Looney tunes back after fire


BY RAFER GUZMÁN | rafer.guzman@newsday.com
6:03 PM EST, November 28, 2007
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Plummeting CD sales, digital piracy, big-box stores with impossibly low prices – for more than 30 years, the family-owned record store Looney Tunes in West Babylon survived them all.

Over the summer, however, the store finally seemed to meet its end. During the early morning hours of Aug. 30, a faulty extension cord caused a neon sign in the storefront window to catch fire. By the time the blaze was over, little of the store was left but a blackened hull, melted CDs and hunks of charred wood that once were autographed guitars.

The news came as a shock to music fans across Long Island, but then came another stunner: Looney Tunes planned to reopen.

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More space, lower prices

In fact, the store is expanding. At noon Saturday, the store will unveil racks crammed with 30 percent more discs, a bigger selection of vinyl, a 16-foot stage and six high-tech listening stations with 400 discs in each. Other details include a lounge area with leather couches, blown-glass lighting fixtures and new Pergo floors. And in a counterintuitive move, the new Looney Tunes is lowering its prices – all single discs will be priced at either $9.99 or $13.99 – and offering a generous return policy of 50 percent store credit on any disc, even if opened.

All in all, this wouldn't seem like a great time to expand a record store, let alone slash prices and encourage returns. Sales of physical CDs have been down nearly every year since 2000, including last year's whopping 12.8 percent slide from 2005. By contrast, digital sales were up nearly 60 percent last year. And illegal downloading is still on the rise.

"I don't care," Karl Groeger Jr., who co-owns the store and is using a combination of insurance money, bank loans and donations from local supporters to reopen, said on a recent afternoon. He had just spent the morning directing construction workers and breathing in the sawdusty air of the unfinished store. "If I drive the store into the ground myself, that I can live with. What I can't live with is a faulty extension cord driving me out of business."

About 15 years ago, Groeger, now 38, and his brother Jamie, 35, took over Looney Tunes from their father, who started the business in 1971. "Since I was born, I wanted to run that store," Groeger said. He began working there at the age of 6, bagging records during Christmastime. In fifth grade, he announced on career day that he would grow up to be a music retailer. The following year he sold bootleg Led Zeppelin cassettes out of his locker. While majoring in business at Rochester Institute of Technology, he managed a nearby record store – the only other job he's held.

Initially, Groeger took a fairly ruthless approach to the business, guarding his strategies closely and hoping for competitors to fail. "My motive was to crush every store on Long Island," he said. "When somebody went under, I was like, 'Yes!'"

And stores did go under, leaving only a handful of mom-and-pops on Long Island. That's due partly to big-box behemoths such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy that sell CDs for prices lower than most independents can afford. It's a tactic that has devalued CDs in customers' minds, said Bob Stanford, who's been running Soundtraks in Huntington since 1985. "The consumer thinks that a CD should be 10 bucks," he said. "I can't sell anything for 10 bucks, and I would not be in business if I were."

Shifting strategies

The changing nature of music retailing has led many stores to shift strategies. At Whirlin' Disc Records, a Farmingdale store that specializes in vinyl doo-wop and oldies records, husband-and-wife owners Steve and Vicki Blitenthal are focusing on the Internet, partly because of the empty storefronts in the area that have reduced walk-in traffic. In 1995, the couple spent three months cataloging their inventory for Internet orders, which now account for about half the store's sales.

"We've had customers from just about every state, plus England, France, Germany," Vicki Blitenthal said. "They Google the song, they get our name and they come to the Web site."

These days, with even big music retailers like Tower Records gone and chains like Sam Goody and FYE scaling back, Groeger has found himself feeling rather lonely. "It used to be every independent record store against each other," Groeger said. "Now it's every independent record store against Best Buy." Around 2001, Looney Tunes joined the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, or CIMS, a trade organization formed in 1995 that claims 59 member stores in 21 states.

The day after Looney Tunes burned, CIMS issued a press release about the news and encouraged donations of inventory and merchandise to help restock the store. And as Groeger planned the rebuilding, he asked other record-store owners for advice and found them happy to share. One store owner even measured his CD racks so Groeger could reproduce them exactly. "It's like a brotherhood," he said.

Local bands also stepped up to help the store. One of the first donations to come in was a gold plaque of the album "Deja Entendu" from the Merrick-based band Brand New. And Joe McCaffrey of Nightmare of You has promised to deliver a Gibson guitar autographed by the band.

"Whether it's selling records or playing music or just talking about it, it should be based in a community," McCaffrey said. When Nightmare of You celebrated the release of its first album with a show at the now-defunct club The Downtown in Farmingdale, he recalled, Looney Tunes set up a booth in the venue to help sell the disc. "They've always supported local music."

Groeger said he plans to expand his selection of local discs – "any local band that has a CD, we want to carry it" – and plans to tape every in-store concert. He's also considering starting a label to sign local acts.

His only worry: His new place might actually be too nice. "I'm afraid people will look at the store and go, 'Ugh, it looks like a Border's,'" he said. "They've got to know we're the same people at Looney Tunes."

WHEN&WHERE: Looney Tunes, opening Saturday, at 31 Brookvale Ave., West Babylon, 631-587-7722, looneytunescds.com.

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