I cut my musical teeth in mom and pop record stores, both as a customer and later as an employee. But then back in the day, the independent record store was as much a part of the neighborhood as the butcher, the baker, and the candy store.
The fact is I bought my very first record at such a store. It was the Beatles' 45 for "I Want To Hold Your Hand" backed with "I Saw Her Standing There." I begged my mom to take me up to Harper's Records in the West Seattle Junction to get it the day after I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I was all of seven years old.
The store was run by a sweet, little old lady named Mrs. Harper who immediately took a shine to her youngest customer. So when I came back a few weeks later to buy my very first album, The Beach Boys In Concert, she even remembered my name. Mrs. Harper and I eventually got to be such great pals that she even promised to hire me once I was old enough to work there. Unfortunately, she didn't live that long.
Neighborhood record stores had changed so much by the time that I did come of age, though, I'm not sure Mrs. Harper would have been cut out for it anyway. The record store that ended up taking Harper's place as the neighborhood music hub was called Penny Lane. And sure enough, after spending countless hours hanging out there every day after school, driving the owner crazy, he ended up hiring me shortly after I graduated.
Like most record stores in the seventies, Penny Lane was manned by long-haired music-loving hippies like myself. It was the sort of place that the other music freaks in the neighborhood came to know as a trusted source where you could ask the guy behind the counter "what's new and good?" and you'd rarely, if ever, be steered wrong. If you loved music, the neighborhood record store could in fact be a wonderful place of discovery.
Like a lot of independent record stores, Penny Lane also had its resident genre experts. Willie, the owner, was the guy you went to for blues, roots rock, country, or rockabilly. Willie was our old school guy. Randy was our resident "mellow rock" dude, and probably the only guy working at a record store in all of Seattle who wouldn't snicker if you brought a Christopher Cross or Bee Gees record up to the counter. Me? I was the long haired rawk n' freaking roll dude, although in latter years this would extend to genres ranging from prog to punk to eventually rap, once the eighties hit.
We were also guilty of many of the stereotypical record store transgressions. We were basically the sort of elitist music snobs you'd often find working behind record store counters back then, and it wasn't at all uncommon to be on the receiving end of the aforementioned condescending snicker. Journey and Styx fans were a particular target of our righteous disdain.
We also partied like rock stars, which meant it wasn't surprising to find one or more of us hunched over the counter, hungover, unshaven and clutching a cigarette back when you could still smoke them in a retail establishment.
But we were always quick to point customers the way towards the sort of great music that didn't necessarily get played on the radio back then. To this day, I still bump into people in the supermarket checkout line who thank me for turning them on to Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, or Rockpile.
I ended up working for Penny Lane nearly ten years all told, and eventually managed my own store in Tacoma during the early eighties. From there, I went on to manage another Seattle store called Music Menu, and then moved on to work for a couple of record labels.
A full twenty years of my life were spent either working in record stores directly, or in positions where it was my job to interact with them. So the state of record stores today — and what some are calling the death of music retail — concerns me a lot. And yes, I confess that it's also a bit personal.
Like most people from my era, I've watched the modern day demise of the record store with a mixture of sadness and genuine bewilderment. Once Tower Records was gone, I knew the party was all but over, and now it looks like Virgin Megastore will also be going the way of the eight track.
Don't get me wrong, because I do understand whats happening and why. Downloading music is convenient, its cheap — hell, its often free. The record companies also made their own bed when they stopped developing artists for the long haul, and opted instead for the quick bucks offered by the flavor of the moment. Why spend years waiting on a potential Stones or Dylan when you can have an instant Miley or Jo-Bros now?
I understand that. I really do.
What I don't understand is how and why we are so quick to trade in the little quirks that made browsing through those bins in search of that elusive gem such a personal and often rewarding experience, all for just a little convenience. Not to mention the fact that we sacrifice so much more in terms of things like warmth and sound quality.
Sure I can get anything I want at Amazon, but what I can't get is the musical kinship and camaraderie I've experienced on both sides of the counter at the record store. No one at Amazon is going to sit my ass down and spin Porcupine Tree records for me until I'm convinced. It's just not going to happen.
Nor am I going to be able to take in the sights and the smells of browsing through all of those bins and racks until something catches my eye that I can ask the guy behind the counter about. And nine times out of ten, he or she will have the answer, too.
So this Saturday, April 18 is National Record Store Day. About 1,000 independent music retailers nationwide are taking part in what is now the second year of this event, which was started in 2008 by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), and is being co-sponsored this year by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM).
Simply put, there has never been a better time to get out there and reacquaint yourself with your neighborhood record store. Many of these stores will be featuring live in-store performances by artists ranging from Chris Cornell to the Silversun Pickups to developing artists who are simply being given a stage on which to perform. You see, that's what record stores do. They turn folks on to new music.
There will also be promotional contests and giveaways. Many artists are also offering one-off items to be sold only on National Record Store Day. No less than Dylan, Springsteen, Radiohead, and Tom Waits are having items specially created for the event, most of these featuring new or previously unreleased music. Wilco, for example, will be unveiling its live Ashes of American Flags DVD exclusively for National Record Store Day.
I for one plan on supporting National Record Store Day this Saturday, and you should too. I'll be spending some quality time at Easy Street, my own neighborhood record store here in West Seattle.
While there have been a few bright spots for music retail lately — such as the apparent comeback of vinyl — CD sales continue to remain the bread and butter of the independent store. As long as this is the case, with CD sales continuing to plummet the way they have these past few years, we could very well be seeing the beginning of the end of the unique institution that is music retail.
The way I see it, we need to support them while we still can. See you this weekend at National Record Store Day.