Interview with Graywhale: Legendary SLC Music Shop

A music shop where you walk in and are instantly hit in the face with the perfect balance of comfortable nostalgia and modern innovation.

Graywhale began on a whim in the 1980s and seemed to immediately fill a void in the local Utah music community. One of the original founders and current owners, Steve L. Birt, compares the store to High Fidelity, a popular record shop in Los Angeles, though without the elitism. Graywhale is known for their knowledgeable staff who are from the local community and for the local community.

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According to current store director, Brandon Anderson, the store is a “veritable one-stop bonanza for everyone’s entertainment needs.” Walking into the store and knowing full well that every vinyl I own is post-2005 and I have maybe 6 DVDs to my name, I was hesitant as to whether or not I’d simply be laughed out of the store. I wasn’t, of course. I even ended up gaining a pre-2005 vinyl (Fleetwood Mac, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t already have it really) The store can seem intimidating when you think of how much the workers and seasoned regulars must know. However, the vibe is instantly welcoming and it’s obvious that the store is for everyone, whether you’re a bit of a musical novice or own everything from a turntable to a blu-ray. The store has more to offer than the most may be aware of, including new and pre-owned DVDs, CDs, LPs, Turntables, Cassettes, Books, and the list goes on. Desperately in need of an old school collectible or retro game console (think Sega Genesis), not sure how the sound varies between an LP and a cassette and looking to learn, hoping to expand your musical knowledge, or simply needing a DVD, then you’ve found your shop. Anderson and current general manager Dustin Hansen handle multiple Graywhale locations and strive to maintain the original hope for a music shop without a pretentious atmosphere getting in the way. The store is made to be the perfect fit for anyone in need when it comes to entertainment and that was the plan from the very beginning.

When was Graywhale founded?

Steven L Birt– 1985

Explain the type of store Graywhale is and the type of shoppers who frequent the store.

Steven L Birt– Quintessential independent Music/Entertainment store (think High Fidelity without too much music snobbery.

What inspired the opening of a store like Graywhale?

Steven L Birt– Looking for something to do during summer before returning to college.  Finally, there was a medium that allowed for “used” and “trading”. Tapes and Vinyl did not fit the category like CD’s do.

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How many locations are there and when did each open? Why have multiple locations in the first place and have them where they are located currently?

Brandon Anderson: There are currently three locations as well as a fully functioning “webstore” at graywhaleslc.com that has real-time inventory and order fulfillment.  There have been 12 locations over the past 33 years ranging from two at our smallest to seven at our most robust period.  Locations have been in Logan, Cedar City, Orem, Provo, Kearns, Layton, Ogden, UofU, UofU Game and Movie (across the street from our UofU location), Bountiful, Draper, West Jordan and our current locations in Sandy, Taylorsville, and Riverdale.  The University had been our longest running store established in 1985 (although we moved a few buildings North in the early ’90s) and our Taylorsville store has been in its same location since 1990.

Multiple locations were necessary to service the communities across Utah, but now with the advent and adoption of web-based e-commerce, the necessity for multiple locations across Utah has dissipated.  We continue to service the needs of those communities through our webstore.

Why is Graywhale important in this digital age when so much is available so readily for consumers online?

Brandon Anderson:   There are many reasons for this.  One, personal and community exchange of ideas and art is what makes culture.  While one could easily download whatever song they wish, if they really want to engage and share their passion, dislike, or get more information in a human way, there is no better way than a trip into their local music store!!  We pride ourselves in customer service, product knowledge, and a passionate staff chock full of people that reflect our customers needs and wants… like the best independent galleries, coffee shops, artisan craft, and food joints, bookstores, there is an element of human contact and connection that is created through sharing and experience art together.  That is the definition of culture and something that you just cannot get from a purely digital transaction.

Why is Graywhale important in this digital age when so much is available so readily for consumers online?

Brandon Anderson:   There are many reasons for this.  One, personal and community exchange of ideas and art is what makes culture.  While one could easily download whatever song they wish, if they really want to engage and share their passion, dislike, or get more information in a human way, there is no better way than a trip into their local music store!!  We pride ourselves in customer service, product knowledge, and a passionate staff chock full of people that reflect our customers needs and wants… like the best independent galleries, coffee shops, artisan craft, and food joints, bookstores, there is an element of human contact and connection that is created through sharing and experience art together.  That is the definition of culture and something that you just cannot get from a purely digital transaction.

