Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Decline of the Independent Record Store

Tower Records has finally gone under. On October 6, the company was sold to Great American Group (the parent company of such “wonderful” stores like F.Y.E.) and the existing stores are currently being liquidated for a going out of business sale that will see the locations close by the end of the year.
We have no Tower Records in Iowa; they could be found in larger cities and, for someone like me, became a destination point whenever I traveled to a location fortunate enough to have one. The stores were a destination point because they housed a huge inventory selection. I was used to being a “special order” kind of guy, so it was very refreshing to walk into a Tower Records and find a band’s entire catalog available and even some import titles.

My first ever visit to a Tower was in the mid-80’s when cds were still fairly novel and when certain titles were hard to find. It was in Orange County, California, and I walked out with a vinyl import copy of XTC’s Go Two, an import cd copy of XTC’s The Big Express, an import cd copy of The SmithsMeat Is Murder and another vinyl album that I can’t remember the name of. How I got the vinyl back to Iowa un-warped and in one piece also remain a mystery.
The feeling of walking into a record store like that got me thinking of the various record stores that have managed to give me some joy. They’re the type of locations that, if you were unfortunate enough to be there with me, you’d become one of those “Are you done yet?” type of people while I’d still be on the “M” section.
Sadly, a lot of the stores that made an impact with me didn’t make enough of an impact with others; a lot of them are no longer in business but for those that are, I’ve tried to provide links if available. Here’s something that boggles my mind: I can remember what albums that I bought at some of these stores. This has to be a sign of some mental illness.
  • DISC JOCKEY RECORDS (Keokuk, Iowa)-A chain, I know, but it was in my hometown and they did special orders. They had a fairly decent selection otherwise and they even had an import section. I’ll give them credit for later stocking titles that normally wouldn’t sell in small town Iowa; at least they listened to their customers. They did a terrible job of recommending titles, though. A worker there who was a grade ahead of me suggested that I get Planet P Project’s Pink World and Lita Ford’s Dancin’ On The Edge. Both efforts where awful and I immediately returned them. Typically, I would take a razor blade and make a deep, visually hidden cut in the first track. When you returned a record, it had to skip on their fancy Technics turntable before they would take it back and issue a refund. This trick ensured that every return I made was “legit” and helped me avoid future ridicule if someone found a Lita Ford or Planet P Project album in my collection. Oh, and the douchebag also sold me on the notion that the Planet P Project album was pressed on pink vinyl. Only his promotional copy was, but regardless of the color of the vinyl, that album sucked huge balls. Another dude made fun of the band named Scritti Polliti when I ordered the 12” for “Hypnotize” there. Record store clerks in Keokuk, Iowa don’t have the right to make fun of anyone’s music taste, in my opinion.
  • UNKNOWN RECORD STORE (Quincy, Illinois)-I tried to run a search to find the name of this independent record store that was located in downtown Quincy, Illinois, but had no luck. Quincy was about 45 minutes away and was a frequent destination point when I first got my drivers license. This was an important store because it was the first store that also had used records. Thus began my tradition of bringing old records for them to buy and then turn around with the in-store credit to get albums that I wanted. The owner was a friendly middle-aged dude with a mustache. He was really into progressive rock and recommended that I buy Supertramp Brother Where You Bound, the first album that they did without vocalist Rodger Hodgson. It had a 16 minute long title track and guitar work from David Gilmour. It’s quite possible that I let the guy know I was a huge Pink Floyd fan at the time, which may explain why he recommended this album to me. In any event, it was a bad recommendation; I sold it back to the store for a loss a few months later and picked up a used vinyl copy of XTC’s Black Sea. That album, in case you’re wondering, is awesome.
    The store did a good job of stocking high priced import cds, particularly when domestic versions of the title weren’t available. If you’re good at math, you can add up how much money I actually loss when I sold vinyl copies to them at $3 a pop only to turn around and buy an import version of The Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bullocks at the hefty price of $30. This was also the same store where I bought the obligatory copy of Bob Marley’s Legend, thereby starting my love of reggae music.
  • WEIRD HAROLD’S (Burlington, Iowa)-Still open and still with a huge vinyl collection. They also have a nice selection of used cds that can occasionally provide a customer with a great find. The store’s been around since 1972 and it’s still run by Dennis (or Denny, I can’t remember) who’s a nice guy. He’s not real up on rare titles (I got a first run edition of Stone Roses’ first album cheap) but he knows the value of the classic rock collection. While in radio, I would bring tons of promotional copies here, unload them for next to nothing, and have enough in-store credit to build the station’s library as well as my own. His wife owns the art store that it’s attached to, which may explain why it’s still around today. Small independent record stores in the downtown of a river town typically don’t last this long. I’ve never had anything recommended here; they just ring up the shit and say “Thank you.” Oh, and if you’re looking for that copy of Mason Proffit or Missouri, this is the place that will normally have it on the shelves. No shit.
