Ben Jones at his Lyles Mall shop. (Click to enlarge.)

(Editor’s note: Due to a reporting error, this original version of this post mischaracterized Better Days’ consolidation to Lyles Mall.)

Ben Jones is exiting his Better Days Records store in Lyles Mall this morning when a customer spots him.

“Ben, you leavin’?”

“I’ll be back.”

“Yeah, but I won’t get my deal if you’re not here.”

“That’s why I’m leaving,” Jones says without a trace of a smile. In the parking lot, Jones adds, “In business, there is no ‘deal.’ ”

Maybe that kind of hard-nosed business acumen is why Better Days is expanding in the very same niche and the very same business climate that did in ear X-tacy.

Ear X-tacy certainly isn’t closing because the media and rock star friends like My Morning Jacket turned their backs on John Timmons.

I’ve never seen a phenomenon like the ear X-tacy free publicity machine. Insider Louisville certainly played along … and benefited with traffic boosts whenever we ran a post with the store’s name in the title.

I’ve never seen such loyalty, which extended to members of the Insider Louisville staff, who were there buying on the last day the record store was open.

But my question is, “Why, after all the public proclamations of love and loyalty did ear X-tacy close? Was there ever a real business behind ear X-tacy?”

I’ve always been curious why the media – from LEO to Time Magazine – loved, loved, loved ear X-tacy while ignoring Louisville competitors such has Better Days even as Timmons begged for help while railing against iTunes and music pirates.

Who better than Ben Jones, who started in the record business before Timmons in 1982 – and who shows no signs of stress – to help us understand what happened.

It’s seems like ear X-tacy did a lot of business.

Ben told me Wednesday he expects ear X-tacy closing will boost business by 20 percent at his 2-month-old Highlands store, 1765 Bardstown Rd.

My response was, “So, did you open (in the Highlands) because you knew ear X-tacy was in trouble?”

No comment.

(Full disclosure. I’ve known Ben Jones about 20 years. I know he has the best intelligence network in the city; that his cellphone never stops ringing.)

I think the question and comparisons between Better Days and ear X-tacy are fair because both were cutting their business slice from the same shrinking pie – analog music sales in a digital world.

And Jones is the first to admit that Better Days is niche player. But he’s adamant that in the reality versus virtual-reality worlds, “there will always be demand for tangible goods.”

The Digital Age will peak, but never go away, Ben says. He flourishes by knowing what people want and what they’ll pay for it. “I’m never going to reinvent the wheel. But I know when to change the tires.”

Which he did in a big way six years ago when he closed a 4,000-square-foot, two-story store at 1591 Bardstown Rd. in the Highlands, consolidating to a smaller space in the Lyles Mall at 26th and Broadway.

With that move he accomplished two things: He focused on an under-served area of Louisville where fewer people download music, and he paid down a $50,000 debt with the savings on West End rent compared to the Highlands.

Two years ago, he expanded into an adjoining space at Lyles Mall, going to about 3,000 square feet from 2,000.

Then, he returned to the Highlands August 1, leasing a 1,400-space-foot space at 1765 Bardstown Rd.

Asked why he thinks he’s survived when ear X-tacy hasn’t, Jones said one word: “Used.”

About 50 percent of Better Days’ inventory is used, and Timmons never entered the used-music niche, Jones said.

He buys used records and CDs, then guarantees them when he resells them. Used, Jones said, has a far higher profit margin than new records and CDs. And customers like used records and CDs because they get what they want for $5 with a money-back guarantee.

And the truth is, Better Days is an Internet-based business. Ben and his 6-person staff use eBay and other sites to buy close-outs and going-out-of-business inventory across the United States.

As I said, I’ve known Ben for more than 20 years, and I can’t really think of an occasion where we talked about anything other than business, so I should know Better Day’s business rules by heart:

  • By as low as possible and sell “as fair as possible.” Not “buy low, sell high,” because 21st Century retailing is all about discounting, Jones says.
  • Buying low and selling fair “comes with a lot of negotiation,” with suppliers and landlords, Ben says.
  • Good landlords are crucial to a retail business because tenants can call and say business is down, “I’m going to be late with the rent,” Ben said. Or, conversely, he can call them and say, “I need to expand. What have you got?”
  • Better Days is not the type of retailer to depend on loss leaders to generate cash flow and traffic. That’s what Big Box retailers do, and they’re in trouble, Jones said. He has to make a profit off each item to cover overhead and salaries: “I’ve never understood how you can ‘lose’ the race and still win.”
  • Don’t run a retail business on inventory debt. Don’t finance inventory because interest carry will eat up profits.
  • Follow the smart rules, ignore the rest. Ten years ago, the prime rule of retail was, “Never put merchandise on the floor,” Jones said. Ben’s Prime Rule of Retail is the opposite: “Every space is merchandise space.” Shoppers, especially young passionate music fans, like getting down on the floor or reaching up racks to get a bargain, Ben said. “The shopping experience is a hunt.”
  • Have inventory no one else has. Better Days in the West End has aisles and aisles of gospel records, records Ben sells to churches not just in Louisville, but in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Lexington.
  • Run your business like you invest in the stock market. “There will be lots of changes, but it has to be a long-term commitment,” Jones said.

