Meeting Eric Levin, Record Store Superstar

When I was in Atlanta a few days ago, I had the privilege to meet Eric Levin, one of the rock stars of localism. Eric is one of the co-founders of Record Store Day, which besides being a lot of fun is also one of the most successful buy-local campaigns in the world. He owns Criminal Records, a great record shop that’s thriving in a nearly impossible market. He’s served on pretty much every important committee and coalition about localism in the U.S., and he’s even met with countries around the world about buying local — we talked about small shops in France and the Netherlands as well as stateside.


This guy has a lot to be proud of. But when he talked about his proudest moment, it wasn’t a moment of glory that the whole world could see — it was the fact that he was able to sell Aurora Coffee (an independent Atlanta coffee shop that he used to own) to his staff. It was seeing them succeed that seemed more important than popularity, success or money.


I know how he feels. I love a lot of things about running a local shop, and I struggle with a lot of things about it, too. But one thing that I’ve always loved is seeing our staff succeed and move on to amazing things. I love that Richard is an artist in New York now; that Nancy started her own macaron business (you MUST try them — check out Magic City Macarons); that Janie’s now a manager at The Abbey and Neal is a chef at Satterfeld’s and Adam’s a music teacher and Michelle has a great new job and can meet me downtown for lunch. I loved working with all of them, and I think they all know that I’ll do anything I can to further their careers, whether it’s simply giving a reference, helping them network, giving business advice or just being a sounding board and support system.


The fact that Eric and I love our people isn’t especially unique. It’s actually difficult to find an owner of a small shop who doesn’t feel this way about their staff. These are the people who are at our sides as we do this fantastically difficult thing of trying to fight for independence in a market that’s no longer just competitive and is now openly hostile to us. We struggle with them and we get to know them and, in most cases, we’re incredibly invested in their success even when they move on.


Investing in employees matters for the health of our economy because it creates a more educated and more diverse workforce. A big box store rarely gives its employees the whole picture — their people are more likely to be trained to be cogs in a machine, each only doing one job and doing it over and over. That kind of employee is less likely to be creative and innovative in the future. They’re less likely to see business in a broader way and make decisions that benefit their companies and communities. They’re actually less valuable to the economy. (Obviously, I know plenty of creative people with tons of potential who work at big box stores, but their talent isn’t cultivated in the same way it usually is at an independent.)


When we buy from small shops, we’re putting more money into our communities. But we’re also investing in the people who work there. We’re investing in the people who will be our teachers and our business leaders and our politicians tomorrow, and we’re making sure they have the tools to succeed.


I think that’s important. So does Eric Levin. So, I hope, do you.


Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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