  • BJ RECORDS (Iowa City, Iowa)-It ain’t around anymore, but back in the day it was one cool record store. Lots of indie titles and a little added snobbery (the section for Madonna was listed as Madorka, but this was when she was still fairly new and her cultural relevance was questionable). We’d car trip up to Iowa City to be around the cool college kids and we’d find ourselves here (along with the headshops that sold bongs and one-hitters). They’d tolerate us at BJ’s and answer our stupid questions (“Does New Order sound like The Smiths?”). I got lots of Smiths imports here and this is where I bought my first Butthole Surfers album. When I arrived home, my Dad noticed this and said “Mother look, your Son bought a Butthole Surfers album.” I think he was suggesting that I was wasting my money, but you and I know better. When it started to struggle, the store closed, then re-opened, but customer indifference helped it close again. The last time I was there they had hardly any titles on the shelves and the place looked deserted. It was sad, particularly when one remembers how thriving it was. I didn’t even notice a clerk there on the last visit, until I noticed a black middle-aged dude with dreadlocks sitting on the floor behind the counter on my way out. I think all he cared about was that I didn’t try to rip off the last remaining inventory that the store had.
  • THE RECORD COLLECTOR (Iowa City, Iowa)-Hard to find (originally), limited space (originally) for complete titles, and an extremely pretentious staff that consisted of a lot of local band members. What more could one ask for in a record store! They would have laughed me out of the store if I would have asked the “New Order/The Smiths” question that I asked at BJ’s. A lot of the conceitedness comes directly from owner Kirk Walther, who started the store with a crate of records and a whole lot of music knowledge over a quarter-century ago. He now spends the majority of his time in back, selling used shit on Ebay, buying record collections (ala “High Fidelity) and leaving the day-to-day operations to the college kids who seem fairly knowledgeable on sub-genres that I have no interest in. He’s a great guy once you get to know him and he is consistent with his recommendations. At the original location, it always seemed that they didn’t have much in stock, but what they had, you wanted. The key was to visit frequently; a lot of gems would come through the door only to be sold quickly if you didn’t get them first. He would pay top dollar for radio concert discs, which created an awesome merchant-consumer bond; I'd get mega bucks for those Led Zeppelin discs and walk away with something I really wanted. The newest location is easy to find, but hard to find parking for which makes destination visits a pain. Plus, they seemed to have focused more on trip-hop, dance music, and other club beats which ain’t my bag. There’s still fondness in my heart for ‘em, and it’s nice to know they’re still doing what they do.
  • LET IT BE RECORDS (Minneapolis, MN)-Now reduced to an online store/mail order, but at one time it was a great independent record store located in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. The high rents must have killed ‘em. Lots of catalog and an extremely knowledgeable staff that helped you when needed. There was a rumor that the store had a “secret” basement warehouse filled with additional collectables. Maybe it is true, especially considering they continue to do online stuff. Minneapolis used to have a lot of great record stores (Northern Lights on Hennepin was another) but now the independents seemed to have vanished or sucked up by the national chains.
  • HOMER RECORDS (Omaha, NE)-A totally badass record store (several locations) in a totally unbadassed state (Nebraska?!). Huge amounts of titles and a very friendly staff. I remember one time a clerk helping me during a moment of not knowing what it was I wanted to buy. He asked what I was listening to at the moment (Cat Power) and he located a hard to find title for me. He then went on to recommend another title. He then did something that I never had happen before: he opened the cd and let me listen to it at a listening station. I felt so obligated to buy it, even after I determined that I didn’t want it after I listened to it. When he wasn’t looking, I put it down in an unrelated section and bought the titles that I knew I wanted. Sorry, buddy. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him it sucked, especially after he so enthusiastically recommended it. A great store, though.
  • SLACKERS (Columbia, MO)-On the first few trips to Columbia, Missouri, I totally missed this place. When I did see it, it didn’t look like much on the outside and I didn’t go in. I usually went down the road to Streetside Records instead. But on the third visit to Columbia, I was downtown and it was getting late, yet the place was still opened. The outside was misleading, because inside, the store had two levels of album titles and a great selection of used. I never had anybody recommend anything here, but one dude did find the album that They Might Be Giants’ “Snowball In Hell” was on for me. Once, I was struggling with paying top dollar on an import version of a T-Rex album. They had the same title there, priced at the same cost of a domestic version. Score! They also had a used copy of Syd Barrett's Barrett and I'm still kicking myself for now picking up the other used version of The Madcap Laughs. I already had it (on vinyl and cd) but this copy had bonus tracks. And bonus tracks are a music geek's best friend. I also got the limited edition version of Spiritualized's Let It Come Down for something like ten bucks. Anyway, a cool store that I now hit every time I’m in Columbia.
  • VINTAGE VINYL (St. Louis, MO)-Located across the street from The Pageant, this store has a great selection of new and used titles. Once, I went there with the sole intention of buying an Alexander “Skip” Spence album and an album by The Cherry Valance. They had them both, and even had the Spence title used, which makes them cool in my book. What's cool is that it's sometimes open even after the show at The Pageant is over. There's nothing that's worse for the pocketbook than when you're record shopping in the afterglow of a concert.

