Papa Jazz still a hit in Five Points
In a brick storefront off Greene Street, Tim Smith sat in a backroom with one chair, a computer and boxes of CDs on shelves made of wood slats and cinder blocks. An uneven set of stairs, one made mostly of duct tape, led to this modest office.
The L shaped room, which is about 20 feet long and 7 feet wide, used to be the entirety of Papa Jazz Record Shoppe, the venerable Five Points record store known for its crate digging, odd-ball compact disc-finding potential and a place where some music junkies have visited for decades. This week, the store entered its fourth decade of buying and selling recorded music.
The wall of mostly used CDs behind Smith was stacked with vinyl records when the store opened in 1980 — records that USC students or a young teenager browsed to find their Friday night soundtrack or change their perspective on music and maybe life. The store also had a few eight-track tapes that cost a quarter.
“And seldom sold them,” Smith said about the eight tracks.
Now, the wall holds the merchandise that’s sold online while an adjacent space displays music for people to dig their fingers into. The two spaces are connected by a hammer job of an entry way and that duct tape step.
The wall of online-listed CDs is just one of the ways Papa Jazz has changed to stay the same reliable shop of sounds in its 40 years.
“You have to adapt,” Smith, 59, said. “When I was a kid, I remember my grandparents not having any indoor plumbing. ... The world changes all the time.”
Birth of the Papa Jazz
Smith found his passion for music when he dropped a needle on records by Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Isaac Hayes. Picking up the drums around his high school years, he discovered jazz drumming through John Coltrane’s records.
“That opened up a lot more to me,” Smith said. “That was it for me. The way they used the drums in jazz … don’t play less, play more.”
He went to the University of South Carolina and halfway through he still hadn’t declared a major. That’s about the time Papa Jazz opened up on North Main Street, moving within months to Five Points. Smith saw the chance to make his love of music into a career. He got a job at the record shop in its first year.
The shop quickly outgrew its confines in the strip along Greene Street on the block past Five Points’ fountain, and the owner purchased the storefront next door, busting a hole in the wall to stock up the space that’s been the recorded music haven for 40 years.
About two years later, another purchase changed the store. Smith, along with a partner, bought Papa Jazz for $20,000.
The new owner made another change that kept the store relevant.
In the early years, Papa Jazz had competition from about seven other record stores within a mile or so, Smith said. Customers would come in and ask for the newest record by a certain artist. Since Papa Jazz was a used record store, it wouldn’t have what a lot of customers were asking for, and they left to go find their record elsewhere. So, Smith started stocking the latest releases. The move was a simple, logical change that made the store competitive.
“I was going to have the new Bruce Springsteen or new Madonna, whoever was hot at the time,” Smith said. “But I was going to have folk stuff, old blues stuff, Lightning Hopkins’ stuff, old jazz stuff and ... those things that I thought I could do better than other” stores.
Small shifts in the way Papa Jazz did business has kept it going ever since. The development of CDs in the 1990s gave Smith some dread for his vinyl-based shop, but he embraced the format when other store owners refused.
When the internet came around, some shopkeepers thought the new online markets were the enemy. Smith made the web his friend and listed his goods. Again, he came into a new record selling landscape shining.
But an irony of remolding the record store was that Papa Jazz remained embedded in selling vinyl records. More than half of the business comes from groove cut wax. Instead of tapes making up the rest of revenue like in the 1980s, CDs fill it even as Columbia approaches 2020.
“Classic rock and classic R&B has always sold,” Smith said. “The idea is, if you can’t sell Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits, then you’re going out of business. It’s over.”
Beyond “the catalog” of perennial movers, the constant in Papa Jazz up to the present day is having people behind the counter who love music and know its history to the same degree as Smith.
“Just having a thousand jazz records or artists doesn’t mean anything if your staff haven’t heard any of them,” he said.
The shape of Papa Jazz to come
Thursday afternoon, Woody Jones, a store manager, crouched over boxes of LPs, cassette tapes and two Star Wars books on tape someone wanted to sell. About 10 customers lurched over rows of CDs and vinyl, shifting through the three aisles of the store, making the compact shop with its sticker and poster clad walls feel close to full.
The staff knows a little about every genre and most artists, and what they don’t know they can find out, Jones said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a record store where you get the service and the care you get here. ... I think people really value our opinions,” he said, joking “whether they should or not.”
One of those customers Thursday was Allen Roberson. Thumbing over CDs, he held discs of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne. Roberson said he doesn’t golf or ski; his hobby is coming to Papa Jazz.
“The personnel’s really good here,” and the staff have heard most everything and can help customers learn about music, Roberson said.
One of those staffers, Bethany Culclasure, thought she knew a lot about music when she started working at the store in 2012 while attending high school. Before working at the store, she was a regular.
“You really think you know everything. Then once you step in here you just don’t know anything,” Culclasure said.
The job’s been more than a way to earn money: it’s an ongoing class for a subject she’s passionate about.
“I listen to things I wouldn’t have found otherwise without this place,” she said. “Hopefully what this place has given its employees we can also give to other people.”
Papa Jazz has also given scores of broke, local musicians a job and stocked albums by those bands and artists. A recent endeavor brings bands into the shop to play a couple songs for online videos known as Papa Jazz Sessions.
“It really does feel like a community,” Jones said. “That’s really helped our staying power.”
Some customers have been loyal since the shop’s early days. Roberson called the place his go-to record store since around 1980. Smith remembered his first day working in the store, before he owned it, and a fellow came in looking for classical records.
“He comes in every Saturday” still, Smith said.
As much as the business has evolved, Smith’s job is still getting music to people who love it. The days of working 75 hours a week and cleaning CDs until midnight are gone. But the philosophy that’s kept him in business into a fourth decade remains — a philosophy that’s tied with the jazz that enamored him with music decades ago. You have to improvise.
“I’ve always thought you need a plan and you also need to be flexible,” Smith said. “If things go awry, you have to figure something else out. You can’t be rigid in your thinking.”
Papa Jazz Record Shoppe is celebrating its fourth decade in business on Saturday, July 20 with an event that will feature a DJ set from Preach Jacobs, four special limited-edition t-shirts on sale and a 20 percent off store-wide sale.