Requiem for a Record Store: An Interview With Atomic Records’ Rich Menning

Growing up in Southeastern Wisconsin, Atomic Records was like a beacon in the night. My brother and I first discovered it in the mid-1990s, back when alternative rock still ruled the radio dial. Those were the days before the Internet had laid all of music’s mysteries bare and we were delighted to find a store that carried imports, bootlegs, and singles from our favorite bands, brimming with b-sides, live tracks, and unreleased recordings. As our critical faculties developed, we began to turn to Atomic for their large selection of indie releases and vinyl, not to mention their reputation for hosting great in-store performances. After high school, I left Wisconsin and never looked back but my brother stayed on, braving the bitter cold winters and eventually earning a place behind the counter at Atomic — his childhood dream job. Nowadays, whenever I go back to Wisconsin, a visit to Atomic is mandatory and I rarely leave the store empty-handed.

On March 15th, Atomic Records will close its doors for the last time, yet another casualty of declining music sales and the volatile economic climate. Much ink has been spilled in the local press regarding Atomic’s impending closure and the store has even been feted at a benefit show featuring local artists. Though they’ll be closing up shop in less than a month, the staff of Atomic has spent the last few weeks excavating the store’s basement storage room, so there’s still plenty of rare, out-of-print vinyl to be had, not to mention commemorative shirts bearing the store’s birth and death dates (1985-2009). If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to swing by Atomic, be it your first or last visit to the legendary store.

Earlier this year, we sat down with Atomic founder and general manager Rich Menning to talk records, rock ‘n’ roll and the future — or lack thereof — of independent record stores in America.

What made you decide to open a record store?

It was a fantasy job for an obsessive music fan. Luckily, the pieces fell into place to make it happen.

Why Milwaukee, as opposed to another city?

It happened kind of by chance. I was attending college in Madison, Wisconsin. A year earlier, on a visit to Milwaukee, I had casually mentioned to the previous owner — a record store had been at the location since the early ‘70s by the name of Ludwig Van Ear — to let me know if he was interested in selling. To my surprise, he called just as I was finishing college with a nebulous liberal arts degree. Next stop, Milwaukee!

In your opinion, what makes shopping at an independent record store like Atomic different from shopping at a big box retailer like Best Buy or at an online store like Insound?

Interacting with others who have a shared passion for music. You’re getting the real deal from real people who know and understand what you like. And we’re not just selling music in the hopes that you pick up a microwave on the way out.

What were your favorite record stores growing up and how did they influence your decision to open up your own record store?

I was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin where there were two record stores. Beggar’s Tune was the mellow hippie/deadhead/folk joint and then there was Pipe Dreams. A guy named Keith Cipowski worked at Pipe Dreams and he was key in turning me on to punk rock, stocking all of the cool records we’d read about in Trouser Press magazine. We became friends and would even road trip to Chicago — 400 miles round trip — to go shopping at Wax Trax, which was record store nirvana. Then when I went to college in Madison, Paradise Records fulfilled my UK import and US indie needs. I later got a job there and learned the ropes of running a record store. But Wax Trax was really the blueprint for Atomic Records.

What was the first record you ever bought and where did you buy it?

A 7” of “Daughter of Darkness” by Tom Jones at Prange’s Department Store on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. I was nine. The first LP I bought was the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour but I quickly blew my budding hipster cred by following it up with the debut from the Partridge Family.

What were the first records or performers that you really connected with? That nudged you onto the path to obsessive music fandom?

My first love was the Who, even though I didn’t really know it at the time. One of the local radio stations had a program called “The Midnight Tracker” where they would play an entire album start-to-finish. I had an FM radio/cassette hand-me-down from an older brother and I set an alarm to wake up at midnight to record the show. This was a big project for an 11-year-old! Groggily, I would hit record after the DJ announced which group it was and then fell asleep before it ended, so I didn’t get a chance to flip the C-60 tape. I ended up with two-thirds of the Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy and that quickly became my favorite tape, even though I didn’t know who it was!

