VINCENT HARRIS | CONTRIBUTOR
Gene Berger’s musical passions have helped keep Horizon Records alive through economic downturns and a digital revolution
When Gene Berger opened Horizon Records in 1975, setting up shop at 347 S. Pleasantburg Drive in Greenville, he wasn’t really interested in peddling Top 40 albums.
“I was a classic case of obsessive collector becoming a business owner, and that’s not always a good business model,” he says with a laugh.
But for 40 years, Berger has kept Horizon Records going, fueled by a passion for just about every kind of music under the sun, an incredibly loyal customer base, and a willingness to evolve.
Berger was 20 years old when he opened a 600-square-foot storefront underneath his mother’s yarn store at Morgan Manor on Pleasantburg, financing the business with a small bank loan and his personal savings. His eclectic taste and passion for collecting music found their way to Horizon’s shelves.
“Everybody back then was worried about Conway Twitty or KISS, and we were like, ‘Whatever, we need Roxy Music! Where’s Norman Blake? Get me some Jerry Jeff Walker or Weather Report!’” Berger says. “That’s always been our perspective. It’s always been this mishmash of what we’re into.”
After a year or two, the space at Morgan Manor began to feel a little cramped, and Berger moved the store to a larger space at 730 S. Pleasantburg, where they stayed for 22 years. But even during that extended stint, Berger always kept his eyes on another area of town.
“It was simple: I wanted to be downtown, I wanted my own parking and I wanted to have a neighborhood that could support me,” he says. “Some people that were helping me said, ‘You should look at the corner of Stone and Main Street.’ It was this old, abandoned gas station that was just sitting there. And I think we just looked it up on the tax map and called the people who owned it and started negotiating.”
The new location at 2 W. Stone Ave., which combined Horizon Records with the Blue Z Café (later The Bohemian Café) under one roof, opened in 2003 and was immediately successful. But unfortunately, a musical revolution and an economic crisis were right around the corner.
A new model
“It was a multiplicity of bad things followed by a multiplicity of good things,” Berger says of the mid-to-late 2000s. “We had just moved to Stone Avenue and had this really great honeymoon period that astounded me. We opened our doors, and people just poured in in May of 2003. We had a heyday.”
“Digital sales and ripping, burning and downloading of music began to chew on us mightily,” Berger says. “And we were in the middle of all that when the Great Recession kicked in in 2008. It was tough; multiple times, I thought we were going to have to close.”
But a willingness to adapt had always been present within Horizon’s DNA. So when Berger got an email about Record Store Day – a day designed to bring increased attention and sales to local independent record stores – he was all ears, both out of habit and necessity.
“At that point I was like, ‘Hell yeah! Let’s do it! Because I’m hurting here,’” Berger says. “We jumped in, and immediately got a little bump from it. And it’s built every year. It’s made a lot more people aware of record stores and what their value is in the community.”
At the same time that Record Store Day helped to fuel a renewed interest in both independent music sellers and the vinyl album itself, Berger also began making changes to the way he ran Horizon. Berger’s new business philosophy came courtesy of his wife, Barbara.
“Through her, I found out about an author named Al Katz, who had written a book called ‘A Journey With Mac,’” he says. “So I opened it up, and it changed my world. The concept was all about ‘Be remarkable, and everything else will take care of itself.’ When you get remarkable people and you let them do remarkable things, great things happen.”
That new attitude prompted a restructuring of the Horizon staff’s responsibilities. Brian Walker, who came to Horizon in 2009 from nearby competitor Earshot Music, took over most of the product-buying responsibilities, and supervised a refit of the store’s layout that put more emphasis on their new and used vinyl selection. Caroline Bayne, hired in 2006, began to handle a great deal of Horizon’s social media and visual presentation, and longtime employee Martin Keene, hired in 1994, became the store’s bookkeeper, a position that had previously been outsourced.
“Having those things taken care of finally gave me a balance where I could do strategic things and seek opportunities and discover collaborations with artists and labels,” he said.
On the horizon
Berger says that he doesn’t know what the future might hold for Horizon Records, but he feels confident about the store’s place in the Upstate.
“We’re a business that deals in music objects. And there’s a future for that. You have to have a community that wants it, and you have to keep getting better. The future is about finding new ways to be passionate about it. It’s about sharing the passion for the music.”