Hey, folks, and welcome to Record Store Diaries on Popblerd.
As you know (or you might not know,) today is Record Store Day. If you are near an independently owned/operated record store, go to one. You’ll find some cool, exclusive shit. You might even get some cookies. Or a beverage.
Here at Popblerd, every day is pretty much Record Store Day. However, several of us have decided to open our hearts (in addition to our wallets) and talk about some of our favorite (or at least most memorable) record store experiences. We hope you enjoy this.
Before we go any further, a warning. Some of this stuff is seriously NSFW. So if you’re at work, close your browser and wait till you get home. If you decide not to, don’t blame us if your boss reads this and you get canned. It’s kinda nasty.
With that understanding, let’s move forward!
Happy Record Store Day! One of the most memorable moments working in a record store happened about 15 years ago.
The year is 1997. January, to be specific. Boston is cold and windy. Very cold. Very windy. I was working at Strawberries Music, located inside Boston’s Shawmut-Fleet-BankBoston-TD-whatever-the-hell-it-was-called-that-week Center. It’s where the Bruins play. The Boston Garden was replaced with this facility a couple years earlier. The residents, many of which were unwilling to acknowledge the new corporate sponsor of the arena, simply called it “The New Gaah-den.” But I digress…
In January 1997, I was only one month on the new job managing a record store that only carried CDs and cassettes. No records. Damn. Strawberries was located in a lot where the Bruins shop is now. One wall is completely made of glass – the wall facing the stream of people on their way to the game, giving this store, and its employees, the feeling that they were in a fishbowl.
Strawberries had an in-store play video that would churn out the same 10-or so songs over and over. It played all month long. As a result, you would hear “Unbreak My Heart” roughly six times a day during your eight-hour shift. Every day. For an entire month. In January, 1997, there was this new song out called “Wannabe” by a bunch of British whores who called themselves the Spice Girls. Their record label, and our management, told us that they were going to be the next big thing, so we were supposed to engage customers by asking them what they thought of them – every time the video came up on rotation. Most were polite and said, “no thank you.” Others were more colorful in their response, saying things like, “Ugh, that shit is awful,” or “This sounds like its from, like, the ‘80s or something.” My personal favorite was a gentleman in his thirties turned to me with a thick Southie accent and said, “Their music is wicked awful, but the I like the blonde one with the pig tails – she looks like she likes it in the ass!” The entire store came to a halt, and everyone burst out laughing.
Did I mention it was cold? Well, later that same day I decided to dart across the street for lunch, and head back to the store quickly. I decided to eat in the backroom of our store, as it’s warmer there than in the deli. When I got back from the deli (on my way to the backroom), one of our sales associates – let’s call her Jen – comes up to me and says, “Hey I’m done – what’s next on the task list?” I told her we need to re-alphabetize the cassettes. She says, “Okey dokey, smokey!” She always talks like that. She was a very attractive girl – 19 years old, a perfect body and a cute face. She starts alphabetizing the cassette wall, which is located directly opposite of the glass wall. In order to paint the picture better, imagine when a customer is looking at the cassettes, their back is towards the glass wall, and the corridor of people.
Since Boston is so damn cold in January, the homeless made a habit of hanging out in the corridors of the “New Gaah-den.” This was never a problem until today. Apparently, a homeless man decided to drop his pants and start masturbating outside the glass, while watching Jen in her painted-on-jeans reorganize the tape wall. Jen had no idea this was going on, because her back was to the glass wall as she worked. One of our other employees saw what was happening and darted to the backroom to interrupt me while I was enjoying my sandwich. We called security. We didn’t tell Jen. She kept working. The man was escorted away, and we were never sure if anyone ever told Jen what happened.
I’m so thankful I don’t work in retail anymore.
Happy Record Store Day!
I’ve always fancied myself something of an honorary record store dude. In my mind, record store guys were always the coolest guys in the room. The nerdiest, sure, but nerdy in a way that projected a certain detached, ineffable, know-it-all cool; we’ve since rebranded these guys “hipsters”, although I’m never quite sure what that means. All I know is that I’ve always wanted to live out High Fidelity — I would be the John Cusack of the group, surrounded by less-sexually-appealing friends that would make me look like a stud by comparison, selling records, trading opinions, doling out sage musical advice to aspiring music geeks. Perhaps we’d bring local artists in for in-store performances.
