Hello Stranger from Issue #73
This issue’s Screen Door piece on the reopening of Houston’s venerable Cactus Records store got me to thinking about a lot of the other record stores that have meant something to me at one point or another over the past few decades. Some are long gone, others were more recent casualties of the industry’s shifting sands; quite a few have managed to stick around, one way or another.
Waterloo Records in Austin was pretty much where it all started for me, in terms of “serious” record-buying and music-learning. As a young lad I thought the mall stores were happenin’ until I graduated in my teens to the local Sound Warehouse, which was a small chain and pretty average in retrospect, though our particular North Austin store was probably somewhat better because its staff included one of the guys who eventually started up Waterloo.
If you’ve been to SXSW you’ve probably frequented Waterloo’s 6th & Lamar location, though my indoctrination came at the much smaller original store about a mile south on Lamar. I remember buying Scruffy The Cat’s High Octane Revival solely from hearing them play it over the sound system one afternoon. I recall in-store performances by the likes of Peter Case and the Silos, and by local faves such as Doctors’ Mob and the Reivers. I bought a copy of a cool indie publication called The Bob and wondered what it might be like to write for them. (Eventually I did, contributing a short feature about Austin band Glass Eye.)
The quality of Waterloo’s record-store experience had me pretty well spoiled when I moved in 1991 to Seattle, which somehow had nothing of the kind even as the city was right on the brink of taking over the pop music world. The store scene was fragmented in Seattle — lots of little shops, some of them good, some not so much, but there was no central spot you could depend on for pretty much everything (nothing like today’s first-class Easy Street Records near the Space Needle, for instance).
The one Seattle store I grew quite fond of was a vinyl-specialty shop called Bop Street, which wasn’t all that big and was often nigh-impossible just to walk through because there were frequently boxes of records scattered around the aisles. The owner, an amiable and quite knowledgeable fellow named Dave Voorhees, apparently had a hard time saying no to incoming inventory. Fortunately, he eventually acquired a much larger space a few blocks away (from which he still operates today, just a couple doors down from the revered roots-rock club the Tractor Tavern).
Much of what I learned about a handful of other fine record stores across the country came from a months-long search in 1993 for old vinyl records that contained at least one Jimmy Webb song. The most staggering discovery was a place called Record Finders on Melrose in Los Angeles; no idea if it’s still there or not. As luck would have it, the place was a block and a half from the house of the friend I was staying with when I went down there to visit.
The front room of the store was rather small and unimpressive, but another door led to a back room that housed a storage warehouse full of LPs, shelved library-style on countless racks reaching high overhead. I spent far too much money on that trip, but filled out the Webb archives rather deeply.
I hit Nashville during that search too, scoring some gold at Great Escape and also Phonoluxe. At the latter store, I asked the clerk at the counter whether she knew what the various records I was buying (by the likes of Cher, Vikki Carr, Cass Elliott, Henry Mancini, Amy Grant, Wanda Jackson, and Des O’Connor) all had in common; she answered, “They all have Jimmy Webb songs on them?” A friend later suggested I should’ve proposed on the spot.
In Athens, Georgia, a few days later, I made the obligatory stop at the fabled Wuxtry, though there wasn’t a lot for the Webb completist to be found there. (Upon exiting the store, however, I did almost bump right into Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love on the sidewalk just outside the door.)
No doubt almost all of us have our own record-store war stories. Frankly I can’t quite imagine what my life would have been like without them. I’m not one to vilify the onset of MP3 files and online sales — lord knows the listening flexibility and the reduced storage are huge benefits — but there needs to still be room in the big picture for that trip to the record shop, where you never know just what you might stumble into. Cactus proprietor Quinn Bishop is quite right: It is all about the experience.