By Mohammed Michael Harfoush
Dempsey Hamilton opened Mobius Records in Old Town Fairfax, three years ago this past August. Hamilton is the owner, and main operator, of the small record shop devoted to being a mainstay and stronghold for vinyl and music lovers alike. Anyone curious enough to take a spin around Hamilton’s laidback record shop, will have to make the trip down to Old Town because, like many gems in Old Town, there’s only one Mobius Records.
“I spent roughly 20 years in the music business as a sound engineer. I worked with a lot of bands, toured a lot, but after a while, I was looking to get out of that lifestyle,” says Hamilton.
Restless and wanting to make some time for himself, Hamilton scouted out opportunities to unwind in between gigs. While enjoying some downtime, Hamilton was struck with the inspiration that would ultimately spur him to open his shop.
“During my time touring with bands, whenever we’d finish sound check, I would find a local record store — whatever city we were in, to kind of have my Zen — to get away from whatever band I was with, and just kind of get lost in the music and artwork and that kind of cool stuff that comes along with a record store. I wanted to recreate that, for myself somehow, and kind of live in that Zen,” says Hamilton.
Uncertainty plagued Hamilton when he first opened to doors of his record shop. Not being able to afford extra hands meant long hours and only a few, if any, days off. But Hamilton stuck it out and weathered the choppy waters of starting a small business, and over time, business began to pick up.
“In the beginning years, 2005 or 2006, I’d be the only guy working in the store on weekends. Towards 2007, 08, 09, traffic in the store started to pick up; there were a lot of folks coming into the store, and I was like, ‘okay, maybe there’s something to this,’” says Hamilton.
Staying on the public’s pulse and keeping an ear to the ground is a way of life for a small business looking to stay in the game. It’s important to know your customer. A small business needs to care about, and invest in, what makes their customers happy.
“New release day is Friday of every week. We tend to cater to our clientele here; what they like is what we concentrate on getting as far as product goes. There’s a lot of record stores. Some of them dabble in new music. Some of them don’t. We primarily focus on reissues of older albums and whatever current artists are putting out these days. We do sell used records, but they make up only about 15 percent of our store’s inventory, as opposed to 85 percent of our products being new,” says Hamilton.
Knowing what sells where is an important aspect of owning a small business. Hamilton knows that his business mainly comes from walk-ins. But that doesn’t stop him from maintaining some kind of presence online for collectors with more particular wants and needs.
“We have a small online presence we use to sell our rarities records, which are typically from our collection of used records, but we do most of our business by people just coming in and having the experience of looking around and flipping through the bins,” says Hamilton.
Hamilton is lucky to have struck the iron while it was hot, as far a vinyl is concerned. Younger generations are rediscovering what older generations have known for decades. Vinyl has a character all its own, and enriches almost any listening experience for almost any listening audience.
“Vinyl is coming back big time; It’s a billion-dollar industry this year. Our demographics are all over the place — I’m talking 13 to 75 years old. Being a sound engineer, I have my own theories as to why vinyl has come back so strong. There’s nothing that sounds quite like analog. You get a full depth of richness and texture with it, but there’s also the visceral aspect of it. Holding this textile thing in your hand, and looking at the artwork, being able to look at the liner notes and see who was involved with the record, where it was produced. All those kinds of things, a lot of music nerds like myself dig diving into,” says Hamilton.
Hamilton has observed a sad trend in today’s culture of workaholic behavior that robs people of the time and tranquil state of mind necessary to slow down and enjoy what his store offers.
“In this age that we live in, of instant gratification, most people who don’t invest in music, will just buy a song, and then have it shuffled in with the rest of their other music. So, you don’t really get to know the artist’s interpretation of how their record was supposed to be heard. There’s a lot of thought that goes into what track is first, what track is last, and everything that falls in between,” says Hamilton.
“To be able to sit down in a chair and take the time out of your day to put on a record and listen to it from start to finish is a thing, I think, the hustle and bustle that most of us live in these days, doesn’t call for in our lifestyles. So, to be able to take out that 45 minutes to listen to a record is a pretty special thing these days — at least in my eyes,” says Hamilton.
