For Christmas, Gail gave me the book from which the above image is included. (Quite a Neil Young Christmas morning, as Jake had given me Waging Heavy Peace, his memoir, which I recently finished). Flipping through the pages – the above image arrested me. Taken in the 1960s when the LP was king, this image brings me back to the not-so-distant-past when record stores were so very important to me. Through the years they might have lost their neon over-the-topness, but record stores always served as a place of refuge for me (I’m not exaggerating). Oh, to have visited Toronto in the album’s heyday and to have visited A&A Records (“World’s Largest”) or Sam’s (“This is Sam the Record Man”). What undiscovered treasures would await?
Somewhat Necessary Information Leading Up To The Importance of Record Stores.
My first record purchases were at Garwood Mills in Atlantic City. Then Two Guys in Atlantic City (kind of the KMart of its day). I remember the record department in Two Guys, maybe five aisles (how accurate is this?) I do remember getting George Harrison’s All Things Must Have there, the three album boxed set. How could one man, even if he is an ex-Beatle, have created so much music? Aside: Aunt Dora, Mom Mom Liz’s sister who lived in the pink apartments next door to our house on Atlantic Avenue in Margate, used to call it the “Three Guys.” We used to laugh and kid her that she was always exaggerating, but she would go right on and call it that. Family lore). Other place of early record purchases: Ben Franklin 5&10 near Upland Road.
My record purchasing really took off once I started heading into Center City with dad on Saturdays. I had accompanied him on some Saturdays growing up. He’d bring me into his office on Rittenhouse Square and I’d kind of just hang out. Play with the copy machine. Meet some of his colleagues also working on a Saturday. Eventually heading over to the YMHA on Broad Street where he’d exercise. There was an elevated track over the gym, and if you would do 25 laps around it you’d have gone a mile. The curves were banked, which was cool. There was a sauna and a steam room, a big room for massages, and a big tanning room where you’d don these little plastic covers for your eyes and sit under all the light bulbs. Lots of old guys walking/lying around with towels slipping off. Then there was the relaxing room – about 20 lounge chairs in a darkened room. You lay down and watched the tv that hung from the wall. The only time in my life I watched college football. Dad used to get me a can of pineapple juice. Man, I can remember the inside of the Y so clearly.
Back to Record Stores. Philadelphia.
in sixth grade the Y no longer interested me, but the streets of center city Philly started beckoning. And it was the record stores that really got me to explore. The first one I ever went in was probably on 20th Street or so, right near dad’s office, and it was like a new world. I had only bought records in department stores or 5&10s, now here was a store completely and utterly devoted just to music! And there was so much to explore, so many artists I’ve never heard of, so many incredible album covers. It was as if a door to a whole new world suddenly opened and the possibilites were endless. The money I earned from allowance, from shoveling snow, from selling greeting cards or plant seeds, now had a purpose. I could buy albums.
The first store was a small shop, but bigger shops soon lured me. Chestnut Street. Market Street. Saturday’s my friends and I would take the 44 bus to center city to shop at the record stores. I remember Listening Booth – other names are gone to me now. But walking in you’d see this dazzling display of albums covering every inch of available wall space. Sheer saturation. And the music would always be cranking, and you would get dizzy with all the possibilities of what to buy. There was so much!!! So many new records you never knew about… so many older records you never knew about. But you were starting to learn.
Once in high school, we used to explore Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, and we discovered Mad’s Records. And in my senior year Mad’s started to sell promo copies of new records at a very cheap price. They had promo stickers on them warning the albums were not for sale, but Mad’s – and probably many other stores – was selling them anyway. I started buying records by artists I hadn’t even heard on the radio – taking chances. Getting three albums for the same price I would get one “new” one for. My record collection started to really grow.
Record Stores in Boston.
I’ve always lived outside the center of a city, never in the center of a city. But as a new student starting my sophomore year at Emerson, living in a dorm in Kenmore Square, I was completely in the thick of things. I realized very quickly that this is where I always wanted to be. Within a few minutes walk from Fensgate (my dorm) was Music City and Strawberries (both record stores) and Nuggets a used record store. What a minute… a used record store?? This was something I had never experienced before. Mad’s had sold promo copies, but here was a place where people could sell or trade in records they didn’t want and Nuggets would resell them, sometimes for ridiculously low prices.
