by Luis Gomez
First, there were records. Then there were the 8-Track and cassette tapes. Next came CDs. Now music is digital. So, who would open a record shop in 2006 and make a go out of it? And who buys vinyl now? It’s dead, right? Wrong.
The store is Som Records on 14th Street and the owner is Neal Becton. (Som is Portuguese for sound.) After a string of amazingly diverse jobs around the globe, he worked for The Washington Post for 10 years as an editorial aide in the newsroom. Becton then left the Post in 2003 to co-run Crooked Beat Records in Adams Morgan. He had collected records for years and most of his extra income went towards them, so it was a logical move for him.
Then Becton left Crooked Beat after three years to do his own thing. “I always dreamed of owning my own record store. I started telling friends I was going to open a shop and after telling enough of them, I had to go ahead and do it.” He opened Som Records in the downstairs space at 1843 14th Street NW in 2006–on a rapidly changing block just south of T Street near Café Saint-Ex.
Becton says the best part of owning your own business is being able to take a vacation whenever you want. “The worst part is paying for your own health insurance.”
Who Buys Vinyl?
Becton sells new and used vinyl LP’s and the store carries “super rare jazz records to dollar-bin 80s rock and everything in between.” He sells a few CDs, but more than 95% of the stock is vinyl.
So, who is buying vinyl when the switch to online music sales seems a done deal? Becton says the recent resurgence of interest in vinyl among young people has been great: “You can come in here and get five records for five dollars so you can build up a nice little collection on the cheap. You can also spend big bucks on a rarity if you wanna go that route.”
According to Becton, “There’s a great variety who come into the shop, but the one common denominator is that they all love music of some sort. We get DJs, collectors, purists who never made the switch to CDs or MP3s, eBay flippers… they buy records from me that they think are under priced and resell them for a profit… people who love playing records at home. And lately, more and more folks are getting into vinyl for the first time, which is definitely reassuring.”
Surviving the Recession, Thank You
The economic recession has affected many businesses in the area, according to Becton. “The first two months of the crash [September 2008] were rough. Business just stopped. It’s rebounded nicely since then, thank God. I have noticed some of my regulars don’t come in as much as they used to… or they buy less when they do. But, I am fortunate they are still regulars. Obama’s election helped and quite a few people who moved here with the new administration became customers,” he says.
As an entrepreneur, Becton has another business besides Som Records: he also DJs quite a bit under the moniker DJ Neville C. Every third Thursday of the month he hosts a Brazilian party at Cafe Saint-Ex and DJs regularly at Marvin, Science Club, the Velvet Lounge and the Eighteenth Street Lounge. Becton is also one of the organizers of the DC Record Fair (next one is at the Black Cat on February 14).
Been There, Done That
Becton is a soft-spoken man who has traveled many places and done many things–good preparation for the unpredictability of owning a small business. When asked about unusual jobs he has held in the past, he reels off an interesting list.
“Wow, I’ve had a few. Here are some of the better ones. I worked in a Bondo Factory in high school in Atlanta… shucked oysters in a seafood restaurant… was a roustabout on an oil rig in Houma, Louisiana… picked raisin grapes on Crete… worked on a vineyard in Bordeaux… was a credit manager for a travel agency in London… was the night manager of a youth hostel in London… worked boat hostel in Amsterdam… worked in hotels in several cities… waited tables and bartended in DC… and worked in the newsroom of a major metropolitan newspaper for 10 years in DC and Los Angeles.
20 Years in the Neighborhood
“I found an apartment at 17th and T from an ad I saw on the bulletin board at the Chesapeake Bagelry on Connecticut Avenue. I lived on T Street for 11 years then moved to LA for one year for a job with The Washington Post. I came back in 2000 and lived at 13th and V and after that at 15th and Florida. I’m currently living with my wife, daughter and two cats in far off LeDroit Park, which we love.”
“I like the area’s walkability and its diversity mostly. My first eight to 10 years here, I did not have a car and didn’t really need one. When I first moved to T Street, my block was a third white, a third black and a third Hispanic, which I liked. Gentrification has changed that a little but it’s still a very diverse area with mostly progressive politics.”
Becton’s parting advice for the neighborhood? “Support you local businesses and read your local blogs!”