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about whether I should metion one issue. But I think it’s too obvious not to metion race.

John Timmons is white, and his rock star looks and alternative music advocacy connected with the media and with his mostly white, middle-class audience.

Ben Jones is black, and even in this nation led by a black president, there is an unspoken skepticism about the business skills of African-Americans.

The great thing about business, though, is that accounting ledgers don’t measure race, hype, publicity or Social Media buzz. They only have a final line for numbers in either red ink, or black ink.

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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

24 thoughts on “Better Days’ better business acumen outlasts ear X-Tacy publicity machine

  1. Thank you! It’s high time someone said this publicly.  As a business owner, I completely lost respect and stopped shopping at Ear-X-Tacy when Timmons begged for business.  You don’t beg for customers, you earn them! Thank you for having the guts to say what Louisville has been too afraid or too politically correct to say before: that Ear-X-Tacy closed because they couldn’t adapt and survive as an individual business.

  2. Thank you! It’s high time someone said this publicly.  As a business owner, I completely lost respect and stopped shopping at Ear-X-Tacy when Timmons begged for business.  You don’t beg for customers, you earn them! Thank you for having the guts to say what Louisville has been too afraid or too politically correct to say before: that Ear-X-Tacy closed because they couldn’t adapt and survive as an individual business.

  3. Great insight Terry. Another thought here. Ben Jones is a mentor and father figure to a TON of youth in the city, from his DJ gigs at Sparks and at raves in the 90’s or his Better Days Record label. The Ear X-tacy staff could be extremely snobby if you weren’t into their hipster music. I could always go see Ben and chat about life, the universe and everything, and I still feel that way. Ear X-tacy made me feel good about the city, but Better Days was family.

  4. Great insight Terry. Another thought here. Ben Jones is a mentor and father figure to a TON of youth in the city, from his DJ gigs at Sparks and at raves in the 90’s or his Better Days Record label. The Ear X-tacy staff could be extremely snobby if you weren’t into their hipster music. I could always go see Ben and chat about life, the universe and everything, and I still feel that way. Ear X-tacy made me feel good about the city, but Better Days was family.

  5. a round of applause for this article. I wouldn’t be where I am today with out working for Ben Jones for 10 years. A wonderful, humble, record store business owner who has taught me all that I know about the music and retail industry.

    Better Days Records Rules!

  6. a round of applause for this article. I wouldn’t be where I am today with out working for Ben Jones for 10 years. A wonderful, humble, record store business owner who has taught me all that I know about the music and retail industry.

    Better Days Records Rules!

  7. Ben Jones has always been extremely underrated. He’s been as much of an asset and big brother to the local music scene and the people in it as John Timmons ever was. Ben has always known how to diversify and not put too many eggs into one genre. Additionally, Better Days was a place where you could pretty much get adopted in the 90s if you didn’t have anywhere else to go. I never had a ton of money to spend there but Ben had a sharp eye for good kids and big heart, too. I was thrilled to see Better Days back in the Highlands and I’m looking forward to catching Ben in the shop sometime soon!  (However, I’m pretty sure that the Lyles Mall store opened well before the Bardstown Rd/Bonnycastle location closed)

  8. Ben Jones has always been extremely underrated. He’s been as much of an asset and big brother to the local music scene and the people in it as John Timmons ever was. Ben has always known how to diversify and not put too many eggs into one genre. Additionally, Better Days was a place where you could pretty much get adopted in the 90s if you didn’t have anywhere else to go. I never had a ton of money to spend there but Ben had a sharp eye for good kids and big heart, too. I was thrilled to see Better Days back in the Highlands and I’m looking forward to catching Ben in the shop sometime soon!  (However, I’m pretty sure that the Lyles Mall store opened well before the Bardstown Rd/Bonnycastle location closed)

  9. Pingback: Ear X-Tacy Closure Could Affect Live Music Venues
  10. Here at the Courier-Journal, we have been fans of Ben Jones for years. We have run many articles about Ben and his businesses, including a big piece in August when he re-opened in the Highlands. I can’t speak for the other media in town, but we have tried to include him whenever we could.

