than ever before. “It is doing well. It is doing surprisingly well. We are not getting rich by any stretch of the imagination but there is rarely a day in the whole month that we have no sells at all.”

On top of that, most of the profits are invested in resupplying the shop’s shelves with new collections, which Alexander cites as another reason that keeps bringing customers back. “We are always looking for new stuff. We are constantly moving product. We invest whatever profits we make […] back into buying new records and books and we are always scouring the market here in Cairo.”

In the era where almost everything that Retrograde Records sells can be found on the internet and easily accessed through a handheld portable device, be it a smartphone or a tablet, why are people coming in good numbers to buy printed books and vinyl records? Alexander believes more and more people are preferring the feel of owning something physically, in a way that digital technologies cannot replace.

“I think because people want to own their music. Even me personally, I listen to digital music but there is something about the ritual of putting the record on the player and playing the record. You have to engage with it. In 20 minutes, you have to turn it over.

“And it is the same thing with a book. You can have an e-reader or a kindle but there is just something different about having a paper book. It has a weight behind it. It has a smell. So, I think people, especially the younger generation, are interested in owning a physical object and engaging with it more so than just everything on your phone.”

Retrograde Records’ success is by no means an isolated incident, and is consistent with consumer trends taking place around the world. In early 2017, The Guardian reported that vinyl sales in 2016 had reached a 25-year high. Last month, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) reported that vinyl sales in the UK in 2019 rose for the twelfth consecutive year, with over 4 million albums bought on the format, a 4% increase on the previous year and a 2000% increase on figures from 2007. In its 2019 mid-year report, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said that revenue from vinyls grew by 13% in the first half of 2019, rising to $224 million. There is no denying that the physical format is still a growth sector in today’s market.

With regards to paper books, according to the data and consumer data provider, Statista, printed book sales in the United States (US) rose consistently year-on-year between 2012 and 2018. In 2019, the Association of American Publishers reported that printed books accounted for $22.6 billion of revenue, while e-books only accounted for just a little over $2 billion.

But what about typewriters? With the convenience of Microsoft Word and keyboards, who would want to go back to those laborious, cumbersome mechanical contraptions? Alexander attributes the same sentiment to those who buy them. “A typewriter is a very slow process, much slower than on a laptop. There is no spellcheck. There is no erasing. If you make a mistake, you have to start the page over. You really have to slow down, really engage. I have customers who have bought [typewriters] and said ‘I want to write on a typewriter. Something to really slow my thoughts down and take my time’.”

Indeed, Alexander is upbeat about what is to come and optimistic about Retrograde Record’s future, hinting at possible expansion when the time is right. “I think we are going to keep going. I do not think we have reached our full potential yet as far as our maximum velocity of what the ceiling is. We are just going to keep looking for good records and books and expanding our customer base and try to grow as much as possible.”

On the possibility of expanding, he says “we have had opportunities. I am in talks with a couple of people for having an outlet of Retrograde Records” in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. If they start to feel the current location is becoming small and limited, Alexander definitely thinks they will consider moving to a bigger space, and they would not struggle to fill it. “We have lots of stuff in storage. We just do not have room to display everything.”

Having a bigger shop is logically advantageous to a business, enabling it to put more products on sale for more customers to buy, but perhaps the charm of Retrograde Record’s current location is its small, cozy, mom-and-pop shop feel to it.

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