OLD RARE NEW The Indie Record Shop


New book shouts it out
loud: Viva la vinyl (and its devotees)!

BY FRED MILLS

 

The Flaming Lips used to have these whacked-out looking
teeshirts featuring a leering Godzilla and bearing the legend, “Your mother’s
not dead, she’s just sleeping.” The same could be said of indie record stores
nowadays: doomsday predictions of their en
masse
demise notwithstanding, by some estimation they’re still thriving.

 

That’s the underlying premise of Old Rare New (Black Dog; www.blackdogonline.com),
edited by Emma Pettit and Nadine Käthe Monem. The 144-page, 9 ½-inch-by-11-inch
combination essay/photo book both mourns the passing of those dusty, musty, hole-in-the-wall
collectors shops no longer with us and celebrates the resilience of those
who’ve hung in there, either by adapting to the vicissitudes of the music
industry (say, establishing a companion online business) or through sheer
bloody-mindedness and the loyalty (or lunacy) of their customer base.

 

In Pettit’s introductory essay, she explains that the book
grew out of a film she and a friend wanted to make about the changing face of
music production and consumption. In the course of their travels they talked to
scores of owners and collectors and accumulated a trove of photos of shops from
across the U.S. and England: spotlighted in the book are images of storefronts
and overflowing LP bins from such eclectic emporiums as Brooklyn’s Marquis
Dance Hall, Manhattan’s Finyl Vinyl, Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, San
Francisco’s Amoeba, London’s Rock On and others (they even unearthed a
circa-1908 photo of the front window of the Victor shop, complete with a model
of Nipper). The book is also dotted with drool-inducing pics of  vintage record labels, rare LPs and 45s (two
personal faves: a thuggish-looking Guy Warren of Ghana glaring out from the
front of his 1963 album Afro Jazz;
Krautrock kosmiche obscuros Karthago
crack-in-the-cosmic-egg sleeve of their self-titler from ’71). And there’s a
four-page directory of collectors shops in Britain and the U.S that, while
hardly comprehensive – four still-extant such venues not listed came immediately
to mind as I perused it – would still be pretty damn handy for anyone embarking
upon an extended record trawling journey.

 

 The meat of the book,
though, comes from the store owners, deejays, journalists, collectors and
musicians that Pettit solicited to tell their stories.

 

Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley (who, one presumes, wears at
least four of those five hats simultaneously), for example, talks about being
initially smitten by the visual allure of his father’s records – “They seemed
mysterious and important. The coloured labels had me hooked.” – and, later,
when he was old enough to carry cash around 
in his pockets, the thrill of discovering London stores like Beano’s,
Bonaparte’s and Rough Trade. Somehow, Stanley’s essay morphs into a
mini-tutorial on the history of sound recordings, going all the way back to
Edison and his cylinders, stopping to sing the praises of 78 rpm records, and
outlining how the changing needs and desires of consumers (and the
corresponding competition among record labels) gradually led to the creation of
the LP and it’s kid brother, the 45 rpm single. Writes Stanley, “40 years on, [vinyl’s] mystery is
intact, and the act of guiding the needle onto any of them is as close to
religious practice as I’m ever going to get.”

 

 Cat Power’s Chan
Marshall, in a lively Q&A, drops her guard completely when she reminisces
about past record shopping expeditions and some of her most beloved finds; for
anyone reading this article who can help, she’s still looking for a copy of
John Coltrane’s Crescent on vinyl. Devendra
Banhart, Will Oldham, Billy Childish, Joe Boyd, Makota Kawabata and others
offer similar anecdotes – it’s interesting how, practically to a man (and in a
few instances, woman, although Marshall’s the exception rather than the rule
here it seems), each respondent mentions in some context how they just don’t
get no kick from shopping via mouse click and how, eBay’s utility
notwithstanding, people’s ability to go collecting in front of their computer
screens has sorely eroded the social aspects of the hobby.

 

This
in addition to the sensory aspect of crate digging: another recurring theme in
the book is how there’s just something inherently pleasing about holding a
record, turning it over and around and admiring the artwork, engaging in the
physical act of sliding it from its sleeve and placing it on the turntable, and
watching the stylus engage its grooves as the tone arm tracks across the black
(and sometimes white, or red, or multicolored swirl…) vinyl expanse. And
records have also withstood the endurance test. Each time a new technological
wrinkle in music delivery systems comes down the pike early adopters and
doomsday mongers alike smugly announce the demise of vinyl, seemingly oblivious
to the fact that of all the formats
utilized over the years to crank the jams – iPods, CDs and their audiophile
variants (does anyone even remember Super Audio CDs nowadays? those are sooo, like, 2006!), compact cassettes,
etc. – the LP is the only format that’s truly stood the test of time.