  11. Here at the Courier-Journal, we have been fans of Ben Jones for years. We have run many articles about Ben and his businesses, including a big piece in August when he re-opened in the Highlands. I can’t speak for the other media in town, but we have tried to include him whenever we could.

  12. I am sad to see Ear X-Tacy go. They were always cool about selling your local music, and they’d let you play at the shop and promote. But I have to say, when I was growing up with hard core, then the rave scene~  Ben was right there at the center of it all. I have so many awesome memories at his old location in the Highlands, and am glad that his business sense has allowed him to stay in the game. Viva La Better Days!

  13. I am sad to see Ear X-Tacy go. They were always cool about selling your local music, and they’d let you play at the shop and promote. But I have to say, when I was growing up with hard core, then the rave scene~  Ben was right there at the center of it all. I have so many awesome memories at his old location in the Highlands, and am glad that his business sense has allowed him to stay in the game. Viva La Better Days!

  14. I
    have great respect for Ben on many levels as a former employer, former
    roommate, mentor and most of all a friend for 20+ years. He taught me
    so much about business that I was able to use it in my own career.

    Better Days in the 90’s was kinda like “The Island of Misfit Toys” to many
    of us and was most importantly a family headed up by Papa Ben.
    The reason many media outlets always praised Ear X-tacy is because he spent
    MILLIONS upon MILLIONS in advertising. His staff was always rude to me if I asked for
    something outside of the genre they thought was cool, if you weren’t in a popular band
    or if you didn’t look like they do. Where as Ben and the Better Days
    crew loves music, knows it’s history and know enough different types of
    music to turn you on to something similar be it new or old. There was always a great feeling seeing someone’s face light up introducing them to something that was new to them. Everyone that I worked with
    had a distinct type of music they loved and they had their regular
    customers but Ben has always kept up on it all and has always been
    available to talk to (I had never once seen John Timmons helping a customer the many times I went in there.) After all Better Days is Ben’s “brain child” and
    he treats it as his child and not as just a monetary investment to be handled by someone else who thinks they know better.
    I am so happy the store re-opened in the Highlands now I can take my kids there to hang with their “Grandpa” Ben, deepen their appreciation for all types of music and learn to loiter and beg for a job until Ben finally gives in.

  15. I
    have great respect for Ben on many levels as a former employer, former
    roommate, mentor and most of all a friend for 20+ years. He taught me
    so much about business that I was able to use it in my own career.

    Better Days in the 90’s was kinda like “The Island of Misfit Toys” to many
    of us and was most importantly a family headed up by Papa Ben.
    The reason many media outlets always praised Ear X-tacy is because he spent
    MILLIONS upon MILLIONS in advertising. His staff was always rude to me if I asked for
    something outside of the genre they thought was cool, if you weren’t in a popular band
    or if you didn’t look like they do. Where as Ben and the Better Days
    crew loves music, knows it’s history and know enough different types of
    music to turn you on to something similar be it new or old. There was always a great feeling seeing someone’s face light up introducing them to something that was new to them. Everyone that I worked with
    had a distinct type of music they loved and they had their regular
    customers but Ben has always kept up on it all and has always been
    available to talk to (I had never once seen John Timmons helping a customer the many times I went in there.) After all Better Days is Ben’s “brain child” and
    he treats it as his child and not as just a monetary investment to be handled by someone else who thinks they know better.
    I am so happy the store re-opened in the Highlands now I can take my kids there to hang with their “Grandpa” Ben, deepen their appreciation for all types of music and learn to loiter and beg for a job until Ben finally gives in.

  16. I
    have great respect for Ben on many levels as a former employer, former
    roommate, mentor and most of all a friend for 20+ years. He taught me
    so much about business that I was able to use it in my own career.

    Better Days in the 90’s was kinda like “The Island of Misfit Toys” to many
    of us and was most importantly a family headed up by Papa Ben.

    The reason many media outlets always praised Ear X-tacy is because he
    spent
    MILLIONS upon MILLIONS in advertising. His staff was always rude if you
    asked for
    something outside of the genre they think is cool, are in a popular band
    or if you don’t look like they do. Where as Ben and the Better Days
    crew loves music, knows it’s history and know enough different types of
    music to turn you on to something similar be it new or old. There was
    always a great feeling seeing someone’s face light up introducing them
    to something that was new to them. Everyone that I worked with
    had a distinct type of music they loved and they had their regular
    customers but Ben has always kept up on it all and has always been
    available to talk to (I had never once seen John Timmons helping a
    customer the many times I went in there.) After all Better Days is Ben’s
    “brain child” and
    he treats it as his child and not as just a monetary investment to be handled
    by someone else who thinks they know better.

