Arts & Culture

For the Record

Bryan Burkert discusses Sound Garden’s 20-year reign as Baltimore’s premier record store.

Bryan Burkert chuckles when asked how The Sound Garden weathered the digital-music revolution that drove most music retailers out of business. “Adapting to online music wasn’t anything new to us,” he says, “because there’s never been a time when we weren’t in crisis. It’s always seemed like we’re about to go under.” Burkert, who rarely gives interviews, is discussing Sound Garden’s 20-year history between bites of a black-bean burger and sips of iced tea at the Waterfront Hotel, down the street from the Fells Point store. Dressed casually on a weekday in a T-shirt and jeans, the 46-year-old Burkert could be mistaken for a slacker commandeering a barstool for a liquid lunch. He almost sounds the part, with a slight lilt in his voice that occasionally downshifts into a conspiratorial tone hinting at camaraderie and adventures to come.

But Burkert’s eyes suggest he’s all business. They change from vague drift to focused intensity when the conversation turns to one of two topics: music or record stores, especially his record stores. (He operates a second Sound Garden location in Syracuse, NY.) It doesn’t take long to figure out that Burkert isn’t particularly suited for other types of employment. “After all this time, what else am I going to do?” he asks. “It’s not like my resume is packed with all these positive experiences. Besides, not many people are recruiting owners of record stores for their companies.”

Maybe they should.

Burkert has built Sound Garden into a Baltimore institution. It’s outlasted regional chains like Kemp Mill and Waxie Maxie’s, gone up against big-box stores like Best Buy, and thrived in an Internet age that toppled bricks-and-mortar behemoths like Tower Records and Sam Goody.

In the process, it’s racked up dozens of “Best of” awards from local media, been cited as one of the finest record stores in the country by Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines, hosted hundreds of in-store concerts, attracted an incredibly devoted and diverse clientele, and become a destination for tourists and visiting celebrities. (The store’s walls are plastered with photos of employees posing with a “who’s who” of visiting dignitaries—from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kanye West to actor Elijah Wood and supermodel Tyra Banks.)

They come for the deep and broad selection of CDs (from The Dark Side of the Moon to Moondog), DVDs, Blu-ray, video games, books, posters, and whatever else Burkert stocks to stay relevant. “We’re always looking for the next thing,” he says. “We like to give new ideas a shot and see what happens. Right now, we’re selling a lot of socks, which we just brought in.”
Those socks—festooned with all kinds of stripes, animal figures, skulls, and even mustaches—complement the T-shirts, hats, sunglasses, backpacks, and other accessories on sale. And, at the counter, you can grab a Yoo-hoo, Snickers bar, box of incense, and even a pack of condoms.

But the most significant development over the past few years has been the resurgence of vinyl. As CD sales plummeted, sales of records, both new and used, steadily increased. And the skyrocketing popularity of Record Store Day—the international celebration of vinyl culture now in its sixth year—helped stoke the revival amongst the younger generation. It’s a back-to-the-future twist that’s transforming the shop, long known as “the CD joint at the Point,” into more of an old-school record store.

That’s fine with Burkert, because that’s where his roots are.

Burkert grew up in Buffalo, a working-class city not unlike Baltimore. He went to private school and circulated in an alternative music and arts scene that, at various times, included members of the Goo Goo Dolls, Ani DiFranco, 10,000 Maniacs guitarist Robert Buck, and actor Vincent Gallo. He listened to the likes of R.E.M. and The Replacements on WBNY, Buffalo State’s radio station, and was particularly fond of an alt-rock show DJ’ed by Tom Calderone, who’s now president of VH1.

Burkert and his friends biked to their local record store, Home of the Hits. Although the name implied otherwise, the shop didn’t focus on “hits” so much as it catered to the tastes of punk rockers, metal kids, college radio types, and classic-rock fans. Burkert would buy import vinyl and the latest 12 inches by The Smiths, The Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen, and chat up the staff about music they liked. “It was my vision of what an indie record shop should be,” says Burkert. “It was basically a much smaller version of what The Sound Garden has become.” (Home of the Hits closed in 2006, after nearly 25 years in business.)

