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Cote’s Colorado: the last record store in town

Andy Schneidkraut's MySpace page lists him as "100 years old." The owner of Albums on the Hill is only a little more than halfway there, but it takes a lot out of you to run a record store in the digital age.

With the closure of Bart's CD Cellar near the Pearl Street Mall in February, Albums on the Hill has the distinction of being the only retail store in Boulder dedicated to selling compact discs. That the small basement shop he has owned for 22 years is the last one standing brings Schneidkraut little solace.

"Right now I have a patient landlord who thinks I'm going to figure it out," Schneidkraut said one January afternoon at his store on the "Hill" near the University of Colorado campus. "And he may have more confidence in me than I have in myself."

You can hardly blame Schneidkraut for sounding like the fight has been knocked out of him. The service his store offers - the expertise of an owner who has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a passion for turning people on to new artists - is not much of an arsenal against the popularity of digital downloads, legal or not. CD sales, already down 45 percent from 2000 to 2008, dropped 19 percent in 2009, according to Nielsen SoundScan (as cited by Denver writer Steve Knopper in Rolling Stone.)

The last major retail chain, Virgin Megastore, closed its doors in Denver and everywhere else last year, joining the ranks of Sam Goody, Wherehouse Music and Tower Records. Once, those stores were the enemies of independent shops like Schneidkraut's. But their presence also represented the strength of the music industry. Even Bart's CD Cellar, a longtime independent Boulder icon, was owned by a small chain for its final four years.

"I don't think it's in any way good news to see Bart's close. I think it's bad news," Schneidkraut said as the folk-tinged sound of Iron and Wine provided a soundtrack. "My best years were when there were 15 or 16 stores in town. Boulder at one time had the honor of being the community that had more square footage in retail dedicated to selling music than any town of comparable size in the country. And it was a heyday."

That heyday is long gone. Albums on the Hill hardly resembles a mighty victor in the music war. One CD listening station has an "out of order" sign on it, the featured selections long having faded from "new release" status. But there's a charm in a store that requires you to bring a plastic sleeve containing the booklet for a new CD to the counter so Schneidkraut can pull the disc for you from the shelves behind him, a modest anti-theft system.

Over the course of an hour, customers trickle in, one to examine Schneidkraut's latest vinyl releases. A small silver lining in the dawn of the CD era has been the resurgence of LPs, but it's little more than a novelty. Only audiophiles will shell out $149 for a seven-disc vinyl version of Tom Waits' Orphans box set.

But Albums on the Hill is one of the few places you can go to unload your unwanted CDs. Nick Forster, a Boulder musician and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Etown," came by to see if Schneidkraut was willing to take a look at some discs he had in his car. After Forster returned with two cardboard boxes, he lingered, talking with Schneidkraut about his latest recording project. It's that kind of camaraderie that music stores invite.

"What you're losing isn't the access to the content, what you're losing is the concierge, the musical concierge who will take you through the back door and really help you understand what the interrelatedness of all this stuff is," Forster said.

Schneidkraut doesn't quite buy that he's the last one standing. But for now, he's still swinging.

"I'm not standing. I'm hunched over," he said. "The knees are buckling, and I'm still up against the ropes."

In the meantime, the band plays on. And if you don't recognize the sound blasting out of Schneidkraut's speakers, he's happy to tell you all about it.

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Mike Cote

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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