The Record Exchange keeps music and creativity spinning in Downtown Boise
There’s no other place like The Record Exchange in the Treasure Valley — and very few spots like it in the country — that can match its mix of retro cool, contemporary swagger and business savvy.
It comes at you from all directions: the explosive colors and funky design of the facade to the rows and rows of vinyl records, the CDs, a wall of posters, racks of irreverent T-shirts, socks and cards, and shelves of sometimes profane bric-a-brac. And, of course, playing over the sound system, the music — new, alternative, classic and sometimes obscure rock, jazz, EDM, hip-hop and more. Aromas of exotic incense, musty record jackets and fresh brewed coffee hang in the air. The vibe draws everyone from business executives and high school rockers, to noted musicians and serious collectors.
Musicians who discover the store while they’re gigging in the Treasure Valley tend to become regulars. They stop in often, even if they’re just passing through. Grammy nominated War on Drugs popped in last month. So did Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Ethan Coen, who are serious vinyl collectors. Flatbush Zombies, James McMurtry, Henry Rollins, John Doe, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne all shop at The Record Exchange.
“You never know who’s here,” says The Record Exchange co-owner Jil Sevy. “But all of a sudden you notice there are all these really beautiful rockers in the store, and you know something’s up.”
Today, The Record Exchange is one of the Treasure Valley’s most iconic businesses. Since Michael Bunnell opened the used record store in 1977, it has expanded, contracted, morphed and kept the beat to Boise’s growth and shifting cultural currents. But this is more than a record store. The RX is an institution, a touchstone for musicians and music lovers that breeds community through music.
“It’s been a pretty remarkable thing,” says Tim Johnstone, a DJ and program director at 94.9 FM The River, and formerly a longtime RX employee. “We would be a far different city without what Michael has provided with The Record Exchange.”
It took a mix of inventive business practices learned by trial — “and lots of error,” Bunnell says, chuckling — to survive the economic extremes of the past 40 years, the digital download revolution and the oft predicted “death of rock ’n’ roll.”
Through it all they’ve dug in, worked hard and outlasted a legion of large competitors — Borders, Hastings and more went by the wayside.
“It’s bad for our industry when stores close,” Bunnell says. “Competition is good for business. There’s always the risk that if there are fewer venues to sell through, the record labels will stop making stuff. That would be a nightmare.”
Buoyed by the current vinyl resurgence that is re-energizing the entire music industry, the RX is in its 36th month of double-digit growth, seeing sales balance out between new and used music and lifestyle.
The mix gets tweaked constantly, Bunnell says.
“I’ve gotten so used to watching sales history — not just dollars but unit sales,” he says. “I do analysis of how much space each division occupies and compare that to the financials. You literally see where we’re making the money — and where the potential is.”
Every square inch of the store has value. “It’s all got to perform to make it successful,” Sevy says.
History of record
Let’s be clear. The Record Exchange was always cool, but owning a record store is not a business model that screams “money maker,” Bunnell says, but “that’s not why you get into the business. It’s more of a passion.”
Bunnell, 67, grew up in Sacramento, California, where he worked a variety of jobs and shopped at the original Tower of Record stores.
Then one day his life took a turn.
“I lost a job and a girlfriend all in one day,” Bunnell says. “Two days later I threw everything I owned — which was not much — a stereo and a bunch of records into my Volvo and drove to McCall.”
His buddy, writer Steve Bunk, lived there and invited him to check it out. Bunnell arrived in the dead of an Idaho winter wearing tennis shoes and a thin coat.
“I had a lot to learn,” he says.
Eventually he worked as a high-lead logger. One day in 1975, the carriage on the rig he worked came undone and dumped him onto a rocky hillside. The accident totaled his right knee.
Bunnell, then 26, spent the next year in a cast. He moved to Boise and used the $10,000 compensation he received to open a used record store on the Boise Bench with a partner, Alan Benton.
“I saw there was a niche to fill here,” Bunnell says. “I had a friend who had a used record store in Sacramento called Recycled Records, and I had hung out there and watched how things went. I thought I could do it better.”
That first Record Exchange was a hole-in-the-wall, he says, but business was pretty good. A year later he moved the store into a sliver of The Hitchcock Building, 1105 W. Idaho St., that it fills today.
In 1982, he opened Posters, Etc. with Kathleen O’Brien, in the next space. He eventually knocked down the wall between the two shops. As other small businesses in The Hitchcock closed or moved, Bunnell would take over their spaces, eventually expanding nine times to occupy the bulk of the block.