And Nuggets still exists. In November 2012 I was pretty well shocked to park on Commonwealth Avenue, a few blocks from the heart of Kenmore Square and see Nuggets huge clock on the sidewalk. It’s not the same location – the Nuggets I knew
was a basement storefront. You walked down about four steps to enter. Since I left Boston they acquired a much more visible space. I walked in feeling absolutely giddy, and I felt completely in touch with my old self fingering through the vinyl (now much more expensive) overflowing in their bins. In my time in Boston, there were so many musical discoveries I credit Nuggets with. So many artists I took a chance on because their albums were so cheap. I’d visit Nuggets after class, before class, on the weekends. Many times I’d have a few slices at Al Capone’s (now gone) before heading over to Nuggets. Slices were 40 cents. And they were big and great. At Nuggets I’d trade in albums from my collection for other people’s stuff (though it was never easy to give up albums from one’s collection, no matter how ashamed or embarrassed about what one listened to earlier). Walking into Nuggets I was always discovering something new, and coming home with something new.
Nuggets is above ground now, and still alive with lots and lots of vinyl. Pricier now, and more-than-slightly retro, since almost all vinyl is 30 years old, or older. It exists for the older music fan; I wonder if I were a 19-year-old today, would I still frequent the store? What would be my record store of choice? Would I even have one, content with listening to anything I want online rather than collecting?
For me, Newbury Comics is my current record store of choice. There are a number of them in the Boston area, and all of them postdate me. How I wish Newbury comics existed when I was there (but then again, my Boston years predated the cd). Vast indie selection, and a good many used cds.And their vinyl selection seems to be growing now that vinyl is a niche products. But it seems in the years that I’ve visited more and more of their inventory is non-musical: clothing and accessories, gag gifts, dvds/videos (now also decreasing).
Music City – Kenmore Square
A good question at this point would be “What is the above shot doing in a posting about records stores?” The bones of City Convenience are what attracts me, not the current contents of the space. That store, at 543 Commonwealth Avenue in Kenmore Square was once Music City, and I worked there during my first year at Emerson, my sophomore year in college.
Click on the image. Magnify it. I see myself almost 35 years ago working there. See the sunlight streaming in? That’s the main entrance. The vantage point I took the shot was from where the cash register used to be (pre scanner – I actually had to punch the prices). The stuff in the store is colorful now – it was just as colorful back then, filled with vinyl albums not cans of shaving cream and bags of Reeses Pieces.
Life at Emerson College was in technicolor compared with the monochromatic world (for me) Connecticut College, and one huge difference is I was able to be part of and even start working in places that I enjoyed. Places in
the city proper (which made sense, because Emerson advertised that all of Boston was its “campus”). At Emerson I took full advantage of the city (more so than the college itself, I’d say. And the job at Music City, working nights during the week, just a few minute walk from Fensgate, was pretty tremendous. I felt alive in a world I never felt existed in New London, CT.
It was at this store that I wasn’t just a shopper; I was an employee (and a shopper, of course. Part of my pay check kept me in new records). It probably helped getting the job that I had worked the summer going into my freshman year at Sam Goody in Ardmore selling stereos, so I was somewhat familiar with the retail record business. At Music City I worked with folks older than me (how twerpy I must have been to them?) Tony, one of the cashiers, had actually been to Woodstock (I learned that when once we were all talking about the famous festival, and I proudly stated that I saw the movie); Milo (who worked there briefly) also wrote for the Boston Phoenix; Barb Kitson, who always wore tight outfits befitting the lead singer in a band (outside the store she was the lead singer of Thrills, a Boston punk band who played at the Rat across the street). During down times we’d talk of music, and I learned so much. My ears started opening up more and more working there. Barb would challenge me to listen to more aggressive music, more punk. It was 1978 and 1979. I started listening to punk rock and new wave, started going to shows. My life felt continually saved by rock and roll.
Record stores in NYC.
In my adult life, shopping in record stores has always been a form of therapy for me. Gail and I moved to the Village in 1985, and it was just around the time the first NYC Tower Records opened at 4th and Broadway. Up until that point, the record stores I frequented were small stores, mom-and-pop varieties, where I would slowly wander through the aisles (though I remember the record department of the Harvard Coop as being pretty massive, with new releases set up as columns, 200, maybe 300 albums tall. The Coop had a tremendous selection of new records; it was always worth a trip to Harvard Square to go record shopping there). Tower Records was a different beast entirely.
