Saving Tunes
A new generation keeps the records spinning
By Kate Morgan

Evan Lynch, Photography by David Michael Howarth

Buying the store, says Evan Lynch, was a bad idea. Maybe the best bad idea he’s ever had. 

In 2020, in the middle of a pandemic that had finally shuttered the long-struggling Voorhees music store where Lynch worked, he and fellow employees Greg Mattia and Evan McCullough pooled their money to purchase the business. 

“This was a pipe dream of mine I’d had as a kid,” says Lynch. “I always wanted to have a record store, but I thought I’d be like, in my 40s. Instead, I was 22.” 

The store, Tunes, has been a Voorhees mainstay for nearly three and a half decades. As larger chain record stores closed in the wake of streaming and digital music services, the shop in the Ritz Center remained a thriving gathering place for music lovers of all ages. “It was the first place I ever bought an album,” says Lynch, who grew up in South Jersey. 

In more recent years, it became a struggle to keep the doors open. By the time Lynch began working there, about 6 months before the start of the pandemic, customers had slowed to a trickle, and the former owner was talking about calling it quits. In 2020, he offered to sell Tunes to its employees for $30,000. 

“While we were closed during the pandemic, I took every one of the racks, turned them upside down and put wheels on so that when there’s a show, we just unlock the wheels and push all the racks to the side.”

The money came from college funds, inheritances and stimulus checks, and spending it was a real leap of faith. “I had to go to Greg’s parents’ house and show them all my accounting calculations,” says Lynch. “My parents didn’t support it. We were opening up a failing business in the middle of the pandemic. It was definitely a bad idea, and I don’t know why we did it. We just felt like we had to. And once I started working on it, it was just all I wanted to do.”

Lynch and his young partners threw themselves into the business, coming up with new initiatives, reconfiguring the store, and finding ways to make Tunes cool again. It was hard work, Lynch says, but he loved it. 

“Before that I had worked bad jobs,” he says. “I did construction where I had to be at a job site at 6 am. Or working 9 to 5 somewhere and I just hated it.” 

But loving the store didn’t mean Lynch, McCullough and Mattia really knew how to run it. They had to figure that out as they went along. “The work was overwhelming,” says Lynch. “I don’t know how to run a business. It’s like learning everything on the fly.”

Evan McCullough

Once pandemic restrictions loosened, the first order of business was getting people back into the store, and Lynch and his co-owners had some new ideas about how to do it. 

“We started doing shows, and that was a big thing,” he says. “While we were closed during the pandemic, I took every one of the racks, turned them upside down and put wheels on so that when there’s a show, we just unlock the wheels and push all the racks to the side.” 

They created a live music venue that’s drawn a whole new audience back to Tunes. That audience includes Eric Van’t Zelfden, who runs film company Lobo Jones Productions. 

“I moved down to the Voorhees area about 2 years ago from Brooklyn,” Van’t Zelfden says. “The first thing I usually do in any new place is find a record store. I just walked in there one night, and by random chance they were having an art show and wine tasting. I was just blown away that this type of cultural event was happening there.” 

Van’t Zelfden loved the young owners’ story so much, he’s spent the last few months making an upcoming documentary about the store. 

In addition to a new schedule of events and happenings, Lynch says one of the first things the co-owners did was put the record back in “record store.” For many years, vinyl had taken a backseat at Tunes, he says, and most of what was on the shelves was CDs and DVDs. But the group of 20-somethings is tapped into youth trends, and young people are starting record collections. 

In the last 3 years, vinyl sales have exploded. It’s now the top-selling physical music format – by a long shot – according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Popular artists are fueling the trend, with pop singers, hip hop acts, and rockers alike issuing their music on LP. That’s restored record store demand in a way that hasn’t happened for decades. Lynch says he’s stocking as much as he can on vinyl: new releases alongside classics. 

Tunes’ new owners “have a very interesting outlook on physical media,” says Van’t Zelfden. “They look at vintage vinyl not as garage sale finds or stuff for Goodwill, but old items that can provide new joy. For kids of that generation, having a physical record collection is something important to them again.” 

It might seem unusual, he adds, for a generation that “grew up with iTunes and streaming services, and everything online and on your iPhone,” but Van’t Zelfden thinks that’s exactly why Gen Z loves to spin old-school records. 

“Evan told me once that putting a record on – listening, getting up and flipping it over – gives you the opportunity to get off your phone and interact with something,” he says. 

In a lot of ways, what Lynch, Mattia, and McCullough are doing at Tunes is a return to the record store experience many people might remember from their own teen years. But in other ways, Van’t Zelfden says, their approach is something totally new. 

“I think the stereotypical record store owner is probably a dude in his 50s or 60s who’s focused on classic rock and kind of just sits in the back and points to records when you have a question,” Van’t Zelfden says. “But these guys are really trying to turn it into something more than just a record store. They’re trying to make a cultural scene through live shows and art shows and poetry readings and some bigger plans they have in the future.”

Ultimately, Lynch says he wants Tunes to be not just somewhere locals come to buy or listen to music, but a place they come to record it. 

“I want to do sessions,” he says, “record artists really well and mix it and get a video and really good audio quality.” Other plans include adding a small coffee operation to a back corner of the store. Ultimately, Lynch says, they plan to bring Tunes back to its former glory.

“A lot of people come in and tell us how glad they are it’s still here,” he says. “We hear all the time how the store was really important to them and to South Jersey.”

For local kids and kids at heart, Van’t Zelfden agrees, there are few gathering places cooler than a local record store. 

“If you’re a music kid, like I was, the record store was the place back in the day to connect with likeminded people,” he says. “At Tunes I think they’re trying to recreate that. You can walk into a record store, and it can be, you know, kind of dead, but this has a vibe: a feeling of being alive.”


September 2023
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