Friday, April 18, 2008

Record Store Day, April 19, 2008

According to an industry association, tomorrow, April 19, is "Record Store Day," celebrating the fast-fading breed of retailers who sell hard copies of digital music as well as the more specialized product of analog hard copies, otherwise known as vinyl records. Actually, the latter are more than "hard copies," they are actual music reproductions from performances captured on acetate, wire, tape, or more recently, hard drives.
According to an article in a national newspaper, record stores are closing at a record pace. For whatever reason, today's music consumers plug themselves into their digital sources rather than physically engage in playback activities. The most common exceptions to this rule are DJ's, who maintain the culture by spinning records and adding some twists of their own.
At moneyblows books and music, our storefront is complete virtual, but we agree with what performer Regina Spektor had to say recently about record stores: "They have their own art form." Anyone who read the book or saw the movie "High Fidelity" is familiar with the all-knowing record store clerk, who can still be found in big urban centers and strategically located stores such as the Princeton Record Exchange in New Jersey.
Former record store employees are now a big fixture on the world wide web, using their knowledge to sell records all over the planet from their home offices. Where we write this blog from-- in New Hampshire-- the online sellers are often former record store know-it-alls, such as the guy who calls himself "wingo" on ebay. Another longtime online seller, up in Conway, New Hampshire, actually opened a physical location in 2007, a gutsy thing to do in a declining business. Yes, he is struggling to stay open, working part-time at a convenience store selling lottery tickets, since he has figured out what people in his market area really want to buy. Yes, there are a few record buyers, and they know where to go-- to his store on Main Street, in a quaint old building with a brick storefront, and they know he has irregular hours, and they know to make an appointment if they're really serious about buying-- or, more often than not-- selling the records they haven't played in years.
As I celebrate record store day-- our online store does indeed fall into Regina Spektor's definition of an "art form," I think of how record buying began for me. It wasn't record stores! I remember browsing through all the records every week at Birnbaum's Furniture on Main Street in New Britain, Conn. They all had list prices of $3.98 or so-- too much for a guy saving up for a bicycle with his paper route money-- but at least you could see what was coming out from week to week. Then there was Warren's Music on West Main Street-- he is still there, I saw him last week standing like a mummy in front of his cash register, same as in 1962, where the 45 rpms were kept in neat bins, from 67 to 98 cents each, and Warren would shoo you away if you were just browsing. That was a true record store and it was not for the faint of heart.
The affordable records were at Woolworth's, also on Main Street in New Britain. From the 1960s until the 1980s, a half hour spent in Woolworth's could yield any number of treasures from the 99 cent discount bin. This is where I cultivated record browsing; no one at Woolworth's cared how much time you spent in their bins. Then, as downtown New Britain fell victim to white flight, strip shopping centers flowered in the suburbs; just as disposable income began to come more freely to a young teenager with a paper route, a summer job in the tobacco fields, and the occasional garage band gig.
We started our after-school sessions at Sears, the anchor store at Corbins Corner, which had several price points for records, using color codes. Then we moved to the Neisners discount store, which had the kind of stock that Woolworth's had pioneered-- records that were out of date by as little as a couple months.
As indoor malls took over the shopping addicts from strip centers, the creature called a "record store," flowered in the form of chain stores too numerous to mention-- all gone now. Frankly, most of them were boring to a young person conditioned to treasure hunt for records. Their neat classifications and rapacious pricing took all the fun out of record shopping. In the long run, those stores paved the way for CDs.
The next big record store in my life was Record Town in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a family run cubbyhole on the campus strip on University Drive, with a know-it-all owner who would give you an informal Ph.D in popular music, but an unspoken rule was, you had to buy something; he didn't stay in business by either talking or listening. It was there I learned about some of the great Texas artists in jazz, blues and r&b, and later played with the owner's son in the blues band that formed my own playing style on tenor sax.
The family-owned operation couldn't afford too many discounts, though. They specialized in service, getting you anything you wanted in the Schwann catalog if it wasn't in stock. By this time, it was back to Woolworth's, which still held court in downtown Fort Worth. And, you never knew what department store might try a discount record bin for awhile-- the medium was fading fast and "unwanted" vinyl treasures got cheaper and cheaper.
Finally a person has all the records they need. Already having an online bookstore, I added records to it. And, record needles, in honor of the wonderful product line that accompanies records from Warren's to Record Town. You would never find record needles at a discount or department store; the provenance of my own stock is Radio Shack stores which discontinued the items in the mid-1990s.
What makes us stick with records? Things like this: today I have an order for Bob Dylan's album "Self Portrait." A little research reveals that the buyer is ordering from Italy.... a little more research reveals he is buying up every copy of this album he can find.... a little more research reveals that some sellers are refusing to sell to him, thinking he is a scammer because of ordering so many copies....a little more research suggests he is driving up the price of the Bob Dylan Self Portrait gatefold album.....a little more research reveals that..... he's a Bard College art professor working on a sculpture constructed out of these gatefold album covers!
That kind of thing happens more often than you might think in the strange world of record selling.
Even stranger is knowing that probably no one, or certainly a very few, humans will ever lay eyes on this blog entry. In that respect, it makes me not much different from the spectral portrait I viewed last week, standing on the sidewalk on West Main Street in New Britain, Conn., peering through the window at Warren's Music Centre. Standing at the cash register, his hawkish chin and prominent nose in clear profile, staring straight ahead at the wall; it's Warren himself.... waiting for a record buyer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great stroll down memory boulevard....keep up the great blog!