When it comes to being an owner of a small business, Hamilton has a unique perspective. He didn’t graduate from some ‘fancy’ business school, or get handouts from wealthy parents to start his business. He’s seen the ups, downs and in-betweens of being your own boss.
“I’m constantly learning. I don’t have any background in retail. I also don’t have a business education. I don’t have any education past high school. Not having a boss is a great thing, but it’s a great challenge as well. I think it’s provided me with a lot of joy, and stress, in my life. But the joy definitely outweighs the stress,” says Hamilton.
“Now that we’re in our third year, I’ve been able to have more staff and delegate some of my duties. In the beginning, I was working six days at the store and closing one day a week to have a day off. It was all consuming. It was very difficult to maintain the juggle of having a family and running a small business at the same time. I was never truly off the clock. Even now, it never stops. My days off are usually spent in my basement doing orders, or talking on the phone with my employees. I don’t ever really get away. But that’s okay. It’s what I signed up for,” says Hamilton.
Some unexpected surprises came about as a result of Hamilton’s store opening, that even Hamilton himself didn’t foresee. He knew that his store would enrich the community around it, but what he didn’t realize was that his ‘baby’ would bring people together for more than just listening parties.
“The number of bands, as well as friendships, that are formed in here, just solely based on conversations, it’s pretty special. It’s a cool aspect of opening the store that I never really thought would be part of the journey, or at least, I didn’t see in the beginning,” says Hamilton.
Challenges arise all the time in a small business. Supply and demand is a make-or-break concept. Hamilton has had to make tough calls recently, that a couple of years ago, weren’t even options to choose from.
“I think keeping up with demand is definitely one of the hardest challenges in doing this. When I first opened Mobius in 2014, although vinyl was on the cusp of making a comeback in a niche market, the releases were not as abundant. On a Friday, we’d have maybe four releases that I would buy for the store, out of, maybe, a selection of 20. Now, when I do my orders on Monday, I’m choosing from among 200 to 300 records that will be released the coming Friday,” says Hamilton.
“So, now I have to think, ‘okay, do I know who this artist is? Is this artist going to do well in the store? How many copies do I buy of this artist’s album? How many people do I think are really going to buy this album?’ The game has completely changed in the last three years,” says Hamilton.
Hamilton gives back to the musicians who patron his store by offering a place for them to get together and play gigs every month. Bands and musicians don’t have to have an album out. They don’t have to negotiate with the house. All any act has to do is go up to Hamilton and ask if the store has an opening to play coming up.
“We offer opportunities to play shows here for bands that shop in the store. It’s our way of giving back to them. All of our shows are always charity based. We don’t take any profits from them, and neither do the bands that play. It’s more or less, to give them a place to perform and get some new fans,” says Hamilton.
“We’re always open during the shows, so people can still come in and shop if they want to. We typically try to have a show once a month on Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m.,” says Hamilton.
When it comes to advice for anyone thinking about opening their own small business, Hamilton has some choice words for prospective entrepreneurs.
“Life is short. If you think you have an idea for a business that could possibly bring some enrichment to your life, and also create a customer base that would sustain the business, just go for it,” says Hamilton.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of fear and doubt going into anything that’s unknown, and for me, starting this store was a huge unknown. I used my own retirement and took a gamble on my family to start this store, but my biggest motivation throughout the ordeal was the thought, I would much rather fail, than to never have tried at all,” says Hamilton.
Old Town Fairfax afforded Hamilton a place to grow his business, clientele and sphere of influence in his community. It allowed Hamilton to take a passion of his, and turn it into a means of living.
“I wanted to create something that would speak to high school, college and neighborhood folks alike. A place of their own they could go to hang out, shop or just chill and see a band. Luckily, Fairfax city is still growing, so the rents are cheaper than most places I scouted out. I don’t know if I could have made Mobius a reality anywhere else,” says Hamilton.