The receivers were in, the knives were out and the dream that had driven Real Groovy Records for the past 27 years was almost dead.
Small groups of staff were being called to hear the grim tidings before each person was taken aside and told if they were staying or going. Sarah Williamson stayed.
"It felt more like guilty relief really, because we were conflicted about the friends who had been let go, especially the ones who had been here a long time. That was the hardest thing, and seeing what it had done to [co-owners] Chris [Hart] and Marty [O'Donnell]; seeing the weight of it on Chris' face, that was tough."
By any margin it was their worst day and the subject still raises a visible wince and a "but that's all behind us now". It's certainly hard to argue that point, in a store crammed with more stock than ever and a party they're hosting today in celebration of their (vinyl pun alert) 33-and-a-third anniversary.
"It's redemption," says Williamson.
That Real Groovy is standing at all is remarkable given what confronted them in that gloom of 2008. If the global recession wasn't enough, retail was in freefall and the music industry was bleeding to death one download at a time. What future was there for music stores if CDs, which as a commercial format had only been around since 1981, were destined for the same tarpit as records, phonograph cylinders, 8-Track tapes, 4-Track tapes, reel to reels, DAT tapes, laser discs and cassettes? Still, the financial crisis may actually be a reason for Real Groovy's survival. The desperation behind their reinvention was what allowed our most famous music outlet to stay open, and to thrive.
"They [Chris and Marty] have grown closer to the staff - not that they weren't before - but I think they're more emotionally open now and perhaps there's a level of gratitude too," says Williamson. "I think it really hit home what some of those old family values mean."
Websites aside, the number of stores anywhere in the world with a greater selection than Real Groovy can be counted on one hand. Of course some, like Trade Me founder Sam Morgan, will never understand. Earlier this month he sent this bitchy tweet from the store: "Bit baffled that Real Groovy still exists. Just popped in to see what the punters are buying ... Not a lot." It was accompanied by a shot of the store notably lacking in punters that day.
Williamson knows that attitude well and, being 10 days younger than the store she now manages, she is the new broom, bringing "stubborn optimism" and a head down, bum up work ethic. If Real Groovy 2.0 is a reflection of anyone, it's her.
Born in Southland and raised in Hamilton, she was the 15-year-old guitarist ("I was rubbish") for rockquest entrant Team Townace (as in the van) before going on to manage the competition and then scoring her first music store job. She was working as an assistant
manager at Real Groovy's Christchurch store in 2007 when she decided to take a demotion to move to Auckland, partly for a change, but mostly for the music scene.
Like many staff, she took the receivership the following year personally: "We had this feeling of urgency and desperation to, you know, jump in and fix it ... but there was a lot of fear and, to be honest, some people felt hard done by, but there were also plenty who understood what had happened and what needed to happen next."
Her opportunity came quickly as job cuts saw her elevated to store manager with one primary responsibility, or as Hart puts it: "She's in charge of the vibe."
"I just got chucked in at the deep end, which was good because I became the voice of change and for the last five years the focus has been on getting rid of a few old stigmas, like that the staff are too cool ... " And that it offers little for women, a notion that definitely gets a rise. "I just don't see that, that [Real Groovy] is a sausage fest. Everyone has equal opportunity to buy anything. I've been working in record shops for half my life and I've worked with a lot of women who are all knowledgeable with perfectly valid opinions ... there's no room for that kind of snobbery anymore."
She certainly has nothing against pop (Mariah Carey's Music Box was her first album purchase) and the Real Groovy vibe has most definitely changed - for one thing, people are laughing. All those silly novelty items, the books from every fringe of popular culture, and even the enormous animal suit that gets tried on every day? They're all her ideas and we can expect more. The thrust is to become the place for stuff you won't find anywhere else and if you're smiling as you look, well, groovy. It's effective because browsers tend to spend a long time there, a function of having thousands of records, and Williamson wants to encourage the community aspect. It isn't a library, it's a place to play, interact and discover.
One day it might even be hers: "It's been mentioned, but my job is already pretty difficult, there's an incredibly high volume of work ... that future is way down the track."
Still, if that future stretches half as far as Real Groovy's past then she and her colleagues will be entitled to a deep, lingering bow.
Real Groovy co-owners Chris Hart (left) and Marty O'Donnell with store manager Sarah Williamson. Photo / Chris Gorman
It all started with Town Hall Bargains, a humble second-hand shop only a stone's throw from its iconic descendant in Upper Queen St. It was owned by Hart's older brother and in 1973 he was working there part-time while studying psychology at the University of Auckland. Within a year his brother had moved to a new location, invited him to run it, and Hart dropped out: "Study didn't grab me."
Working for someone else didn't grab him either so he soon found an empty shop in St Kevin's Arcade and opened the Record Exchange. He was 19. "I didn't have a clue, not even the difference between an invoice and a statement, but there were no barriers, setting up a business was really easy then."
On the other hand, he knew two things many record dealers never learn: Your business is selling, don't keep the good stuff for yourself, and if stuff doesn't sell, even if you love it, discount it until it does.
It was still hard work and he eventually took on a partner, Neville Lynch, who bought Hart out in 1980 for $40,000. "That was a relief actually," says Hart. "Apart from sickness I hadn't a day off in five years. We even opened on Christmas."
He mooched around for a bit and met O'Donnell for the first time in Dunedin. They'd both spotted a sign offering free bricks and were loading up when a suit walked down the drive asking how much they cost. Eh? Not one to ignore a gift horse, Hart gave him a price for a load of cleaned bricks, invited O'Donnell to join in, and they set to work. They've been mates ever since.
