When Barnes & Noble closes its store at 12th and E streets, northwest, this December, there will be no chain bookstores left in the District (at least, none that aren’t affiliated with a college campus). Barnes & Noble’s exit mirrors the exodus of specialized corporate entertainment retail in DC, and the conventional wisdom of 2015 retailing, which says “Being average in the middle is death.” You can be Amazon or Politics & Prose, the logic goes. Anything in the space between is toast.
And yet. There’s a chain that seems to be surviving against all odds: f.y.e.
The store, which specializes in CDs, vinyl, DVDs, video games and miscellaneous electronics, still has a prime location in Union Station, as well as spots in Arlington, Fairfax, and Gaithersburg.
But aren’t people moving from CDs to Spotify? From DVDs to Netflix? F.y.e.’s ability to keep selling entertainment products in an app-crazy region like Washington seems to defy logic. But it’s really not that complicated, says Billboard reporter Ed Christman. He sees f.y.e.’s persistence as a product of multiple factors. First off, there’s the current demand for physical albums, which is not as dismal as everyone thinks.
Christman says tangible music, mainly CD’s and vinyl, has accounted for nearly 54 percent of all album sales so far this year. That number decreases to just below 23 percent when viewed in reference to total music industry revenue this year, including physical album sales, downloads and streams. But considering the current popularity of downloading and streaming individual tracks in lieu of whole records, 23 percent is an encouraging statistic.
“If you take away 23 percent of somebody’s business, they’re going to be in trouble,” says Christman.
F.y.e.’s staying power is a product of subtle business decisions. For starters, in its most recent earnings report, Trans World Entertainment, the corporation that owns f.y.e. and Suncoast (a video store chain), noted the corporation had $91.4 million in cash on hand. It did close 19 locations in the past year–f.y.e. locations in Hyattsville, Silver Spring, and Arlington have vanished–but the corporation’s newfound emphasis on selling electronics has paid dividends, totaling nearly 30 percent of its income from that quarter. (F.y.e. did not return numerous requests for comment.)
But in DC, the secret to f.y.e.’s persistence may be that it has survived retail Darwinism. If the city had a Tower Records, a Virgin Megastore, and more Best Buy locations, then consumer choice would probably hurt business. But f.y.e. benefits from sticking around. When Bryshere Y. Gray and Jussie Smollett, who play Hakeem and Jamal on the show Empire, visited DC in March to meet fans, they came to the f.y.e. in Union Station. The same goes for rapper French Montana in 2013, because where else?
“In malls, f.y.e. is usually the parasite store,” says Christman. “It hits a lot of the demographics. If you’re in the mall, you’re going to walk in, and chances are you’re going to find something you want to buy.” And apparently, that holds true in Union Station as well.