Re-Tales #43: Mark Mawhinney’s Three Audio Retail Businesses

June 24, 2024 0 By JohnValbyNation

It’s a truism in business—or if it isn’t strictly true, it’s at least a cliché—that you can’t please everyone. But Mark Mawhinney sees everyone as a potential customer. He does his best to cover all customer bases, from old-school audiophiles to newcomers, from Boomers to Gen Z. “As long as they have two legs and two ears, they can be our customers,” he told Stereophile in a recent phone interview.

Mawhinney owns and runs three businesses: Spin-Clean, the longstanding, inexpensive record-cleaning system; Northern Audio, a high-end audio dealership; and Music To My Ear, a record store that also sells some entry-level to mid-tier hi-fi equipment. The three businesses occupy the same building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Business, he says, is strong.

Not many people can claim 50 years of industry experience—especially at age 60. Mawhinney traces his experience back to age 10, when he worked with his father, who invented Spin-Clean and built a very successful business with it. His father also owned Record-Rama, a record store that was said to have had one of the largest vinyl collections in the country if not the world.

Mawhinney opened his record store, Music To My Ear, about 12 years ago and moved it into its current location eight years ago. In addition to records, the store stocks entry-to-mid-level products from Rega, Cambridge Audio, MoFi, Andover Audio, and Music Hall, among others. And of course, they carry Spin-Clean, which has been around for 50-plus years but received some upgrades last year. Pre-owned records get the Spin-Clean treatment.

Having all three businesses in the same building is a big advantage, Mawhinney said. There’s synergy. People who show up to buy records can get their first glimpse into how much better their music could sound through better quality equipment. They might start upgrading without leaving the store. Customers at Northern Audio might stop by on their way out to shop for vinyl. Those who outgrow their Spin-Clean can buy an Audiodesksysteme or a Klaudio. Then on their way out, they can buy some new records to clean and play.

Records get most first-time customers in the door. As I write this in late April, Record Store Day is still visible in the rearview mirror. “It was a bit crazy here,” Mawhinney said. In fact, it was the biggest day in the history of Music To My Ear. They had more than 400 customers in one day, and 40–50 slept outside from midnight the night before.

“It’s such a wide variety of age groups,” Mawhinney said about his customers who are into vinyl. As much as half his business at Music To My Ear is from Gen Z. Some of them don’t own a turntable—yet. They buy records to support their favorite artists, he said.

Most young customers—”the kids,” he calls them—might spend $150–$200 on a first turntable and about $400 on average on a whole first system. Another customer may invest around $15,000 in a Luxman turntable. “We can do that, too,” he said. “Most stores don’t have the ability to be multifaceted like that.”

“You want those kids to grow up with the knowledge that better things exist out there in terms of better ways to listen to the music they enjoy.” He hopes that in the future, when they have a career and more buying power, they’ll graduate to Northern Audio.

Mark Mawhinney with the Beatles Spin-Clean special 50th anniversary edition.

Mawhinney himself has been on his own hi-fi journey. He has been involved in hi-fi retail for decades. He worked at a Listening Post location in Pittsburgh “on and off for 10 to 12 years,” he said; he left in his mid-20s and opened Northern Audio Exchange, a tiny, split-level store where he sold audio gear on consignment. Eventually, he began stocking new products. The business expanded into home theater, evolved, and 33 years ago moved into his current Northern Audio dealership, where he offers components from Technics, Dr. Feickert, Luxman, Grimm Audio, Mola Mola, Hegel, Fleetwood Sound, and Triangle, among others.

Keys to his success? Good products and good staff. “The success of any business is solely an aspect of the people who are employed who run the show,” he said. “A lot of stores you go into, many people just don’t have the knowledge and experience to be helpful.” His employees emphasize customer service and maintain the right attitude toward customers—all customers. “There are other hi-fi stores where a normal person walks into the store and gets ignored,” he said. “To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re spending $100 or $100,000. You’re my customer, and you’re going to get treated the same. I don’t look down on anybody.”

What about the future? He sees all three businesses continuing as long as he is able to retain his staff: “As long as I continue to have the help and support and knowledge and expertise of my staff, the train’s gonna stay on the tracks.”

It depends on one other thing: Those longtime customers won’t be around forever. He knows this. “I think the most important part of our business is to continue to engage and educate the younger generation about the quality of record pressings and the quality of turntables and audio gear and offer more ways to allow them to enjoy listening to the music they listen to in their lives day to day.” He’s counting on drawing them in and keeping them coming back for more.

“I love retail. I love customer interactions. I love coming up with solutions to help customers fulfill needs.” All customers. Service with a smile. “This is what I’ve done my entire life,” he says. “‘Tell me what it is you’re looking for.'”

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