When Robert Stapleton, owner of Southwest Sound, flips off the lights and locks the door behind him Saturday night, he’ll be closing the door on an iconic downtown Durango mainstay.
Southwest Sound opened in 1977, and Stapleton took over in 2003. Interviewing him in the store Wednesday afternoon and watching customers come in – most of whom Stapleton greeted by name – it’s clear the shop played a big role in the local community.
For Stapleton, that sense of community was built on the store’s and customers’ mutual love of music – and that love became a teaching tool on both sides, he said.
“When I first moved here, the previous owner had a reputation for doing a lot about bluegrass. I knew nothing about bluegrass; I came from Boston,” he said. “I knew the principal players: I knew the Alison Krausses, the Peter Rowans, the Sam Bushes. I knew a lot of the names, but I couldn’t tell you who the best mandolin player was; I couldn’t tell you who played banjo on the ‘Strength in Numbers’ album. But in the 15 years I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot of that stuff from my customers.”
Stapleton, whose all-time favorite band is the Rolling Stones, said that two-way education reached far beyond bluegrass.
“Talking about which Jimi Hendrix solo was the best one with people; talking about which Beatles album was better – was it ‘Revolver’ or ‘Rubber Soul’?” he said. “I have a classical guy who comes in, and talking about classical music to me all the time. I have a guy that’s into Broadway shows and vocals, and finding a Fred Astaire album that he had never heard before and it blew him away. Yeah, making people’s day.”
And not only was Southwest Sound the place to go to get your fix of whatever got you going, it was also a place to get hard-to-find music, Stapleton said.
“That was what we were always about is carrying stuff you wouldn’t find anywhere else. ... There’s always that person who’s going to come in and go, ‘Oh, my god, they have the Bonzo Dog Band,’ and they’ve been looking for that. Or it’s one of their favorite bands or they’re going to find that metal title or that Fred Astaire title or that Penderecki violin concerto,” he said. “We like to carry stuff that you’re not going to find anywhere else.”
While Stapleton may be closing the shop, he said he still loves music. “I still get excited when a new album comes out by a new artist,” he said. “There are still artists that are putting out physical product.”
The way people buy and consume music will continue to change, he said, and brick-and-mortar record stores will become even rarer than they are now. That’s the nature of the music industry, he said.
“The music business has always been about changing and trying to be one step ahead, and with technology, it changes every day,” he said. “A lot of (artists) are probably going to drift away and do all their own stuff online, where they will sell CDs; you’ll go to Judas Priest and you’ll buy on the Judas Priest website; you’ll go to Beyoncé or Lamb of God or Selena Gomez, you’ll go to their websites and you’ll buy it from them. There won’t be a lot of stores left. ... I’m really jazzed we’ve made it this long.”
He said he sees the manufacture of CDs dwindling and perhaps disappearing altogether, and music falling into two camps.
“It’s going to be two extremes: It’s going to be streaming and vinyl. Jack White said this in an interview: ‘It’s going to be vinyl in the living room and streaming in the kitchen and the bedroom,’” Stapleton said. “I’ve tried streaming – it’s not like I’m against it or whatever, but to me, it doesn’t sound as good, it doesn’t have the highs and lows, it’s missing the warmth you get, even with compact discs.”
And as a man who spent the majority of his career working for Tower Records, Stapleton said it was important to him when he bought the business to ensure Southwest Sound was well-stocked.
“We raised the amount of titles by 50, 60 percent of what was carried in here before. Hip-hop, jazz, blues in particular,” he said. “For me, coming from the Tower mentality, which was you had to have everything, I couldn’t have a Bob Dylan section and not have every Dylan CD, I couldn’t have a Beatles section and not have every Beatles CD, and the artists go on and on ... .”
If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, Southwest Sound could get it for you, he said.
“We could always get it, that was the other thing,” Stapleton said. “If you didn’t see it, we could literally have it for you the next day. Back in our heyday, we were doing orders every day.”
One of the events Southwest Sound became known for was its annual celebration of Record Store Day, typically held on a Saturday in April, where local record stores would offer special limited releases. Part of the fun of Record Store Day was lining up before Southwest Sound opened to get in early and snag your picks. Stapleton said it was also one of his favorite things about running the shop.
“The energy level was high. And watching the people get what they wanted, watching the people that saw that one thing and they were just five seconds too slow,” he said.
Saturday’s Final Day event will be the last chance to score some pretty serious music bargains (most things will be marked 50 to 60 percent off) and say goodbye to what was for decades Durango’s music oasis.
Stapleton said along with closing the shop, his house is for sale, and he and his family plan to leave Durango.
“For us, it’s bittersweet: All my kids grew up here, they all graduated from college and high school here,” he said. “Fifteen years in town is a long time.”
So how does he want Southwest Sound to be remembered?
“That we served a lot of great music, and we made a lot of people happy, everybody found what they were looking for and we learned a lot and enjoyed a lot and had a great time,” Stapleton said.