by Mark Van Streefkerk
Like many other cafes, Columbia City’s Empire Roasters and Records had to make some changes in order to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. While some coffee shops expanded their offerings to include grocery items or wines during lockdown, Empire went a different direction. Owner Ian Peters repurposed the cafe’s upstairs seating area into a record shop, which opened last November. Adding a record store to a cafe might have been an unconventional choice, but based on the positive community response, Columbia City’s only record store is here to stay.
“We would have never come up with this idea had it not been for the pandemic,” Peters said.
The record shop upstairs is about 600 square feet, home to almost 2,000 new records, and growing. The shop also has a selection of music-related books, including most of the 33 ⅓ series, a book series about acclaimed albums. Vinyl collectors in Columbia City used to have to trek to Georgetown Records or Silver Platters in SoDo, but now those buyers are heading to Empire.
“There’s a lot of record collectors in the neighborhood, and I even had quite a few people that didn’t have a record player that saw it as an excuse to get a record player,” Peters said.
As a record collector himself, Peters learned to buy not only for his own tastes, but for the collectors of Columbia City. “It’s fun to do the research and see what people in my neighborhood are into,” Peters said. The shop’s best-selling artists are Prince, David Bowie, Kendrick Lamar, and A Tribe Called Quest. Peters makes sure those artists are always in stock, along with an expansive collection of hip-hop, rock, pop, jazz, classical, and so much more. If there’s something a guest wants that’s not in the bins, he does his best to track it down and order it.
When Washington entered lockdown last March, Peters made the difficult decision to furlough his staff so they could collect unemployment, while he alone operated the cafe for the first month of quarantine. Empire has a full menu of specialty coffee drinks and at one point had a variety of sandwich options made with housemade pesto and hummus. Peters kept the same drink offerings, but pared the menu down to something more manageable: pastries from Macrina Bakery and Empire’s popular homemade waffles — including gluten free and vegan options — as well as in-house-made chia pudding. Another popular staple is Empire’s cashew milk, also made in-house.
Since indoor seating was impossible due to COVID-19 protocols, all cafe drinks and food were takeout only, and Peters started brainstorming what to do with the underutilized space upstairs. One of his first ideas was to open a bookstore, but he quickly realized he was much more knowledgeable about music.
Peters’ father was a music professor and his uncle was a record collector. In fact, Peters inherited over a thousand of his uncle’s mostly jazz and classical records that might make their way into the record store at a later date. He also played in bands from his late teens until becoming a parent. Family life, as well as operating a business, have taken over his free time since, but even if he’s unable to play music at the moment, “at least I’m surrounded by music,” he said. “Music’s always been a part of my life. I’m always thinking about it.”
Last summer, Peters started growing the record collection for the store, buying from four different music distributors to compile around 1,000 titles before opening. Until recently, only two masked customers could peruse the collection at a time. Now that COVID-19 restrictions are lifting, four masked customers can browse the record store at a time.
Peters has also rehired six employees. Cafe drinks and food are still takeout only, but Empire has some outdoor seating available. Peters is now considering expanding the record shop to the first floor, making it even easier for customers to pick up the latest record release along with a cashew milk latte.
“I appreciate everybody supporting us this last year,” Peters said. “I couldn’t have made it without the neighborhood support. It was really huge in April when I was working by myself and didn’t know whether [the business] was going to survive or not. People came out and it was really great to see.”
What started as an additional source of revenue during the pandemic has turned into a different business entirely than the one Peters started nearly 12 years ago — and overall, he’s pleased.
“[The pandemic] basically turned our business into something else. We used to be a busy cafe with a bunch of indoor seating. Now we’re not quite as busy, but we sell records and that’s what we’re going to be known for,” he said.
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