What does Graywhale offer consumers that other outlets and store may not?

Brandon Anderson:   What really sets us apart from big box and larger, non-independent retail outlets is that our employees live where our customers live, the money spent locally stays in the local economy, and really care about the community that we all participate in; that simply cannot be said about larger corporate retail chains.  Plus the pricing/value of our pre-owned product wins every time over “new” copies.  (We also sell new).

What does Graywhale offer consumers that other outlets and store may not?

Brandon Anderson:   What really sets us apart from big box and larger, non-independent retail outlets is that our employees live where our customers live, the money spent locally stays in the local economy, and really care about the community that we all participate in; that simply cannot be said about larger corporate retail chains.  Plus the pricing/value of our pre-owned product wins every time over “new” copies.  (We also sell new).

How is the store currently? There’s a juxtaposition between online advantages customers have for movies, music, etc. that make them less likely to come to a physical store and the current obsession with nostalgia and all things vintage that are provided at your store.

Brandon Anderson:   The stores are doing well though we are currently undergoing a period of change and pivot to better service the needs of our customers and the changes in the marketplace.  The industry as a whole has seen a significant decline in sales in the past few years, although we feel and the market bears out that the desire for physical media will never fully disappear.

The advent of streaming and digital media options has, of course, impacted the sales of physical media and conversely, as you hinted at with the question regarding nostalgia, has propelled the insane growth of LPs (vinyl), turntables and their accessories.  In many ways, if a customer owns something digitally, but really wants something tangible, they will turn to LPs as a CD seems redundant (another digital copy).  Its been a rough ocean to navigate but a rewarding voyage, especially when it comes to seeing the younger generation discover the magic of LPs and their sound quality, the physical interaction required to utilize them, and the general engagement between media delivery and the person consuming it.

Our only concerns revolve around providing what the marketplace and consumers demand without losing our identity as a local, independent member of the local business community and culture… how to change and adapt with alienating our base and core values.

What are the plans for the store in the future? Any expansions? New locations?

Brandon Anderson:   We do have plans to purchase a new building in the downtown/downtown adjacent SLC area and are very excited about it.  The real estate market being what it is, it is not known how far out that will be, but we project within the next 2 years to have a new flagship destination and forever-home in SLC!!!

How does the store plan to compete with other vendors?

Brandon Anderson:   We plan on really increasing the depth and completeness of the categories that we are most passionate about… we will be going for a policy of “best not all” or “deep not wide” type of inventory cultivation.  Are you a horror nerd? We will have the best curated deepest catalog of all the movies and merchandise in the valley.  Metal music?  We’ll have a deep catalog from the coolest and highest quality labels in the business.  Kind of a boutique approach to each section instead of a scattershot of everything everywhere.  We’ll still be able to service our everyday customer with the wide-appeal product, but if you specialize in Indie Electronic music and see our section, it will be clear that we are passionate, knowledgeable, and on the same page as you are.  We may stop carrying Coke products, but we’ll have a great selection of craft colas, etc..

Any personal goals when it comes to working with Graywhale?

Brandon Anderson:   We really want this company to be a place that can provide a real career and or strong stepping-stone for those that have dedicated themselves to it.  We hire a lot of young people so we really take seriously our roles in developing them for their future careers. We believe Graywhale fulfills its function as a center for our community a safe space for exchange and enjoyment of ideas and culture for our customers, but as an indie retail organization, we would love to provide a career and benefits that compete with larger businesses.

Personally, why do you work for Graywhale?

Brandon Anderson:   I love the company culture, the fairness, and openness in which we treat our employees and our customers.  Obviously, I love our product, but the real value I get is that I feel what we do is actually important to our community and to those that come to us.  We are joy peddlers, plain and simple.  Music and movies, books and games have value.  They are portable, attainable pieces of art and expression… enrich our lives, expand our thoughts and reflect our beliefs.  I am proud to be a part of that process.

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