As the final few hours of 2015 tick away, Jason Perlmutter sits at his desk in Durham, intermittently bidding the employees of Carolina Soul "Happy New Year" as they leave.
The handful of people who pass Perlmutter's desk spent much of their week processing several hundred records for an eBay auction set to launch over the weekend. In 2015, Perlmutter estimates, Carolina Soul sold 40,000 records just through eBay; the holiday weekend won't slow the company's 2016 start.
During the holiday break, Perlmutter and his staff will also be making final preparations for the grand opening of the new brick-and-mortar arm of Carolina Soul, his record retail operation that has specialized in rare slabs of soul, funk, jazz and hip-hop for the last 15 years. During the last two decades, what was Perlmutter's hobby has bloomed into a booming business with a worldwide reputation. If you still doubt that vinyl is back, the survival and expansion of a specialized project like Carolina Soul—or Sorry State Records in Raleigh, a store that focuses on punk rock and made a similar move from online to physical retail in 2013—offers a pointed retort.
Record collecting caught Perlmutter's interest when he became a DJ at UNC's student-run radio station, WXYC-FM, in 2000. He began scouring nearby shops like Schoolkids and The Record Exchange for albums he heard and liked at the station. He picked up extra copies of the things that piqued his interest most.
Perlmutter had no intentions of making it his livelihood. Actually, the Raleigh native used his chemistry degree for a job in a Research Triangle Park laboratory. But he kept researching the records he loved, eventually seeking out the people responsible for making the soul songs he discovered. Those connections and that knowledge landed him contract work with the North Carolina Arts Council and the Bull City Soul Revival, which documented soul music from Durham.
During these interviews, Perlmutter found musicians often owned several copies of 45s or LPs he knew were rare and coveted. He'd negotiate purchasing those records directly from the artists before listing them for auction online. Now Perlmutter travels as far as Mississippi, buying batches of records that range in size from a few hundred to, as in the case of a particularly large Mississippi haul, 40,000.
Many of Carolina Soul's digital clientele are DJs seeking out specific samples, but Perlmutter says big-time collectors keep a close eye on Carolina Soul's eBay account, too. This year, Carolina Soul has run weekly auctions, which include anywhere from 600 to a thousand individual records. Some sell for a few hundred dollars; others, like an outlier 45 that sold a couple of years ago, fetched $6,000.
But now, Carolina Soul has taken the chance to put down substantive local roots and exist offline, too. Sharing half of a storefront with Bar Lusconi on Durham's Main Street, the space looks modest from the outside, but the narrow room holds nearly 10,000 records, almost all used.
Away from those Main Street stacks but nevertheless surrounded by rooms of records in Carolina Soul's offices, Perlmutter reflected on the hobby that, at this point, has become his life.
INDY: At what point did you transition from working your RTP job into doing Carolina Soul full-time?
JASON PERLMUTTER: There were times when I was doing both. You could say I've always been doing Carolina Soul, going back to college. I've been collecting local soul music (which is what it started out as), DJing that, researching that, doing some informal oral history work on that topic, like tracking down artists and maybe doing business with them, too, about some of their rare old records. Eventually, that led to a compilation, Carolina Funk, which was 22 tracks from North and South Carolina that were rare 45s by groups that played funk. There were some other projects like that and a website, carolinasoul.org. I founded that in 2005; at that point, it was just a discography of these records I was collecting and learning about, even if I didn't have them. It was an attempt to have a complete catalog of that body of music. All that time, I was working in a chemistry lab, and I kept doing this in my spare time.
Carolina Funk was made then. As an extension of that, I did a little bit of contracting work for the North Carolina Arts Council on their African American Music Trails, which was focusing on eight counties in eastern North Carolina that had a strong history of black music, counties where several members of James Brown's band had come from.
That didn't last very long, but what was significant about it was that I got approval from my full-time chemistry job to go part-time for a period of time. That was the beginning of a transition. I had plans to go back to school, but eventually changed those, too. I was going to continue to buy and sell records, which I was doing on a very small scale, while applying for school. But then it was just like, "That's what I want to do."
