story and photos by Jack Silbert
CDs, MP3s, streaming, and, yes, back to vinyl: Whatever the trend in music consumption, Hoboken record shop Tunes has not only survived, but thrived, thanks to savvy business decisions. Now with Friday’s fall Record Store Day on the way, the retailer is rededicating itself to the community that has supported it since 1995.
Two years before, in 1993, Chip Heuisler had gone to work at a little shop on the Ocean City boardwalk called Tunes on the Dunes, owned by a friend from high school. The pair soon became partners, and the modest Tunes chain began to grow. Heuisler’s sister was living in Weehawken and recommended he look at Hoboken for their next location. He’d been a south Jersey guy but, “I quickly learned the importance of music in the town of Hoboken,” Heuisler tells hMAG.
In November 1995, Tunes opened a small, narrow shop at 315 Washington Street. Coincidentally, the legendary Pier Platters store on Newark Street had closed that summer. Tickets for the iconic Maxwell’s club had been available at Pier Platters; after a short time, Maxwell’s booker Todd Abramson asked Heuisler if he’d like to sell tickets at Tunes. “So that was a little endorsement,” Heuisler says. (These days, Tunes sells reduced-fee tickets to the shows Abramson books at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, including many high-profile acts.)
When the lease ran out, Heuisler and his partner bought a former doctor’s office at 225 Washington Street — 1,800 square feet of carpet, drop ceilings, and sheet rock — to become the newest Tunes in 1999. “When we started poking around, we saw that it had tin walls, tin ceiling, a parquet floor,” he remembers. “There were some really cool features to the space that we were able to use.”
At their peak, Tunes had six locations in New Jersey and Maryland. But the industry slowly changed, forcing many brick-and-mortar record shops out of business. Tunes carried on by increasing online sales via the Amazon marketplace and other sites. Heuisler explains, “That helped us stay around, and kept revenue going throughout a lot of transitional years for the record industry.” Owning rather than renting the Hoboken storefront certainly helped as well, as other local retailers were priced out.
Still, as leases expired over the past decade, Tunes closed shops. Down to three locations, the partners recently decided it was time to go their separate ways, with Heuisler becoming sole owner of the Hoboken shop. “I moved up here in 1995 to open the store. This has always been my baby,” he says. “Even when we had other locations, I always felt closest to this store and this town.”
Heuisler admits that with the success in online retailing, the store wasn’t paying quite enough attention to the developing needs of its local customers. That is now being rectified. “When their tastes were evolving and shifting more toward vinyl, we were slow to make the changes,” he says. “I definitely want to shift the focus in-store, expanding our new and used vinyl offerings and turntables. For a customer in Hoboken who may not be a vinyl shopper yet, they can become one when they get a turntable.” Indeed, 65% of Tunes’ current Hoboken sales are from new and used vinyl. CDs and DVDs remain an important part of the mix, along with posters, magnets, buttons, etc. “We sold out of oven mitts!” Heuisler adds.
Heuisler also plans to get Tunes more involved in the community. He explains, “One way to do that is to bring in in-store performances. So we can be a place for gathering as much as a strict retail space.”
A popular gathering at Tunes over the past decade has been Record Store Day, an annual worldwide event in April in which special album releases are exclusively available at independent shops. (The 2018 event set a single-day sales record for the Hoboken Tunes.) In recent years, Record Store Day has expanded to a second event on Black Friday, with approximately 150 special releases. Heuisler says he will have most of those available, beginning at 9 a.m., and additional new and used vinyl he’s held back for this weekend, also encompassing Small Business Saturday. “It’s a great time,” he says.
At Tunes, Chip Heuisler and his dedicated, knowledgeable staff are excited for Thanksgiving weekend, the holidays, 2019, and beyond. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never, ever not wanted to go to work. I really, truly love what I do and consider myself incredibly lucky to make my living this way,” he states. “I definitely think there will always be a place in communities for record stores: sifting through the bins, hearing something on the sound system, what’s this playing? There’s still something great about that.”
Stay informed about new releases and special events at Tunes by following them on Instagram.