But, then again, I lived in rural South Jersey. Mall music stores would have to do — and I spent hours perusing them, trying to accurately budget the $30 bucks in my pocket to cover the most ideal amount of quality and value possible. But the big-box chains were incorrigible in their pricing, so I progressed through much of my adolescence buying a measly one album a week. It was infuriating for a music fan, but hey, that’s how I discovered Wilco. Each album felt hard-earned; shortly after getting my license, I remember culling together the precise amount of money (exclusively in coin, mind you) I needed to buy the new Pearl Jam record. The checkout girl remarked, “you must really want this album.” She didn’t even know about the 88 cents in gas I’d poured into my secondhand Grand Marquis to get there. (If anyone born in the ’90s or ’00s is reading this, it’s important to note that 88 cents in gas would, once upon a time, actually get you someplace.)
Which is why college was such an eye-opener. As a high school senior, I’d finally gotten my first full-time job: 40 hours a week, picking peaches with Cambodian immigrants for $6 an hour. It was grueling, but it supported my habit; when I trucked up to Boston to pursue higher education, and immediately got a job in a small restaurant for $10 an hour plus tips, I was in hog heaven. I had a meal plan at school, my accommodations were paid for… moneys incurred from labor were poured into T tokens and music. I was living the high life.
My afternoons were spent at Newbury Comics, or sometimes Nuggets; I needed to feed the habit. I wanted it all: Elvis Costello, Jay-Z, Kelly Clarkson, My Morning Jacket, it didn’t matter. I’d haul my stack of CDs up to the counter and eagerly ask the clerk his/her opinions on each album. The ones they recommended were purchased — after all, they were the authority on such things — the others were returned to their racks, and probably purchased anyway when I came back the next day. My musical life was an embarrassment of riches in Boston; I eventually gave up on those pesky 7am classes and snagged a second job writing for a website that was streaming independent and public-domain films for the public. Between jobs, it was off to the record store, and with two paychecks and virtually no living expenses, there were no pesky niggling concerns like “do I really NEED this Meat Loaf record?” The answer was yes, I needed it all, and I could afford it to boot.
But adulthood hit hard and fast. Unable to support my ramen noodle/beer/college-cliche lifestyle, I returned to New Jersey with no college degree and nothing but a bitchin’ record collection to show for my troubles. (Also, I was dropping a lot of my consonants — Boston has a way of seeping into you.) I found a record store in Delaware, and I enjoyed it; they sold mostly vinyl, so I could get some mileage out of the secondhand turntable with the wobbly needle taking up most of my room. Burt’s Records and Compact Discs turned into a weekly ritual for me — it couldn’t be daily, not without public transportation or even particularly low prices — and I cherished it. Burt was something of a character; an ex-hippie in a black t-shirt and fedora, he’d furnish you with his opinion on everything. Purchases must be chosen carefully; one wouldn’t want to invoke a profane rant from the proprietor. “Ryan ADAMS?”, he practically bellowed after I’d selected a lightly used vinyl copy of Gold. “You’re buying an album by that asshole? What an unbelievable asshole. I saw him at [formerly hip, currently closed club] before he went big, and he was already a dick. What a prick. That’ll be $8 even.”
Then again, Burt would offer you his opinions on anything. Particularly liberals, of whom he wasn’t particularly fond. They were sissies, a word I use to avoid Burt’s preferred epithet. I listened to his rants dutifully; I’d have engaged in some friendly debate, considering that his opinions on most political things were incorrect, but he often sent me on my way with a goodie bag of 45s and promo CDs, gratis. (I often debated asking him, “wait, so you’re saying you’re giving me… a handout?”, but I didn’t wanna push my luck. I was genuinely grateful.)