A year later I heard “Love Reign O’er Me” on the radio and Quadrophenia immediately became my favorite album of all time. The album was both a mysterious insight into British youth culture as well as a passionate coming-of-age tale that any confused, hormone-addled adolescent — even on the other side of the world in the middle of Wisconsin — could relate to. Anyways, if you’re familiar with the album, about halfway through, you hear a snippet of the song “The Kids are Alright”; a ringing guitar chord and the line, “I don’t mind other guys dancing with my girl…” Upon hearing this, I was at first confused and then suddenly it dawned on me that, even though musically they were miles apart, this was the same band that was on my beloved mystery tape! At that moment was born an insatiable curiosity to know everything I could about the Who in particular and rock ‘n’ roll in general.

Other albums I absolutely adored over the next few years were Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Blue Oyster Cult’s Secret Treaties, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, David Essex’ Rock On, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Heart’s Dreamboat Annie, Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, Television’s Marquee Moon and the first two Cheap Trick albums. Then the whole punk/new wave thing broke and things really got interesting!

Rich Menning and an avian friend (photo courtesy of Atomic Records)

Can you tell us about some of your most cherished records, either in the store or in your personal collection?

Pretty much all of the ones listed above. I still have them and can recall devouring every last bit of the cover art and liner notes. Sentimental favorites, I guess. Also, some autographed ones that have special personal meaning. Cheap Trick, Sonic Youth, Graham Parker, U2, R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins come to mind.

I also have a Liberace record autographed by him, his brother George, and their mother Frances! I just want to know the story behind that one. A half-way peeled Beatles butcher cover, which is pretty neat. And a copy of Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” single from former Sub-Pop co-owner Bruce Pavitt’s personal collection. A platinum record award for the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. Cherish might be a strong word for this stuff but there’s certainly a lot of cool!

Do you remember what the first record Atomic ever sold was?

I don’t recall, but probably something by the Replacements or R.E.M. I do remember that on the second day we were open, someone bought a handful of Adrian Sherwood On-U Sound records and I thought, “That’s cool. People might get what I’m trying to do here.”

What is the best selling record in Atomic history?

We never computerized, so I don’t have precise numbers. But I would guess that it’s Depeche Mode’s Violator.

Are there any records you wish you had ordered more copies of?

Nirvana’s “Love Buzz.” I didn’t get one for myself and bought a copy back from a customer a couple of years later for $100. A lot of money at the time but a shrewd investment in retrospect.

Any records you wish you had ordered fewer copies of?

We always ordered conservatively, so I don’t have any horror stories of crates of unsold records.

What are some of the most sought after records that have passed through Atomic’s doors?

Nothing leaps to mind as there are so many. Pretty much every rare record produced by a prominent label over the past 25 years has been in our racks at some point. That was our job–to stock them as they came out.

What’s the most Atomic has ever charged for a single record?

We never dealt that much with ultra-rare stuff. I’d feel so bad charging a lot for a record that I’d just add it to my own collection. (laughs) Seriously though, that’s why a bunch of rare records are emerging from our basement for our going-out-of-business sale. I didn’t know quite what to do with them, so I stashed them. They certainly piled up!

Atomic is well known in Milwaukee and beyond for having hosted a number of in-store performances from up-and-coming bands that later hit it big. What are some of your favorite in-store performances that have taken place at Atomic?

That’s hard for me. I’m such a details-oriented guy that in-stores were generally very stressful. I’d always be concerned about the lighting, the sound, the artist’s comfort, and the often-disappointing turnout. That said, I particularly enjoyed Nellie McKay and I am amazed she isn’t more popular than she is. And the Posies were great, too. They were running late and called to see if anyone was there to see them. The Spinal Tap turnout thing happens far more often in this business than you’d imagine. Luckily we had a full house of fans and they put on a wonderful performance that was a pleasure for both the audience and the band. It was also nice to host Camper Van Beethoven both at the start of their career as well as on their recent reunion tour.

What were the most heavily attended in-stores in Atomic history?

We’ve had a number of maximum capacity shows over the years — from Smashing Pumpkins to Frank Black to Eagles of Death Metal — but the largest crowd we ever had was an autograph signing for Gene Loves Jezebel. It was 1986 and they were poised to be the new, edgier version of Duran Duran. There were 300-400 people trying to get in and it was getting out of control. At one point, a harried label rep had to climb atop the front counter to yell, “Move back! Move back! You’re crushing the band!”

