Resurrecting the Record Store Experience
We’ve been bombarded for months — years even — with all the gloom-and-doom that surrounds the music industry in the 21st century. The word has become a ceaseless mantra: CDs are dead. Downloads were a giant asteroid that will demolish the music business as we know it. The iPod has made CDs little more than plastic taking up space. The subtext of all this? Hug your local record store, because it’s going the way of the dinosaur.
So there was a certain sense of inevitability when Houston’s most visible and lasting music retailer, Cactus Music and Video, closed on March 31, 2006, after 30 years. Not only was another cherished local institution biting the dust in front of the bulldozers and rent-raising strip-mall renovators, this was euthanasia by download.
The successor to George “Pappy” Daily’s pioneering Record Ranch music store had been the heart and soul of the Houston music scene, the undeniable crossroads. Heads hung low at the wake as record execs, musicians, distributors, and loyal customers hoisted a final drink and sentimentally waxed poetic about the meaning of it all. The sense of loss and doom was palpable.
But almost immediately, rumors surfaced that former general manager Quinn Bishop was exploring a rebirth for Cactus. The rumors ebbed and flowed for more than a year; some praised Bishop, others said he was crazy, that he was fighting a rising tide that would drown him. Bishop, who’d managed Cactus for twenty years, kept insisting Cactus would rise from the ashes. Downloads be damned.
“Despite the dire predictions, CDs aren’t going away anytime soon,” Bishop proclaims from his new space a half-mile south of the old location. “Everybody focuses on the drop in CD sales, but it’s still a $7 billion market. With our visibility and history, we think that’s worth taking a chance on.
“Look at what the big retailers are doing — drastically cutting space for CDs in their stores. Pretty soon all you’ll have will be a couple of aisles of top sellers and a bin filled with greatest hits compilations. People who love music are still going to be coming to us for stuff like this,” he says as he points to Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk.
Bishop then points to Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. “Some 17-year-old kid came in Saturday and bought that,” he says. “We don’t give kids enough credit, but they’re a lot like we were. They buy the Pat Green first, but give them a while and they come in and ask if we’ve got Sweetheart Of The Rodeo or the early Joe Ely stuff. And we do.”
Bishop — whose partners in the resurrected Cactus are Houston microbrewer St. Arnold’s, local supermarket maven Bruce Levy, and New West Records honcho George Fontaine — says the biggest challenge has been strengthening the old Cactus concept without destroying the strong brand identification.
“It’s tricky to re-brand something that’s been around 30 years, so we’ve consciously done little things that remind folks of the old space, like those green tiles in the floor,” he says. “And we’ve tried to be very careful to honor what we had. It’s like those original photos of Rose Maddox and Johnny Jericho that hung in the Record Ranch before they migrated to Cactus. When you’ve got that kind of history going for you, you don’t tamper with that, you respect it.”
The Record Ranch has also become the adopted nickname of a significant feature at the new Cactus: a large, well-lighted side space that houses an extensive vinyl collection. The original Record Ranch sign hangs over the portal, and black-and-white photos of acts such as the Maddox Brothers & Rose doing in-store performances in the 1950s hang on the interior wall. Bishop has made the room, with its lengthy wall space and high ceilings, an art gallery.
“The art conceptualizes the LP room for me,” Bishop says as he pulls a Live Dead album from a bin. “How many hours did we spend looking at album covers because they were arty and interesting? I want the art we show in here to add to that feeling. Another thing the art does — and we’ve already got some serious artists lined up to show here through next summer — is make this a destination, not just a store.”
An initial “Day of the Dead” exhibit featured a commemorative series of deceased rockers painted by Carlos Hernandez, drummer in longtime Houston rock outfit the Flamin’ Hellcats. “Some people from out of town came in Friday just to see the Hernandez exhibit,” Bishop says. “Of course, they browsed around in the CD stacks and bought some stuff. That’s the dynamic we want to find.”
A man in a tie walks up to Bishop, a plastic shopping bag in his hand. “Hey, Quinn, just wanted to say hi and good luck. Glad you’re back.”
“Thanks, Ed,” Bishop responds. “Did you find something out there?”
“I got to thinking about Al Kooper the other day and I came in hoping you guys might have something interesting,” he says. “Found a copy of Super Session.”
Ed walks away, another satisfied customer. Bishop looks at me with a smile and says, “You can download that record from any computer, but not that experience.”