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The Last Record Store’s co-owner will retire as shop rebrands

It’s closing time for Michael “Hoyt” Wilhelm, his 38-year journey down the long and winding road of running The Last Record Store about to end as customers pick through the fruits of his labor.

Wilhelm is retiring in May from the business he opened downtown on Jan. 15, 1983, with his longtime friend, Doug Jayne. Back in those days, physical LPs and cassettes were the dominant music format and the compact disc was only beginning to emerge.

The intervening years brought massive technology changes and innovations such as Napster, iTunes and Spotify that wiped out most physical media sales. But The Last Record Store still stands as a beloved musical mecca for curious Gen Z shoppers to the most hard-core vinylphiles who could easily unpack the references in the first paragraph of this story to lyrics from Semisonic, the Beatles and Lucinda Williams, or even come up with their own.

As part of the transition, Jayne and Wilhelm will close the business, which moved to Mendocino Avenue north of the Junior College in 2003. Jayne and longtime store manager Gerry Stumbaugh will reopen a new store called The Next Record Store at the current location. In the meantime, The Last Record Store is clearing out all of its inventory — new full-length CDs and LPs are $5 off their sticker prices and the store will officially close when the record stacks are bare.

“It’s just like one door closes, another opens,” Wilhelm said.

The store announced on its Instagram page a week ago that it was closing with a picture of a commemorative T-shirt available (“The Last Record Store 1983-2021”). Fans were naturally alarmed until they read later in the post that a new store would replace it.

“Jesus Christ, you almost gave me a heart attack there,” one commentator wrote.

The store plays an integral role in the North Bay for music lovers, noted Bill Bowker, the longtime DJ at KRSH radio station. Many of his listeners go to the store to buy what Bowker and his fellow DJs play on the radio. “I don’t think a store like that should go away, and I’m glad that it isn’t,” Bowker said. “It’s such a part of the community.”

Wilhelm, 62, summed up the reason for his retirement as succinctly as a Delta blues lyric.

“You gotta leave when you still can walk,” he said.

He ventured up to Santa Rosa after graduating from UC Santa Cruz and deciding that he didn’t want to become a teacher when he could be in the record store all day and listen to music.

There was no “School of Rock” for him, but Wilhelm also didn’t fit into the stereotype of a record store owner as portrayed both in the book and movie “High Fidelity.”

“It kind of made me cringe for the disdain they had for their customers,” Wilhelm said of the Nick Hornby book, as he loves talking music with his clientele.

With the influx of digital music, sales eroded over the years but there has been an recent uptick with fans of all ages rediscovering records, which now can cost more than $50 and are often pressed in limited editions on thicker, sturdier vinyl marketed to audiophiles. Those sales have been helped along by events such as Record Store Day, where artists annually release special albums only available at independent record stores.

As a result, 27.5 million LPs were sold in the United States in 2020, which was almost a 50% increase from the previous year, according to Statista, a market data company.

Yet there was a downturn as a result of the pandemic with store closures and limits on customers when it was able to reopen. Wilhelm noted last year that shelter-in-place protocols were turning into “starvation in place“ as his customers didn’t want to buy online and wanted to comb through the stacks.

Running a small business takes a physical toll, he conceded, and Wilhelm will soon have more time with his family. “You’re on your feet 10 hours a day; it's 50 hours a week. I haven't had more than eight days off in a row in 38 years. It’s time,” Wilhelm said. “All the people I talked to said always leave your job when you still like it.”

Wilhelm said he hasn’t decided on the final song that he will play on his last day at The Last Record Store. Though he said he has likely ruled out "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" by Neil Young.

Delving into the lyrics like a devoted music aficionado, Wilhem said he could never figure out the song with the classic line that “it's better to burn out than to fade away” amid the scorching guitar licks.

“I always thought burn out and fade away was kind of the same thing,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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