In your first few years of buying records, how did you know what to buy? Would you buy indiscriminately and research later, or were you seeking specific records?
I'm not quite old enough to have been digging for records in a pre-Internet era. The Internet was definitely a thing back then, but there would still be records where there wasn't a lot of information about them. The information about what the release was, the history of it, the value of it—that wasn't as big of a thing as it is now. There was a lot of trial and error to buying records. Some of it was, "Do I like this record? Does it look cool?" I've bought a lot of records that turned out to be horrible or worthless, value-wise or based on how they sounded.
You cleared close to 40,000 records on eBay this year, and the store has about 10,000 records. Where do these records come from?
These records come from a lot of different places. We're always buying records, and I hope to continue to do that for a long time to come. We get records through reaching out to different DJs and individual collectors and folks who have worked in the music business in some capacity. It's an extension of efforts to find a musician who maybe made one record. Now the goal is to find somebody who didn't necessarily make the records but came into a lot of records by working in the business. We also have increasingly taken records on consignment for the online business. We've also done some advertising that's taken us across the country looking for records.
When you go out to look at or buy records, how often do you know what you are getting?
Almost never. Often, we are dealing with people who didn't previously know. If you talk about consignors, those are generally folks who buy and sell themselves, but we've found it to be mutually beneficial for us to sell for them. Given that they're experts themselves, they often know what they have.
Almost nobody else either knows, or what they say might not be what it actually is. Something heartbreaking often happens—what is described sounds great, and you get there and they're all ruined because of water damage, or none of them are actually in the covers. Anything that can go wrong, you have to expect it.
I imagine that some of the people you're buying records from don't always understand the value of what they have. What do you do to ensure that everything that happens with the transaction is fair?
It's not that people don't always know what they have or don't know that what they have is of value. People actually realize that records are of value and once again of interest. A lot of people that we deal with say—perhaps as a bargaining chip—that vinyl is coming back. It seems surprising to the people who have been into vinyl the first time around and then forgotten about it all these years. For that reason, people do know that there's interest in records and have perceived correctly that some records are worth quite a bit.
Your question is about how to make a fair deal, and that's what we're always trying to do—pay a fair price based on what we believe the record to be worth and realizing that we need to keep the business going. We will explain that our offer is based on the value, but that we need to leave ourselves some room. Everybody realizes we've driven some distance to see them, and there's work to be done to clean the records up to sell them online or in the store.
How did you figure out what would populate the physical record store?
It's actually a fluid thing. We're going to learn a lot, I hope, based on what people buy and ask us to track down for them. That's what we're going to be there for, to stock things that people want. At this point, we're just making a guess. I hope it's a good one, and I'm sure we'll learn a lot along the way.
We've tried to stock the store with records across a variety of price points. There are a lot of classic records, but we also believe that someone who comes in to the store will find, perhaps, while looking for something that they do know, something that they didn't previously know.
There are a lot of discussions of late about changes in Durham and the tension between what's been here and an influx of new money. To you, how does Carolina Soul fit into that debate?
I think Durham is open to a store like ours. There are already a bunch of great record stores in Durham that we shop at. We're friends with the people who run them. But with Carolina Soul, specializing in soul and jazz and gospel and blues and reggae and disco and boogie and rap, people are excited that there's now a new place to look through a lot of those kinds of records. There is a wide market for these. I think a lot of people in Durham, whether they frequent downtown or otherwise, will be drawn to the store. The store, I hope, will be more than just a place where commerce is done, but also, in the great tradition of record stores, a place where people come together and connect with music and other people and develop relationships.
Will having built a curatorial reputation online help in having a downtown storefront?
I think so. The funny thing, though, is that the curatorial reputation is probably better known outside of Durham. Part of our reason to do this is that we're here in Durham, and we've been a business in Durham, but only really friends of ours in Durham know about it. It's an opportunity to develop a relationship with the public in the community that we're a part of, that many of us are from originally or from nearby areas, and to put down some roots here. Any kind of reputation that we have for curation will help us a little bit, but we're going to have to prove here that we're a source for good music.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Recorded history"