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Iconic family-owned record store passes the pricing gun from father to son

It takes a lot to become a local legend in the record store world, but the Roets family had managed to do just that.

As the final days of 2023 turned into a new year, Bob Roets, founder and owner, with his wife, Cindy, of Fort Wayne’s iconic Wooden Nickel Records announced his retirement and passed the baton, along with the pricing gun, to his son Chris.

For a look back at the local record store scene as well as insight on Bob’s deep passion and commitment to the community, here’s the conversation WBOI’s Julia Meek had with him on the company’s 40th Anniversary in 2022.

Connect and keep informed at the Wooden Nickel website.

Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: So you have been passing those signature wooden nickels for 40 years now?

Bob Roets: Yes.

Julia Meek: In a word, how does it feel?

Bob Roets: Wonderful! (laughs) You know, I got the idea from a Styx record back in 1974. That was "Lady", a big hit for them. And then they left Wooden Nickel Records, that was a record label in Chicago, went to A&M records. I kept that 45 and I still have it today. But I got the idea for with nickel from that record, because the Indian head was on that record. And then I named the record store Wooden Nickel and I started giving out the wooden nickels and people went crazy. They everybody wanted them and they're, I think, nearly every house in Fort Wayne's got a few laying around.

Julia Meek: And if not yet, they will one day. What was the local music scene and retail market you and your wife Cindy entered?

Bob Roets: It was very competitive back then, because music was selling very, very well. There were 11 other record stores in Fort Wayne at the time that we opened Wooden Nickel. I had been working at Slatewood records for a couple years because I'm from Madison, Wisconsin and worked a couple stores up there. Came down to run Slatewood.

And when Slatewood went out of business, that's when my wife and I decided to open Wooden Nickel, 40 years ago. Back then artists would release their music typically on cassettes, actually. And we started carrying cassettes for local artists. And I would go out to the clubs and check them out, you know, see what the local music scene was like. And it just kind of grew from there.

Julia Meek: So your passion has developed, matured tremendously. But yes, you've been living your dream all these years.

Bob Roets: Yeah. You know, when I opened the store, I had very modest thoughts of where we were going to go. And we started with $1,000, my record collection and my stereo system. That's what started Wooden Nickel, to be honest with you.

And to think where it is today, it was inconceivable that that would happen. But I'm a pretty stubborn guy, you know, I mean, I worked seven days a week, I still do. I love what I do, and being in the community and working with artists and bands has always been fun--promoting concerts and doing Battle of the Bands and all this fun stuff that I've done since then--it's all part of the same thing.

Julia Meek: And we all get to live your dream, that's something very special for the whole community. This is a community affair. So when you did open those doors and start doing your "Roets thing," Bob, how did you make your difference as the new kids on the block?

Bob Roets: Well, I think my approach to business was a little bit different. I was able to attract some of the best talent in the city. The Tim Hogan's, the John Solomon's that had been working for Karma called me up and wanted to work for me.

Julia Meek: Wow!

Bob Roets: Yeah. And I was flattered that they did. And I think they sensed that we were doing it right. We were being indie. I grew up in an age where most record stores I went to, I call them cookie cutter stores, the Musiclands and so forth. We did a really good job at seeing who was coming in the store, analyzing the type of music that they liked, and making sure that we had it. And I was very particular on what we carried. And it had to be what locally, people wanted to buy, whether it was a local artist or a national artist, whereas the bigger stores carry the same thing around the country.

Julia Meek: What did you do with that niche you found yourself in?

Bob Roets: Well, obviously, we expanded. Tim Hogan, who had been working for karma came over to work for me and so did John Sullivan, we opened our second location on Crescent Avenue. It's now on North Anthony. Tim was with me for 37 years, for example. You know, he loved what he did as much as I did.

And we expanded on to Anthony, and then a year later, we opened up at Southgate Plaza, and then we opened at Time Corners, and so on and so forth.

It just kept growing. I wanted to be the neighborhood record store, if I could make it happen. And we quickly went from a single outlet to we had six by the end of the decade.

Julia Meek: Wow. And still sitting here with four is quite commendable. Now, you've always been deeply interested and invested in the community music wise, in every way, Bob, how did your patient grow in those early days for the community as well as the business you were in? And what did you do about it?

Bob Roets: It kind of came out of the fact that musicians started to come in and want to sell music in the store. That was the, I would say the initial aspect of it.

When I first opened, it was a different time in that national artists would come to the Coliseum and play and their record companies would call me and say, "Hey, Bob, we got 38 Special coming into town and we're going to bring 150 records in. We want you to sell them, and the band is going to come out and sign them."

So I worked a lot with the National angle with many huge artists. However, as the decade wore on, we lost some of that. And they did that less than less.