But records were in Hart's blood and within a few months, with new partner Chris Priestley, a blues and jazz fan, Notoriety was opened next to Harvest Wholefoods in West Lynn. But the location didn't work and a few months later they split the stock on a coin toss and Hart went labouring.
Then Priestley called to say he'd found a shop just up from where the Powerstation now sits on Mt Eden Rd and as close to the city as Hart's restraint of trade agreement from the Record Exchange sale permitted.
Priestley was keen on calling it Chris' Record Shop - named for both of them - or Notoriety again, but Hart said either would be "the kiss of death".
"Come up with something better then," he was told.
Hart's flatmate at the time, Dan Greig, says they'd had a friend staying with them, a Dunedin medical student who liked to take on a persona named Eddie Spooner. "It didn't take long before we were mimicking him, like "yeah, that's really groovy, man." Back then, groovy was really, really uncool."
With time almost up before Priestley had his way, an exasperated Hart turned to Greig and said: "I've only got a day to come up with a real groovy name ... hang on."
Overseeing the store is the $20,000 neon sign made by Paul Hartigan. Photo / Chris Gorman
So on July 20, 1981, Real Groovy Records was born.
The store did okay, even if they needed second jobs to cover rent and food. "But I had this dream," says Hart, "to create the best record store in the country, if not the world. That's always been what this is about."
When a move to Queen St presented itself, he pounced. But in a city then replete with record shops, 492 Queen St was an uphill walk too far for many and in 1991 they moved downhill to 438 Queen St, the home of the Metropole Ballroom, a Peugeot showroom and, most recently, a market.
Hart got New Zealand's best neon designer, Paul Hartigan, to create an unmissable sign for the shop front. He'd already done a simpler version that had hung over their last shop.
"My inspiration was Las Vegas," says Hartigan, "and the mindblowing scale they have there, so I wanted everything - size, double tubing, double letters and lots of colour. It's definitely a big bugger and probably one of the most elaborate, complex signs I've made. It's definitely up there."
The cost was $20,000 and took seven years to pay off, but it has more than paid its way in terms of visibility. It still hangs inside the shop.
While all this was going on, Marty O'Donnell was following a very different path into the music business. Born in Kamo, Whangarei, his family didn't even didn't have a stereo. Sport was their thing, and he dreamed of becoming a PE teacher before career ambitions saw him train in accounting as well.
He was gradually doing an increasing amount of work for Hart and in 1996 gave up teaching and bought a half-share in the country's biggest second-hand record shop: "I just wanted a change. I mean I'm not a music buyer, not really, but the business here was growing and I came in to help that happen."
In 1999 he was part of a group that had headed to Wellington when they spotted the ideal place for their first chain store. Dunedin and Christchurch quickly followed. Not only that, but Real Groovy had got into event promotion, a magazine was up and running, and they even had a hand in retail software.
The intention was to meet the constant changes of the industry while remaining stubbornly independent of the big record labels. A second-hand business relies on new stock, but they'd found there was a definite lag between new products coming online, like CDs, and the point where the flow of unwanted buys began coming in. Video tapes came in, then went out again. CDs came in and killed cassettes. Games came in with a hiss and roar then faded as quickly. Vinyl kept on keeping on. And Hart remains adamant that they stock them all, even hoary old shellac 78s. An abundance of choice is his mantra.
By 2004 Real Groovy was peaking and anything seemed possible. Then came 2008. The details are tied up by a non-disclosure agreement, but it cost them plenty, including, as Hart freely admits, his home.
Now 58, he recalls the experience as harrowing; 54-year-old O'Donnell says it was traumatic. Accusations were fired from all sides, friendships were lost, mates had to be let go.
"It was run away or roll up your sleeves," says O'Donnell, "and we decided to get on and do whatever we had to to keep going because in the end it's about the people and the community we have here. We don't try to push anything on anyone, we're simply meeting a need."
Real Groovy has gently fostered the sale of turntables to the point where they now carry 20 different brands, every one of which needs records to be of any use. Pictures / Chris Gorman
"I've got no plan to get out any time soon," says Hart, "I still love what we do on a daily basis, I've made lifelong friendships with people like Grant McAllum [a 28-year veteran] and Brett Haddock [who started 20 years ago as a 16-year-old] and we've managed to keep the industry game at arm's length. We'll never be part of the mass market."
If it took until 2011 to feel the worst was behind them, the recovery remains a work in progress. The invention of Record Store Day, now their biggest event of the year, has certainly helped, as has a certain organic approach to growth. For instance, they've gently fostered the sale of turntables to the point where they now carry 20 different brands, every one of which needs records to be of any use, then, once that bug bites, well ...
And finally, of course, they've unleashed Williamson. "If I had the power I'd have saved Echo in Dunedin, that would have been my baby, but we lost both of them and then Real Groovy Wellington, that's where a part of this feeling of obligation comes from, there is no other option. So, for me, it's not whimsical nostalgia to want to preserve this place, I think all of us care enough to stick it out. We all have stories of when we started, famous people we've met, albums we've discovered here ... it's more than just a store, it's unique, a community of like-minded people who celebrate music and everything else, and have a laugh doing it."
Which sounds an awful lot like redemption.
Today's anniversary celebration at Real Groovy features limited vinyl releases, DJs and live bands from 2pm.