CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — You need a college, of course, but that's not the only ingredient in a good college town. You need quirky bookstores. Coffee shops — preferably not all chains. A diner. An artsy cinema. A dive bar.
There's one other thing you need, and it's getting harder to find: a local record store. The kind of place with poster-covered walls, tattoo-covered customers and an indie-rock aficionado at the cash register, somebody in a retro T-shirt who helps you navigate the store's eclectic inventory.
A few years ago on just one block of Chapel Hill's Franklin Street, the main drag in what has been called America's ideal college town, four or five such places catered to locals and University of North Carolina students.
But with the demise of Schoolkids Records, the last one is gone. Schoolkids had planned to gut it out through March but couldn't even make through its final week and shut down last month. It's just the latest victim in an industry hit by rising college-town rents, big-box retailers, high CD prices, and — most important — a new generation of college students for whom music has become an entirely online, intangible hobby they often don't have to pay for.
Chapel Hill is hardly alone. In recent years, perhaps hundreds of independent and small-chain record stores in college towns have shut down or consolidated as music downloading all but eliminated the demand for them.
In State College, Pa., Arboria and Vibes have closed. Iowa City, Iowa, used to have BJ's, Sal's Music Emporium and Real Records.
Boulder, Colo., has lost at least a half dozen: Cheapo Discs, All the Rage, Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes, and others. Albums on the Hill, a holdout across from the University of Colorado's campus, is down from 18 full-time employees to three part-timers.
"I'm just trying to decide when I'm going to go online and close my brick and mortar," said Greg Gabbard, owner of City Lights Records in State College, near Pennsylvania State University's campus. "I'm trying to stay here as long as I can because I love the people. We're all teachers."
Big record chains aren't doing much better. But somehow, customers never seem to miss them as much when they close down.
"You walk down the hall of the dorm and hear everything possible, and you will be influenced by all these people," said Ric Culross, who managed Schoolkids and has been in the business 35 years. "They've come to a store such as ours to feed off of that, just like they go into a bookstore."
But these days, most just go online. Culross said he had hoped this year's freshmen might arrive with a revived passion for CDs and even vinyl albums, which have experienced a minor resurgence. It turns out many have never even bought a single nondigital one.
College students are the perfect market for music downloads. They have low incomes, small living quarters and endless bandwidth.
The change may be an economic inevitability, but it's still a loss. Colleges talk a lot about diversity, but you often find more of it browsing record stores near campus than in the cafeteria. Customers are black and white, well off and poor. You'll find cool high school kids next to older collectors, professors and students ranging from straight-laced pre-professionals to punk rockers.
"This is one of the few places I can consistently find things I'm interested in," David Crotts said as he flipped through CDs at Schoolkids' going-out-of-business sale recently. An MBA student at UNC, he first shopped at Schoolkids when he was a teenager in nearby Burlington. He has about 500 CDs, but most people he knows just download music.
"It's not surprising, but it's disappointing," he said. "You can't come into a place like this that has atmosphere anymore."