Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lamenting the Local Record Store

The 14th Street Homer’s store in Lincoln, Nebraska, was more than a place to browse the CD racks. I could do that at Wal-Mart if I wanted. With its copious magazine racks, literature from local institutions and groups, and occasional live appearances by local artists, it became an ad hoc community center. People came to Homer’s to keep an ear to the ground for growing developments in Lincoln’s scarcely coordinated culture scene.

Nor was this unique to Homer’s. At one time, independent record stores were a cultural institution, the nexus of paths where diverse people came together to announce opportunity, promote innovation, meet people from other subcultures, or just browse the latest offerings. Stores like Denver’s Twist & Shout, San Francisco’s Amoeba, or Honolulu’s Jelly’s, all became the beating heart of their respective communities.

They also all have meaningful memories for me personally.

Jelly’s made a big impression on me in the late 1980’s. Their warehouse-sized facility near the Pearl Ridge Mall had an integrated multimedia format that presaged superstores like Barnes & Noble, which remade the market a decade later. I could wander in there and find any music, book, comic, or video that grabbed my heart’s desire. Remarkably, I never recall needing to special order anything; it was always in stock.

But as much as the content for sale, the format made a difference. Jelly’s made little attempt to slick up the place like Tower Records or Waldenbooks did, across the road in Pearl Ridge. Those stores had a gleaming high-gloss finish that seemed immune to personalization and interchangeable with any store in the islands or the mainland. These were places to conduct business with clinical precision, not to develop a relationship with the product.

By contrast, Jelly’s’ rough-hewn quality reflected the management’s guerrilla ethos. Exposed ceiling girders and particle board walls provided an unprepossessing frame for the overwhelming selection on the immaculately organized shelves. Compared to the mall stores and military post exchanges that otherwise dominated Honolulu’s media market, Jelly’s clearly loved its product more than its image.

This allowed it to develop a personality, and to attract customers who shared that love of eccentricity. Though that attitude could sometimes descend into self-parody (see this Onion article), it also permitted customers to shrug off the mall’s stultifying sameness. People who loved music and wanted their shopping experience to come with an edge could depend on Jelly’s to sell them something that respected them as an audience.

Moreover, as live local music increasingly becomes the exclusive domain of bars, indie record stores often provide unique opportunities for younger audiences. Without the ability to hear local bands play live, teens have to choose between Clear Channel radio blandness and the impersonality of arena concerts. And young musicians never get to graduate from playing in parents’ garages, basements, and other borrowed spaces.

Better commentators than me have already lamented the disappearance of indie record shops. Nor am I the first to point out that this disappearance leaves a gaping hole in many cities’ cultural life. And, in fairness, compared to the convenience of Internet shopping and web posting, having to go to a record store to buy new music and find exciting local concerts seems downright poky.

But, as I've said before about Kindle books, sometimes cultural products are more important than their content. Sure, I enjoy the music I bought at indie record stores, and still own two CDs I bought at Jelly’s nearly twenty-five years ago. But I also had meaningful encounters with knowledgeable clerks and fellow fans in the act of browsing. Jelly’s, Amoeba, and Twist & Shout aren’t just shopping excursions; they’re experiences.

I can’t say the same about iTunes. Sure, I read customer reviews, but no matter how much I like a reviewer, I have limited ability to ask questions. I never invite reviewers to coffee after shopping. Reviewers never come over so we can browse each other’s collections. And I’ll never recapture the life-changing joy I had picking up a fellow customer’s vinyl copy of Willy and the Poor Boys and travelled down a new, more adventurous road for the first time.

Some big cities still support one or two indie record stores. And their ethos lives on in indie booksellers, coffee shops, free weekly newspapers, and some church basements. As long as the need for such contact exists, someone will step in to fill it. I just miss indie record shops’ elegant, efficient centralization and exuberant community spirit.

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