On the record
NJ record store pivots for pandemic
Iris Records owner Stephen Gritzan says his store is “about community and music.” It’s a modest description for the Jersey City, New Jersey, record store. Since opening in 1996, Iris Records has become a community fixture. Indeed, a columnist for the Star-Ledger calls the store “beloved.”
In February 2019, Gritzan closed the Jersey City staple after his rent was raised a reported 40 percent. Gritzan hadn’t planned on reopening, but fans of the store convinced him to do so. Last fall, Iris Records re-opened in a smaller space across the street.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing every non-essential store in New Jersey to close, Iris Records is temporarily shuttered. Gritzan has had to also temporarily shut down Record Riots, collectible records shows that he and his business partner, John Bastone, operate throughout the Northeast. The pandemic, Gritzan says, meant that “all of our enterprises have stopped all at once.”
Gritzan’s plight is similar to others in the record store and record events business, which, while enjoying a resurgence in interest, often runs on a shoestring budget. I talked with Gritzan about how Iris Records is responding to the coronavirus and his expectations for the future.
Fermata: What have been the effects of the pandemic on your store?
Gritzan: We had to close the store because the store is not that big. And at the beginning of the crisis, I wanted to keep the store open as long as we could because the people care about it, and it’s something they can do rather than sit at home. The problem is that we couldn’t provide social distancing. We couldn’t provide two feet of social distancing, never mind six. We had a very good weekend the weekend before we closed. And then the following week I had to decide what to do, and I probably could’ve stayed open one more weekend because the governor had not decided yet that everyone had to close, basically. But I decided to close because I thought we should make the right decision.
Fermata: How have you responded to those effects? What have you been doing to kind of prepare for when you can eventually reopen?
Gritzan: Today would have been the first outdoor event in Jersey City that we would have run. And it’s crazy cause it’s such a beautiful day, and I mean here it’s warm and sunny, but today would have been the first outdoor market that we run. I’m preparing in a lot of ways. I have a lot of records to be pricing and to be sorting. So there’s that kind of work, and believe it or not, it’s quite time consuming because you have to go through boxes. I just keep buying more stuff from people and putting it in boxes and stuffing it in my basement. I’m doing a lot of work like that and also general planning for the future of what we’re going to be doing. But it’s no different for me than for everybody that on the other hand you’re kind of itching to be active in a different way. But I’m trying to use it constructively.
Fermata: Do you ship records to people, or right now that’s not a thing either?
Gritzan: Yeah, we do. We sell online. But it’s complicated cause we don’t really sell on our website. So everything in our store is not listed online. We sell certain things online, like I have to do some shipping later today. I sold a $250 record yesterday.
Fermata: What record was it?
Gritzan: A band called Bags from Los Angeles from 1978, I think, ‘79. It’s a punk record. The point is, is that we are selling online and that’s key. The problem now is people are not buying anything. People are not spending money. I mean our online sales have fallen off because people are out of work. People are concerned. So what we are selling, we are selling online and on our website, the Iris Records website, you can buy t-shirts and tote bags. We’ve sold a few of those too.
Fermata: Has the community kind of tried to make sure that the store stays open once this is all over?
Gritzan: You know, we’re the only [record] store in Jersey City, and because of the rent situation, it’s not likely another one is going to open. It doesn’t mean another one couldn’t open. Another one could open but probably not. So I’m not that concerned about it. People care about us. We had mobs of people when the store closed, and we have a loyal customer base. I mean, the world is different. Not everybody has to go to a record store. You can buy records online. There’s other ways to buy records. But I’m not concerned about the business falling apart while we close. I think we could be closed for six months, and I don’t think it would make any difference when we came back. I think we’d still have customers.
Fermata: Even just this past year, before the crisis happened, how was your store doing? Has it been difficult to maintain a successful record store? Because like you said, we don’t need to go buy records anymore.
Gritzan: Yeah, it’s more complicated. That’s why we run so many events. I mean, I’m not kidding when I tell you that I run 50 or 60 events a year outdoors because this is an era of events. Tattoo shows, comic con, blah, blah, blah. People like those kinds of experiential things. And stores are generally not like that. Stores are stores. So the store is important, but the bigger Iris Records story now is all the other stuff we do, too. It’s all a combination of things.
Fermata: Could you talk a little bit more about all of the events that you do to help the store?
Gritzan: We have a lot of public markets in Jersey City. We have a lot of outdoor markets, and some of them are record and music oriented. Other events are farmer& markets. Other events are just like flea market kind of things. So we run those to promote the store. But we also run those because people are walking by, and they don’t have to go to the store. We sell a lot of stuff that way. So the idea is, if you’re walking by a guy with some records, you might be more likely to buy them from him rather than buy it online because he is standing right there. Whereas getting people to go to a store now is the problem all businesses are having, not just little Iris Records. I mean, Best Buy has trouble getting people to come to the store, and Barnes & Noble has trouble getting people to come to their store. So the idea is yes, have a store. Some people really like a store. They want to have a quiet place to look at stuff piece by piece. And then other people are less like that. So, we’re trying to appeal to people who like events and then also people who like the store experience.
Fermata: And what do you most look forward to when you can reopen the store again, whenever that’s going to be?
