A Crooked Mile

This is a snapshot of the life of one local business. A business that has survived on the same street for 8 years, that sells a product that has been deemed dead by too many. No matter the loyalty and obsessiveness of physical media fetishists and curiosity of newcomers, independent record stores are disappearing. I make no excuses for dramatic overstatements which exist before or after this sentence. I make no apologies either. The success of Crooked Beat Records is personal to me. I have no vested interest in the financial security of the store, but I say with all seriousness that I am not entirely sure what I would do if it ceased to exist. More accurately, I wouldn't know where to spend my money. There is the internet. There are other record stores. There are other record stores in DC. There are other record stores within walking distance from my apartment. Online options may provide a more diverse selection, other stores may offer other titles, but none of them provide me the same level of comfort. As Linus (of Peanuts fame) once said, "Buying records cheers me up. Whenever I feel low, I buy some new records."

Bill Daly has spent more than half of his life in DC. Even when he was running Crooked Beats' original location in North Carolina, he knew he wanted to move back. When the timing was right, that's exactly what he did. Following the advice of some friends at Dischord Records, he chose 18th street. Like any retail store, there have been slow weeks or even slow months, but nothing the store couldn't survive. Daly started noticing uncharacteristically low sales numbers about this time a year ago. Around the same time he also noticed Pepco workers working out in front of his store. As their work finished up, and parking spaces started to reappear, so did the costumers. In fact, this past March and April were his best months in the store's history. Coincidentally, he had received warning that the city would be conducting a long-term construction project in Adams Morgan that would take a year, and begin just as Crooked Beat was doing its best business. He was told to prepare for the work to be in front of his store for 3 to 4 months. It's still there.

The typically busy month of May "was bad" according to Daly, but it "just got worse." As sales figures continued to slide, he knew that the store would have to put more of an emphasis on its online component. He was hoping mail order business would help offset what was happening (or not happening) inside the store. While Daly notes a spike in the internet orders, Crooked Beat experienced its worst September yet, a 48 percent drop compared to years past. He wasn't the only one to notice. Those same friends at Dischord came calling. They have counted on Crooked Beat to restock their artists once every two to three weeks. Lately, those orders have been placed closer to once every two months. Daly is able to share countless anecdotes of frustrated customers. There are those that come less frequently, others that turned to mail order, and some that just stopped buying from Crooked Beat. Every time a long lost customer would return, the reason for their absence would always be the same: no parking. Daly estimates that business he does in the store, Monday through Friday, has dropped close to 70 percent. There can be no foot traffic without a manageable sidewalk. Throughout the duration of the construction, the store has been forced to close one entire day, and early five others. There was just no easy way for a customer to enter the store. Workers were just sent home. Crooked Beat employs five part-time employees, working only three to eight hours a week, a significant drop-off from the twelve to sixteen hours in previous years.

Daly wasn't expecting financial assistance. He even prepared for construction to run long. But he still didn't see this coming. When that August 31 completion date rolled around, Daly was told that delay was due to the weather and some workers being "diverted to other projects." Despite the larger trucks still in plain sight from his window front, construction workers and city officials still refuse to admit to Daly that the project is behind schedule. Whenever he does manage to get a conversation with a city employee, its only "lip-service" he gets in exchange. "Communication has been poor," Daly understates.

Not surprisingly then, he doesn't hold Councilman Jim Graham (Ward 1) in the highest esteem. Daly questions whether Graham is primarily interested in his constituents and the smaller local businesses that populate his district or only "people with money." He wonders how Graham could not have known better, as the city has seen businesses fail when construction extends long past deadline. Daly rattles off these instances: P Street, Columbia Road, and a slew of metro expansions. He then takes a moment to think whether he's ever met the Councilman. "Yes, once. For about ten seconds."

Even when the construction moves up the block, parking spaces will be as limited as ever. He remains hopeful that things will return to normal by 2012. He often gets asked by customers how he manages to stay open. "We're hanging on," he tends to respond.

Crooked Beat Records is located at 2116 18th St NW and at www.crookedbeat.com.