So I said, You know what, we're going to start working more with local artists. And that's when we started having bands come in and play in the store, besides carrying their music and promoting them.

Julia Meek: What an Aha moment that has never dropped a beat since you started that number.

Bob Roets: Yeah.

Julia Meek: So the late 70s early 80s--By then you saw that huge National chain versus Indie store race and consumers seemingly all wanted more music.

Bob Roets: Yeah.

Julia Meek: A happy occasion, of course. So how did you fare once you joined the party, and were part of that?

Bob Roets: it really has to do with detail, locally. And I was talking to my customers seven days a week. The chains generally all ordered the same products for each store around the country, no matter what city you were in.

So I had a bit of an advantage there, knowing what Fort Wayne wanted, whether they were into harder rock, whether they were going to be into R&B, whether they're going to be into jazz, I was able to discover those niches that were prevalent here locally, and the large chains wouldn't keep up with what was happening on the local level. So that was a big advantage for us.

Julia Meek: And they could not, yeah.

Bob Roets: They could not.

Julia Meek: Very big advantage. You seem to be an omnivore in your musical tastes is that fair to say?

Bob Roets: (chuckles) Yeah, you know, there's an old saying when you want to record store, never let anybody know what you like. I learned that when I was 21 years old, okay? And that was a long time ago. And what that basically means is yes, I enjoy a lot of different music. I know Julia, you see me out a lot of different types of shows yourself, but when you come in our store, any of our stores, you're not gonna have a clue as to what Bob likes, because unfortunately, a lot of guys make the mistake of making the store what they like whether it's all metal or you know, whatever it might be. And I learned a long time ago that you've got to cater to everyone.

Julia Meek: And meanwhile, it's legit. You're not that good of an actor, so I suspect by now you do like it all.

Bob Roets: (chuckles) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Julia Meek: Now, most things do change over four decades, obviously, your business is particularly driven by technology. Would you step us through those changes that you faced because of that?

Bob Roets: Certainly I started in my career in 1978, selling eight tracks (chuckles) to give you an idea and technology, it quickly switched from a tracks to cassettes being the most popular format and then LPs picked up big time '81-'82 when MTV hit and Wooden Nickel opened, I was selling probably 75 percent LPs.

However the next year, I was the first person in Fort Wayne to bring in CDs. I brought imports in from Japan a nd from Germany, the very first one ever brought in was Genesis Genesis, the one that had Mama on it. I remember that like yesterday. So we brought CDs to Fort Wayne, and it took a few years.

But by the end of the 80s CDs were king and it stayed that way for quite a while, until the late 90s when Napster came on. And then young people started downloading from Napster. And then iTunes kind of took it to the next level and actually organized it. That's when the writing was on the wall that we were in big trouble.

By 2004, we were starting to close our stores, we closed three locations by 2007. So we were at a bit of trouble. Then we started the Record Store Day and streaming started to happen. And now we're fighting streaming, you know today.

So yeah, it's been tremendous change in the technology. And the format changes have been crazy. And of course, as you know, records now are back and it's my number one selling item again, you know who would have thought?

Julia Meek: And music is forever. And speaking of the hoops you've jumped through and the changes you've made to stay abreast, to keep on top, to keep everybody happy. You have been instrumental in actually founding and furthering National Record Store Day, Bob, what kind of game changer has this become for...well, you and yours, but really the whole world by now?

Bob Roets: Okay, around 2007, 3,800 record stores had closed--we were in big trouble. When Record Store Day started, we reintroduced vinyl to the public and it was a game changer. Because the next few years vinyl started going up 10, 15, 20 percent a year. Now it is most of our business again. And now we are vital again, where we almost lost it!

Julia Meek: The world thanks you and the other visionaries who chose to look at the problem and effect that kind of a solution to it to be sure. It's also a fact that around that time you received what would still perhaps be the biggest accolade that you could have.

Bob Roets: Yes, I was contacted by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, which was a major move up for us and a huge honor to be part of the 39 biggest stores in the country. And I was shocked to hear from them. But we are now involved with them. We work with labels, we have a voice in the industry due to the impact of us working together--our group. And so that has been tremendous for us.

Julia Meek: And it speaks of course well for all things Wooden Nickel, but for Fort Wayne itself, what does it say? Aren't most of the other cities in that...

Bob Roets: We are one of the smallest, if not the smallest city to be represented in this organization? So yeah, like I said, I was just amazed that they would want us in the organization but now we're a vital member with four stores involved in it and yeah, it's been awesome for us!

Julia Meek: Well deserved. So all in all, we do have so much "all things Wooden Nickel" to celebrate this entire year. And that official actual birthday and the bash that happens is all this weekend. So let's start with that venue where you're having this Baker Street Center, formally C2G. Why is that so special?