Gritzan: Well, I like the interaction with the customers. The New York area is very broad in the types of people that live here, and that’s very enjoyable to me. People from all over the world — all ethnic groups, all races, different cultures. All of that is very rewarding. I’d say, I miss the customers the most, but I also am worried about money. And who the hell wants to worry about money? But we’re going to survive this. I’m not McDonald’s, where I have $20,000 a month in rent or something. Like, I think about these restaurants in Manhattan, how are they going to survive? I’m not in that position. Our rent is not that high. The landlord is a nice person. I like running the business. I like running the store. But I’m kind of assuming we’re not going back to regular business till the summer or the fall, it sounds like, in the New York area.
Fermata: You mentioned a little bit about what you’re doing to be constructive during this time. Could you elaborate more on how you’re trying to really focus on other things now?
Gritzan: Well, one thing I’m doing, we have a pretty substantial mailing list, email list. And I’m writing to the customers every week. I normally write every month. It’s a lot of work to write, and to come up with an idea. But usually the email has more specific stuff. Like, here are some new records we have, or here is a new record show we’re sponsoring. Now we have nothing to announce. So I wrote yesterday, and I’m going to write every weekend. My goal is to keep in touch with people. To give them something to read— something local— to read, something to think about. Some links to look at. I included ways to support local businesses in Jersey City, my business, as well. I read a lot of stuff and just try to keep in touch locally so people know that we’re still here.
Fermata: And do you also, in those emails, talk about what you’re listening to? Just so people can maybe still get into music while they’re not able to interact with the store?
Gritzan: I think that’s the next step. When I was 20, I lived in Washington DC, and I went to American University. And we had to go to the record store to find out what the new music was. There was no other way to find out about the new music except to go to a record store to see what they’re selling. They’d be playing stuff that you would listen to, and you would say, “Oh, The Clash. I love that. I’m going to buy that.” Now, you know, the people that come in the store already know a lot of stuff. So, I have to be careful when I write not to be too professorial about music. People kind of know that they like Purple Mountains, or they like Sonic Youth, or they like, whatever, Goo Goo Dolls. But yeah, I’m going to probably include more music stuff.
Fermata: Why do you love your store?
Gritzan: Well, my first love was music, going all the way back to being a kid. So I’ve always liked that. I think my motivation at this point is, we’re destroying the culture with the internet. And there’s less community, at least person to person community. And don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and I love Twitter. And all this stuff we’re involved with — we do a lot of social media. But we have disassembled a lot of the culture. And what I like about having our physical store is that it’s a place where people can come and hang out and interact and hear new music and look at new music. So, what I like about the store is the community aspect of it.
The money aspect of it is not the driving force because you don’t make that much money. Maybe if you’re a store in Los Angeles or you know, in a big city, and you’re backed with corporate money, you can make a lot of money. But if you’re just a regular store, like a regular guy like me, you know, a high profile location, the rent is too high, so you can’t afford that. So, I think I like the community aspect of it and providing something that people miss. I wouldn’t call myself a Jersey City community leader or anything too dramatic like that, but I’m a well-known person that contributes to the community. And I like that. It makes me feel like my life has some meaning. Otherwise it’s just money, and I care about money, but I don’t only care about money.
Fermata: What do you think the first day of reopening is going to look like? What are you imagining?
Gritzan: You know, it’s very tricky because I’m always wrong about these things. You know, if we reopened in the middle of summer, it may not be that big of a deal because Jersey City in the summer is pretty dead. People go away, people go on vacation. But I think even if it’s the summer, people will be happy. But how many people and how busy? I really have no idea. Jersey City is hard to figure because we’re so close to Manhattan. Well, you’re in Syracuse?
Fermata: I go to school in Syracuse, but I’m actually from Jersey, too.
Gritzan: Okay, but the thing about Syracuse — if you have a record store in Syracuse, you don’t have New York City right next to Syracuse. You have nothing next to Syracuse. I’ve spent time in Syracuse. The next town is Utica or whatever town is next. The problem with Jersey City is New York City is a subway ride away. So half the customers go into the city. They don’t stay in Jersey City. So, it’s complicated. I can’t tell whether the store reopening will be a big deal. I would guess it would be a medium deal. Now, if we reopen in the fall, which I hope isn’t true, but if we open in the fall, then we might be a bigger deal because people are around. The summertime in Jersey City is odd. I think when everything reopens, or places start to reopen, I think at the beginning people are going to be not just a little happy. They’re going to be very happy. It’s the reason why I’m trying to prepare for this because I think that, you know, I should use this time to get ready.
The events we are involved in — if it’s the summer and then also with the store being open, yeah, we could do a fair amount of business. But the one thing I want to say to you that’s just factual is that even as a tiny business, and I’m a tiny business, I’m losing, I don’t know, $30,000, $40,000 just in a couple of months. This is the prime season for outdoor events. April and May is the prime season. And that is all gone. We had record shows for the last five weeks in a row, all being canceled from a couple of weeks ago until the end of April. I mean, so it’s kind of a disaster. But by the same token, I’m not sick, fortunately, at this point. And you know, you just try to do your best. So that’s the only thing we all can do, right?
This article is part of the Fermata: Arts and Culture in the Time of Coronavirus series reported by students in the Critical Writing course at the Newhouse School. Fermata features stories on the impact of the pandemic on a wide range of artists and cultural figures, from musicians and comedians to restaurateurs and boutique owners.