Papa Jazz owner Tim Smith helps revive analog in a digital age

Papa Jazz owner Tim Smith

Tim Smith has owned Papa Jazz in Five Points for over 30 years and has found himself right in the middle of a vinyl resurgence. We talk with him about the record store business and what he sees ahead.

By Zach Newcastle
May 6, 2014

Step into Papa Jazz on Greene Street, and the sea of labels and long aisles crammed with albums can seem daunting.

For 35 years, the staff of music junkies like Alex McCollum has been helping music lovers find their next album to fall in love with. “Music makes people happy,” said McCollum, who adds that much of his paycheck ends up going toward the albums he buys. “You never need to freak out, it’s not stressful coming to work.

Papa Jazz storefront
Papa Jazz has been a hub for Columbia music lovers for 35 years.

As record chains have faded and music moved to CDs and now MP3s, Papa Jazz – its full name is the Papa Jazz Record Shoppe, (also see its Facebook page), but few call it that – and long-time owner Tim Smith have been stalwarts for vinyl lovers. Smith, who also doubles as Five Points Association president, is the engine that drives Papa Jazz.

Smith took over Papa Jazz a few years after it opened and has been the sole owner since.

McCollum said that at first he wondered how the store could stay open but as he worked with Smith, the concerns subsided. “I didn’t know how it could stay afloat, but his instincts and expertise keep it running,” McCollum said. “It’s an honor to work for him.” Smith sees his store as a place to experience a wide variety of music, from jazz to rock and everything in between.

Columbia Voice talked with Smith about the origins of the shop, how he got into records and why starting a record collection makes for a truly modern music experience.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Listen to the entire podcast.)  

What made you want to take over Papa Jazz?

You know when I was in college, ’cause that’s when I started working here, music was my probably my No. 1 hobby. … Having had many jobs by the time I was 20 already, I kind of learned that if … you’re doing something you like you’re not just watching the clock and trying to make it to five or to closing or whatever.  It’s more fun.

You guys have been in Columbia for 33 years now. What has helped you guys maintain longevity? …

Papa Jazz albums
Papa Jazz workers take pride in catering to a wide audience. The store slogan is “If Papa Jazz ain’t got it, it ain’t worth having.”

You kind of learn pretty early on you need to pick the niches that other people don’t do … and that was part of it. Of course, I was probably 99 percent used when it started and now it’s, you know, half used, half new. But you learn to do the things other people don’t do. Or find stuff that you can do better. …

With music-sharing programs like Spotify or iTunes, most of the money is made off of individual songs. Why do you feel like the concept of the album or the LP is something that’s worth holding on to?

There’s a lot of different ways people approach music. … I think, for some people it’s simply you know, “Oh I like that song” or it’s sorta background music. … Where you can see with the vinyl upswing again, I think part of that is that when you’re playing a record, that’s all you’re doing. You’re sitting there listening to that record.  It’s not just something that’s playing while you’re doing something else. …

You alluded to that LP sales have gone up in the past couple years. …What do you think has been the main factor in that change? …

Papa Jazz poster
Owner Tim Smith aims to have Papa Jazz’s unique personality provide a one-of-a-kind experience.

There’s probably a lot of different reasons I think, really driven by people your age, college students. And I think part of it is a sound quality thing. … Especially when it’s used records, … it’s just the least expensive way of getting to hear a lot of stuff by people you’ve heard of but you don’t know anything about. You can come in to a store like mine and probably spend 20, 25 bucks and get 10 records by 10 people of almost any genre that you’ve heard of. …

To someone who may not be familiar with vinyl, why do you think they should they start a record collection?

Again, it’s an individual choice. If you really want to sit down and your music’s really important to you and you want to sort of get the whole experience, it’s just like reading a book. If you’re going to read a book with the TV on, while you’re walking your dog, you’re not going to get a whole lot out of that book. … So if you, the big thing is sitting down and getting the full experience, then that’s part of the reason for the record. I think it’s a more complete experience. …

What do you see for the future of record stores and LPs in general?

It’s survived over a hundred years. I guess it’ll just keep on rolling. … I’ve kind of learned in business that you certainly can’t control the future but have to learn how to work with it. … You know when CDs first came and I thought, “My god, I’ll be an antique store,” actually my business doubled within about one year. It was the biggest jump I ever got. It was because CDs were so expensive, that it made finding used music a bigger deal than it had ever been. … So I’m sure vinyl will be around as long as I’m around.

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