Remember that feeling? It wasn’t so long ago, though it feels like something just jerked the trapdoor open with a phantom snicker resembling that pesky canine pot-stirrer, Muttley. You just know David Bowie’s nattering ch-ch-ch-ch-changes from the other side, because change will have its way. Retail, COVID or no COVID, is especially susceptible to change. Much of that comes from fluctuating tastes, malleable trending cycles, product accessibility, pricing and above all, often unpredictable shifts in social mores. All vulnerable, all volatile and all with needful fine-tuning on a continuum.
People are fickle. Especially when you have a climate of abundance and a vast array of choices. I’ve always loved Devo’s “Freedom of Choice,” not just for its pounding groove and snappy riffs, but for Mark Mothersbaugh’s snide indictment, “Freedom of choice…is what you’ve got…from from choice…is what you want…” Now we’re talking all the way to 1980 when Devo dropped that gem, at the dawn of an explosive age of consumerism in what my generation refers to as “The Big ’80s.” America was transitioning out of a recession, gas shortages and the Iranian hostage crisis. New York City was in such a decline then it was mockingly referred to as “The Rotten Apple.”
Things changed then, and for the good. Reaganomics was spat upon by punk rock, but it did work. One of the decade’s brightest spots, commercially and in a fundamental social way, was the music store. Back then, it was vinyl and even the dreaded cassette format (shockingly making a nostalgic rebound to a demographic that wasn’t alive the first time to know better) that ruled the world, and the record shop was king. I mean, an entire film was made about the cultural (and especially subcultural) significance of the record store in 2000’s High Fidelity, and in the fabled “Trax Records” used earlier in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. No doubt your first exposure to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bathory, The Exploited, Can, Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Afrika Bombaataa or Waylon Jennings came in one of these city-baked (or suburb, if that’s your case) music emporiums.
You no doubt have your favorite haunt from back in the day and you’re now drifting back in time with me, whether it’s to a mall-bound Camelot Music or Tape World, a super-size chain like Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore, or you went to your local hipster shop. Right now as I write this, I’m thinking of a bunch of out-of-print albums and rare imports nabbed at so many wonderful indie record shops I hit on assignment covering bands in Philly, Pittsburgh, New York and all around Jersey. I am still awed by Jack’s Music Shoppe in Red Bank, New Jersey, spotted directly across from Bill and Ted’s Secret Stash, i.e. the comic store used in AMC’s Comic Book Men. I promise you I went near-broke hitting those two places. Some of the record shops I’ve supported in my native Baltimore and D.C. metro region (most are gone) over the years are Record Theatre, Waxy Maxy’s, Music Machine, Record Connection, CDepot, An Die Musik, The Sound Garden and a long-standing local chain that gobbled a lot of my spare income and was eventually gobbled themselves by FYE, Record and Tape Traders.
Speaking of FYE, my son and I recently ventured to one of their last remaining stores which we’d frequented often in the past. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see their space now closed and barred inside a mall only holding on due to two department stores and a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Yet, the entertainment-oriented chain, if notoriously overpriced, had managed to survive in said mall for many years by cross-selling pop culture apparel and collectibles aside from mostly-mainstream CD, vinyl, DVD and Blu Ray releases. An FYE was very seldom the place you’d go to hunt down a Celtic Frost album, but in recent years, you could clean up on their buy two used get a third for a buck promotion that was always in full swing. Tres cool when you had a gift card to burn at one of their shops.
I felt a small twinge of melancholy when I saw the shock upon my kid’s face. When I stop and think about it, this particular FYE had been floating on borrowed time, even while huckstering Fortnite and Mortal Kombat action figures and coffee mugs splashed with contemporary horror and anime interests, all of which lure my son with the same enthusiasm he has for Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption games. To his delight and no comment needed on my end, we found the mall’s Game Stop unit still hanging around. As a card-carrying member of the Atari 2600 generation, I lament my lack of patience, much less interest in today’s cinematic if utterly soulless video game offerings.
For my hipper-than-thou compatriots from the music scene I once covered, the loss of a corporate-stylized FYE hardly compares to the closure of an independent record store. Yet, it’s fair to say the symbolic change in media consumerism has had an adverse effect on entertainment. It’s becoming far more fashionable to conveniently download and stream both music and film from your own t.v. or computer than going the old-fashioned route of driving to a record shop and taking the time to flip through vinyl jackets and CD cases. Yeah, back in the day you took a risk on an album carrying one or two boss beats and a lot of filler crap, but that gave you something to gripe about in line at the Front 242 gig and meet new, like-minded friends.
