On a recent rainy Wednesday, the comfortable, cluttered retail floor of Retro in Morristown served well as a refuge.
An Allman Brothers tune played on the sound system as customers meandered among the wall shelves and bins, browsing for popular horror DVDs and flipping through albums slowly, to take in the covers.
The ambiance of the business that was started in September 1993 as CD Swap lies somewhere in between Eric Forum’s basement on “That 70s Show” and the club house in “Sons of Anarchy” (i.e. the plastic skulls resting on one counter).
The clutter is no accident; it’s a pure form of marketing for classic music scavengers. The sign on one wall that indicates hundreds of vinyls available for purchase is outdated — there are thousands now. Most of the selection is vintage country or classic rock. Store staff can special order anything, and they send out orders every day.
The name change came several years ago, after CDs died a natural death, according to owner Jeff Moore. He resolutely hangs on to the store’s collection, however, just in case.
“I’m not going to give up on these,” Moore said, his hand brushing over a 5 by 5.5-inch jewel case securing a Ted Nugent disk.
The 20-year anniversary of the store on Sept. 20 testified to Moore’s ability to switch gears mid-stream with no hesitation. His flexibility has enabled the store to attract new customers, even though the world of niche music marketing has had its ups and down.
“It’s a lot different that it used to be, but we still have a good customer base,” Moore said.
A tour of the store reveals retro NFL jerseys and hats on a rack, and sports and music-related collectibles throughout; and plenty of movie DVDs, including a copy of “Office Space.” The best-selling movies are of the horror genre: a copy of the 2009 “The Last House on the Left” rests next to the 1970s “Lady Frankenstein.”
There are vintage Vera Bradley bags and vinyl albums ranging from a collection of church hymns to Poison’s “Look What the Cat Dragged In” (1986). Retro jewelry, cell phone covers, sunglasses, T-shirts, the skull décor and wall scarves hanging along the ceiling tiles round out the experience.
“We are always transitioning,” Moore said. He is venturing into “play again” merchandise; customer interest in the retro jerseys is encouraging him to offer used bats and other sports equipment.
“We try to find something for the community that they still care about,” Moore said.
The staff consists of Moore, his wife and business partner, Lora, and their employee of six months, Jill Taylor.
“She’s really good with customers,” Moore said of Taylor.
Moore was just 21 when he started the business in a small building, between Holiday Inn and Dominos Pizza on West Andrew Johnson Highway. He stayed there a year before moving to a space in Manley Village Shopping Center, where he remained six months before finding the current building across from College Square Mall.
“We’re better stocked than we have been in a while,” he said. “We have the best selection than we have in a long time.”
From time to time, the store carries turntables for its customers who yearn for the unmatched sound of vinyl but don’t have the right equipment.
“We’ve had whole systems, older consoles that look like furniture,” Moore said.
The history of Retro is filled with stories of music lovers, including the story of a young customer who had just been kicked out of his mother’s house, with no apparent prospects, but was determined to get the new Eminem CD.
A vintage commercial for the store included the phrase “no naked CDs,” directed at customers who kept all their music CDs tucked into plastic sleeves and stored in ring binders.
“Now the trend is that the covers are important again,” Moore said.
The “swap” from the former business name is still active. Individuals are encouraged to bring in music and other entertainment items for appraisal. If Joe and Laura are not on the premises at the time, customers are welcome to leave their potential exchanges until they return.
The store has an updated machine for disk resurfacing. Some people throw used disks away needlessly, according to Moore.
“They don’t realize they can be cleaned,” he said. The cost is around $3 for normal scratches, more for the familiar ring that gamers often see.
Joe and Lora have been married for nine years. Their children are Blaire, age 8, Linx, age 5, and Liam, age 3.
“We’ve always done well together,” Moore said. “We’ve brought all of them into the store from the time they were babies. Customers would come in just to see Lora and the kids.”
Moore’s business philosophy relies on a never-give-up attititude.
“I want to serve a purpose,” Moore said. “You think sometimes, ‘Is it over?’ Then you realize ‘no … just change the way you are thinking.’ Some people aren’t going to buy CDs anymore. That customer is going, but maybe I can fulfill another need.”
Business was steady that rainy Wednesday. One customer after another shook droplets off at the door and then came in for the slow browse. Not everyone made a purchase; some had stopped in to look for a specific item.
And forget asking Moore what sells the best — “It’s hard to say; it’s here and there,” he said. “There are regulars who buy 10 CDs at a time, for a dollar each.”
Store hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, but “we don’t rush anybody out,” Moore said. “We’d like to be open later hours, but we don’t want to be just twiddlin’ our thumbs.”
-By Glenna Howington, Tribune Staff Writer