How a world of downloads killed Real Groovy

22:53, Apr 29 2011
Mark Thomas
MONEY'S TOO TIGHT TO MENTION: Real Groovy Wellington owner Mark Thomas.

In the corner, a hippie thumbs through the bargain bin. Over by the counter a mother with baby wanders towards the cassettes. A young man in a hoodie, headphones around his neck, flicks through electronica. Boffins look through the latest – and the old – in blues, techno, house, folk. The list goes on.

Real Groovy is as busy as any shop in Cuba St this weekday afternoon. The closing-down sale signs out the front may explain why.

Inside a backroom office, Mark Thomas, 37, is probably the biggest music lover in the place. He is thumbing through correspondence from his landlord.

On May 31, Real Groovy Wellington will shut its doors for the last time. The recession, big chains selling at cut prices, and the download revolution have all taken their toll on the independent store.

It will be the end of an era for Wellington's music lovers, but the end of a dream for Mr Thomas, the Whakatane-born, Waikato-bred owner of Real Groovy Wellington since 2008. Mr Thomas managed the shop since it opened in 1999, and mortgaged his house to buy the business after its parent company went into receivership.

He hopes to open a smaller record store if he can. But right now he is focused on shutting down Real Groovy and keeping hold of his house, which he shares with his wife and three kids.


Wellington musician Darren Watson, who was one of the first to work in Real Groovy Wellington back in the late 1990s, says he is "gutted for Mark because he has put his heart and soul into it". Mr Watson lasted only a matter of months behind the counter, but has remained a good mate of his former boss. He reckons Mr Thomas bought the store in 2008 with his "eyes open".

"He knew he was not going to become a millionaire."

He hopes his friend will weather this storm and open another independent record store.

He says Mr Thomas has a keen sense of how to make a record business work. To make up for the gaps in his own music knowledge, Mr Thomas has employed staff covering the gamut of musical genres, Mr Watson says. "I would say he's pretty stuck in his ways, old Mark. That's why he has really interesting staff. All the people fill a gap in others' musical knowledge."

Dominion Post music reviewer Simon Sweetman says the loss of Real Groovy will be a "real blow" for Wellington. It is a place where the music nerds – the "total anoraks" – can spend a Saturday afternoon. For Sweetman, those afternoons can last up to three hours as he flicks through albums, looking for new treasures but also checking that the store has the stuff he already owns.

That "old record store" culture is something that will soon exist only further down Cuba St at Slow Boat Records, he says.

When revealed on April 1 that the store was going to close, many thought it was an April Fool joke. But once reality set in, there was an air of the inevitable from comments.

"Not entirely surprising," one person wrote. "I have not bought a physical CD or DVD in at least four years."

EVEN as a child, music was in Mark Thomas's veins. "I remember playing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da over and over on my parents' stereo. One of the first things I remember is using knitting needles on bowls to play the drums," he says. Later he bought a drum kit and joined a series of bands, most recently Wellington band Strange Brew.

His first break into the music retail business came in the early 1990s with a job at a Te Awamutu music store. When The Warehouse opened in town, he got a job at the music counter.

"That directly led to me being able to run my own shop," he says – though there were a few stepping stones along the way, including a stint at Sounds in Hamilton.

There he met Brett Wagner – who would eventually go on to work at Real Groovy in Wellington. "I went up to him with a CD and I said: `Where does this one go?' He said: `That's in the acid jazz section.' I said: `What the hell is acid jazz? – never heard of it.' So we always joke about that."

In 1996 Mr Thomas moved to Auckland, getting a job at Real Groovy's flagship – and at that stage only – store.

"It was a massive jump in so many different ways. I remember my first day there seeing the piles and piles of things that needed to be processed and I thought, `My God, what have I got into?'

"I had come from the Waikato where heavy rock and heavy metal was what you played in the shop, and here's someone putting on Daft Punk which had just come out ... I had never heard of it be

fore, and it opened my mind up to so many different types of music. And just the way the industry worked in a big city like that."

After a year in London, he returned to the Queen St store, not long before the Cuba St one opened. Drawn by the excitement of opening a new shop, he and wife Kim moved to Wellington.

"I've been here ever since. When I first walked in it was just carpet, they were building the counters and all that. We really built it up literally from nothing."

That was in 1999 – a "boom time" in the music industry, with people still changing from vinyl to CD, few internet downloads, and the arrival of DVDs. "There was lots of money to be made at that time, up to the 2000s really."

Throughout, Mr Thomas had a dream of owning his own record store and had even talked to Real Groovy's owners about buying the Wellington shop. Then, in late 2008, the Real Groovy chain went into receivership, and he was offered the option to buy the store.

"I thought, OK, I'll crunch some numbers and see if it's possible. And then, talking to accountants and talking to lawyers and advisers, on paper at the time it looked like it was a financially sound thing to do.

"I wanted to be able to save the shop and to save people's jobs, to keep it here for customers and to continue what I was doing."

Mortgaging the family house he shared with Kim and children Rohan, 9, Jackson, 7, and Isabel, 4, he bought the store. The day he took ownership in October 2008 started with a hiss and a roar, with bottles of wine being cracked open in the store. "It was a real celebration that day," he says. In fact, he rates it as a highlight of his years there.

There have been plenty of others – Trinity Roots playing live in the store, Fat Freddy's Drop serving up free paua wontons outside, and the midnight launch of the DVD for The Lord of the Rings.

"[The store] had its ups and downs. I have really enjoyed it. I have learnt a hell of a lot, probably a lot more than I would have if I had tried to study owning a business somewhere."

Suddenly he had to deal with things like PAYE and GST, but more ominously there were those things harder to see that converged on him almost from the day he took over. Internet downloads took off, online retailers and auction sites took off, big chains drove down prices, and the recession hit.

Real Groovy struggled from the day he took over but, in the past six months, it got "harder and harder". He held out through Christmas, then January, hoping for things to improve. "It hasn't: it's just got harder."

There has been a lot of talk, from Mr Thomas and others, about opening another music store, but he says his first priority is making sure he keeps his home. "If that happens, then we might miraculously come out with any money, then the dream would be to open a much smaller shop.

"At the moment it's just a matter of concentrating on seeing what we get out of here."

One thing is certain. No matter what he does from here, music will be involved in some form. "I think I'll always play the drums."

The Dominion Post