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Picking up the needle: Vinyl Cave in Superior is closing

Vinyl Cave co-owner Tom Johnson walks past numerous albums in the Superior record shop. The Belknap Street business is for sale. Whether Johnson and his business partner find a buyer or not, the plan is to closed the store on Dec. 31. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

In the movie “Almost Famous,” young Penny Lane offers this sage advice: “If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

But what happens when all your friends are gone when you get there?

That will be the case come New Year’s Day after Vinyl Cave in Superior closes its doors for good.

“Over the last year sales slowed; keeping things in stock we needed was getting too difficult,” said co-owner Tom Johnson. “We couldn’t hold on.”

From the narrow outpost stuffed with used long-players and 45s at 1717 Belknap St., the store held on well for eight years, especially given the state of an increasingly digital music industry.

As he walked through the rows of records on display and through the actual cave in the basement holding hundreds of thousands of 7-inch singles salvaged from jukeboxes and elsewhere, Johnson seemed sure of his decision to sell the collection and exit the business he opened with Tom Unterberger in 2008. That’s not to say they won’t miss the music when the needle reaches the end of the record.

“It was the best job I ever had,” Unterberger said.

Side A

Last week, regular customer and vinylphile “Minnesota Mike” Chase was flipping through singles with Upper Midwest music printed on their plastic discs.

“I’ve picked up probably 10 to 20 percent of my collection here,” said the retiree and Denfeld alumnus who now lives in Kenyon.

Chase is a kind of collector the Vinyl Cave catered to, someone seeking out rare, out-of-print albums and singles. But the store also kept a more general stock for more typical consumers.

“I can tell you we’ve sold more copies of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ than any other record,” Johnson said.

In 2015, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side” was the third-bestselling vinyl album in the country, a full 43 years after it was first pressed.

Vinyl records have regained popularity after decades collecting dust; last year the Recording Industry of America Association reported on vinyl sales.

“The resurgence of vinyl runs counter to general industry trends, which have been weighted more toward the growth in streaming and digital formats and away from ownership,” according to the RIAA. “The vinyl boom bucks that trend.”

But Vinyl Cave isn’t interested in getting new records and competing with Barnes & Noble, Electric Fetus and even Shopko. In addition to the higher price point and slimmer margins, it just wasn’t what Johnson and Unterberger set out to do.

As the years went on, the used records that sell well were getting harder to find as fans and collectors stocked up and decided to hang on to them.

“The 45 market is pretty soft, too,” Unterberger said. “It’s an album-driven market now.”

So the two agreed to turn the records over.

Side B

Vinyl Cave was born when another record store closed — Young at Heart in Duluth.

Johnson and Unterberger bought Richard Wozniak’s collection of more than 100,000 records in 1999 after the local fixture closed. Selling for a while out of a warehouse for the Viking Bar that Unterberger owned at the time, the two decided to set up a dedicated shop in 2008.

“Tom is one of the most knowledgeable record guys in the Midwest,” Unterberger said of his business partner.

Now they need to find a buyer for the half-million records they’re sitting on.

“We’ve contacted major dealers, and a few people have reached out,” Johnson said.

Unterberger won’t completely leave the vinyl game. He’ll start selling records out of the Globe News he runs next door.

“We did really well, we established great friendships and relationships,” Unterberger said. “We do have a few customers who want to keep buying records.”

At 64, Johnson is content to fully retire, as he already retired once as a railroad engineer. He’d probably make just as much money, he noted.

“We basically weren’t paying ourselves,” he said.

Unterberger, in his shop selling all manners of collectibles and tradeables, said he’s got many years left.

“I love buying and selling,” the 60-year-old said.

Since Unterberger owns the Globe News building, which includes Vinyl Cave, there’s no rush to dump the records or get out of the store. But the closing date is still fixed, and 2016 will collect another musical casualty.

Before Vinyl Cave closes, there’s still a chance to catch up with some old friends.

Elvis is there, with Joan Jett and Roger Daltrey and Debbie Harry, too. Around the corner are the smiling faces of George Strait and Loretta Lynn; double back and you’re in the company of Metallica.

On the wall are the faces of local bands like The Dynamics and Johnny Jay from Superior, and The Emotionals and The Titans out of Duluth.

“This is what I’ll miss the most,” Johnson said. “The history of local music is here.”

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