Duncan Browne, director of field operations and business administration of the 28-unit Newbury Comics chain, has a long career in the music industry, which began when he and a friend opened a record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1970s. He soon moved to Los Angeles to work with the Wherehouse chain where he eventually became the head buyer, followed by jobs with several one-stops and indie distributors in California. In 1980, he returned to Massachusetts to become GM of Rounder Records, where he helped start and worked with two joint-venture indie distribution companies, REP and DNA. He joined Newbury Comics in 1998 as senior vp.
As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Browne each week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis.
Since COVID-19 first hit the U.S. how has Newbury Comics reacted as the situation evolved?
That depends on who perceived when it hit. Somewhere around March 12 [when the professional sports leagues suspended their seasons] I began canvassing our stores and the general vibe was they wanted to stay open and get paychecks. Some were adamant that we stay open. But as news began to mount in the days after March 12, we at the home office began to discuss where is the line between serving our customers versus taking care of our employees.
By the beginning of the next week, when I canvassed the stores again, in just a few days, things had turned quickly. During those few days, other stores around our stores had closed and people were telling our store employees that they were insane to stay open and our business was dropping every day.
I talked to you on March 13, when you said you were in the assessment phase.
It was scary and weird how fast it turned. At the home office, we were already worried that we were at the point of putting our employees in jeopardy, while each day business was dropping so that by the time I next canvassed the stores on Monday, March 16, business had dropped to the point we were now down 50%, and all of a sudden the store staff were telling us they wanted to close. So, on Tuesday [March 17], we told the stores we were going to close and that Wednesday [March 18] was the last day the stores were open. We kept our warehouse open for a few more days with a volunteer staff of maybe 30-40% of the workers to get ready for shutting down the operation. The last day for the warehouse was March 20 and its been closed since.
Didn’t you do online sales?
No, we closed down our online store too but we have been selling through our Amazon Marketplace stores with Amazon doing fulfillment.
What is the senior staff doing?
The management committee are working on a limited basis through conference calls as we work through the issues of dealing with this pandemic. The first issue was, what are we going to do to take care of our employees? We furloughed everybody and gave them almost three weeks of pay with the hope that would hold the staff until they started collecting unemployment. We have so far extended them two months of health insurance coverage.
Have you talked to any of the furloughed Newbury staff? Do you know if they managed to get on unemployment from these overwhelmed government agencies?
Massachusetts’ unemployment agency seems to have its shit together and so does Rhode Island and New York; they have sent out checks already; but not Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire. I have heard that our people have been able to register and have received acknowledgement from those other states but they haven’t gotten checks yet.
What about creditors?
Then we moved to how are we going to take care of our company. We began by reaching out to everybody we owe money to, to discuss how are we going to deal with this situation since we are a company that now has practically no cash flow. First we went to our landlords to talk about our lease terms and put our asks out to them. But the big mall owners are likely having these discussions with all of their tenants right now so we expect we will hear back some ideas on how to proceed from them.
What about suppliers?
We did the same thing with our vendors. We owe money to all of them [due to the dating they provide with purchases] so we began discussing terms with them. We think we will be in good shape there. This is a company that is 43 years old and it has never been late with a payment during all that time, let alone miss one. So here’s where we stand; we have a good relationship with vendors; we are liquid with cash in the bank; and we have a really good balance sheet with no debt. We recognize that some of our smaller vendors have to deal with these unprecedented times so we have paid something of what we owed, but not 100%, to all of our vendors. Our intent is to keep our company healthy and to continue to have a positive relationship with our vendors by coming to mutually agreed upon terms. We want our vendors to be healthy too, so we need to be sensitive to what they are going through.
Have you taken advantage of any of the offered government programs in response to the economic shutdown?
So those are the phases we have gone through, how to take care of our employees; then our landlords and venders; and now, if the government refinances these programs, which one, if any of the government programs, makes sense for us. We are asking: What works for the situation we are in and how will this evolve. The future is unwritten, as Joe Strummer would say.
What are you working on next?
We are starting to ask what’s it going to look like when we open back up. Our anticipation is that we won’t get back to 100% of our sales for a good while so how much business will we be down in the beginning and how should we handle it. Based on that, how many staffers should we bring back when we open and what happens if some staff have moved on to new jobs or moved away, so we will first need to find what staff is still available. We think the warehouse will be allowed to open first so we went out and bought those thermometers so we can take employee temperatures and we have also obtained a lot of medical masks. Our thinking is we will be able open the warehouse if we practice safe social distancing and take other precautions.
So this whole pandemic has been quite a curveball thrown at your business. Once it began what other unanticipated smaller curveballs came at Newbury Comics?
I still thank our staffer, who at one of our regular meetings, about two weeks before the shit hit the fan, said, “We should probably start thinking about this coronavirus thing.” But even though we began a dialogue then, we couldn’t anticipate everything that was going to come at us. Each time we were talking about anticipating what could happen next, all of a sudden, you are confronted with one “whoa” moment after another — and that kept happening! This whole experience has been a whopper of a curveball. There were so many curveballs, it was like there was a pitching machine with 17 arms, all throwing pitches at the same time.