When The Pandemic Hit, Denton’s Mad World Records Was Forced To Close Its Brick-And-Mortar Location — Only To Then Find Salvation As An Online Retailer.
Mark Burke has worked in the record store business since 1991.
From clerk to owner, he’s worked in every facet of the game — and served as a firsthand witness to the CD boom and the vinyl resurgence alike.
Still, that doesn’t mean he’s immune to changes within the industry. As the pandemic claimed hundreds of small businesses in the region last year, his Denton Square storefront for Mad World Records shop was sadly among of them.
Just because he had to close his storefront did not mean Mad World had to cease as an operation, though. In fact, Burke says he’s much, much happier running his business as an online, mail order and delivery retail service. Working with his wife Maria and their son, they now run operations out of their Denton home — and, better yet, they’re finding some success in their new model.
Curious to learn more about this pivot, we recently caught up with Burke after a busy afternoon of hand-delivering items — and got a whirlwind of answers from him about the state of Mad World.
What do you remember about this time last year?
I was reading an article in mid-January about the Chinese New Year — one of the holidays where all the family gets together in China, even if they live across the country from one another — and how this new illness was happening and affecting it. Even people come from the United States to see their family like a pilgrimage for this one holiday. I was reading this and [thinking] like, “There’s no way they’re going to keep this out of the United States.”
I started talking to my employees. They must have thought I was nuts. [Laughs.] I said, “We’re going to have to pay attention. If this virus comes here, things are going to have to work a little bit differently.” Within a month, everyone else was starting to talk about it a little bit.
The second the first illness hit [stateside], I started doing spreadsheets, going through the inventory slowly, fixing as much as I could. I began preparing to have to launch a website just in case. So I got a jump on it real early. Since then, I’ve spent all day, every day — except for meals — working on this site. It’s a nonstop thing.
I’ve worked more in the past year — somehow — than I ever have in my life. And so has my wife. She works for a home therapy group; they had to flip from being in-person to figuring out how to give therapy to these kids, but by not being present. They had to revamp their whole program for teletherapy. Now, because they revamped it — like me — their lives are changed. They can continue to do that and their business can actually grow because they’re looking at things differently than they ever had before. It’s really interesting how that worked out for them and for us.
Was it a situation where, the longer the quarantine went, the more you thought about closing the storefront, but also realizing that it didn’t necessarily mean the end of Mad World Records?
I didn’t know. I’m a realist, I guess. So, I knew that it wouldn’t be the same. My guess was long-term, thinking there’s no way. My brother [Jeff Burke, vocalist/guitarist for Radioactivity, Lost Balloons and the Marked Men] got [COVID-19] early in March, and him having it so bad — and he’s still having symptoms a year later — made a huge difference on how I looked at this virus than other people. I had a really early-on, ugly glimpse of what it can do to someone.
We were in a semi-lockdown when I made the decision to start to close the brick-and-mortar shop. With what I was seeing outside my windows, with the door locked, [people’s] irreverence to the possibility and the disrespect of neighbors that I was seeing on a daily basis in mass numbers, I felt like, “This is only gonna get way worse in Texas.”
I knew I wasn’t going to have a choice. I couldn’t pay thousands of dollars a month just to be there, closed. I had to make a decision. We talked to our landlord, who’s a good guy. I talked to [the owner] at More Fun Comics to see if he’d want to do something, and he did. And it all just worked out. We were able to get out of the spot easily and not by breaking the lease or anything like that. I had no idea. I didn’t know if I was getting ready to “pull everything out” mode or if this website was going to actually work.
Are you actually hand-delivering orders to people that are local in Denton County?
Yeah, it’s their call. They have three options. It has to be within a five-mile-radius of the store if they want it delivered. If we do any more than that, then I wouldn’t have enough time in the day. We will ship too, and we keep our prices on that as low as we can. Basically, they pay for the shipping. We pay for part of the mailers. We’re not making money on shipping like a lot of businesses do.
Then there’s the local pick-up in our exact spot [of where the store once stood]. So if someone knows they’re going to the square, they’ll pick up an order. I have that spot where they’re able to go in our old store, which is now a toy store, and they can come pick it up. Or I deliver. I just got done dropping off some orders at the store, dropping off at the post office and delivering two different places. [Laughs.]
That’s why it’s a 24-hour gig these days. You just never know if you’re gonna have seven deliveries or zero. It comes up when it comes up.
I admire your tenacity and willingness to work around the situation instead of being one of those people you see on documentaries that just says, “Ehhh. Nobody buys records no more.”