Time, the loss of the indie-minded stores, and pricing have really diminished how frequently I visit record stores; to be honest, I typically order things online via Insound or Amazon. I do miss the interpersonal relations that occur when shopping in person, but honestly, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the passion of the people working at these stores than in years past. And that’s a problem, particularly when people are ordering more via online outlets and/or downloading music free. Give me a reason to shop there and I’ll give you my hard earned dollar. After all, people like me are dwindling fast. A recent conversation with a twentysomething proved this. When I asked how he gets new music, he immediately stated that he downloaded all of his songs and has a collection on his harddrive that numbers into the thousands. When I asked if he pays for them, without missing a beat, he said “What? Do you think I’m stupid?” Record companies did an awful job of lending their support of independent record stores and help foster the climate of music fans that view the art as a disposable commodity. There are fewer people who are passionate about things like the interaction of music lovers, the liner notes, the artwork, and by undermining the dwindling outlets that housed these geeks, the industry has assisted their own downfall. And even though Tower Records’ poor bookkeeping and poorly managed growth plans helped put them in the predicament they’re in, I can’t help but think that record companies, particularly the major labels, helped contribute to their downfall.


Vicki said...

Oh the old days of record buying. For me the actual entire ceremony of going to the record store and picking up the albums was part of the music itself. What suprises might be inside? A poster? Lyrics? Liner notes? I remember buying Led Zepplin's In Through the Out Door and accidentally finding that the black & white inside record sleeve was a watercolor! Those little surprises and the pouring over the record are so vastly different than now with the impersonalness of amazon. Tower is having a going out of business sale--but thanks two two large and time-tested independents that fun of going to a local store still exists (Wax Trax and Twist & Shout). I can remember where I bought ceratin records like you can, so I guess that makes me crazy. One in particular was Chicago's greatest hits back in the 1970's from Rempe's Music Store in Ft. Madison whilst visiting my grand-mama.
Hope all is well.

Todd Totale said...

Rempe's...When I lived there, we called it "Stempy's." Owned by a pair of old drunks who were not so friendly (at least later on they weren't) and who closed the business when they finally retired in the mid-90's. They were also notorious for having guitar strings with lots of oxidation on them. And on that going out of business sale, I bought the first Kyuss album and Fugazi's "The Argument."

Anonymous said...

I've recently started buying used vinyl again and have "rediscovered" a couple of stores that I used to frequent. Mother Murphy's in Normal near the Illinois State campus. When I was 18 I went there for the bongs and hitter boxed. I also got a cool glass steamroller there too. Anyway, last week, I picked up Judas Priest's Stained Class and Hell Bent For Leather less than $10 combined! A few weeks earlier I was in Peoria and stopped in to Younger Than Yesterday which is owned and operated by the guy on the Nuggets comp. This store was originally in a different location for years and it took a really long time for the new store to have that "feeling". You know what I mean? Where, you ge t the feeling that there could be undiscovered treasures in any/every nook and cranny of the store. It's got it now though. I got a sealed copy of The Church's double disc SometimeAnywhere for $8. Anyway, cd's are great for cars and my ipod is great for working out but, I missed looking at the record jackets and sleaves while the music was playing. I think it was part of what made music so personal for me as a young kid and maybe, even though I still love music more than ever and still buy a ton of cd's, it's a little less personal lately so...when I'm at home I'm trying to play a little more vinyl just for my personal enjoyment.

Todd Totale said...

Liar. You know you bought Quiet Riot's "Condition Critical."
And a Japanese copy of the new Paul Stanley solo album.