By Simón Rios
April 20, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — Whether it’s “bachata” you’re looking for, “noreteña” or “salsa” or “folklorica,” chances are, if it’s Latin music of one sort or another, Tomas Xirum Perez has it in his shop.
“I decided to sell a little bit of everything, items from Central America, South America, or international,” said Perez, owner of International Guatemala Musical and Fashion.
Since it opened in 2010 the small shop has been a staple for Central Americans in the North End, offering a seemingly endless variety of products that cater to a distinctly Latino crowd. Whether its to get the latest jersey of your national team or to dress up for a rodeo, Perez can set you up for short money.
Perez estimates that he has 10,000 discs in stock, with artists representing a multitude of Latin American styles and even American hip hop.
But he says sales are down — in a major way — so much so that he calls it a small miracle if he sells a CD in a day.
“The people don’t want to buy them anymore,” he said in Spanish. “They even tell you that they get it on the Internet, for free. Why would I want to buy this?'”
Saturday was international Record Store Day, which began in 2007 and is apparently recognized on every continent except Antarctica.
According to RecordStoreDay.com, it’s a day for the people who make up the world of the record store to celebrate the “unique culture of a record store and the special role these independently owned stores play in their communities.”
For his part, Perez, 38, had never heard of Record Store Day. But it doesn’t stop him from embodying the spirit of independent sales.
Perez came from Guatemala without papers in 1995, working at a textile factory in Fall River. With the dream of opening a shop and becoming his own boss, he saved all the while.
“That was my goal,” he said. “Since I was very young I would admire store owners. I would see that they had their things, they weren’t lacking for anything. I told myself that one day I’m going to be the same.”
He said his startup came not from loans or investors, but straight out of his savings. To start a business the size his requires a good $100,000 in startup capital.
Based on the sheer amount of products he keeps in the store, that’s not a surprising figure. If it’s pants, socks, underwear, Perez has it in store. Cowboy boots? A Panama hat? Baseball cap? Jewelry? Flags? He’s got it all.
An important part of the clientele are the “recien llegados,” the “recent arrivals” in the country who come with practically nothing for possessions.
Coming from poor Guatemalan villages, Xirum said the path to the U.S. is very costly. These days the “coyotes” (human smugglers) charge $5,000 — and the journey can take as long as two months.
“I think to myself: when people arrive here, what are the things they need?” Perez said.
“They come without anything, they start their lives up little by little.”
“I’ve seen many families who tell me, I’m bringing my son here. If I bring him by your store you can give me a discount. And that’s fine by me.”
At 38 now, Perez can relate to immigrants fresh off the boat. He said he was able to fix him immigration status, and he’s grateful of the law for allowing him to “legalize myself.”
Perez said he has to keep his prices low because of stiff competition from all angles. WalMart is one of his competitors, and he tries to keep prices on par with the retail giant.
“I always observe the prices, I watch the ads they run, and I have to offer the same prices,” he said.
Where he has the clear advantage is in location, seated in the heart of the immigrant community. Another advantage lies in his connection to Guatemala, where certain fine products are produced, such as belts, which Guatemala Musical has in abundance.
“In Guatemala they make the belts out of pure leather,” he said. “Here the majority are Chinese and they barely work.”
Sourcing partially from Guatemala and partially from Mexico, Perez keeps hundreds of belts in dozens of different designs. From simple thin straps to intricately embroidered works, the “cinchos” range from $5 to $100.
Like many trying to eke out a living along Acushnet Avenue, Perez’ business is tied closely to the economy.
“Business is slow,” he said. “The people aren’t spending for the sake of spending. They’re spending little because people aren’t getting enough hours at work.”
He said many of his customers work in the fish houses and are getting just 25 or 30 hours a week — not enough to be spend freely in his shop.
Asked if he’s still be selling music in the years ahead, Perez cast a glance across a huge rack of CD’s and nodded, as if to say “why not?”
He smiled, saying he likes to give them away to customers from time to time.
Asked where he see the business in five years, Perez answered as if the current state of things weren’t even factor. His hope is to open new Guatemala Musical locations, even a grocery, a restaurant.
“I know that it’s possible,” he said.
By Simón Rios