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art frIf Norman Rockwell were alive today, he might have painted a record store.

It’s as American and iconic as children playing outside until the streetlights came on or a young couple sharing a milkshake at a soda fountain. The record store is a place of congregation, of discovery, and of communicating the universal language — music.

 

“One of the things that keeps me going is the fact I don’t want to be the business on Main Street that closes down, that place where kids went to when they grow up,” said Lauren Calvert. “I don’t want someone to come back here with their kids to show them where they used to come and we’re gone — we’ll trudge along for a long time before anything would happen to us.”

Owner of In Your Ear Music Emporium in downtown Sylva, Calvert is celebrating 20 years at the helm of a musical institution in Western North Carolina. Filled with racks of vinyl records, CDs, band posters, musical instruments and a smoke shop, the location has become a social centerpiece of the community. 

“I’m pretty amazed about being here 20 years,” the 45-year-old said. “I’ve contemplated many times about getting out of the business before it was too late, but we’ve continued to do well, continued to have customers that want the music.”

 

Cullowhee-bound

Raised in Florida, Calvert moved to Raleigh with her family during high school. One summer she was a counselor at a Presbyterian camp in Old Fort. She’d never been to Jackson County, let alone Sylva, but that all changed on a chance road trip with some of the other counselors to nearby Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

“I happened to ride over to WCU,” Calvert said. “And I really liked the campus, so I enrolled the next semester, majoring in graphic design with a minor in psychology.”

Following college, Calvert decided to remain in Western North Carolina. She started waiting tables at Lulu’s On Main, also in downtown Sylva. Her future all changed one day when she had an itch to hear some Patsy Cline and ventured to the nearest record store, which was miles away.

“The guy at that record store couldn’t take his eyes off of the baseball game on TV to help me,” Calvert said. “So, something clicked in my head. There were thousands of students of WCU and this was the only record store for them to come and get their music?”

So, Calvert decided to open her own record store in Sylva. With a $30,000 bank loan, she and a co-worker at Lulu’s launched In Your Ear. It was 1994, the height of the CD sales era — around the time “Ten” by Pearl Jam was released.

“My business partner at the time was apprehensive, but I was like, ‘We can do this,’” Calvert smiled.

That opening day in 1994, Calvert remembers being nervous and anxious, eager to see if her idea would come to fruition and sustain. 

“It was a lot like bungee jumping,” she said. “I was so young and so nervous.”

But her nerves were calmed at the end of the day when they counted the register and realized they’d made a profit of over $500.

“We figured we’d need to make a profit of $87 per day to pay back our loan in time, so to make that much money the first day had our pencils moving to figure it all out — we’ve never gone under that total ever since,” Calvert said. “And to be here 20 years is a huge milestone because that first day we were just figuring out how to stay open. I just never looked back and, before you know it, its been 20 years.”

 

The times they are a-changin’

With the introduction of digital music over a decade ago, record stores the world over began to see the writing on the wall. Everyone had the Internet, everyone could now find and purchase any type of music or product they wanted with the click of a mouse. 

“The music industry has long been pushed to the wayside with digital media and unfortunately most of the music today has become like fast food with downloading,” Calvert said. “As a music store owner, I’ve been disenchanted over the years with digital media, with it being on the rise, but not being more cost effective for the retailers to get the music to the people.”

With consumers being able to buy music online, Calvert points to the fact that money spent on the Internet does not remain in one’s own community.

“When you [buy music online] you’re putting money out into the universe, out into nowhere,” she said. “When you buy from your local record store, you making all of the paychecks here happen, you’re keeping your money right here in your community — taxes and all.”

Though their CD sales have steadily decreased over the years, the bottom line at In Your Ear has remained with the diversity of products offered, especially with the ever-increasing popularity and demand for vinyl records. Nowadays, mainstream artists are going back to vinyl for its sound quality and uniqueness. And twice a year, numerous artists do special releases only through independent record stores on Record Store Day. Add that to a renewed interest in those shops that have survived and the stability of the community record store seems to once again find its footing.

Calvert owns the building outright and would like at some point to open a “School of Rock” upstairs in the 3,000-square-foot space, which would serve as a spot where kids of all ages could come learn, play and appreciate the power of music. And through it all In Your Ear has persevered, a mainstay where other record stores have faltered or closed up and gone home.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re picking up mercury with a pitchfork when you sell something, buy [more of] it and put it back on the shelf. But, there are those moments where someone will come in and say how much they love coming in here, and that keeps me going,” Calvert said. “Coming to a record store, hearing a song you like overhead and asking the person behind the counter who the band is, well, that’s a memory. It’s not a commodity you can put a price on — it’s a memory.”

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