It was snowing on Record Store Day this year, the annual event that was created to celebrate what is now a dying breed, but what once was an establishment in nearly every town with a population of any decent size.
My town of Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Iowa, and with a population of over 125,000 people, it’s not enough to support one record store. The last one closed a few years ago, if I recall, and I remember making a special trip to city for one of the first record store closing of any significance-Rock ‘N Bach Records-when it shuttered, more than a decade ago. I drove up for the store-closing sale, snagging a rare Julian Cope picture disc for a song, and thinking, “I wish I’d known about this place sooner.”
It felt like a morgue in there. The store seemed depressingly dark, with windows blocked by faded promotional posters. We were late to the pickings-bins were missing entire sections from previous shoppers who’d gotten the more popular stuff. What remained were the obscure and undesirable. For ever oddball Julian Cope 12”, there were six copies of some EMF record.
There were more stores that closed before I moved up here, and several others that ended while I was here. So for Record Store Day 2011, the closest place I could solicit my support was to drive the forty-five minute commute to Iowa City, the same collegiate town where my love of independent record stores grew exponentially.
I’ve spoken before of this town and their selections, but like every other town that’s had a retailer devoted to the purchase of recorded music; Iowa City has seen a quiet dismantling of record stores. When I began coming to that town in search for eclectic selections and knowledgeable clerks, you could easily find a store on nearly every corner of its downtown district.
The Record Collector-which ended up becoming my favorite store out of the bunch-is the last one standing. I made the declaration that we would be traveling down to Iowa City to “celebrate” record store day, which is code for “If you let me putz around the record store for 15 minutes, I’ll take you kids to the shitty children’s museum, which is right across from the ice-rink inside the massive shopping mall next to I-80.
Immediately, I noticed the familiar face of the owner of the Record Collector-Kirk Walther-hurriedly assisting customers around the smaller square-footage of his latest location. By my count, this location at 116 South Linn Street is his third, and by my guess, the square footage is in between his original location and the one he eventually moved into when his business expanded.
It’d been years since I’d seen him, so a reintroduction was in order. At one point in time, I’d make the trip to his store about once a month-and that was when I lived over an hour away. Now that I’m closer, the drive was nothing like it was, but like everybody else, my purchasing habits have changed, as has the preferred format.
The drive down to Iowa City is indicative of this, where I loaded Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” onto my IPod before loading the kids in the van, a song that fit the abrupt climate change that found my lawn covered in snow before we ventured out.
I could have easily just brought Parade with us and started the journey, but as it is with the convenience that the mp3 format brings us, why not just add one more file to the larger catalog that comes with me for any journey that will be longer than 10 minutes in length.
Like most Big Ten college towns, parking is a valuable commodity. They’ve planted strategic parking buildings around the downtown area, of course, and if we were planning a lengthy stay in the district, this may have been the ideal spot. But we were entertaining my whim, and I needed a spot close to the Record Collector in order to make a quick exit. I knew the event would be lost on the children, and the appreciation of traveling back in time to when visits to the record store were part of the routine.
I asked Kirk how things were going with the store and then immediately regretted it. I’m sure he gets asks this question, and probably even more direct ones like “Are you guys going out of business soon?”
“Yeah, I get sick of it…but I understand why it gets asked” he acknowledged, right before he asked me directly “Are you still buyin’?”
It’s a tough question to answer, because on every account it suggests that I’m not doing much to support an industry that has provided me so much. And by “industry,” I’m speaking directly to the independent record stores and not to the labels that directly contributed to the downfall of brick and mortar stores that now view Record Store Day as their version of Black Friday.
There I was, admitting to the convenience of ITunes for those late night impulse purchases, the bargain pricing of Amazon on the rare occasion that I actually order physical copy, and vaguely referencing the promotional downloads that I’ll get for free for review consideration.
He seemed to notice how uncomfortable my answers were, and he quickly tried to display an understanding as to why I wasn’t a guest of his store as much as I used to be. And his responses were right on: with not living in Iowa City and with wife and kids into the mix, I’m not the single guy in his late-twenties/early thirties that can find the time to invest money into a passion that no longer has the drive to make me choose sides over my personal life. My personal life has become my family life, and music has become the mistress that I visit when the kids are in bed and the wife preoccupied.
It still provides the soundtrack to my life and its there to document changes in my world, but the keys to obtaining the score have changed a lot since I use to walk into Kirk’s store with one purchase in mind and leave with several titles in hand.
He smiled at this fact, because it was those kinds of encounters with others and myself that enabled him to grow and prosper before realizing that the livelihood he had chosen was based on an unsteady foundation, one where Kirk would have to work twice as hard just to get to half of the intended results.
I’m sorry for this, but it’s ultimately beyond my control. Sure, I could travel down and spend twenty minutes circling the block looking for parking, to which all of this would ultimately accomplish a reality where I’m spending less on a passion that requires me to dig deeper. Instead of four albums, I would only be able to afford one. So when opportunities allow me to obtain those four at a lower cost, I’m taking the cheaper route.
Kirk tells me that the most lucrative time was in 1991-when “college rock” suddenly became “mainstream rock.” When people would sell their cds just to get other cds, which provide stores like the Record Collector with the enviable position that they could obtain a nice catalog of titles just by buying direct instead of through rigid distributors.
I was one of those people, and Kirk was there to encourage my quest for knowledge. You’d give him a band that you were playing a lot, and he’d bring out a half-dozen titles of similar artists knowing that one would surely stick.
Surprisingly, he sounded upbeat and positive, despite my initial questions to him, which were anything but. It’s the vinyl that’s been helping his rebound, which seemed to be the format that Record Store Day focuses on.
Regardless of my embarrassment, it wasn’t guilt that drew me to Kirk store on this blustery Saturday-it was the rare shit. The day had been good to him: most of the limited edition stuff he received for the festivities were gone. I began to rattle off my own list of items that I’d circled and Kirk took me to the area that housed the Record Store Day new releases.
The Beach Boys 10” sold out early, but my other two hopefuls-a Deerhunter single and the vinyl version of Mastodon’s new live album-were still in stock. As Meatloaf said, two out of three ain’t bad.
The kids were thoroughly unimpressed with the record store and they spent most of their time scarfing down the chips and pretzels that the store had laid out to ensure a long visit. Ironically, the kids were the reason why the trip was cut short as the snacks led way to “I’m Hungry!” which meant that their whining would ultimately become a business liability for Kirk if I didn’t get them some grub.
But not before snagging an original, mint copy of Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs and a dirt-cheap copy of Phish’s Hampton Comes Alive.
“Mastodon and Phish in the same purchase! I love it!” exclaimed Kirk as his collegiate co-worker rang me out.
“There’s a Marty Robbins record in there too,” I added proudly, “There’s nothin’ wrong with tryin’ different things!”
And part of that diversity is because of the world that people like Kirk opened for me.
For that, I should be able to find at least one day a year to say “Thank you.”