Indie retailers find new ways to survive the holidays.

Indie retailers may not be jumping for holiday joy this season, but there's plenty keeping them busy. From continuing to diversify beyond music to include everything from bagels to vintage clothing, indie stores are finding ways to survive as the industry declines and the CD endures a slow death

First the numbers. Overall U.S. album sales are down about 5% compared with the same period last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Most indie retailers contacted by Billboard report a similar dip, although a random sampling found more than one experiencing a slight increase (Sea Level Records in Los Angeles and Horizon Records in Greenville, S.C., among them).

On a whole, however, sales at indie stores are trending down about 21%, according to Nielsen SoundScan. To be fair, the number is inflated due to store closures, and not reflective of what's happening saleswise at the nation's top stores from Amoeba Records in Los Angeles to Criminal in Atlanta.

Yet with the exception of a three-disc set from Tom Waits on Anti-/Epitaph, "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards," due Nov. 21, few releases this holiday season are eliciting much excitement at the indie retail level. A recent industry e-mail from Alliance of Independent Media Stores head Eric Levin was telling, as it outlined many initiatives to drive traffic, including music lessons and vinyl-to-MP3 conversion services, without much talk of any new music.

CD sales are "pretty even," Levin says, but overall sales are up, in no large part to Criminal's recent expansion into the coffee business (Billboard, Nov. 26, 2005). Levin says, "Do you want to know the breakdown of pastries versus bagels? The concerns of the music industry are not so much the concerns of Criminal Records."

Indeed, over at Horizon Records owner Gene Berger says sales are up due to the traffic inspired by his co-tenants, the 85-seat restaurant the Bohemian. Also increasing visibility for the store is the fact that in-stores are broadcast live on local public station WNCW. But like Twist & Shout in Denver (Billboard, Aug. 26), Berger's decision was motivated by real estate rather than records.

"I decided I would only make the move three years ago to own the real estate, and the real estate would be valuable with or without Horizon," Berger says. "So if the technology moved real fast and we were just out of luck, I could flip or lease the real estate."

Sea Level's Todd Clifford has increased revenue by selling guitar strings and other musician needs, and Homer's in Omaha, Neb., has teamed with local Toyota dealers, who offer Homer's gift cards to those who test drive a Scion. Store manager Erik Ziegler also notes that Homer's is stocking more used, vintage clothing.

But don't think indies are jumping at the chance to take on deeper catalog offerings in the wake of Tower's closing. With sales of digital albums more than doubling, up from 12 million at this time last year to 26 million now, indie stores are not exactly salivating at the thought of setting aside more store space to a fading format. Levin says he's hit up daily from labels about expanding his CD offerings.

"With all due respect to a company that faded, any of the pitches I get from people I just put in the junk-mail folder," he says. "Labels are saying, 'Well, now you have this chance for all this classical.' Yeah, now I have an extra $100,000 and all this square feet. My job is keeping this place exciting and keeping the insurance people paid."

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