Tower Records in the Village, then on the Upper West Side (near Lincoln Center), was a department store full of records. Multiple floors. Entire separate departments for Jazz, for Country and Folk, for Classical, for Soundtracks. Walking into Tower Records not just the first time, but time after time felt as if I were on top of the world. I am waxing on, I realize, but I felt like Holly Golightly did about Tiffany’s, that nothing bad in the world could ever happen there. The selection was fucking incredible. It started out just with vinyl, but as the eighties progressed the cds started taking up more and more floor space until it was nothing but cds (cassettes were for sale on the basement level for a while). I knew rock, but they had everything. Entire catalogs of bands, not just the few popular lps. I could buy anything and everything. For years, the Christmas present and birthday present Gail would get me would be records/cds and gift cards to Tower. I had a Tower credit card, in which I would earn points to buy even more music. If I had time to kill, there was no better place than Tower. I didn’t need a bar, I didn’t need drugs, I could just walk the floors and let my fingers search the bins. In these early days I could buy an album for six or seven bucks, or a cd for twice that. I started saving to buy albums I truly wanted on cd, and records I was taking a chance on on lp. I was balancing between two worlds. I loved the old world and vinyl, but cds sounded so real and brilliant. And they never scratched. The future was the cd, but indie bands could only release vinyl. Both of my collections were growing simultaneously.
I started working at John Jay College in winter 1991, and shortly thereafter a Tower opened up in Lincoln Center, about a ten minute walk away. Though my world – being a dad, supporting a family – wasn’t as carefree as it was living in the village, playing in bands, I could take a vacation from the stresses of life and lose myself among all the cds for sale (by this time the changeover was pretty much complete and cds reigned supreme). I’d hit Tower at least once a week, many times not buying anything, but flipping through the cds, fantasizing about my eventual purchases. Then at some point they (whoever “they” is) instituted listening stations, where customers could listen to chosen albums via headphones in stations throughout the store. Now I could spend longer and longer in the store, and get turned on to music I never might have taken a chance on. And like anyone who buys a lot of music, I purchased some amazing records, and some that clearly disappointed. But each trip there was going to be something new to discover, something newly released (or rereleased).
And as the century came to a close, another big record store launched in NYC: Virgin Music. First in Times Square, then Union Square. Massive. Bigger even than Tower. More listening stations. The one I spent a lot of time in was in Times Square (near Pop Photo, so I could head over there for a quick shot of therapy if I needed it). They even had a book department and a movie theater on one of their levels! They didn’t even have front doors – you could walk right in from the sidewalks of Times Square.
Living on E. 10th Street in the mid to late 80s, I was a frequent shopper at Sounds. Sounds filled the empty space left by Nuggets eight or so years earlier. Where Nuggets was in a basement, Sounds occupied a second floor. You had to walk up the outdoor stairs to get in (as you can see by the above shot). All the new indie music was there in the racks, on the walls, and playing out the speakers. Vinyl. I’d by new there, and used, and sell some stuff as well. A short walk from our apartment. There were other small stores around, but I had a loyalty to Sounds, and even though I no longer frequented it, it was a fixture for many years after Gail and I moved away from the neighborhood to raise our family in Teaneck. Sounds opened a branch right next door that sold just cds, and as my collection was growing in cds, that’s where I would shop went visiting. The cd store closed years ago – the original store started selling both cds and vinyl. And as of my visit this past fall, all that’s left is the facade and all the remnants of glory days past in the windows.
Fifteen years ago, I would never have imagined a time when record stores would disappear. And, largely, they have. A few remain, which I enjoy visiting, but the time in my life in which I would literally spend hours in record stores is a memory. A solid-gold memory, but a memory just the same. The world has changed, and our music buying habits have changed. The way we listen to music has changed. In some ways, no, in many ways it is for the better. As I’m crafting this I’m listening to Ennio Morricone’s Ultimo – L’Ollchio del Falco on Spotify, one of hundreds of Morricone albums I can now stream online – then to my stereo – through my laptop. I own about half a dozen Morricone albums, but I now have access to an entire world that would take me over a year to listen to! I don’t need to buy anything. As long as I’m online I can play music. I still buy cds – largely through Amazon.com, but how much longer will that last. Our cds and lps still surround us (though much of our lps are behind doors of the big cabinet in the living room or stacked in the basement), but will they all be needed in the future when all of music is available either via the cloud or computer/pad/phone? I have realized that places and spaces necessarily change, and I know that other aspects of the life we have taken for granted change as well. But, damn, I truly miss record stores and the worlds that they represented.