the record store.
When I was a kid, I played the piano.
Each year, I did these recitals where I’d be evaluated by three judges, and they’d give me a rating. The best rating you could get was “superior,” and if you received a “superior” rating three years in a row, you were awarded a gold cup.
The year I won my first gold cup, my uncle promised me a shopping spree at my favorite record store if I won. I practiced and practiced, singularly focused on that shopping spree. And when I won, I haunted him until he brought me to Disc-O-Mart in Hackensack, NJ. It was 1980. I was ten years old, and I still remember my purchases: Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg, Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, and The Clash’s London Calling.
All three records had a profound impact on my life – but so did that trip to Disc-O-Mart (which I seem to remember as “Disc-O-Mat,” but I can’t seem to find any info about it on the internet). The store was dimly lit, neon everywhere, incense burning. Jefferson Airplane blasted over the speakers.
Even at that early age, I was hooked. My mother would shop at Caldor or Bradlees, local department stores, and she’d simply drop me off in the record section where I’d stay for her entire visit. If I was lucky, she’d let me take one home. But even if she didn’t, I was still pretty lucky, spending a half hour or so flipping through the racks, adding to my mental list of shit I needed to own.
By high school we had a record shop that was our own: Ramsey Books & Records, in the Interstate Plaza in Ramsey, NJ. I’d actually ride my bike there from home, or walk there from school. I bought The Cars’ Candy-O there, after a long talk with one of the employees about the virtue of The Cars (the summary: first two Cars records = very cool, everything after = not). I bought Iron Maiden’s Peace Of Mind there, the day it came out, as a young metalhead. And I still remember the anxiety during Algebra class the day Rush released Grace Under Pressure in 1984. The anticipation – would I get to the record store before they sold out? Would I get back to school in time to catch the bus home?
After school I ran like a madman down Franklin Turnpike, over Route 17, and across the Interstate parking lot. Of course there were plenty of copies left for me, but the kid in front of me on line couldn’t decide what brand of blank tape to buy, and that held me up just long enough that I missed the bus and had to call my mom to come pick me up. She was pissed, but as far as I was concerned, that was a small price to pay – I got my Rush album.
Ramsey Books and Records was also the site of another transformational musical day for me – the day I bought both Husker Du’s Flip Your Wig and The Replacements’ Let It Be, in 1985. Both records were life-changing for me; and both were a result of that awesome little record store that kept me stocked not only with records and tapes but with blank tapes, record needles, record cleaner, posters, and even rock band pins (three dollars each) for my denim jacket – first Iron Maiden and Anthrax, then Rush and Yes, then The Cure and The Smiths, and finally Husker Du and The Ramones, before I finally retired the denim jacket and its pins in favor of the stupid hippie Mexican poncho and baja shirt I bought as a college freshman.
When I moved to Rockland County I discovered the beauty of used records from a vinyl store behind the Nanuet Mall. For $1.10 one-way, I’d take the 30-minute bus ride down Route 59 to the mall, sometimes all alone, and then walk across the mall parking lot til I got to the record store (I can’t recall the name). For a buck each, sometimes less, I’d pick up as many obscure British metal and American punk records as I could find. The more obscure, the better. Then I’d ride the bus back, reading the liner notes and prioritizing which records to spin first, hoping nobody was home when I returned, so that I could turn the music loud, lock the door, and disappear into a world of new and weird sounds.
When I got my driver’s license at 16 we discovered the City, and when we discovered the City we discovered Bleecker Bob’s. Too young to go to a club to see bands but not too young to drive into the Village and stare, Bleecker Bob’s was one of the only real destinations we ever had when we went to the City. I loved the whole process of flipping, flipping, flipping, going through every single fucking record in the racks from A to Z, pulling out every compilation, turning the records over to read the titles, checking out what the guy next to me was looking at, and waiting patiently for the guy in front of me to move to his right so that I could get to the next row of records (and hoping he didn’t like what I did, because he might buy the only copy).
