It's a hot, humid afternoon in late July and the air-conditioned Applause record store in St. Paul is a refuge from the heat. To the accompaniment of a 20th-century English oboe concerto, a few customers flip through the classical CD racks. Hamline University law professor Bill Martin is looking the latest CD by mezzo-soprano Monica Groop.
"I do enjoy just browsing in the store," he says. "I like listening to all the clicking of plastic CD cases around me and finding what's in the store and taking it home with me."
Martin estimates that he buys one or two CDs a week and often stops by Applause to check out new classical releases. He doesn't download songs via the internet or purchase CDs from online retailers.
Applause is the largest independent retailer of classical music CDs in the Twin Cities. With national chains like Tower going out of business and superstores like Best Buy cutting back on classical shelf space, stores like Applause may actually be faced with an opportunity. Billboard and Gramophone magazine columnist Anastasia Tscioulcas has her eye on them.
"What I think is interesting and worth really following is seeing if local, small stores and regional chains will step up and try to sell more classical music," she says. "Elsewhere in the United States, some of the smaller independent stores and chains have decided that they now have to fill the void that Tower left."
St. Paul's Applause isn't a newcomer to classical music. The store has been selling classical and jazz since 1996. It's a part of the Cheapo Discs chain, which sells more popular styles of music like rock, country and rap.
Ethan Raymond, who's managed Applause for the past five years, says that like the rest of the CD retail industry, Applause has seen a drop in business with the rise of internet music downloading.
"All that has an impact here and we definitely see fewer young customers than we once did," he says. "But because we've always been specially oriented toward classical customers and that base is a little bit older, we haven't been as affected by the internet as Cheapo Discs has been. But we still notice it."
Owen Brafford, a recent graduate of Macalester College, is one of the few customers under the age of 35 who shops Applause for classical music. He says that many of his friends just download recordings. Very few of them purchase them in stores. This afternoon he's looking through the store's selection of Shostakovich and Kronos Quartet CDs. Like just about everyone else he knows, Brafford downloads most of his music. But he says he's unusual because he also buys about five CDs a month at Twin Cities music stores.
"I can be here for hours," he says. "I love it. I can find a lot of new music I wasn't aware of before by just looking around. One advantage of going online is that you can read reviews and get a lot of information about what you're buying. But there are drawbacks too and I prefer a store when it comes to just browsing around."
The loss of younger music fans is a big concern for the recording industry. Even though digital sales continue to grow, they haven't been enough to offset the decline in CD purchases.
Columnist Anastasia Tscioulcas isn't sure what the future holds for the CD, but she says that all musical genres are moving more and more toward a digital-dominated universe.
Meanwhile, Applause store manager Ethan Raymond says his store continues fighting the good fight for the CD.
"I hope that we have many years left in us," he says. "I think that while the whole industry will continue to contract, I think the strong and wily players will still be left for quite awhile. There's an awful lot of CD players out there in computers and cars. So while the CD store may face an increasingly uncertain future, I think the CD itself has a lot of life in it yet."
If the CD retailing business does completely collapse, Raymond jokes that he hopes it doesn't happen until his mortgage is paid off.