When Paul Ruffino and his husband, Mike Weaver, decided to expand the storefront of Rattleback Records, they were well aware that it was risky, especially during the pandemic.
“I am a believer in taking risks,” Ruffino said while sitting on a silver, glittery plastic couch at the front of the store, less than a month before its grand reopening.
After some issues with health in 2017 and taking a year sabbatical from being an elementary school principal, Ruffino ended his 30-year career in education to pursue something new. With a passion and connection to music, he decided to take on a new role as a business owner—vinyl records being the obvious choice.
When he was in college, Ruffino worked at the record store Second Hand Tunes and has accumulated a large collection of his own. He recalled a moment when he was younger, sitting on the floor of his aunt’s bedroom while she played Beatles records and encouraged him and his cousins to dance.
He said music has the power to take a person back to a specific moment in their life, and the format of a physical vinyl record unlike any other form of media.
For Ruffino, the idea of opening his own shop one day was always in the back of his head.
In 2018 Ruffino and his husband took a leap of faith and opened Rattleback Records in Andersonville at 5405 N. Clark St., only to have it close for three months less than a year and a half later due to the pandemic.
At first, Rattleback did not receive a Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loan. In the second round or distribution, the store received the loan, which helped sustain rent and inventory.
Ruffino said it was tough and sales suffered, but there were some silver linings: developing the store’s online and social media presence, partnering with and supporting local artists, businesses and organizations like the Chicago Artist Relief Fund and developing new ways to host events and get the community involved.
He said it was heartwarming to see how loyal and supportive customers were, especially during this time.
Charlie Wein, media and events coordinator for Rattleback Records, said the support the store received while closed for three months was a “validation of its connection and engagement with the community.”
When Rattleback reopened its doors in June, Ruffino said he did not know what to expect—but it turned out that people wanted records. Though the store always was and felt small, he said once they were back in business, the store was “bursting at the seams.” Because of the pandemic, the neighboring store shut down for good, giving Rattleback the chance to expand without having to move the store entirely.
With good connections in the neighborhood, the expansion began moving quicker than expected and construction kicked off in mid-September. In between brand new floors being installed, a wall being knocked down and replaced with plywood and the in and out nature of people installing new light fixtures or painting the walls, the store remained completely open to the public.
With an elongated front counter, larger inventory and more space to browse through piles of vinyl records, Rattleback officially reopened with its extended storefront on Nov. 1—the store’s second birthday anniversary.
Customers, neighbors and passersby alike popped in and out of the store throughout the day to browse selections, enter the raffle—which included donations from 16 surrounding Andersonville businesses like Transistor, Colectivo, Quiet Pterodactyl and Defloured—snag some free coffee and baked goods and listen to live performances from local artists: Cezanne Fink, Walter Landgraf, DJ Tuff n’ Such and Dance Loud.
Landgraf, who is also an employee at Rattleback, said he was hired during one of the most chaotic and challenging times for the store, but that it was an easy adjustment due to the intimate nature of the staff. The grand reopening was his first time playing a live show since the start of the pandemic, but he said his fellow employees, including Ruffino, have been supportive of his music.
“It is such an inspiring place to work; being surrounded by what I love and doing what I love,” Landgraf said.
Jonathan Gardener, who played drums for Landgraf and is also a Rattleback employee, said there is nothing better than working at the store and being able to play music, and that he looks forward to seeing Rattleback host more events and serve as a small venue for local artists.
Wein said Rattleback’s main purpose is to promote and give back to surrounding businesses in Andersonville, as well as local Chicago musicians and artists.
In between greeting people as they walked in the store, Ruffino said there is an interpersonal connection between Rattleback and its customers.
“It really is all a labor of love,” he said.
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