 

Vinyl’s
gonna last, and not just on an aesthetic level, either. Long after radiation
from global atomic war has wiped every hard drive clean of its stash of MP3s,
our record collections will still be with us, waiting patiently down in our
darkened basements, perched on their shelves like big black 12″-diameter
cockroaches.

 

This
analog-powered endurance can seem curious on some levels, of course. Vinyl has,
for all intents and purposes, zero portability unless you own a battery powered
phonograph player (and try spinning a platter while taking the subway to work).
It’s inconvenient to the point of being a space hog – what you can physically
shelve against the north-facing wall of a 120-square foot room could probably
be stored, tunes-wise, on a single iPod – not to mention a significant
financial drain if you are in the habit of moving frequently (guess how much
Mayflower charged me to truck my 10,000-plus record collection cross-country in
1992 and then back across in 2001). And to get really good sound out of vinyl
you need to invest in high end audio gear, which can be time consuming and extraordinarily
expensive – and for some, a life-long obsession, a quest for sonic perfection that
may never be attainable.

 

The
convenience factor, however, is actually a non-issue for true vinyl fans. In
fact, one might propose that the absence of convenience and portability is a positive
quality for folks who collect vinyl. That’s something that comes through loud
and clear in the essays collected in Old
Rare New
. Forced to gather in a
static environment – a room of a house – and commune as a group while a record plays
on a stereo (my first one: a drop-down Magnavox, complete with 16, 33, 45 and
78 rpm settings), humans suddenly find themselves with artistic, conversational
and, whether your dance of choice be the pogo or the foxtrot, physical common
ground.

 

This
ain’t your sit-on-subway-with-earbuds-and-vacant-look-on-face method of musical
consumption, in other words. When iPods were first introduced there was a brief
phase where people would greet fellow iPodders by swapping earbuds for a song
or two in order to hear what was in each other’s playlist, but we’ve long
passed novelty status for iPods. They’ve become tools of isolation, not
interaction.

 

The best essay in Old
Rare New
seems to get at the heart of all these matters, and it’s titled,
fittingly enough, “My Life In Record Stores: A Cautionary Tale.” Penned by rock
critic/archivist Byron Coley, it chronicles one man’s journey from wide-eyed
pre-teen to savvy/cynical collector to record store clerk (fun fact: Coley took
Steve Wynn’s place at Rhino in L.A. in the early ‘80s when Wynn left to focus
on his band the Dream Syndicate) to operator of his own business,
Massachusetts’ Ecstatic Yod. While not everyone has immersed themselves so
utterly in vinyl culture as Coley, anyone who’s ever whiled away the hours (and
the paychecks) pawing through the bins of thrift stores, mom ‘n’ pop shops and
businesses catering exclusively to hard-core collectors will get a whiff of
recognition from the piece.

 

“[There are] people who are lifers, committed to independent
music from here to whenever,” writes Coley, and while he’s describing himself
and his professional peer group, he might as well be talking about you or me.
“If they have enough room, this group tends to prefer vinyl. They only turn to
Amazon when all else fails, and they’re more interested in hearing new things
than they are finding stuff they already know.”

 

Coley then pretty much summarizes where we’ve been, how we
got to the current state of affairs, and why those doomsday predictions are way
premature:

 

“There is nothing quite like walking into a strange little
record store, and finding a record you’ve been after for so long, you didn’t
even remember you wanted it until you flipped through the bin and saw it. There
is no similar charge available online, and it can’t be gotten from a CD. There
is something unique to vinyl and little stores and the people who live to
breathe their air. Our numbers may be dwindling (or maybe not), but as long as
there are any of us, independent record stores will never die.”

 

Boy howdy to that. Like the dude said, as long as there are
record collectors (which is to say, forever), there will be a place for record
stores. They might have to upgrade the tech end of their businesses and flog
their wares online in addition to their day-to-day activities in the brick ‘n’
mortar realm. They might have to shove some of the bins aside and make room for
a small performance space in order to attract those types of customers that
need more bang for their sensory experience buck (but who, per what I wrote above,
desperately desire that social element). They might even have to sell
superfluous trinkets, geegaws, rolling papers, teeshirts, even the stray bottle
of bootleg whiskey under the counter, to survive.

 

But don’t even think of counting ‘em out.

 

 

[Note: portions of
this article were excerpted from an earlier original essay about the
demise/resurrection of vinyl penned by yours truly for Stomp & Stammer
magazine.
]

 

 

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