In which ye old Blurt editor fantasizes about 12″ vinyl records and the sweet young things who covet them….
June 9, 2014
Dear Bob – It’s your buddy Fred again. How goes it? In your latest “Lefsetz Letter” post (“David Carr’s Article,” June 9, about NYT writer Carr’s “Free Music, At Least While It Lasts” story and “the outbreak of free”), you very astutely summarize where we’ve been and where we are; no arguments on my part there. But near the end, when you namecheck some of today’s dinosaurs (printers, travel agents, etc.) you take what I feel is a somewhat gratuitous—and ill-informed—swipe at record stores writing, sarcastically, “While we’re at it, let’s bring back record stores.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume that while you’re a staunch anti-nostalgist you still harbor fond memories of hanging out in and shopping at record stores back in the day, back when a lot of your boomer-fave bands like the Eagles were making vinyl LPs and a young Bob Lefsetz could be found flipping through the bins in the aisles of a favorite local shop while those timeless chords of “Take It Easy” blasted from the store’s stereo… and out of the corner of your eye you spotted a pretty girl over in the other aisle also flipping through the bins and also grooving to the tune so you screwed up your courage to wander over to her and, using the mutual musical connection as an ice breaker, asked her what her name was.
Wait—don’t hit “delete” just yet, Bob. I’m also going to go out on a limb here and presume that you and I are pretty close to the same age (I’m 56), and since the above scenario, or a similar one, probably unfolded for me a few times back in the day as well, we’ve got a few shared experiences that might make for an interesting conversation someday. (I am what you’d call an “occasional nostalgist” but don’t hold that against me. I’ve also got a 13-year old kid so part of my job as a parent is to make sure I don’t forget what it was like to be young.)
Back to the record store thing. Putting the stores into the dinosaur category is, I think, to consciously avoid actually going into one in 2014 to check out the dynamic therein. A lot of them have disappeared over the past two decades, and they ain’t coming back. Quite a few, though, hung in there, some of them literally by the proverbial skin of their… you know. As I may have noted in past emails, I’ve been working at an independent record store (Schoolkids Records, Raleigh NC – about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, in fact) for the past two years, and while no one here harbors any illusions about things returning to anything remotely resembling the Nineties Normal of the pre-download era goldrush (although the raging success of the annual Record Store Day vinyl-centric event is, in fact, encouraging) there is a definite sense here that everything old is becoming new again.
Our store (and for the most part all of the other stores in the US who are part of our Coalition of Independent Music Stores, which has been in place for years now) doesn’t exactly operate from a position of nostalgia, but what we ARE trying to do is restore the notion of a record store being a place to come and hang out, meet friends, hell, bring the whole family (it happens), geek out on this or that band/record (and I do mean records: new and used vinyl comprised nearly 80% of our sales), get your OWN band’s record/CD/tape placed in the bins via consignment, and yeah, maybe even screw up the courage to wander over to that pretty girl in the other aisle and make a comment about the music that’s playing over the store stereo. I mean, some things are eternal and don’t need fixin’, you know?
As a semi-relevant aside: at least once a day I see my teenage self in the store. It’s uncanny, Bob; here’s this geeky kid, might be a guy or it might be a girl, and they definitely look like 2014 kids, but it’s still ME some four decades hence, out there in the bins, feeding what’s potentially going to turn into a lifelong obsession with music. That’s me, in the early ‘70s, discovering my first used record store, or a store with a huge stash of UK imports and a box of bootlegs under the counter, or even a store where one of the employees stops what he’s doing to patiently help me find some weird-ass obscure band and doesn’t treat me like I’m some weird-ass geeky kid.
At our store we have tried to modernize within reason, of course. To that end we have free Wi-Fi so you can check your email, a big stuffed couch and a few chairs for lounging, a centrally-placed stage where we host live shows every early Friday and Saturday evening, and even a bar with 6 local drafts on tap (soft drinks and agua as well). We also jettisoned the “cranky old burned-out clerk behind the counter” model in favor of… well, since I’m the resident “old clerk” we actually just jettisoned the “cranky” and “burned out” components ‘cos I really enjoy being the clerk behind the counter, honest. Hell, I make it my mission to go up to every kid under 10 who comes in with a parent and hand him or her one of our store stickers (it’s a kind of demented fish logo, go figure), because I’ve never met a kid under 10 who does NOT like getting a free sticker and because I’ve never met a parent anywhere who does NOT like seeing a smile on their kid’s face. We are all about making people feel welcome here at our store and, oh by the way, we are all about giving a little kid a good feeling about our store because that’s gonna be a regular customer here in 5-10 years’ time.
My rather long-winded point is this: nobody’s trying to “bring back” record stores or trying to cling to some outdated or dead business model. We’re just trying to show people that they have an option they might not have realized has been here (at least in some cities) all along, right under their noses. A record store is — I risk sounding like the gone-native proselytizer here, but bear with me — way more than just a place to spend your money on music. If that was all a record store is, everyone would be happy just going to Best Buy. (Whoops, Best Buy has shifted all their music floor space to smartphones now. Never mind.) It’s a gathering spot, a public square, a nexus of interactions and social transactions and even the occasional teenage mating dance. Some folks stick around for a couple of hours or more. Everyone is welcome, and everyone has a good time.
It’s a beautiful thing Bob, and I would like to personally invite you to swing by some Saturday afternoon if you are ever in the vicinity and — not to get all hippie on you — enjoy the vibe. The first Bell’s Ale is on the house.
Viva le vinyl,
Fred Mills / Raleigh NC
Link to Lefsetz’ Original Blog Entry That Prompted My Response: http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/
UPDATE 6/10: Apropos of nothing – okay, okay, I’m being disingenuous; it’s fucking apropos – the Autumn Defense and Yep Roc filmed a series of testimonials about records and record stores last fall at Schoolkids (our old location, prior to moving). Watch a clip, below, or check it out over at YouTube.