Smile Politely

15 years in, Exile on Main Street still sees the big picture

Jeff Brandt has kept Exile on Main Street, one of the few remaining places in the C-U where people can buy records, alive through years of change. As digital music consumption has taken over as the main way, Brandt and his business have had to adapt and roll with the times.

Exile on Main Street is a bastion of C-U’s music culture. It’s a favorite hangout spot for those who love records and the ability to go to a store and buy them. And it’s also just one of those organic, longstanding elements that still make Downtown Champaign unique and beautiful in its own way. The COVID-19 pandemic is hurting everyone, everywhere. It’s taking thousands of lives every day. For Brandt and many other local establishments, it’s an existential threat for business, too.

IMAGE: View of exterior of an old train station building where Exile on Main Street exists in Downtown Champaign. There's a blue sky above. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

Exile on Main Street opened in 2004, and since, it has carved out and maintained a small, but important base of local support that has kept it viable and worthwhile. Brandt spoke with us about the challenge his business and many other local businesses face, and he was quite open about the reality of the situation.

“Honestly, running this place for 15 years has not ever been easy,” Brandt said. “I probably should’ve closed it, I don’t know, ten of the 15 years it’s been open just because it wasn’t doing as well as people like to think it would. But it’s a place I love. I take pride in having a record store in this town, specifically, downtown.”

He doesn’t think COVID-19 will force him to shutter business permanently, largely thanks to the support he’s received from the people of C-U in the last two months. But it’s been hard not to feel helpless, especially as the pandemic has stretched on without a vaccine or any clear ending in sight.

“It was kind of like, ‘Shit, if this is the thing that’s going to run us completely out of business, that’s a better excuse than all of the other stuff that [Exile] has been through in the 15 years I’ve been open,’” Brandt said.

But as many others have, Brandt and his partners have adapted.

Exile on Main Street has moved much of its merchandise online to Discogs, a site that specializes in record sales and is used by most record stores throughout the United States. People can go straight to the store’s page on Discogs and buy from the collection here.

Others bought hundreds of dollars worth in gift cards in the days following the economic shutdown, and Brandt is doing individual orders that can be shipped from the store. He added that his landlord has been very amenable and supportive of his situation.

The longer he has to remain closed, the worse the bottom line gets. Brandt advocated for people to stay home when they could and to take the virus seriously. How society reacts collectively to mitigate the spread will play a large role in when, and to some extent if, he is able to reopen. But still, he feels lucky. Many regulars and people in the area have reached out to see what they can do to help.

Sure, there are a couple of other places in town where you can buy a record; there’s Record Swap, See You CD & Vinyl and Parasol in Urbana. But record stores are a dying commodity, and that’s something Brandt says people have recognized in recent years.

“I feel lucky saying that, because record stores, depending on how ingrained in the community they are, people genuinely are worried about them and want to try to help them and keep them in business,” Brandt said. “If they disappear, there’s nothing else really like that. It’s made people just that much more aware of how finite the line is of what in and out of business is for local businesses.”

IMAGE: View of two hands touching a box of records amongst a row of many boxes. The woman wears a white sweater with red cuffs. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

Especially in C-U, which has a strong history of supporting music, there is an organic network of aid that is forming among small businesses and the people.

Brandt is working with his next-door neighbors, Dandelion, which sells vintage and used clothing, as well as other businesses to figure out how to collectively adjust. They are two of over a dozen entities that have partnered with Weiskamp Screen Printing to release $20 shirts where $7 of the sale goes to the business and $4 goes to Weiskamp. Specified links for Exile on Main Street can be found here and Dandelion’s can be found here. Brandt hopes that by banding together, everyone can make it.

“There’s nothing more important in my store than there is about any of the other restaurants or places downtown,” Brandt said. “We all have people, we’re all specific people’s favorite places, you know? We’re all in the same boat, just trying to figure out how to make it work and every little bit helps.”

While he has been able to shift much of his business online, Dandelion and other local entities are almost completely reliant on foot traffic. Without potential customers wandering about downtown, they’re in dire straits.

“People want to try things on,” Brandt said. “People want to touch and see things in person.”

In a positive development for Brandt and other record stores, Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent record stores where tons of music is released exclusively at locations across the country, has adapted after its original April date was canceled. Just last week, RSD announced it would shift to a three-day format that will take place on August 29th, September 26th, and October 24th. The move helps record stores to afford the investment in the releases, as opposed to having to pay upfront for one day of sales.

Until then, Brandt and other stores across the United States will have to do the best they can to create revenue and sustain. There are more helpful partnerships being created to add life support, like Dualtone Music Group and Think Indie’s “You Will Save Your Local Record Store” shirts. Record stores that have partnered in the collaboration each get their own store-specific link where they receive a cut of the money brought in (Exile’s is here).

IMAGE: View of man, from behind, as he stands looking through a box of records. The man wears a white shirt, red scarf, and grey stocking cap.  Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

Uncertainty and doubt reign in times like these, but Brandt is hopeful that people will continue to come together to keep his and other businesses unique to C-U afloat. To this day, businesses like Exile on Main Street are part of what distinguishes C-U from other places around the country.

“Towns are different because of the local businesses and specific diversities,” Brandt said. “[It is] the little details about each town, not the north Prospect areas that you can see in every town that has more than 25,000 people. It’s not those things, it’s the Farren’s burgers, Black Dog’s barbecue. Those are the things towns need and hopefully make people want to stay in town.”

Brandt can see the big picture. As long as the pandemic drags on, he and other area businesses will continue to struggle. He has put his faith in the community that has helped him keep his passion for records and his store alive since 2004.

“I just want people to do what they can to support all the local restaurants that are going way above the things they should have ever been asked to do,” Brandt said. “There are so many local places that need money to stay open, especially local restaurants and local retail. If there’s any way that you can support them, I’m all for it.”

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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