    I am so happy the store re-opened in the Highlands now I can take my
    kids there to hang with their “Grandpa” Ben, deepen their appreciation
    for all types of music and learn to loiter and beg for a job until Ben
    finally gives in. 🙂

  17. I
    have great respect for Ben on many levels as a former employer, former
    roommate, mentor and most of all a friend for 20+ years. He taught me
    so much about business that I was able to use it in my own career.

    Better Days in the 90’s was kinda like “The Island of Misfit Toys” to many
    of us and was most importantly a family headed up by Papa Ben.

    The reason many media outlets always praised Ear X-tacy is because he
    spent
    MILLIONS upon MILLIONS in advertising. His staff was always rude if you
    asked for
    something outside of the genre they think is cool, are in a popular band
    or if you don’t look like they do. Where as Ben and the Better Days
    crew loves music, knows it’s history and know enough different types of
    music to turn you on to something similar be it new or old. There was
    always a great feeling seeing someone’s face light up introducing them
    to something that was new to them. Everyone that I worked with
    had a distinct type of music they loved and they had their regular
    customers but Ben has always kept up on it all and has always been
    available to talk to (I had never once seen John Timmons helping a
    customer the many times I went in there.) After all Better Days is Ben’s
    “brain child” and
    he treats it as his child and not as just a monetary investment to be handled
    by someone else who thinks they know better.

    I am so happy the store re-opened in the Highlands now I can take my
    kids there to hang with their “Grandpa” Ben, deepen their appreciation
    for all types of music and learn to loiter and beg for a job until Ben
    finally gives in. 🙂

  18. This is terrific stuff, Terry, because it gets down to brass tacks about why businesses fail or succeed. It steps beyond all the emotion of why people “should support local retailers … because … well they’re local!” and addresses the cold, hard facts of money management and customer service. As a restaurant reporter, I constantly hear the ridiculous laments over closed local restaurants that gave up because they didn’t succeed–not because some chain trampled them into the dirt. There are too many–WAY TOO MANY–successful independent operators here who prove day in and day out that if you provide a good service and fair value in an interesting, unique way, you’ll succeed. Better Days Records has done just that.

  19. This is terrific stuff, Terry, because it gets down to brass tacks about why businesses fail or succeed. It steps beyond all the emotion of why people “should support local retailers … because … well they’re local!” and addresses the cold, hard facts of money management and customer service. As a restaurant reporter, I constantly hear the ridiculous laments over closed local restaurants that gave up because they didn’t succeed–not because some chain trampled them into the dirt. There are too many–WAY TOO MANY–successful independent operators here who prove day in and day out that if you provide a good service and fair value in an interesting, unique way, you’ll succeed. Better Days Records has done just that.

  20. This is terrific stuff, Terry, because it gets down to brass tacks about why businesses fail or succeed. It steps beyond all the emotion of why people “should support local retailers … because … well they’re local!” and addresses the cold, hard facts of money management and customer service. As a restaurant reporter, I constantly hear the ridiculous laments over closed local restaurants that gave up because they didn’t succeed–not because some chain trampled them into the dirt. There are too many–WAY TOO MANY–successful independent operators here who prove day in and day out that if you provide a good service and fair value in an interesting, unique way, you’ll succeed. Better Days Records has done just that.

  21. Here’s another thing: Everybody likes Ben. In fact, every single person I’ve ever associated with Better Days since I was a kid, either on Bardstown or in Lyles Mall — (Benman, Stan, Ms. Lee, Pat, and so on) — has always been respectful to customers and knowledgable about their stock. Not all record stores can say the same. 

  22. Here’s another thing: Everybody likes Ben. In fact, every single person I’ve ever associated with Better Days since I was a kid, either on Bardstown or in Lyles Mall — (Benman, Stan, Ms. Lee, Pat, and so on) — has always been respectful to customers and knowledgable about their stock. Not all record stores can say the same. 

  23. I don’t believe this is correct:

    “About 50 percent of Better Days’ inventory is used, and Timmons never entered the used-music niche, Jones said.”

    Ear X-tacy devoted a large portion of its sales floor to used CDs.

  24. I don’t believe this is correct:

    “About 50 percent of Better Days’ inventory is used, and Timmons never entered the used-music niche, Jones said.”

    Ear X-tacy devoted a large portion of its sales floor to used CDs.

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