It’s taken a while, but after almost 10 months of silence, Tony Lopez and Nathan Andrews are again cranking up the Volume in downtown Hillsborough, although they’re not yet able to go from level 10 to 11 just yet.
The owners of Volume, a combination record, bar, and hangout on Churton Street, are offering appointment-only business hours. It’s a decision months in the making for the owners, who kept the lights off and the doors locked long after many other local businesses reopened in one form or another.
Co-owner Tony Lopez said he had several reasons for holding off on putting his business back on the turntable. “I just felt that I wanted to kind of figure things out. I did some research on what was going on and how it (COVID) was contracted. I was a little fearful honestly, and I just wanted to see what other people were doing and how people were handling it. So I didn't rush to do anything. I just just held on. I didn't sell any records online, so we still have all the great records. But I just kind of took some time off. I've worked so much and have worked here every minute the store has been open for three years. I treated it as a well-needed break. But my business partner and I talked about different things over time and just we just didn't want to rush into anything,” he said.
Lopez said he’s been a collector of records for much of his life and is passionate about music. For six years, he was a deejay for a college radio station at Duke University, and also became immersed in live music.
“The Triangle was great for live music in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Lopez said. “I was all in, and amassed this huge collection of records through being a deejay and then just thrifting and buying people's collections. I had no intentions of selling anything.”
Lopez had taken an interest in the bar scene, working in them since 1997. Then an idea struck him to do create a place where people could browse records, listen to great music, hang out and drink beer. He and Andrews refined the plan and decided Hillsborough would be the right location for Volume.
The building on Churton Street was available and Lopez and Andrews thought it was perfect for their business. It has become one of the town’s most-recognized and Instagrammed spots because of the giant mural on the side, honoring legendary jazz musician Billy Strayhorn.
“That was our idea,” Lopez said. “The Hillsborough Arts Council helped us along with that. The first day we looked at the building, when the landlord's let us in, we were blown away by the ceiling and the floors. I'm like, ‘we could do a mural on the side.’ The owners also own the Margaret Lane Gallery and they have a son who plays in a band in Philadelphia, so they were into the idea, too. We knew about Billy Strayhorn and his time in Hillsborough.”
Volume was a nearly an instant success. Business had steadily grown. In January 2020, prior to the pandemic, the small business had its busiest month, which is unusual for bars and retail businesses heading into colder days.
“A lot of people got turntables for Christmas,” Lopez said. “We were rocking. February was great and March was taking off. We had established ourselves here and we had a lot of regulars. Business was booming.”
During the months it was closed, Lopez said he and Andrews were never pressured to reopen by regular customers. They received messages and emails, but people were understanding. For a couple of those months, Lopez said he didn’t set foot in the building, deciding to stay away completely. When he returned, he began planning how the space could be arranged to fit within the confines of being open during a pandemic. They also had the floors redone.
“I just sat and looked around for a long time just trying to reconfigure things,” Lopez said. “I took out some of the furniture. The space is so small. That's where we are with this. The flow just won't work for us right now. That's why we're doing an appointment-only.”
Volume’s owners made the decision to open its doors to get the revenue rolling again. But that wasn’t the only reason.
“I needed to start, you know, ringing a cash register a little bit, and I also felt we needed to give back to people who had bought gift cards from us. They had been holding on to gift cards for months,” Lopez said. “I wanted to give them something to use them on. If they were record people, there's all kinds of fantastic new records in here; if they're beer people, have a beer to go. We’re not doing any drafts at the moment. But we wanted people to come in, cash in their gift card and have something for it. They were nice enough to support us through buying those gift cards when we were closed.”
Customers can make an appointment by going to Volume’s website and selecting an available 30-minute time slot. For that half hour, the store essentially belongs to you and up to three close friends or family members. Masks are required and hand sanitizer stations are set up throughout the shop. The owners sanitize the store between appointments.
The response has been very positive. “We fill up every day we do it, and mainly on the weekends,” Lopez said. “You have run the place for half an hour, and I'll play whatever you want. If there are records you want to hear from the floor, we'll play them, answer any questions. We have a little questionnaire when you sign up, and if you tell me what you're interested in, what kind of music or specific records, I can go ahead and put them out. I just kind of hang out the whole time behind the bar, and just let people have at it. We keep the doors open for better circulation and we’ve got an air purifier.”
Lopez added that this method of personal attention in music stores is not unusual in other countries. “You sit down, you get comfortable they bring you a tea. They play records for you, and then you decide if you like them or not. It's kind of like that here now and it was a little bit like that before. Once I get to know you and what you like, I'm putting things on while you're sitting there. And if I get to know what you like, then I can alert you when things come in that you're interested in and keep it going like that.”
For many people coping with the restrictions and stress involved with COVID-19, music has provided a means of escape. Lopez is no different in turning to music to help with getting through the last few months.
“The great part about having a record store is people will sell you their collection, and the discovery of new music that I've never heard from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, any time period, it's just fantastic,” he said. “If it's a 45 that I clean up and play it and I'm like, man, how have I lived this long and I've never known this this music? I acquired a huge collection from a gentleman during the pandemic. He just needed his storage unit cleared out. I got 6,000 records from him and I'm still working through that and discovering new things every time I dig into it. You know it's all coming to the store, it's all going on the floor. But I'm taking my time to listen to this stuff before I put it out. It's always been about the discovery for me.”
You can schedule a 30-minute appointment to browse records at Volume by going to www.volumehillsborough.com. You can also schedule a 15-minute slot to purchase beer.