ENTERTAINMENT

Strictly Discs in Wisconsin, in a Pandemic: 'The Cumulative Effect of Several Months of This Takes Its Toll'

As coronavirus cases in Wisconsin continue to surge, owner Angie Roloff says she “wouldn’t rule out” having to shutter in-store operations again.

In October 1988, Angie Roloff and her husband Ron opened Strictly Discs in Madison, Wisconsin, after Ron left a career in the biomedical research field to pursue his love of music full time. Nearly 31 years later, the couple made the difficult decision to shutter in-store operations due to COVID-19, roughly a week before Governor Tony Evers forced a mandatory shutdown of all non-essential businesses. Now that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has overturned Evers’ stay-at-home order — ruling it “unlawful” and “unenforceable” — the Roloffs and their employees have reopened Strictly Discs in a limited capacity.

As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Roloff every two weeks to chronicle her experience throughout the crisis. (Read the latest installment here and see the full series here.)

How are things going out there?

Certainly not on the scale that you’re seeing in California or Arizona or some of the other states that are really heavily hit, but certainly things are going in the wrong direction as far as the number of cases going up. So that’s certainly alarming.

You’re in phase 2 of reopening now, is that right?

Technically yes, but on the seventh [of July], the county order rolled back some of those measures, affecting, most notably, restaurants and bars. And then they just announced that an indoor mask mandate will go into effect first thing Monday morning.

So your in-store mask policy wasn’t a mandate from the government?

Correct. And even some businesses, like we have a Trader Joe’s adjacent to us, they have signage that said they appreciated people wearing masks, but it wasn’t required. And you certainly see people inside that aren’t wearing them.

Since the uptick in cases started happening, have you noticed less traffic in the store?

I’d say it has been about the same.

So people aren’t too freaked out yet.

They aren’t. I do hear from a lot of our customers that they’re not going very many places and that this oftentimes is one of their stops. I know we’ve talked in the past about music having a therapeutic effect for a lot of people. I think that still remains a priority for a lot of our customers, and they want to make sure that we make it through this.

It really does feel different when it’s an independent business, as opposed to a chain store or something. It seems to me the loyalty from customers is probably much greater, and I’m sure you’ve experienced that. Especially as a music store.

We really have. We’ve seen it throughout our history. But it’s really hit home recently that how we spend our money in our own community is really important to what is still in existence when this is over. I do hear a lot of people saying they don’t want to shop online for things that they can buy locally.

How are you staying sane right now?

[Laughs] That’s a really good question. There are days that are much harder than others, and I think the cumulative effect of several months of this sometimes really feels like it takes its toll. Trying to get outside, even though it’s really hot here right now. But gardening, going for walks, cooking. Those are all things that are therapeutic for me.

Some people have been getting together outdoors with people, wearing masks or social distancing. Have you been able to see anyone in person since the pandemic started?

We did get together with two really good friends of ours two weeks ago. They came over, we sat outside at the house and had a cocktail and listened to some music and just got together, which felt a little bit more like normal. But we have certainly turned down graduation party invitations and, most recently, really dear friends of ours visiting from Colorado. It just didn’t seem like a wise decision, so we didn’t get a chance to see them when they were here.

Have you heard any talk about potentially having to scale back your capacity inside the store, or even shut down completely?

There hasn’t been any talk, except that I think everything’s on the table as they watch the different metrics that they’re measuring. I know that the shutting down of bars and the scaling back of restaurant capacity earlier this week was in direct response to the cases going up so substantially every day. So I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think certainly our [county’s] mask mandate is trying to see if we can get this under control.

What else has changed for you since we last talked?

One thing that I keep coming back to is it seems like our customers are listening to music more during this time, and perhaps even in a more critical way since this all started. And so I think that, [along with] the fact that most of us in this industry are used to pivoting and changing, and also kind of accustomed to a climate of uncertainty, we’re weathering the storm maybe better than some folks are.

Obviously retail has had a lot of scares in the years leading up to this, right?

Right. The big box stores, and streaming and illegal downloads and all those things that were supposed to be the end of us. It doesn’t mean that those and this current situation are any less exhausting.

Is there anything else that you wanted to mention that’s happened in the last couple of weeks?

Nothing specific that’s happened. I think that we’re really blessed with the customer base that we have. It just seems like more than any other time, we need people to be kind to one another. And it seems like without that we have very little hope.

I personally notice that when I walk outside now, people say ‘hi’ now and smile in ways that they didn’t before. I wonder if you’ve noticed anything like that?

We have. Even just people in the neighborhood pausing to ask how people are in a more substantive way than maybe we made time for six months ago, which is really nice. And certainly for us, especially when we were closed, the level of commitment that so many of our regular customers made to support us when it wasn’t convenient or easy to leave their house and come and pick something up curbside. It was really heartwarming and it’s why we feel we’re in a solid position now and feel hopeful for the future.

I’m so glad to hear that. I love independent record stores. Here we have Amoeba Music, which is my favorite.

Have you gone to Record Store Day at Amoeba?

I haven’t. Why do you ask?

I haven’t gotten any firsthand [accounts] on it from someone that’s been on the consumer side of it, but apparently they print out a list of all the products, and people can just check what they want, and then a staff person runs and gets it and brings it back to them. We’re having a full staff meeting next week, trying to figure out how we’re gonna manage these Record Store Day drop days to keep people from bottlenecking. That was brought up as a model as something that we might want to try.

Do you normally start planning for Record Store Day this far in advance or is it more because of what’s going on right now?

It’s the last Saturday in August. Last week I sat in on a conference call with a few other stores and the organizers at Record Store Day, because they are trying to figure out how they’re going to communicate to people. And then a lot of my orders are due tomorrow. So, yeah, we’re definitely thinking about it, and right now the order for the county — you know, outdoor gathering [mandates mean] that technically a line shouldn’t be more than 25 people. If that stands, that would be my responsibility to manage. So I’m just just kind of trying to get ahead of it.

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