I bought The Feelies’ The Good Earth at Bleecker Bob’s in 1986 or 87. REM’s Murmur, too. I bought a Sonic Youth record there, because I read about them in the Village Voice. And just before I graduated high school, I drove home with my latest Bleecker Bob’s purchase, Husker Du’s major label debut, Warehouse: Songs and Stories.
That night I laid out on my deck and listened to Bob Mould sing:
The yearbooks, with their autographs
of friends you might have had.
Well, these are your important years,
you better make them last.
Falling in and out of love, just like-
these are your important years, your life.
My sophomore year in college, I got a job at Strawberries’ in Bloomfield, CT, in the Copaco Plaza. It was my first record store job, and I was out of my mind with enthusiasm about it. Besides the two managers (one’s favorite band was Metallica and the other’s was Faster Pussycat), I was the only white guy in the place, and one of the other employees – a house DJ named Mike – would bring in these club mixes that he made on cassette. Mike’s mixes were the only tapes permitted to be played in Strawberries’ that were not the company-sanctioned promo cassettes; endless cassette loops of that month’s latest releases and greatest hits that made no sense for the venue – the latest Motley Crue and Guns N Roses records, being promoted on the outskirts of urban East Hartford, was absolutely ridiculous. Mike’s tapes were how I learned what little I know about hip hop and house music.
I was (and still am) a pretty big guy, so they asked me to stand outside and be “security” when Janet Jackson tickets went on sale; I’ll never forget standing there as wannabe gangstas lined up outside the store, waiting for tickets to go on sale, and listening to their fury as 10:00 rolled around and the managers kept the door locked while they bought their own tickets first.
I also remember being approached by an African-American guy in the store one day; he saw my red vest but didn’t notice my white skin. As he approached, he began, “Can you tell me who sings that song…” finally looking up and making eye contact, and realizing he was talking to a long-haired white boy, and finishing his sentence, “…oh, you wouldn’t know.”
“I wouldn’t?” I asked. “Why, because I’m white?”
“Well, yeah,” he responded. “How would you know?”
“Go ahead,” I challenged him, DJ Mike ambling over to me with a big smile on his face, curious as to how the challenge would end. “Try me.”
The man proceeded to recite a few lyrics from some R&B song.
“I have no fucking clue what that song is,” I said. We all burst into laughter.
After college I came back to New Jersey and got a temporary job at Compact Disc World, on Route 17 in Paramus. We faced stiff competition from Tower Records, which was just up the street. But to me, it was heaven – two phenomenal record stores, just a mile apart on the same stretch of highway. And long after I worked there, after I started Dromedary Records, I would walk into the stores and waltz right over to the “C,” “F,” and “M” sections, looking for cuppa joe, Footstone, and Mommyheads records – and smiling quietly to myself when I found them.
In fact, whenever I found a Dromedary release at one of those stores, I would immediately buy it, hoping the buyer would eventually reorder it. I was my own best customer.
I’d also shop at Flipside Records in Pompton Plains, site of one of the coolest Dromedary-related record store experiences I’d ever had. At Flipside, I’d always try and pick up records from whatever local bands I could find.
And of course there was Sound Exchange, in Wayne. When we lived in Lodi, Wayne was practically the countryside for us, so when things got particularly claustrophobic Sandy and I would drive out Route 46 until we got to Wayne. In the same plaza, there was a big craft store, and Sandy and I would get out of the car, kiss each other goodbye, and then she’d go one way and I’d go the other. I always outlasted her; I could sit in that record store forever. I bought Come’s “Fast Piss Blues” CD single there, a song that’s still in heavy rotation at my house. I also discovered Kill Creek, the Dambuilders, and Smackmelon at Sound Exchange.
And of course there was Pier Platters, the place I’d sometimes go just to be. I’d just go into Pier Platters and root around, listening to whatever was playing, observing whatever was happening around me. Pier Platters was so much more than a record store – it was a community, sort of a base of operations for Hoboken-based artists, but also for touring musicians coming through town. Pier Platters and Maxwells together were the anchors that made Hoboken such a great place for music in the late 80s and early 90s; add in Bar/None records and you had the kind of scene that other towns strive to achieve.
