If you’ve ever talked to the man most often behind the counter of Grand Rapids’ Vertigo Music, you may have found someone who’s friendly, affable, and extremely knowledgeable of music. This man, Herm Baker has been a quiet force within the Grand Rapids music scene for decades. Interviewing Herm Baker reveals a personality not necessarily betrayed by his easy-going demeanor, one that is both hard-headed, observant, and clever, a personality that has allowed him to maintain his business even as the musical and economic landscape has remained in flux around him. Despite these circumstances, Herm Baker has managed to forge Vertigo Music into West Michigan’s premier record shop.
When asked what led him to try his hand at the music business he tells me, “same thing as you… voracious consumption of newer music.” Baker explains, “the music we liked we couldn’t find in Grand Rapids… We wanted a store that had more underground stuff in it.” This was in 1986, when Baker’s first record store Vinyl Solution, opened at its first location on South Division Avenue. “We started off as a vinyl store,” he says, one that always stocked smaller indie punk records. When the CD format took off the store “kind of morphed into a bigger thing,” he says. “CDs really dominated.” The store’s business grew so substantially that they relocated to a larger location on the corner of 28th and Breton. Vinyl Solution had its biggest year ever in 1995, doing $1.6 million in sales largely on the back of its CD stock. This success was short-lived, however. By 1999, Vinyl Solution had been put out of business by larger retailers like Best Buy.
The years leading up to Vinyl Solution’s demise were hard on Herm Baker. Just coming off a divorce, the end of Vinyl Solution saw Baker go bankrupt and lose his home. “One of my darkest years on Earth… all hope and self-confidence had been beaten out of me” he recalls. Improbably though, Baker was back in business by the next year. Vertigo Music opened in 2000, only a block away from its present day direction. While Baker admits he did consider moving on from the music business, his stubbornness kept him in the game. Baker was unhappy with the way that Vinyl Solution ended: “It did not end on my terms,” he says. He is determined to not let his new store suffer the same fate as his former one.
In the wake of Vinyl Solution’s end, Baker saw the opportunity to reinvent his business. He kicked off Vertigo Music by buying the remainder of Vinyl Solution’s inventory back from the bankruptcy court, but that’s where the similarities end. He moved his business away from the suburbs and onto Division Avenue, which put it much nearer to the colleges and Heritage Hill area. Baker hoped that his store’s vicinity to these neighborhoods would attract the kind of people he had originally entered the music business to serve: young people with voracious appetites for music. Moving his business to Division also allowed him to decrease the overhead costs of running his business by spending less money on rent. Baker also cut back by living on next to nothing himself.
Baker’s strategy worked; Vertigo moved to its current location a few years later to decrease operating costs even further, and he found that he and his business were getting by. At the time, Vertigo was still banking on CDs. However, he remembers ten years ago “there was one distinct Christmas where I remember a bunch of kids were looking at vinyl, and I thought we need to get in front of this… I saw what the Corner Record Shop was doing, and I said lets be that store that has that new indie rock vinyl.” Baker has consistently been ramping up the store’s vinyl selection since then. When the store opened it had around 2000 new and used vinyl records. Currently, the store boasts about 26,000 new records alone. It is this shift towards vinyl that has allowed Vertigo to survive the decline of the CD and the rise of digital music platforms like iTunes as well as streaming services like Spotify. Baker says the LP offers a visual appeal due to its size that CDs and digital products cannot compete with. “It’s aesthetically pleasing, and it sounds great if you have a good turntable,” Baker says. “It’s just a better package than CDs.”
While Herm Baker still loves music, he admits “The fires have dimmed… a bit.” He says there’s music coming out today that he loves, “but not like how I loved when I was 23 years old.” Baker has other aspirations in life as well. “At some point I’d like to get away from this… I’d like to travel,” he explains. He sees that at this point in his career, his time at Vertigo is likely to end sooner rather than later. “I’d love to sell the store to somebody and slowly transition it over a period of a year, or two years maybe,” he reveals. Unlike Vinyl Solution, Baker is determined to end Vertigo Music on his terms, and as long as Vertigo remains Grand Rapids go-to record store, he seems poised to do just that.