Dave Stidman leans back in an old office chair in the basement of Wax Trax Records, the music store he’s been running for 40 years with Duane Davis. The basement is littered with stacks of old vinyl and copies of “Waste Paper,” a local “fanzine” Wax Trax produced as a way to get the word out about new music in the 1980s.
On the cement walls is 40-year-old graffiti from the record store’s original owners, who had one last party on East 13th Avenue before packing up and heading to Chicago to run the recording label Wax Trax! Records in 1978.
Stidman and Davis are reminiscing over their four decades in the business: the changes in the music industry, what artists did well and the early days when Stidman lived in the back of the shop at 638 E. 13th Ave. But most of all, they talk about the tunes that have carried them through the years.
The pair’s mutual love and knowledge of music was part of what kept the store going, Davis believes. And talking about music every day still hasn’t gotten old.
“It was like, `Wow, you make a living doing this,’ ” Davis said, laughing. “It beats working for a living.”
Running a record store in the heart of Capitol Hill hasn’t always been easy. A car drove through their front window one year. There have been break-ins. And, as the internet changed the way people bought music, there were days when the duo worried they would have to close their doors.
But in the end, Davis and Stidman agreed, it’s all been worth it.
Before running Wax Trax, Davis and Stidman were case workers in the Jefferson County Social Services department. They worked with teenagers in crisis. Although the pair had no business experience, they both dreamed of running a record store. So when the opportunity came to buy Wax Trax in 1978, it was ideal timing to get out of social services.
But the duo didn’t escape working with teenagers for long. When they inherited the business, they also inherited Wax Trax’s customer base, many of whom were teens in Denver punk bands.
“When you like music and, for us, music is essential to our lives, so it keeps you a perpetual teenager anyway,” Stidman said. “So we kind of related to younger people.”
Davis said their experience in working with teenagers in Jefferson County helped to create a good rapport with the Denver community as well as the staff that began working at Wax Trax. The fact that Davis and Stidman were in the know about the latest punk records coming in from Britain helped a lot as well.
“You would come to Wax Trax to find out about the music,” Davis said. “We carried all the British trade magazines that concentrated on the British punk scene and post punk scene. We poured over those like it was daily bulletins from The Bible.”
At the time, punk music was only played in a few venues across Denver. Stidman said the two would frequently go out for shows and support staff members and customers in bands. When the Mercury Cafe first opened, the venue, along with Wax Trax, became “magnetic poles” for the Denver punk scene, Davis said.
Although punk would always be central to Wax Trax’s identity, the pair wanted to start building up inventory with more styles of music.
From day one, used vinyl has been a cornerstone of Wax Trax’s business. Stidman learned on the job and quickly figured out what records would sell and which were limited or special presses. Davis joked that Stidman was spending money “like it was going out of style” when they first took over. But it helped Wax Trax build a wider selection.
“I wanted to have a store that anybody who came in would find something that they wanted,” Stidman said. “We’d have a bunch of little old ladies come in looking for Elvis records and right next to them we’d have the kids with the Mohawks.”
Over the years, the store expanded. Right now, Wax Trax has the CD store on the corner of East 13th Avenue and Washington Street. Two doors down on 13th is the vinyl store. At one point Stidman and Davis had additional retail space across the street on East 13th Avenue where the Hudson Hill bar is today. They also filled the space between the CD and vinyl stores, which is now home to Kilgore Books.
But in the late 1990s, all that began to change.
With the introduction of CDs, vinyl sales began to decline. Corporate stores such as Best Buy, Davis said, were able to sell CDs for prices lower than what they could buy them for from distributors. Since Wax Trax was working directly with distributors, and frequently importing music in from Britain, it was difficult to compete.
“That hurt us business-wise considerably because we had always prided ourselves on being a very reasonably priced store,” Davis said. “By 2000, the picture was getting really grim.”
With the invention of Napster, the first music downloading site, the situation worsened. Napster first launched in 1999 as a site where people could download music. After legal issues over copyright infringement, it shut down in 2001. But by then, the damage was done and other sites would start to pop up for music downloading before being similarly shut down. Nationwide records stores had begun to close their doors. When Tower Records, a well-known California chain of stores, filed for bankruptcy in the mid-2000s, local owners really began to worry.
“We thought by 2003 that it was over,” Davis said. “It didn’t take long for people to train themselves to think music was free.”
Stidman and Davis bought the building Wax Trax is in during the mid-’80s, which helped when music sales began to decline. Vinyl sales also helped the store survive. Davis joked that he and Stidman were well prepared for vinyl sales to tick back up because they never stopped buying inventory. For a while, the store was able to make ends meet by selling American vinyl overseas on eBay, Stidman said.
In 2008, the jump in sales continued when Record Store Day launched around the world. Record Store Day started as an annual event on a Saturday in April where music labels released special editions of CDs or vinyl records to local stores. It has since expanded to include Black Friday as well. Although Stidman said the duo was skeptical of the event at first, it has become of their best sales days.
The community also has been there to support the store and keep it going.
One customer, Dave Wilkins, has been shopping at Wax Trax for 38 years, Davis said. After several decades, Davis said Wilkins is “still completely enthusiastic about music.”
Sharing their passions for music with their customers and staff has been one of the best parts of owning a music store, Davis said.
“It’s just wonderful to work with people that are that committed to music, that committed to the store,” Davis said. “It’s a delight to walk into the store and see them already at the counter doing the work.”
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