And my visits to San Francisco included stops at Rough Trade Records (where I first heard Sebadoh’s Bakesale) and Aquarius Records (the first store that actually asked us if they could buy our music direct) helped develop Dromedary while simultaneously helping expand my own musical palette.
There was also Sound Effects in Hackettstown; the day we finally sucked it up and tried to consign our music to various record stores in New Jersey, that was the first place we went. I was shocked to discover racks of vinyl, great local and indie music, and a close tie with Centenary College’s station WNTI. The folks at Sound Effects were clearly trying to promote their own scene as well.
Of course there was our local record store right in Lodi, which always stocked a load of indie and punk music (and was overloaded with Misfits-related music and merchandise, as you’d expect). And when we moved to Boonton, there was also a used record store, right at the top of Main Street. They stocked an overwhelming assortment of jazz, big band, and classical LPs along with mainstream 50s, 60s and 70s popular titles – and a shitload of antique record players and old-style victrolas.
By the time we moved out to the country in 2004 or so, we’d embraced the beauty and convenience of online downloading – amazing to be able to get whatever title you wanted, any time of day or night, in two or three minutes. E-tailers that would actually make recommendations and let you sample the songs before you bought them, pay with your credit card and click a button – then download them and have them on your iPod, with the 20,000 other songs you store on it, in no time flat.
It truly is a fantastic turn of events, this new technology, and I continue to embrace it. It improves distribution for independent artists immeasurably. It reduces costs and helps level the playing field for unsigned and indie bands and labels. In many ways it helps promote creativity, as bands and labels push the envelope and develop new ways to market their music.
Technology is a fantastic thing for indies.
But at the same time, there’s something missing – a small slice of culture that our kids will never experience. Standing at a row of records, flipping through the bins while some awesome song blares at you over the speakers. Listening to the conversations happening around you, and immersing yourself in the vibe. Turning over a giant 12-inch LP, reading the titles, and then choosing your records – bringing them up to the cashier and then experiencing that strange rite of passage: determining who has better musical taste – you, or the guy at the register? And then finally bringing your records home, reading the liner notes and lyric sheets while listening – flipping over side one to listen to side two – and perhaps gently falling asleep, only to be woken up when the needle POPs up at the end of the record, speakers amplifying the telltale sound of your tonearm lifting off the record, moving back to its perch, and shutting down. And then knowing that the record player is still on while you sleep, and quietly wondering: should I get up and turn it off? Or should I just leave it on til morning?
Record stores are going away. In this entry, I mention 17 places where I bought records that had a major impact on me as a music fan (including Bradlee’s and Caldor). Of those 17, just five remain, if you count Strawberries’ (which was purchased by Trans World Entertainment, a company that expanded by buying failing record chains like Strawberries’, Wherehouse, Camelot and Sam Goody).
Five of 17.
How long before Flipside goes out of business? Or Bleecker Bob’s?
And I know that companies like mine aren’t making it much easier, by releasing titles that are digital-only. But I promise you, as we grow you’ll start to see CDs from us again, and we’re even making plans for some vinyl LPs. As long as we’re a viable indie (which we’re not yet, but we’re trying), we’ll support indie media any way we can.
April 17 is National Record Store Day. It’s as good a time as any for you to rediscover the passion for music that used to drive you into the record store.
Go. Go to your local record store. If you don’t know where it is, go to this website and find it. And then just go there. Stand around, like you used to. Start with “A” and flip through the racks, pausing occasionally to transfer a title from the rack to your left arm. And when you get to “Z,” have a pile of titles – maybe five, or ten – in your left arm. Bring them up to the register. Wince when the guy at the counter makes some snarky comment about your taste. And then go home and listen to them.
If you’re a music fan, it’s the least you can do.
But I guarantee you – if you do it, by the time you’re done, it won’t be something you did out of some sense of responsibility to keep recorded music alive – it’ll be one of the coolest things you’ve done in a long time.