And then, one day, Burt’s just wasn’t there. One week, it was empty. Burt had often complained about being undercut by big box stores — an FYE and a Best Buy existed just down the road — but the reality hadn’t hit me until I had to envision a record store-less life. From now on, I vowed, no more shopping at corporate chains. It’s time to support the little guy and stop being part of the problem.
And then I became part of the problem.
Having been unceremoniously dropped from my job, I sought employment elsewhere, which turned out to be FYE. The pay was meager, the hours disgraceful, but I had fun. The general manager was a massive, perpetually angry ginger named — well, I don’t want to use his real name, so let’s call him Schmobert. When we wouldn’t sell enough magazine subscriptions or premium cards, his color would concentrate in his face, and he’d rant away. Schmobert aside, my direct supervisor was Nora, a younger, more laid-back employee; along with Nora, and agreeable blerd Frank, my days at FYE weren’t half bad. We lounged around and talked music; when no one corporate was around, we’d shut off the store’s rotation of the same three Lady Gaga, Ne-Yo, and Soulja Boy tracks, and play our own mixtapes. (Nora was a Broadway nerd, who I’d be willing to bet eventually became a Gleek; Frank was a curious mixture of underground hip-hop and ’80s synthpop.) We had fun, Nora, Frank, and I, until I inadvertently blew the dynamic.
See, this is where the corporate structure gets bothersome; my immediate supervisor was Nora. Schlobert’s boss, our area director, was also named Nora. So when Schlob and I manned the store on a lazy Saturday afternoon, things were going well until Schlobert’s Subway stopped agreeing with him, and he needed to take a particularly long bathroom break. I answered the phone about five minutes later: “Thank you for calling FYE, this is Andrew. How may I help you?” “Andrew, this is Nora. Is Schlob available?” “Oh, hey Nora! No, Schlob’s taking a dump.” Silence. I continue: “It was the Subway; he got that buffalo thing, so I think he’s going to be taking that dump for a while.” Silence, and then: “Andrew, you do know this is your area director Nora, and not your store’s assistant manager Nora, correct?” “I… I did not realize that, no. In that case, Schlob is with a customer.” My employment came to a swift and abrupt end, Schlob not being the most good-humored man in the world. I tried to explain to him why the mistake was hilarious. He wasn’t buying it. “Fine then,” I finally sighed, giving in. “Well, Schlob, before I go, I’ve been wanting to give you 2 CD’s… TO SEE DEEZ NUTS.” I made a chopping gesture at my crotch and took off, never to return again, my puerile joke still giving me a chuckle. (I talked to Nora and Frank a month later. Turns out Schlobert got fired for attempting to strangle an employee. A newly-promoted Nora offered me my job back. “I’d love to, but I think that bridge is burned. I talked to corporate-Nora about poop inadvertently, and made a crude testicle pun to Schlob on my way out.”)
These days, I don’t have a record store; not unless I’m in Boston, that is, where Big Money and I have been known to meet up and spend hours upending In Your Ear’s stacks of vinyl a couple of times a year. My record store is all over; flea markets and thrift shops furnish my vinyl addiction for about a buck a pop. Spotify and iTunes keep me satisfied on the digital front. And every year in April, I truck down to Newark, Delaware, to pick up my Record Store Day releases.
Contrary to popular belief, I did have a brief stint in music retail. It was a small, poorly stocked, overpriced used CD store sandwiched between two of Pittsburgh’s major universities. I got the gig via a friend who also worked there. Working at a record store had been a dream for years. I knew going into it that the reality of working at this particular store wouldn’t live up to my lofty expectations. Still, the owners were good folks, there was actually a decent base of loyal customers, and it was not a bad way to spend a few hours each week.
Shortly after getting hired however, the news came down that the owner was selling off the store. The good news was that he had a buyer, and that I’d be able to stay on. Things quickly took a turn for the worst following the changeover, as I listened to the owner spew racial epithets about his customers, raise a suspicious eye when customers of color entered the store, and on at least one occasion, bragged to me about the sex life he and his wife enjoyed.
