Record Store Memories Revisited
It’s the night before my column’s deadline, and instead of thinking about music and coming up with some snappy subject matter, I’m sitting in front of the television watching CNN for what’s become the daily Trump outrage. Today he called out the press after they caught him in another bucket of lies. There were more details about the fraud case for his make-believe “university,” he insulted Native Americans, a US Senator, women, and Mexican-Americans. So in other words, it was a pretty slow news day. Yawn.
The last time I got sidetracked by life and told my editor I had nothing for her, she yelled “No!” and suggested that at the very least I could always go back into my archives, find something of inspiration, and maybe rework it. So that’s where I went hunting, back to over seven years ago, when the hot topic on this site was the (still raging) argument of digital versus physical albums.
Since vinyl was still in the dead zone and streaming wasn’t yet happening, it was really a case of people defending the dreadful-sounding compact discs versus compressed downloads. I was one of a few who loved the ease of stuffing the equivalent of two thousand albums inside a little box that could fit into my shirt pocket, but I was also in mourning over the loss of not only record stores, but what became both a lifestyle and how I earned my living.
I grew up in Philadelphia, which was considered a “music town” due to its many musicians, clubs, radio stations, studios, record labels, and stores. My older sister and I watched American Bandstand every day after school, since it was broadcast live from 46th and Market Street. When I turned 12, I was caught up in the first wave of the British Invasion.
Living far out in the suburbs, I’d shop at places like Sears, Korvettes, and Woolworths after school. Every weekend, I traveled downtown and hit Jerry’s on Market (“All Albums $2.99”), Sam Goody’s, and Record Mart on Chestnut. And, between the adult bookstores and peep shows near 13th and Arch Streets, there was a store that sold “mystery bags,” which held five promo singles for a buck. I still have a few hundred of them stashed in the closet.
My strongest memory of those stores was standing happily, shoulder-to-shoulder, with other kids, flipping albums, and being enchanted by the artwork as the music blasted from huge speakers. I always came home carrying bags of new records, many of which I’d never heard of — I had been tipped over by the covers and liner notes. When I look back, these were the happiest times for a kid like me.
I literally stumbled into a career the last day of college — the job description was “go to record stores.” My new boss gave me the keys to a 1972 VW Beetle, a list of about five hundred stores from DC to New York, three-ring binders of catalogs, and boxes of promos, and he sent me off to sell.
I started with King James and Bruce Webb’s in the city, moved out to Bryn Mawr near the Main Point, to visit Plastic Fantastic, and Keller’s House of Music in Upper Darby. Al’s Record Spot and Levin’s Furniture in Kensington. Mel’s in South Philly. There was Speedy’s and Phantasmagoria in Allentown, the Renaissance in Bethlehem, Spruce Records in Scranton, and Central Music in Williamsport. There was Waxie Maxie, Kemp Mill, Discount Records, and Music Den. There was Eynon Drug Store, Gallery of Sound, and H. Royer Smith’s classical shop, where I scored Skip Spence’s Oar album, which they’d had sitting in the basement.
In the early 1980s, I got to run a store in Santa Monica that specialized in rare vinyl and I thought it was a dream job. But after a couple years, I went back out on the road. I got to visit hundreds and hundreds of record stores all over the country. It was not a bad life at all, but one that ended nine years ago with the recession. And despite some record shops that still are holding tight, the whole thing is pretty much becoming just a memory. A couple weeks ago, I walked by Other Music in lower Manhattan as they were getting ready to turn out the lights for good. Last week came news that a Chicago store that’s been around for 50 years simply gave all of their inventory away for free.
For those stores that still have a heartbeat, I hope you can hang on as long as you can.
Last week over 39,000,000 songs were streamed in America. No flipping.
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