Starting 10 years ago, the Internet and changing customer needs fast-forwarded the music retail industry to the point that makes Armstrong ready to hit the stop button. Rock Bottom Records will close in late August or September after 40 years in Antioch.
“The industry has turned to more of a singles business, where an artist comes out with one song and that is all anyone wants,” Armstrong said. “It used to be that if there were one or two hit songs, people would come in and buy the CD, but there just isn’t enough titles to keep it going.”
At the height of its success during the ’90s, the sound of two registers in use by multiple employees was almost as loud as the store’s music, but today sales have dwindled to one-third of what they used to be, and one employee works the checkout counter.
The store has moved four times in its 40 years, but never more than a block. Since moving to a smaller space in the Eastwood Shopping Center three years ago, business has declined.
“It’s a digital age now, which is great for progress, but not good for customers that still want the physical product,” Armstrong said.
Customer Reggie Stewart flipped through what’s left of the store’s CD collection, disappointed the store will close. It stopped selling vinyl records about 20 years ago. “We will have no stores in the area,” Stewart said. “We are going to have to go to Berkeley, but I understand the economy is rough.”
The store is known for rarely selling out of the latest CD, cassette, eight-track or vinyl record on its release day, for Armstrong’s inside information about upcoming concerts and for being one of the first stores to allow customers to listen to music before purchasing it.
“They could tell if an album was good or it sucked,” Armstrong said about the listening stations. “From a business standpoint, it really helped with my credibility. If people came in and asked if I like something, I would tell them to take it down to the listening station and see for themselves.”
While the physical store closes soon, Armstrong’s memories of the business he bought fresh out of high school remains. He established the shop in 1974 while deejaying and working swing shifts at the Fiberboard Plant.
“I will always remember the anticipation of something new coming out every week,” Armstrong said. “Up until a couple of years ago, Tuesday would be our biggest day. Every Monday, I would go to our main distributor in Oakland and pick it all up. I would have a third of the counter piled up there with records here, cassettes here and eight-tracks here. From the mid-’80s on, it was all cassettes and CDs, and toward the end it was all CDs. After a while, people would catch on, come in on Monday and say, ‘Hey, man, I know you have that new stuff behind the counter.’”
Aside from selling customers products the night before the official release, and letting them listen to music before they bought it, Armstrong gave callers seeking information about concert tickets everything they wanted to know.
“Bay Area Seating Service wanted me to create urgency, and tell callers to dial the 800 number without telling them how many seats were left,” Armstrong said. “I told BASS that I refused to do this – these were my customers.”
The honesty paid off. Rock Bottom Records was among two of the top five independent ticket sellers for six or seven years during the ’90s.
Employee Jennifer Eagle said the store’s closure will leave a void in the area. “It’s going to be rough,” Eagle said. “There are no music stores around here. That, and the poor local artists won’t have a local place to sell their music.”
The store is currently offering $3 off all new products, three DVDs for $9.99 and two shirts for $10. A bigger blowout sale will be held closer to the closing date.
Armstrong already has his next gig lined up after the store closes. He is the new events coordinator at Lone Tree Golf Course, where he’s already working 40 or more hours per week. Although he anticipated changing careers long ago, when the doors close for the final time, he’ll want to return.
“I know there are going to be days where my car automatically drives here like it has done all these years,” Armstrong said. “It’s sad thinking about this.”