As Chattanooga record store owner Chad Bledsoe sifts through the hundreds of vinyl discs that fill nearly every space in his shop, he pauses at a copy of gospel singer Keith Green’s 1983 album.
“This is a Christian singer that’s pretty unknown, but he’s really good,” Mr. Bledsoe said passing through the dusty albums. “I like turning people onto obscure stuff that I like.”
Wearing an indie rock band t-shirt with black hair hanging past his shoulders, Mr. Bledsoe, 41, sits in his store, Chad’s Records, at the corner or Lindsay and Vine, and talks about records like they are part of his family, which they have been for the past 20 years.
Through the advent of the CD and the demise of the cassette tape, Mr. Bledsoe’s store has survived, and at the core of that existence has been his love of records, especially the rare, vintage kind.
Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton
Chad Bledsoe, owner of Chad's record store on Vine Street, sells a couple of vintage vinyl records to Molly Schimpf Saturday. Chad's is celebrating 20 years of selling unique records in Chattanooga this November.
He prizes an unopened copy of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1977 album, “Street Survivors,” which initially was released with a cover depicting all seven members of the band surrounded by flames. That cover was pulled after the 1977 plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant.
Mr. Bledsoe bought the store in November 1988 when he was a 21-year-old college student. His parents had wanted him to take a more traditional path — finish college and and get a steady job with benefits — but Mr. Bledsoe wanted to to do something different.
“I saw so many people that would go and do all this stuff — they were going to be this and that — and then they’d change their career and start all over again,” he said. “I thought, I don’t want to waste a lot of time.”
At the time, he was a customer of a record store owned by Bob Courter on Brainerd Road and Seminole Drive. The owner was asking $5,000 for the business, which Mr. Bledsoe said included some posters, a counter, display cases and about 2,000 records.
He remembers thinking about a new car he bought a couple years earlier that was more than twice the cost of the store, and he said he decided it was a good deal.
“When he told me the price, I thought, that’s real affordable,” he said. “It was worth trying because it wasn’t like I was going to get this fortune of stuff, but it had all the things I needed.”
He began acquiring merchandise, and by the time he moved to a new location on Lee Highway eight years later, he needed 80 crates to hold all of his records. He stayed there for three years until moving in 1999 to his current spot near UTC.
“I took a huge cut in traffic flow and it still hasn’t come back to what it was (on Lee Highway),” he said. “All of these businesses (nearby) kind of struggle, and you can’t tell from what day to the next how busy it is going to be.”
In the years he has been on Vine Street, the record store business has changed drastically. Though he carries new and used CDs and DVDs, and he even still sells a few cassettes, much of his stock these days consists primarily of vintage records. Including a growing stock of newly-issued albums, he has about 25,000 records. He buys and sells them on eBay, which he said has revolutionized the way older albums are sold.
The prices for the rare and obscure albums became more reasonable once sellers were able to see what people actually were willing to pay, he said.
“It tests the water a lot better,” the business owner said.
Jimmy Howard has been buying his music from Chad’s Records since the late 1980s, following him through all the moves over the years. Mr. Howard, who lives in Chickamauga, Ga, said he collects old music and puts it on CDs. Mr. Bledsoe always gives him a fair trade, he said.
“He’s always got the good stuff,” Mr. Howard said. “He’s the only one in town that has the hard-to-find records.”
Today, the only employees he has work for trade credit, but he looks forward to the day when the store will run itself, allowing him to do other things.
In the years to come, Mr. Bledsoe said he will probably focus more on vinyl exclusively, both old and new. These days records are making a come back as something people can just sit at home and listen to, he said, and technology allows people like Mr. Howard to record music onto CD.
Record companies also are issuing more music on vinyl and even offering an mp3 along with it. That’s something that makes him feel better about the future of the business.
“It’s coming back,” he said. “I see an interest in vinyl getting stronger, and CDs are there. I think that’s going to be a good niche for me.”