The world of media consumption is a very different place than it was when the Princeton Record Exchange opened up its doors in 1980.

That's two years before the first commercial compact disc was released, and right around the time VHS was coming into its own. In the time since, we've seen music sales swell and fade. We've seen DVDs become the hot new thing ... and then start to feel downright obsolete in the age of HD (and now 4K). We saw streaming become the defacto standard way of hearing new music (much to artists' chagrin). We all bought Rokus and Apple TVs and Fire Sticks and Chromecasts ... and there's probably something coming to replace those any day now.

A customer browses the bins at Princeton Record Exchange. (Courtesy of Lambert)

Some of us (we're looking at you, Craig Allen), bought LaserDisc players along the way.

But through all of that, the vinyl record never quite went away. Enthusiasts will rave about its warm tones, about the satisfying, tactile experience of putting the needle on the record. No music app can show cover art in quite the glory record packaging does.

Maybe that's why the Princeton Record Exchange (which sells used DVDs and CDs, in addition to records) is still thriving — because its staff and ownership know some things, like attentive customer service and the community that builds around art, are as timeless as music itself.

We asked owner Jon Lambert about what keeps his business, and his passion for records, going.

You've always got a pretty good crowd coming in for analog, physical records in a digital, streaming world. What's bringing so many people in the door?

We are indeed a busy store averaging around 600 folks on weekdays and around double that on Saturdays and Sundays. We think that even in this digital age, there is a large percentage of people who crave physical, tactile, sensorial experiences. People who like to touch, smell, hold things in their hands, to be immersed in an environment. You can look at a picture of the ocean, and that’s nice, or you can dive in, and that’s exhilarating!

For many years now we have placed an emphasis on making our store a satisfying and fun place to hang out in, and our loyal customers seem to think we do a good job. I feel a need here for a special shout-out to the staff who really embrace working in such a unique store. They are friendly, welcoming and helpful.

How do you keep a niche business competitive in an age where you can order pretty much anything online?

Our three main strengths are our extensive, ever-changing selection of LPs, CDs and DVDs, our strict quality control, and our low prices.

Princeton Record Exchange is at 20 South Tulane Street in Princeton (Courtesy of Jon Lambert)

We have thousands of titles that are not readily available online: many out-of-print titles, difficult to find original pressings, records that were never put out on CD, imports that were never domestically produced, and more. We typically buy and sell 30,000 or so titles every month and put out fresh stock every day.

We condition-check all our titles before they hit the stacks and we guarantee all our stock against defect. When you are buying used items online (and around 75% of our product is used), you never know what you’ll get.

Because we process such a huge volume of product (the bulk of which we buy from customers who sell us their unwanted music and movies), we price our titles to move! We have thousands of CDs, LPs and DVDs from $1.00 to $5.00, and collectors will find that our higher-priced items are almost always cheaper than online sites.

Describe the perfect record-listening experience.

I am sure it’s different for everyone, and that’s how it should be. We all, staff and customers, share a passion for music, but what kind of music we like and how we listen to it varies dramatically from person to person. For me, personally, I’m sitting on my couch with my wife on one side, my cats on the other, a nice glass of red wine in my hand, with some Coltrane spinning on the turntable!

What's your favorite sort of record-buying customer. The music veteran who's been collecting for decades? The teen discovering vinyl for the first time? Someone else?

Yes, yes, and yes! One of things I like best about our store is the huge range of customers we have, from second-generation shopping teens to octogenarians. My favorite sort of customer is one who loves music and movies with the same zeal that we do!

How'd you get together the money to open up a business of your own?

Sorry, the details of the sale are confidential.

What do you wish you knew then about running a business that you knew then?

As a little background, I have worked in retail for 35 years (30 in management), have been at this store for over 25, and was the general manager for the last 12 before I bought it a year ago. The founder and former owner was very gracious in giving me an essentially free hand, so that I was very familiar with most aspects of our operations. My first goal after I took over was to make sure we kept the same high standards that we have had since 1980. Along with my usual duties, this last year I have been busy learning some of the more technical financial areas: payroll taxes, workman’s compensation insurance, 401(K) distribution laws, etc. Looking back, I wish I had taken a few business accounting classes!

Your business captures one of the best things about how we all listened to music in the past. What's in store for the Princeton Record Exchange's own future?

Well ... guessing the future of any retail store, let alone a record store in the 2000’s is pretty tough. However, with the upsurge in vinyl sales, the steady stream of accolades (USA Today named us one of “10 great record stores in the U.S.” just last Friday), and a gratifying increase of teens and twenty-somethings shopping, I’m feeling pretty positive we’ll continue rocking strong. As long as people love shopping for music, we’ll be here to satisfy!

Princeton Record Exchange
20 South Tulane Street, Princeton, NJ | (609)921-0881

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