Bob Roets: I've had a great relationship personally with them. They've been very welcoming. I have been doing video pictures, promoting, selling tickets for them, etc, etc, I believe for around 12-13 years now. And Mark Minnick, who runs it is just a fantastic person. We've always gotten along great. And I've always tried to work hard for him to help promote and sell tickets for his shows. So I talked to Mark and Mark says he'd be honored to have us have our 40th there. And this is, you know, I didn't really think of any other place.

Julia Meek: And what's on your playbill that night?

Bob Roets: Well, the prime thing in any celebration is music. And I went right to the top and I got the Sweetwater All Stars to headline for us, some of the top musicians in Fort Wayne. And part of the reason I like them is because almost anybody who comes to this event, it's an all ages event--we want kids to come and you know, all ages--is that the music that they play, everybody loves. The classic tunes that they play, you know, everybody can sing and dance along to it if they want.

Julia Meek: And I understand your emcee is another classic addition for the evening?

Bob Roets: Yeah! Doc West. Interestingly, 40 years ago to the date, he opened Wooden Nickel with an in-store on July 30, 1982. He is going to be our emcee that evening. We're really excited to have him, Doc is such a treasure to the community. And we're going to talk "all things Wooden Nickel" and we're going to give away a bunch of stuff. It's going to be a fun night.

Julia Meek: And who do you hope to see there?

Bob Roets: I hope to see a lot of young people, some of our multigenerational customers, I hope can make it because we now have grandchildren of some of our regulars when we first opened 40 years ago that are now shopping and buying vinyl with us, which is fantastic. (chuckles) And so yeah, I hope everybody that really loves Wooden Nickel can come on out. It'll be a lot of fun.

Julia Meek: It certainly will. Now, I am curious Bob, how many discs, platters and or tapes, whatever the trend is, do you reckon you've distributed, sold to the public by now?

Bob Roets: Ahh, I would love to give you an answer to that. (laughs) I have NO idea! You know, it's got to be now in the millions. I would assume.

Julia Meek: That sounds safe.

Bob Roets: You know, but I really I really don't have an answer to that. (laughs)

Julia Meek: How about how many would nickels you have passed out?

Bob Roets: Ah! (laughs) Well once again, it's in the millions. But I didn't keep track so...

Julia Meek: Good for you! You could start now and go for 40 more years. (laughs) In the meantime, how does the wealth of live music and musical connections that you have amassed over all these years factor into the overall success this whole magical journey has afforded you?

Bob Roets: Running the stores, working with musicians and artists, and folks like you Julia. I mean, it's just a pleasure to have that group of friends. Having a great group of friends is, is... what else can you ask for? And in my favorite line, which is music, of course. It's It's a natural for me. And it's just... it's been a wonderful life for me to be able to do this.

You know, when you, when you open a store and you're I was 23 years old, I had no expectations of what I was, you know where I was going with it. But it's so great to be sitting here 40 years later going like, Wow, what a wonderful time it's been and a great ride in Fort Wayne.

Julia Meek: So I'm not going to ask you if you have a favorite experience. You should have many, many of them. But I will ask, in all these years and all of the people and all of the special connections that you've made, is there something that will be forever in your heart?

Bob Roets: Gosh, that's a really tough question to answer. But I will say one of the things I'm proudest of Fort Wayne has been getting Paul McCartney to come here because I will tell you that he's my favorite musician. I practically tear off anytime somebody talks about Paul because he has meant so much to my life.

And Wooden Nickel probably wouldn't exist without the Beatles and him because as a kid, I was just enamored by them. When I spoke to Randy Brown, he said, Hey, Bob, we're bringing in Paul McCartney, I lost it. I was like, WOW! And that particular night is one of my favorite nights of my life--to see Paul McCartney come to our town, my favorite musician, and I never thought he would come here. I never thought of it. So if I could say one moment that night was probably the most special!

Julia Meek: That is echoed and will be in the hearts of many. So thank you for sharing that.

Bob Roets: Sure.

Julia Meek: And so last question, Bob. What would you like to say right now to everyone out there that has made this whole odyssey possible?

Bob Roets: I would like to thank every single person that I've been in contact with, whether they've purchased something at the store, whether they've been a musician that I've worked with, whether they've been an employee, anyone it's been it's been a thrill and an honor and Fort Wayne has just been so welcoming to me through the years and great to work with-- I wouldn't trade it for anything else, you know, so--So thank you, thank you, thank you!

Julia Meek: Bob Roets is co founder, along with his wife Cindy, of Wooden Nickel Records. Thank you for sharing your story and the music and the legacy, Bob, continued success.

Bob Roets: Thanks again, Julia, for having me today.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.