Frankie Neilson wrings out the remains of a tea bag, stirs the contents of his mug, looks around the walls of his shop crammed with CDs, music posters, magazines and vinyl records and says with a wry grin, “I don’t think I could fit any more stuff in here.”
The lack of room is testament to his success over the past decade running The Beatmerchant Record Store tucked away on 2nd Avenue in Steveston.
In a market fractured by technological advances in the way the masses consume entertainment, Neilson said he has been able to carve out a loyal customer base that has kept him in business when the likes of HMV, Chapters and A&B Sound have either downsized or disappeared from the retail landscape.
“When I started, no one told me about iPods or the way people would be downloading music the way they do today,” he said laughing.
So, what’s been the recipe for 10 years of success?
For a start, Neilson said some of the early years were a dodgy proposition as he opened the doors to cater to music lovers looking for just about everything under the sun.
“Those were hard times, trying to find what people were wanting. But since I am a small business, I was able to react quicker and get in the store what people wanted,” he said. “That’s where those big, corporate stores like HMV had trouble. And now they’re gone.”
Gone, too, from the bigger stores was a sense of customer service that sowed the seeds for loyal clientele.
“Music is a hobby for me. And I just love to talk to people about music,” said Neilson, who grew up in the UK and at 16 worked as a recording engineer at The Marquee Studio in London, an offshoot of the famous Marquee Club that hosted some of the industry’s biggest stars in the 1960s, such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Animals. “So, when people come in here and want to talk about music, I’m all too happy to do just that.”
And that has allowed Neilson to get to know customers, some of whom are desperately searching for obscure recordings that sometimes even mighty e-tailers such as Amazon cannot provide.
“You go that extra mile, do the search for someone, find that record. And when you deliver it, you’ve got a customer, literally, for life because they’re so happy. One of the best experiences is having a customer come in and say, ‘I can’t believe you’ve got this.’
“You have to listen to your customers; be like a sponge,” he said as he fanned through a thick wad of paper slips, each containing a customer’s search request
Tapping into a long list of suppliers to find those rare items is a service Neilson has prided himself on since he opened the doors to the Steveston shop.
That was back in 2005, when he left his job with Telus’ high speed Internet division in north Burnaby to expand on his hobby of selling records and CDs on Ebay.
“I started small and grew slowly. People started coming in and the store’s reputation grew,” he said.
Part of the attraction was the commitment to stock vinyl records from day one.
Today, the shop’s inventory of music remains evenly split between records and CDs.
“There’s a warmth and depth in vinyl records that you just don’t get from CDs,” Neilson said. “What you get, quality-wise, from an iPod is the same as a transistor radio.
“No, you can’t beat vinyl for that depth of sound.”
One notable person who shared that love was film star Matt Dillon who spent a good hour in Neilson’s shop a few years back, combing through the racks.
“He came in with his girlfriend, who was from the Vancouver area, looking for some 78s (small records that were played at 78 revolutions per minute),” Neilson said. “And I made him a cup of tea and we chatted for about an hour.”
It’s not that much different for just about all who enter the Beatmerchant.
Some wander into scan the music selection, magazines and tea mugs.
Others visit to make sure Neilson is caught up with the latest plot line in a British TV serial making the rounds on the local PBS station.
“It’s those kind of customers who come in just to chat that makes this such a great business,” Neilson said. “I’m a people person, first and foremost.”
That side of Neilson’s character prompted him to get involved in the local music scene — or lack of one in Steveston during the summer months.
Eight years ago he launched the Music at the Cannery series that features live performances on the wooden deck of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery at the foot of Fourth Ave.
Attendance has grown steadily over the years to the point that sell outs at the 160 capacity venue have become a regular occurence.
“It’s something that I wanted to do to develop local music,” said Neilson who searches out and books the talent. “Those younger musicians, they need a place to play in the same way those icons like B.B. King did back in their day.”