But I was a trustworthy kid, and was able to work shifts on my own, which saved me the trouble of directly dealing with a racist boss. In that time, I could sense the store falling apart. Some of that was new ownership with no business acumen, some of it was due to the changing landscape of music in the early 21str century. But even then, there were great moments. It was the kind of small and intimate place that forced conversation between customer and clerk. I loved provoking discussions via my choices for in-store play. I remember a middle aged woman react to Blur as “the Beatles with a hint of disco.” I remember horrifying a man and his children when they strolled in as John Oswald’s “Madmod” piece was playing. I remember a middle-aged white dad concluding that De La Soul seemed like the kind of hip hop he would be comfortable with his kids listening to. Given the store’s generally unsatisfactory selection, I often took my own music for in-store play. I always felt like my taste was legitimated when customers asked to buy the in-store music that I owned.
Beyond having an 8 hours on a Saturday to chill out, read, and listen to music, an indisputable perk was having first dibs on the used music that came in on trade. I remember quickly setting aside the first Traveling Wilburys disc (which at the time was severely out of print), Bowie’s Sound and Vision boxed set (which at the time was out of print and had yet to be reissued); this was also where I heard the New York Dolls for the first time, where I fully explored Peter Gabriel’s catalog, where I discovered the Rebirth Brass Band.
So there was much to dislike about the experience, but it wasn’t without its merits. Even so, I was not sad when the store finally closed a few years ago. I do get a twinge of nostalgia when I’m passing through that neighborhood, but our parting was not bittersweet. The place dug its own grave, and frankly, the music-buying folks in Pittsburgh are better off for it.
I can’t remember a point in time when record stores weren’t my favorite place to go. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era when record stores were a dime a dozen, and…well, fuck comic book shops, movie theaters or even arcades, because I wanted to soak in the vibe of the record store from practically the time I could walk. How many people do you know that went to high school and lied about working in a local record store just so he could say he did? I probably should’ve just gone to the damn store and asked them to hire me. Likely they would’ve. Then I wouldn’t have had to lie. Anyway…
Shortly after I graduated high school, I was working in a record store. Tower Records on 3rd Avenue between 86th and 87th in New York City. Lived in the Big Apple and don’t remember it? There’s a good reason-place was only open for two years. Considering there was also an HMV, a Coconuts and The Wiz within three blocks of the store, it probably wasn’t the best of ideas to open another record shop in that neighborhood. At any rate, that place birthed what would be a 12-year career in music retail (the last two of which were spent, thankfully, working in a back office capacity.) From 1993-2005, I saw just about everything there was to see in a record store. Indignant celebrities beefing about their album not being on sale (hello, former TV host whose initials are J.T.,) drunken customers, drunken employees. I’ve had my life threatened on more than one occasion (people get ignant when they get told they can’t return a CD,) was spit on more than once, had box sets thrown at me, dug up a pair of used panties from a stockroom (not the most romantic place to have sex.) I saw literally hundreds of shoplifters (and not always the people you’d expect, our various security people busted everything from artists to other musicians) watched Tupac Shakur buy his own CD single, saw a dude get jumped after busting a nut on a girl’s back while waiting on line during an in store, helped the late Peter Jennings pick out Christmas gifts for his kids (I hope they still have that copy of Vitalogy I recommended) and…I met Judge Reinhold!
Man, what else was there? Way more celebrity encounters than I’m willing to fill up this post with. Not to say that every day was an opportunity to brush shoulders with a famous person-although I’ll never forget the incredulous look on LL Cool J’s face when our receptionist screamed that she wanted to have his baby. I can’t imagine he hasn’t heard that before.
But, yeah…talk about grunt work. No one who’s ever worked in retail can ever treat another retail employee like shit, knowing what they go through. Lifting what seemed like endless amounts of boxes (inadvertently preparing me for every time I have to move my collection of 3,000-plus CDs,) endless alphabetizing (does Dave Matthews Band go under “D” or “M?”,) the fact that customers expected you to be a human jukebox (“sure, sir or madam, I know exactly what song you’re humming to me after 2 bars!”) in addition to the fact that you’re expected to be kind and gracious even as customers threaten you, snap at you, and call you every single name in the book. I did that shit for ten years, y’all. And the fact is, I’d do it again. I love music that much.
Record stores, long may you prosper.