While Burkert was pursuing a mass communications degree from St. Bonaventure University, his parents moved to Baltimore. During visits, he noticed the city had no equivalent of Home of the Hits, and Fells Point seemed especially barren. On Broadway, Reptilian Records specialized in punk, but that was about it. So he decided to fill the void.

At first, Burkert went to every record store he could find and wrote down everything he liked and didn’t like about each one. After locating a suitable, but small, space at 1617 Thames, across the street from the current location, he borrowed money from his sister’s boyfriend to open the shop. At the time, his only possession was a beat-up Chevy Citation. “I told [her boyfriend], ‘If this doesn’t work out, there’s no way I can pay you back,’” recalls Burkert.

The Sound Garden opened in 1993 and, from the start, did a brisk business. It didn’t take long for competitors to take note, and two years later, Burkert heard rumblings about other record stores opening in Fells Point and realized the building across the street was an ideal spot. “I knew if another record store moved in there, they would take me out,” says Burkert.

“We were doing well, but I still had no money, nothing. So I went for it.”

Burkert rented the larger building and broke his lease. “We literally carried all the racks and stock over in the middle of the night,” he says, in that conspiratorial tone. “I just knew we had to get that space, which included a parking lot, before anyone else did. It was a matter of survival.”

At first, he didn’t have enough product to fill 7,500 square feet, which seemed cavernous at the time, so he installed a pool table in the back and “just threw stuff in there to seem like it was full.”

Burkert stocked tons of indie music, including many titles that couldn’t be found at other shops. He also got heavily into used CDs, which offset a challenge from big-box stores that were selling new CDs below cost as a means of getting customers through their doors. The store grew steadily, and it wasn’t long before the pool table had to go.

In 2002, Burkert bought the building. “Thank God I did, because if I hadn’t, there’s no way I could afford to stay there,” he says. “There would be no Sound Garden. It would probably be a Walgreens.”

Anyone familiar with the shop would cringe at the thought, because it is, in many ways, the antithesis of a corporate franchise. It’s more of a cultural hub with wildly diverse customers. “We continue to build a large base of folks who live in the city, and that’s only grown since the Circulator started coming to our neck of the woods,” says Jimmy MacMillan, who’s worked at Sound Garden for the past nine years and was a loyal customer for 10 years before that.

On a recent afternoon, the checkout line included a death-metal fan buying records on the local A389 label, a Cosby-looking jazzhead with a half-dozen Blue Note CDs in hand, a pair of film buffs purchasing used Criterion DVDs, and a thugged-out guy picking up hip-hop mixtapes. A city policeman came to the counter asking for an Anita Baker CD.

“Sound Garden is one of the few places in Baltimore City where you see everybody from Baltimore City,” says Burkert, who credits his staff for making informed choices when it comes to stocking each section and making it attractive to a core constituency. “The store isn’t a reflection of my tastes so much as it’s a reflection of my staff’s tastes.”

As MacMillan notes: “Because the store doesn’t subscribe to any one particular group, style, or genre, our staff is always very well-rounded and resourceful. Not all of us know a ton about 1970s Italian horror soundtracks, but we know who to ask. Same goes for just about every style of music and film.”

And the staff knows the local arts scene incredibly well, because many of them are involved in it. MacMillan, for instance, runs the acclaimed record label, Friends; Marc Miller plays in the band Microkingdom and, before that, Oxes; Beth Varden is a graphic designer who’s also in the band The Violet Hour; and Laurence Bass is a freelance writer working on his first novel. Rob Girardi, producer of the first two Beach House records, worked at Sound Garden. So did Thrill Jockey recording artist Jason Urick, who relocated to Portland, OR, a few years back.

It’s all part of that old-school, record-store ethos. “It’s great that the people who work here are involved in other things, because it makes them even more knowledgeable and interesting,” says Burkert. “I’ve always believed that people go to record stores to talk to record-store employees, people like Jimmy. You can’t get that sort of thing from looking at a screen, because you don’t have that personal dynamic and sense of discovery.

“We practically lost an entire generation to digital music and iTunes, because we weren’t part of their lives. But the resurgence in vinyl has given our store new life and made it more relevant to younger people, who now have something to collect and people who can talk about it with them and make smart recommendations. They become part of the culture at Sound Garden.”

He leans forward, in that conspiratorial tone of his: “And they find that there’s a lot more than music in record stores.”