Saturday, April 18, 2015

On Record Store Day

It would be easy to dismiss Record Store Day.

I mean, isn’t Record Store Day just a cash grab by the labels, to push out some special releases and boost sales for a day?

Who even has a turntable anymore? And CD’s? Even I’ve moved on to a less cluttered embrace of mp3s and those streaming services (that happen to make me so uncomfortable).

And if you really want to be a jerk about it, who even needs brick and mortar record stores anymore? If you need a hard copy CD or vinyl record that badly, can’t you more easily order it online instead of trolling around every record store in town, hoping one of them might have it in stock? You get your disc in 3-5 business days. Everyone wins, right?

There’s a grain of truth in all of the above. And, yet, I reject it all. Because record stores do matter.

Record stores have been a special place to me, and to many other people. They are places when music isn't just consumed, but where it’s shared and discussed. They’re places where friendships are made and communities are built. No one ever met their girlfriend at the iTunes store. And no one ever hung out with their friends on Spotify.

Record stores were safe spaces for me. Places to get lost without feeling scared, and to be alone without feeling lonely. Places to get exposed to new things and indulge the things I already knew I loved.

Every year on Record Store Day, I find myself thinking about my favorite record stores. In no particular order, here they are:

Amoeba Music, San Francisco -- An obvious pick; the mecca of record stores worldwide. Perhaps too massively spacious to have the warmth and community of a more traditional mom and pop shop, but who cares when there’s so much music to rummage through?  I've been to Amoeba about four times. Nearly every visit has come with a $70 minimum investment.

Notable purchases: David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (double album re-issue); Sahara Hotnights: Jennie Bomb

Tower Records, Rockville, MD – The record store I spent more time in than any other. I actually credit the presence of this store within two miles of my home (and their late hours) as the primary factor in my staying out of trouble through high school. I mean, who wants to get drunk in a parking lot when you can eyeball the entire Aerosmith catalog?

Notable purchases: Nearly the entire Aerosmith catalog.

Streetlight Records, Santa Cruz, CA
-- Around 2004, I spent several lonely Autumn weeks working on-site with a client in the San Jose/Santa Cruz area. Almost every single night I drove into Santa Cruz to grab dinner, walk the pier and stare at sea lions.

The experience was typically kind of depressing. The summer crowd has rolled out, and even with downtown teeming with college students and beach bums, it had the feel of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" -- a town defined less by what it is and more by what it used to be (...even if that "used to be" was only three weeks earlier).

Eventually, I happened upon Streetlight Records, and it felt good to wander into a strange place and find myself among familiar types of people. I eyeballed fliers for punk rocks shows. I filed through the staff picks. I slowly grabbed a handful of CDs. 

And I waited every second until closing time before I paid for them.

Notable purchases: The Pixies: Doolittle; Lynch Mob, REvolution 

Waxie Maxie’s, Rockville, MD – Crappy, dark, cramped, and not particularly friendly. One of those places where the entire damned inventory of tapes was kept behind glass. But it’s where I purchased my very first Rolling Stones tape. And that's good for something.

Notable purchases: The Rolling Stones: Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out

Kemp Mill Records, Rockville, MD –
Less cramped and more friendly than Waxie Maxie’s, Kemp Mill was a phenomenally successful local business before Tower came to town. I especially valued their selection of silly heavy metal posters.

Notable purchases: Dokken: Beast from the East; Iron Maiden: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son; Andrew Dice Clay: Dice; Metallica and Iron Maiden: various posters.

CD Depot, College Park, MD – Back before the Internet, finding rare recordings took some work. But if you knew the right people at the right record stores, there was this entire underworld of “bootleg” live and unreleased recordings that one could partake in. In the distant past, CD Depot was one such place. (I'm pretty sure they discontinued this practice many, many years ago).

I don’t remember what I bought at CD Depot, but I remember it being expensive and rare. And I remember the thrill of buying it….so much like buying porn or beer, or something else you weren’t supposed to have. Except something about it being called a “bootleg” made it seem even more illegal. 

Notable purchases: Very likely something by the Stones. 

666 Rock Shop, Beijing – China is a confusing place. Just about everything feels unfamiliar, and the linguistic and cultural barriers are a constant source of bewilderment and frustration. To stumble upon a record store that specializes in extreme metal is comforting in a way that's hard to express.

Notable purchases: none.

Yesterday and Today Records, Rockville, MD
– I’m old enough to know why owner, Skip Groff, is an important guy to D.C.’s music scene. But if I’m being perfectly honest, the guy was needlessly rude to me more than once. To this day, I still don’t know what I did that was so wrong when I asked him if the Samhain “Unholy Passion” poster on the wall was for sale, but he channeled the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons pretty aggressively on me.

I remember feeling embarrassed in front of other customers, and wanting to smack the glasses off his fat face. (If I’m remembering correctly, I think I spit on the front door of his shop on the way out. Sounds roughly like what the 19 year old me would have done).

All of that said, well, he ran a pretty damned good record store, and I came back several times over the years.

Notable purchases: The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Requests (vinyl, with the 3-D cover. Status: missing/stolen).

Phantasmagoia, Wheaton, MD (various locations)
-- This is where I purchased my first Metallica cassette in 1988. And after they moved down the block and opened a club, this is where my first band played most of their shows…where I saw Nebula, the Friggs, ScottWeinrich's and John Stabb's various bands perform live.

The owner was nice. The head bartender was pretty. I spent a lot of Friday nights seeing kind of overpriced shows at Phantas.

I don't remember being shocked when it closed; it often felt like it was just about ready to fold. But now that I'm thinking about my time there -- and very likely about to move back into that area -- I do miss it.

Notable purchases: Metallica: Ride the Lightning. 

Down in the Valley Records, Minneapolis, MN – I was about 24 years old, and finally getting into the groove of business travel.

The plan was to finish a day of sales meetings in Minneapolis, then spend the night in town, getting to know this music scene I’d heard so much about. After finishing the day at work and checking into my hotel, I called home to let my folks know where I was.

That’s when my dad told me my grandmother had died, and that I needed to come home as soon as I could.

I wasn’t distraught, but I was sad, particularly because there were no flights available until the next morning. I’d lost the will to go drinking or hit up the punk rock clubs, but I still had time to kill in Minneapolis.

I wondered around the Mall of America and ate a burnt cheeseburger for dinner, not really sure what to do with myself. By the time I left the mall, the sun was down, and I was still sad. And the only thing I thought could possibly make me sadder would be to sit in a hotel room by myself all night.

So I pulled my rental car over at a gas station, found a Yellow Pages directory (remember the 90’s?), and found a record store that was open late.

What do I remember about Down in the Valley? Not as much as you’d think. They were selling some expensive Misfits boxed sets and strangely shaped bongs. They were playing loud punk rock. The employees seemed to like one another.

I hung out there for a long time, pacing up and down the aisles, not speaking to anyone or buying anything. But it makes this list because -- like so many of the stores on this list -- it was there for me on a night when I needed to not be alone. I’ll always be glad that I found them.

Record stores matter.

No comments: