Chair-Dancing, Online Vinyl Sales and Community: How Cottonmouth Records is Surviving 2020
"Our reward is people coming in and enjoying our venue."
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When asked to sum up what 2020 has been like so far, Cottonmouth Records owner Zach Williams is dryly understated. "'Interesting' would be the best description of this year," he says. "Everyone's alcohol intake is definitely going up though, that's for sure."
Cottonmouth Records, a bar meets record store, opened its doors in Enmore, Sydney, in 2019 and quickly grew a loyal following among local vinyl lovers and imbibers. The bar had just celebrated its first birthday in March before the coronavirus struck. Like other hospitality businesses, it was forced to close its doors for a few weeks but is now operating as close to normal as possible, with Williams and his teams adjusting to the new conditions.
"It's difficult, I'm not going to lie," says Williams. "I mean, we went from a 60-person capacity, and having two staff manage that, to five staff managing 25 people. On top of that, there's all of the logistics. You're making less money and at the same time you're putting out more money."
Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, Williams is grateful to the community for getting behind the business. "In a year, we've amassed a lot of local support, which is fantastic, and we can't thank our locals enough for all the support they've shown in this pretty dire time. So many locals have been there supporting us, and, at the beginning, lots of people were buying records online and saying 'I don't even have a record player; I just want you guys to stay open'."
This sense of community is central to Cottonmouth Records' ethos, says Williams. "It gets me a bit emotional when I think about it. We aren't in this for accolades, we aren't in this to win bar awards. I don't care about being rewarded for what we do. Our reward is people coming in and enjoying our venue. You can't put a price on that as far as I'm concerned. Just having this place and people populating it is a big enough reward for me."
Customer comfort has been front and centre for Williams and his team as they adapt to the new trading environment. "We've got a hygiene marshal and a security guard on at all times. The community is our highest priority and we just want to make sure everyone feels safe," he says. "We have enough sections to be able to spread everyone out, to adhere to that 1.5-metre distancing [rule] and to give everyone a section where they feel comfortable has been fairly easy for us."
The COVID-19 marshal is also responsible for making sure patrons don't get too carried away when Williams gets behind the decks. "People just want to dance as soon as the music comes on," says Williams, but for now such things are not allowed. Instead, there's "lots of chair dancing".
Another thing that has kept the business ticking along for Williams is Square, the contactless payment system and online store used by Cottonmouth Records. "Square was with us from day dot," says Williams. "It was a completely blank canvas where I could input every single thing I wanted and build it from the ground up. Now it's at a point where it perfectly runs itself."
"It makes things so much easier for us, just being able to let the customer do their thing," he says. "They put in their payment, put in their tips and they can just do it all themselves."
For Williams, another handy thing about Square is the integration between the in-store and online shop. "If I sell something on Square in store, within two seconds it's been taken off the website as sold. It's just fantastic. It's great functionality."
While it may take a while for business to return to what we knew before COVID-19, Williams is grateful to be able to bring some cheer to Enmore and hopes the bar and record shop will be there for many years to come, chair-dancing or otherwise.
Find out more about Square and how it's supporting small businesses in Australia, here.
Images: Reuben Gibbes
Published on September 10, 2020 by Tamar Cranswick