Papa Jazz Record Shoppe is 40 years old. And through those years, “Big Money” Mack Spence has dug through the crates.
Arriving at the Five Points shop on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Spence warmly greets employees Alex McCollum and Woody Jones, who recount his exploits playing with the R&B group Black Love back in the ’70s, including opening gigs for the likes of Jackie Wilson, Bobby Womack, and Sam & Dave. An old-school picture of Spence — decked in an extravagant red leisure suit, standing on a Columbia riverbank — adorns the desktop of the computer behind the counter.
“Man, if you a friend of these guys, then you gotta be alright,” the longtime customer tells Free Times, adding with a chuckle, “Look, I need to put me a cot up in here, man, as much as I’m down here.”
This week, Papa Jazz celebrates its unlikely longevity. Columbia’s Manifest shuttered in January after more than 33 years. And while Turntable City opened in Lexington in 2017, the area’s only other serious record sellers — West Columbia’s Scratch N’ Spin, which places equal emphasis on comics, movies and games; Five Points’ Drip Coffee, which stocks an impressive array of vinyl in its back room — aren’t traditional music stores.
Jones, an assistant manager who has worked at Papa Jazz for eight years, credits the store’s resilience in large part to owner Tim Smith. He set up shop four decades ago in a glorified cubby hole before expanding. The cramped space at the back of the expanded store now holds CD inventory.
“There was a point when everything should have pointed to closing down,” Jones says. “And he just, stubborn as he is, decided, ‘I don’t want to do anything else. I can’t do anything else. I’ve been doing this for a really long time.’ And he just hung in there.
“He didn’t see this coming. Nobody saw this coming,” Jones continues, referring to the much ballyhooed commercial resurgence of vinyl records. “Tim’s never tried to be any bigger than what he is — apart from the actual store was the hole in the wall back there, and then he expended out into this room. I think that the fact that he kept it as small as he has was to his advantage. And when all the other games in town just went by the wayside, he was still here. And now we’re reaping the benefits.”
But it’s more than dedicated regulars and dwindling competition that keeps Papa Jazz afloat. One of the biggest keys is its advantageous location on Greene Street, close to the University of South Carolina.
Business this summer has been good, but Jones says that the season is typically “a wasteland.”
“The students going home really hits us a lot harder than I think people realize,” he offers. “Just having them up the hill right there, they walk by us to come to Five Points to eat and drink and shop and do everything, and it really does a lot for us. This location is pivotal to this business.”
McCollum has also been working at Papa Jazz for about eight years. He and Jones enjoy tracking the listening habits of their college-age customers.
“You ... see things that you didn’t necessarily expect to make a comeback, like Glenn Miller or John Denver or Nat King Cole,” Jones says. “Things like that, that used to be dollar-bin records at best, that you couldn’t even sell for a dollar, and now we have to stock a $30 Frank Sinatra greatest hits, and we sell it all the time.”
“A lot of kids, especially at that age, are getting into whatever their parents were into,” McCollum adds. “So 10, 20 years ago, their parents were into The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. Well, now their parents are into stuff that was going on in the ’80s and ‘90s because they’ve got younger parents.”
Also integral to Papa Jazz’s survival is its ability to stock a wide and varied selection of new music for an attractive price. And as with the staff’s genial, attentive service, relationships are key. Through the last two years, the staff has hustled to bypass larger one-stop music distributors to go directly to record labels and independent distributors.
It’s been a huge boost. Take, for instance, Papa Jazz’s prices on Radiohead albums. By getting them direct from XL Recordings, the shop sells records that would necessitate a price tag in the neighborhood of $26.99 if acquired from a one-stop for about $22.99. By doing so, it not only saves customers $3 — it also make $3 more off each purchase.
“We started to realize our markup from a main distributor on a $25 record, sometimes we were paying $21.50 plus shipping,” McCollum says. “You’re talking about $2 or $3 [profit] on a $22 investment? That’s not worth it. It’s almost not worth stocking them. So we had to look for other ways to make that money. And so we found there were distributors like Sub Pop, where you order a hundred dollars worth of records that are going to be cheaper from them already and they give you free shipping.”
But Papa Jazz might be better known for its varied and voluminous used selection. The shop is frequented by crate diggers who thumb through the stacks looking for that rare and impressive find. Some, McCollum reports, come from other stores in other towns to find items to resell.
Though Papa Jazz does less business on sites such as Amazon and eBay than it did a few years ago, more expensive acquisitions, such as some of the more sought-after jazz records, still go online.
“You’re not going to put that on the shelf for like 900 bucks or something and somebody’s gonna walk in and buy it,” Jones says. “That’s going to Japan, because that’s where the market is for that.”
Organizing and pricing the used selection takes a great amount of time and attention, and the shop doesn’t always get it right.
“Just yesterday or two days ago, we sold a record that was worth $200, we sold it for 12 bucks. And that hurt,” McCollum admits. Jones groans.
“[Woody] handed it to the girl, and I knew as soon as he handed it to her that it was a $200 record,” McCollum continues. “But he had already handed it to her. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s it.’ You can’t take it back. She’s seen the price on it. She wants it. And I don’t think that she knew it was a $200 record, but she bought it for 12 bucks and we looked it up and it was a $200 record.”
But even such a flub can have a positive impact, furthering the mystique of Papa Jazz as a place to find that lucky score.
“That’s half the game with physical media, man, the idea of the score,” McCollum enthuses. “Somebody coming in here and like, ‘Yeah, sure, I can buy it brand new for $24.99, but man, I found a used one.’ There’s always that incentive that helps keep it exciting for the customer but also helps keep us afloat.”
What: Papa Jazz Celebrates 40 Years
Where: Papa Jazz Record Shoppe, 2014 Greene St.
When: Saturday, July 20, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
More: 803-256-0095, papajazz.com