You may be too much of in a hurry to pull down that ear-popping jam you caught at the gym or on Sirius XM and drop it onto your hard drive or cell phone. You may feel the gas invested isn’t worth it. You may be a germophobe, as we still have plenty of those as the anti-pandemic masks begin to vanish, en masse. More than likely, you’ve just forgotten what it was like to pop in to a place where the staff most likely speaks your language, or can dig up the information for you, whether you’re hunting down Janis Joplin or the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack or the more obscure industrial-freako noise ensemble, Pigface. Sure, you can easily find any of them these days on eBay, Amazon, CD Universe or whatever online hub offers you the most comfort and convenience. Or you go to iTunes or get your kicks for free at YouTube if you want a right-here-right-now Dua Lipa fix.
Now admittedly, I’m no better than anyone else these days, so I’m not going to soapbox as to why you should be out there supporting record stores. We have the annual Record Store Day for that, as much a holiday for true audiophiles as Free Comic Book Day for that genre’s supporters. I consider myself attached to both, for the record (no pun intended).
What I will offer, here, is a road, these days lesser traveled, and for kicks, I went and took a trip down to The Sound Garden in Baltimore’s historic waterfront district, Fells Point. More supported by college drinking and weekend family outings, Fells Point has a unique charm, even with its tight quarters, narrow streets and axle-rattling cobblestones. The Sound Garden has long been one of my all-time favorite music stores, though I don’t get down like I used to. My life has changed, and I’ve been downsizing and economizing my personal space and my budget. My girlfriend, TJ, all but had cardiac arrest when she’d seen how much hard copy media I still had left after purging three quarters of what I used to. My recent move has been cathartic, and that’s included a sensible radicalization of my media. I too subscribe to t.v. streaming services like Disney Plus and HBO Max. I now have most of my albums digitally stashed on a thumb drive. TJ knows better than to try and get me to part with my Prince collection and film soundtracks, but my life, suffice it to say, looks far different than when I was writing in the music industry.
What resonated with me the most in my outing to Sound Garden last week, was how much I missed being in such an environment, and I cued up memories of all of my friends from the past. They seem like ghosts now. I remember how much fun we could have spending an hour and a half, browsing the same albums over and over again, buying some, skipping some, buying the ones we’d skipped a couple weeks later. We’d hover in the punk and metal sections like we owned them and we’d leaf through the underground ‘zines, looking for new bands and pen pals to write to. Always we’d get to know the staff. They’d try us with other genres while they had us loaf-abouts in-house and for me, especially, my all-around tastes were fostered in this fashion, making me more diverse, eclectic and well-versed. I routinely crossed genres in my articles and was often complimented by the artists and their promoters. It all goes back to being a record shop rat.
I know the days and times of patronage vary at a place like Sound Garden. Yet it was a rare and frankly bizarre thing this time where I calmly drifted into a wide-open parking lot around back, chuckling to myself how many times I’d had to squeeze and jockey myself into tight, diagonal formations. I found people taking pictures of the Sound Garden (like myself, of course), and I thought, “It feels like more like a museum than a store these days.” Most of those snapping pics just continued on their way, or turned around and pointed their cameras at the shops and restaurants across the way. It felt quaint instead of imperative.
It’s no secret an overwhelming percentage of the world’s population has moved on from CDs, DVDs and BluRays. It’s downright laughable and overwhelmingly sad to see what Wal Mart and Target’s entertainment sections look like anymore. They cater more to the gamers than the dreamers now. The resurgence of vinyl is why hard copy even sells anymore, and I get that. For me, there will never be a finer experience than sitting on the floor of my bedroom with the vinyl jacket to Iron Maiden’s Powerslave or the electrifying gatefolds to Kiss’ Alive II and Steppenwolf 7 in my lap while spinning their respective slabs on the turntable. It was intimate, as was being forced to take the extra seconds to flip the platter over and drop the stylus back into motion.
Intimate being the operative word here. Even the quicker method of insert and eject with a CD, there’s still that tangible, motion-filled process engaging the listener to the artist, with the invitation to scour the lyrics (if provided) while letting the vibe pulse into your ears, or to get lost in the artwork. You don’t get that physical, emotive experience casually surfing the console or streaming over the computer. Music consumption is far more gray and mundane these days, YET the lack of support given to enterprising record shops is just a part of the natural order, as mundane as that is to say.
Sound Garden has changed itself to accommodate the shifting tastes of its dwindling demographic. An entire half of the store is now dedicated to vinyl, which is where I found most people lurking and browsing. What used to be a vast portion of the store dedicated to CDs is now less than half that. The video section is large enough, but likewise pared down. The store deliciously whets your appetite with advertisements, replica concert posters and t-shirts and all of it IS still as eye-popping as it ever was. That part spoke to me, as much as the cardboard Prince from the cover of Art Official Age hanging over the checkout counter.
As did the young woman ringing me out, young enough to be my daughter. She was quick to recognize and compliment my Stax Records t-shirt and we had a brief discussion about the Memphis music scene and what her parents had seen and exposed her to. It did my heart a world of good, considering I have people in my own age bracket these days ask me what the vintage soul and funk label Stax even is. In its own hopeless way, a telling of the times…
–Ray Van Horn, Jr.