[Laughs.] I’ve been on the frontlines since I was 18. I’ve been working in record stores since Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. You’ve known me for at least 15 years now. I know there are people that want [this stuff], but what I’ve been shocked by is the national response.
As soon as I figured out our site, I got linked to Google. Now, when you look up Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, you’re gonna see Walmart and Best Buy, and you’re gonna see me — because they link the “Top Best Prices.” And for some reason, for half of my dang store, I’m the best price in the country compared to all the other small stores.
Because of that, we’re mailing tons of stuff every day. I’m just so busy. Some days are light, like in the middle of the week. Some days, I have to pack from the moment I get up to the moment I go to the post office just because we have had so many orders.
So, it’s random, but it’s still a working record store.
I’ve made no secret any time I have written about Mad World is that I’ve always admired how you carry the punk, hardcore, emo, and metal stuff when they were not commonly seen in other record stores. Is that more of a reflection of your upbringing?
I got two Braid reissues in this week! [Laughs.]
I think it’s a mixture of everything. My personal history with music definitely reflects some parts of my store. But when you work in an industry for 30 years — minus a couple of months off here and there — I saw everything that came out. I’ve always been fascinated by it. I love of studying things and history, and then watching all this history unfold.
These kind of things helped me realize what other stores seem to forget sometimes: Variety is king, but [yo have to] play to your neighborhood. Have as much as you can, but if you have a bunch of punks in your town, don’t beef up the new age section, beef up the punk. If hip-hop is king of the day, then make sure you have some hip-hop.
But the irony is, without these sections that you don’t see in a lot of stores — like a good hip-hop section, a good punk section, a good metal section — there would be no vinyl in 2021, if it weren’t for those three genres. Those are the three genres that continue to print. Hip-hop for clubs, punk because it was nostalgic and cool, and metal — on a lighter note, mainly import stuff — because it just sounds good on vinyl.
Those are the three genres that saved vinyl, yet those are the ones that are overlooked so often.
On a personal note, I know that when you posted about closing the store last year, you said you didn’t see your son as much. How has that been now with the website and your deliveries?
He’s at home all the time, doing virtual learning. He gets done about the same time I go out to the post office. He’s doing all these deliveries with us. He’s doing all this! He walks to the toy store to drop off records for people sometimes. He’ll deliver things to people’s doors sometimes — depending whose turn it is. [Laughs.] He’s 10 now, so he’s starting to become a real human instead of just a walking mess of bones and skin. His brain is starting to retain some of this knowledge, which is cool.
It’s a good thing the three of us like each other because we work constantly. We’re around each other all the time.
With your orders, do you find there is still a healthy demand for CDs? You explained to me a few years ago that customers can’t afford to buy everything on vinyl, so they buy CDs as well.
That’s the biggest shocker of them all. I am shocked at what has happened.
As far as CDs go, I didn’t order a ton of new releases on CD because they’re simply too expensive. Walmart, Target and Amazon will most likely have it cheaper on CD. I get a couple here and there, but it’s almost always geared towards certain customers that I know. So, I will get two Lana Del Reys whereas, in the past, I might have got five or six, because I have at least two that are gonna want it. Now, the funny thing is, we’re selling a boatload of CDs! [Laughs.] We’re not doing the numbers that the Mad World brick-and-mortar had, but we don’t have thousands of dollars in rent or employees, either.
It’s allowing me to focus the new stock more. No people are touching it, so there’s no damage. That’s one of the most depressing things. Once I got everything out of the store and started going through stuff for the site, I realized that a good 10 percent of it, I couldn’t put it on the site because of people manhandling it so much that the corners got messed up or this or that.
I knew we were in good shape when, a few days into us being open on the internet, we sold a used Rick Moranis CD for five bucks. Most people don’t know he has a country album, but we had this thing lying around! I’ve always had this philosophy: Keep your prices fair, and wait for the right person to walk in the door. That was the perfect formula for someday having the whole nation as my playground. Now, you Google “Rick Moranis CD” and I’m the only dude that’s rolling up with a Rick Moranis CD for five bucks.
Just today, we sold 25 percent CDs. Some days, it’s 10 percent. Some days, it’s getting up to 50 percent of what we sold that day. I’d say a fair number is 25 to 30 percent in CDs, which is way higher than I thought it would be. I thought I was going to be selling lots of CDs on eBay, but it’s been the weirdest stuff selling.
It’s been really fun to see.
As somebody who has known you for 17 years, this is probably the most upbeat I’ve ever heard you be.
Yeah, it makes a difference when you’re not trapped behind a counter all day! [Laughs.]
Cover photo via Mad World Records’ Facebook page.