In 1983, Bunnell took over Budget Tapes and Records on Broadway Avenue and added a second store. In 1985, he opened The Edge coffee and gift shop inside the RX. It was Boise’s first espresso bar. In 1989, he opened a third store near Boise Towne Square, then moved it to Cole and Ustick roads in the early 1994. But nothing worked as well as Downtown.
“It’s all trial and error,” Bunnell says. “Hopefully you survive the errors and you learn something. I realized I was competing with myself, so in 1995 we brought it all back here.”
The next year, Bun nell and Sevy, along with O’Brien, bought The Hitchcock. That was a key move toward the business’ longevity. Owning the building helped them reduce their overhead and weather the economic downturn in the late 2000s, Bunnell says.
Bunnell and Sevy met at a Downtown bar in 1984. Since then she’s become an important part of the business. Originally from Utah, Sevy was working at the Idaho Commission on the Arts. She came on full time in 2000 and now curates The Edge’s lifestyle sections.
They married in 1992 and have two adult sons, Ian and Eric, who work in the store from time to time.
Bunnell and his crew have been on this winding road long enough to see things come full circle. Vinyl is hip again, and for Bunnell being part of bringing back this beloved format is thoroughly satisfying.
“Love that albums are coming back,” Bunnell says. “An album really is a statement by an artist taking on a journey from start to finish. And then there is the artwork and the liner notes that you can actually read. It’s the convergence of fine art and music, it’s hard to get that with CDs, impossible with downloads.”
Vinyl started to become hip again about 10 years ago, around the time when Bunnell and a group of his fellow music store owners of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS) invented Record Store Day, a celebration of music and vinyl on the third Saturday in April. Each year it features special limited-edition vinyl releases and live music all day long. In 2017, labels released 350 limited-edition vinyl records.
“The powers that be at the labels and the distributors never lost their love for vinyl. Honestly, they missed it,” Bunnell says. “When we said, let’s do Record Store Day, they asked if they could go back to making vinyl, and we said ‘Yes!’”
The Record Exchange was one of the original stores that formed CIMS in 1995. Bunnell is its executive director today and splits his time between Boise and Birmingham, Alabama, at the CIMS headquarters.
Vinyl sales are up nationally for the 11th straight year, according the Nielsen rating company. That’s true at the RX, too. The store recently expanded its vinyl section again. Now half of all its music sales — new and used — are on vinyl.
When CD sales declined and everyone started steaming, things looked bleak. Vinyl also brought the kids back into the store, Sevy says.
“We really missed having younger people in the story. Now, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”
Vinyl is still a small percentage of the entire music industry — about 11 percent of total sales across all platforms in 2016 — but its growth is constant and steady. The majority of vinyl buyers are men, about 56 percent, according to MusicWatch.com, compared to 44 percent women. Nearly half of vinyl buyers are 25 and younger, and 58 percent of what they buy is used.
On Thanksgiving weekend Idaho State University student Morgan Betts picked through a pile of vintage vinyl.
“I love this store, and anytime I’m in Boise, I come in,” she says. “Anytime I’m in a new place, I’m always looking for where to buy vinyl. This is the best place I’ve ever found.”
Eric Weimer, a 24-year-old University of Idaho engineering major, leafed through a row of albums nearby. He’s been listening to vinyl since he bought his first record player at a garage sale when he was in fifth grade. He grabbed up a re-release of REM’s “Automatic for the People.”
“It has been one of my favorite albums since I was a kid, so to finally be able to play it on vinyl — I’m really excited for it,” he says. “With, like Spotify, I just listen to certain songs. Listening to this, all the way through on vinyl, is just a really cool experience.”
Vinyl sales are also helping to boost sales of other formats. CD sales are up, too.
‘Our business is show business’
The first Record Exchange in-store musical performance could have been its last, but Bunnell is a particular kind of stubborn.
“It was about 1987. We thought we were so cool to have Cinderella come by,” says Johnstone, who worked at the Broadway store at the time. The heavy metal rockers were opening for Mötley Crüe at the Boise State Pavilion (now Taco Bell Arena).
“Four hours before they were supposed to arrive, the parking lot was packed. We had so many people in the store you couldn’t see the walls,” Johnstone told an audience during an anniversary celebration panel discussion. The band arrived and “they got out of a van wiping white powder from their noses. Their hair was huge. It was mayhem.”
The event nearly destroyed the store. Afterward all that was left of the wall of cassettes were empty cases and security tags.
