Mike Sniper—whose first indie label Captured Tracks signed instant stars like Wild Nothing, Beach Fossils and Mac DeMarco when Sniper started the label out of Academy Records’ basement in 2008—is obsessed with used vinyl. If he’s not conducting business at his now sizable Omnian Music Group offices in Bushwick (the umbrella label group he created in 2014 to house the labels of his many and diverse tastes), Sniper is probably trying to get his hands on old music. Random suburban garage sales, some guy’s basement collection, going on record-hunts during vacations, he can’t say no to an opportunity to uncover untold music riches. “Just ask my wife,” Sniper tells me, talking by phone from Bushwick this week, “It’s like an addiction.”
And because Sniper is “a little bit of a workaholic”—which you kind of have to be to run a modest music empire—he’s decided to take on a little more work to feed the addiction. Of course, Captured Tracks Record Exchange in Greenpoint already buys and sells lots of used vinyl, but Sniper had a much bigger vision for its future. Sideman Records is not just a brand new record store, co-owned and operated in Fort Greene with his long-time friends Damien Graef and Rob Geddis (and which is still, technically, in soft-open mode), it is a quiet symbol for a project of a much bigger scale. “Sideman [the store] is almost an outpost of a larger company,” says Sniper, “We’re trying to develop a company that is buying and selling used records not just in our brick and mortar but that also stocks lifestyle stores across the country and internationally.”
Sideman Records on South Portland Avenue is smallish—with room for about 10,000 albums—and opens into Persons of Interest, the barber shop for exceptionally stylish dudes. POI’s location in Williamsburg partnered with Parlor Coffee. But in Fort Greene, The Annex is just around the corner and already serves Café Grumpy Coffee, so Person’s of Interest owner Steve Mark’s was open to something different. When Sideman co-owner Damien Graef happened to talk to Marks, who was on the verge of opening his third location, he thought the combination of records and haircuts made perfect sense.
Of Sniper’s partnership with Graef and Rob Geddis (both of whom Sniper met 18 years ago when all three worked at the legendary Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, New Jersey), Sniper says it wasn’t just that his friends were as equally obsessive about used vinyl that made them obvious choices for co-ownership, it was also, quite simply, that Sniper couldn’t execute all of the work to be done on his own. While the physical space is staffed by still more record lovers, Graef and Geddis are mostly out on the road, on the hunt for big, eclectic, valuable and neglected caches of used records that will not only find their way onto shelves at Sideman in Fort Greene and Captured Tracks in Greenpoint, but, Sniper envisions, stores around the world. And Sniper says Graef and Geddis couldn’t be happier about their work.
“Rob and Damien are really passionate about used records, and it’s great because having owners who are really, really trying to get those collections, spending all day talking to weirdos all over the place, trying to get records off their hands, I don’t have the time to do it,” says Sniper. “Rob is mostly in a big van loading it up with records he loves, and all of his posts on Facebook are like, ‘I love my job, here’s what I found today! I’m doing what I love!’ and meanwhile I”m here talking to a band manager, and I’m like, man!” says Sniper, in the bummed out kind of way, even though he concedes he feels good knowing he’s helping his buddies feed their own obsessions.
Sniper came up with the idea to give the world used vinyl while talking to a record store in New Zealand, who told him how difficult it was to get used American vinyl in their store. It was just too hard to come by. The new vinyl resurgence is once thing, says Sniper, but the used record business is a whole other ball game—namely, one that is actually exciting, and harder to stock.
“When you walk into a store with new records, there is nothing wrong with that, but you know what to expect. You want to get record X and I know that when I show up it will be there,” Sniper explains. But used records? They give us a wondrous portal to the pre-Internet shopping experience, before a single computer screen could list for us details of just about every object that is available for purchase on the planet, most of which are homogenous and available in bulk. But walking into a used vinyl store is one of the few consumer experiences remaining that can retain the spirit of a passion-fueled treasure hunt. “When you walk into a record store you can say, ‘What’s on the wall? What’s in the arrival’s area? What is the guy behind the counter playing? It’s something I’ve never heard before, and it looks really cool to me,” Sniper explains.
And as an owner, the economic payoff of used vinyl is also greater. True, new vinyl can’t be returned—so, technically, the risk is less—but its retail markup is only about 30 percent. Whereas a huge stockpile of rare records found in some guy’s attic in the midwest, who is willing to unload his treasures for relative pennies? Sniper says it’s standard to triple or even quadruple his sales; one man’s trash is literally another man’s treasure. “It’s better economically and it’s a more interesting shopping experience and more interesting business to be in, and there is more of a sense of accomplishment,” says Sniper.
Sideman is in its very early days, so for now Sniper’s team is busy increasing its recored buying collections, all over the tri-state area and beyond. “We’re just ambitious, me and my partners, both the record store aspect of it and stocking used record stores, too,” says Sniper. He uses Strand as an example—which does sell vinyl, but lots of the new variety. “We wanna get in there and say, ‘Get us a bin and let us stock it with used records, and we’ll take all the risk.” If, after a while, the stock is not selling, he can throw it on Discogs; but he will always give the in-store shopper first dibs, both at a better price and most of all to provide the rush of finding music gold by chance, relentlessly flipping through record bins.
Beyond—or within—Sniper’s big vision, he’s especially excited to bring used records to the Clinton Hill and Fort Greene neighborhoods. He once lived in Clinton Hill for three years, and was depressed by how sorely it lacked for used vinyl vendors, as opposed to Greenpoint, which is like used vinyl alley. For a New Yorker, the ability to casually search for used vinyl on the weekend is just about as expected an activity as going to the farmer’s market, or buying coffee, Sniper estimates.
“Two friends who live in the neighborhood and work at Pitchfork were like, ‘Oh my god, thank you, it’s so great there is a record store here!'” Sniper says. “If you’re living in Brooklyn and in New York in general, [used vinyl shopping] is part of your Saturday ritual, even for the casual record buyer.”
So, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, welcome to Sideman Records, your latest stop on your weekend routine; and, record stores across the world, get ready to take in some top-notch old stuff, from the long-forgotten collections of a whole bunch of Americans who had no idea what sort of riches were sitting in their homes.