“They cleaned us out. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a lesson,’” Bunnell says. “I knew we could do it better.”
Today, the in-stores are intimate musical experiences. And for musicians, it’s a magical place, says singer, songwriter Josh Ritter, a Moscow, Idaho, native and frequent Boise performer. Ritter is a successful recording artist in U.S. and the Ireland, and headlines concerts around the globe. He recently played an RX in-store for the 40th anniversary celebration.
“I don’t know how but it’s almost a spiritual experience to be there,” Ritter says. “Being on the road so much and playing music for your life, The Record Exchange reminds you that you’re part of a bigger thing. You’re part of this world of music. Playing there is a joy.”
Bunnell and Sevy put more focus on live in-store performances for their kids. They bought a temporary stage and started reaching out more in the 1990s. Four years ago they remodeled the store and installed a permanent stage, where more than 1,000 performances have been held.
There have been some pretty spectacular shows: Smashing Pumpkins, Ben Harper, John Mayer, Curtis Stigers, Scars on 45, and more recently Serena Ryder, Vance Joy, Need to Breathe and Ed Sheeran.
“Again, it’s in that pursuit to make the store sexy, and bring people in,” Bunnell says. “I’ve always considered that our business is show business.”
The RX’s marketing director, Chad Dryden, works with Johnstone and the staff at 94.9 FM, as well as other groups, to present artists who either are performing at a larger venue or who just happen to be in the area.
Boise is one of the top markets in the country for artists to play, says Brian Corona, the head of promotions for Atlantic Records’ adult contemporary artists.
“It’s like there’s a magic formula,” Corona says. “You have this symbiotic relationship with radio, an audience that trusts you and connections to labels like mine. Without any one of those elements it would fall apart. ... Right now, Boise is the No. 1 market for this kind of thing.”
The RX family
Bunnell and Sevy share credit for the store’s success with their clerks and staff, the people on the front line who make the customers feel at home, take the time to learn their tastes. They help curate the music selections and give the store its humanity, Sevy says.
“We really pride ourselves on our hires,” she says. “We hire interesting people with eclectic tastes who really put the customer first. It shows in the fact that a lot of our people have been with us forever.”
Head buyer Matt Anderson started in 1984. Brion Rushton has been here for 17 years. Even the “newbies” have worked there for eight years. John O’Neil joined the RX family in 1990 as a clerk and now is the store manager.
O’Neil fit right in from the beginning.
“The way Michael runs a record store is how I think a store is supposed to be run, from a philosophical point of view,” O’Neil says. “You never look back. The philosophy of this store is to keep moving, keep changing.”
With the rapidly changing technology, the ebb and flow of interests and new formats, it’s important for music stores to stay nimble, Sevy says.
“You can do that as an indie,” she says. “We can respond faster. We don’t have to go back to the head office and get approval. We can make decisions based on what’s a happening at the moment in our community and store. ... The corporate stores can’t do that.”
Bunnell and Sevy continue to move forward and look to the future — and that includes ensuring that the store will outlast them.
Both of their sons work in the store — Eric is learning to be a vinyl buyer and Ian is running the online specialty sales for collectibles — but whether they’ll keep the family business is yet to be seen.
“We would like to think one of them would want to take over the store, but they also have their own interests,” Bunnell says. “Thinking about the future, we also have some clerks who have expressed interest. We really want to see it go on because we recognize its importance to the community.”
“I think we’d leave a big hole in this community if the store closed,” Sevy says.
What’s up with the facade?
The Record Exchange’s wildly creative exterior, it lets you know this is something different.
The Hitchcock Building is three buildings, wrapped it in a stucco exterior that made it appear as one in the 1960s.
In 1984, the building’s then-owner, David Eberlee, commissioned painter Fred Choate for a mural to cover the exterior.
“The building was awful ugly,” Choate says. “He (Eberlee) wanted to give it a facelift without spending a lot of money.”
Choate painted the exterior four times. He created a faux row of houses that first time. He won an award from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. One version added a courtyard with a limo, the likeness of Alfred Hitchock and blackbirds, as a wink to the building’s moniker.
He also painted it the last time, covering his own work with a wild, pop-art design by artist Toby Robin.
“We kept trying to modernize it,” says Record Exchange owner Michael Bunnell. “The design created a whole motif. We tied in ‘The Birds,’ but I kept telling Toby to give the birds more attitude, and he did.”
The Record Exchange
1105 W. Idaho St., Boise
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. 208-344-8010. TheRecordExchange.com.