What’s your favorite instance of an artist name checking or otherwise expressing their love for Atomic? I know that a number of artists have been known to wear Atomic t-shirts in public and I hear that Wesley Willis even wrote a song about Atomic…

(laughs)The Wesley Willis song! You should know that despite Wesley’s mental illness, he was quite an operator and he would write a song about anything as long as you promised him you would buy some copies. Of course, he would sometimes get confused, so he put out a CD entitled Atomic Records but forgot to put the song itself on it! The actual song “Atomic Records” appears on Drag Disharmony Hell Ride. So I ended up buying twice as many copies from him. Crazy like a fox, that one.

I’ve always figured the wearing of the Atomic t-shirt thing was more a matter of hygiene for touring bands and not so much a show of love. In the early days, we’d give them away like candy just for the thrill of maybe seeing them in a photo later on. But I figured the bands only wore them because it meant they could go one more day without having to stop and do their laundry.

The most notable instances of Atomic t-shirt love were the photo of Billy Corgan wearing one in the CD artwork for Pisces Iscariot and a member of Teenage Fanclub wearing one on the cover of their “Norman 3” single. And Dave Abbruzzese of Pearl Jam wore one on “Saturday Night Live”, which pleased me no end but then he got kicked out of the band. I hope it wasn’t over his endorsement of Atomic Records! (laughs)

And as a life-long Cheap Trick fan, I was thrilled when Rick Nielsen donned an Atomic tee for the encore at a concert on Milwaukee’s lakefront. I wish I had a decent photo of that.

As a music fan and record collector, how do you think the music community in Milwaukee will be affected by the closing of Atomic?

I think I’m too close to it to answer that question. Emotionally, my cup is half-full on the topic. As the viability of record stores have dwindled over the years, I can’t help but feel that our importance to the community has dwindled also. We’ve received an enormous amount of love from people since we announced the closing but it’s been often accompanied by a hushed confession that music just doesn’t play as big of a role in their lives anymore. They don’t have the time for it. It’s sad, really.

Where will you buy records once Atomic is closed?

I recently discovered Stardust Records in Thiensville, Wisconsin. Since I’m already well-covered on modern rock, I love Stardust for being an old-school used record store with nary a record released after 1985. I love to dig through the racks and Rocky, the manager there, has already turned me on to a few cool things I was unaware of.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to open up an independent record store of their own someday?

Umm … don’t? Unless you’re in a large urban center with plenty of customers to draw upon or you own the real estate, it’s a losing game. Dealing with the business side of it can suck your soul dry. I know some stores diversify their revenue stream by selling novelty toys and junk like that but when you find yourself being concerned with restocking Dubya toilet paper, you’re not running a record store anymore — you’re running a joke shop.

Do you think that there’s a viable future for independent record stores like Atomic in America?

I don’t see the pendulum swinging back in the right direction. It’s too easy for people to heed their lesser angels and steal music off the Internet or to be satisfied with a burned CD. The sad fact is that not enough people care to pay the piper what the piper deserves. They’ll rationalize it as “sticking it to The Man” or fighting those greedy record labels. So much of that line of thought is complete and utter bullshit. What they are really hurting is the artist and the art. If you don’t get $10-$15 worth of enjoyment out of a CD or an LP, you either have terrible taste in music or you’re just a whiny, cheap, sad sack who revels in the sound of their own complaining. With record buyers getting scarcer and with many of today’s youth having never purchased music, the demographics just aren’t there to support stores like this in the future.

Will venues like blogs, Internet messageboards, and other online communities ever be able to fill the role that record stores have played in allowing people to interact with and discover new music?

To a degree, but not with the same magic that record stores do. There’s a joy in knowing that there’s a place just sitting there, full of wonderful music that’s ripe for the picking. Can you imagine driving 400 miles to discover music like I did with Wax Trax? It was an adventure! Now people are sitting alone, glued to their computers and barely leaving their house. It’s weird — we’re shipping mail orders to the same zip code as the store! And with advance leaks and Pitchfork reviews, records are often heard — sometimes not even — and dismissed before they’re even released in some ungodly rush to find the next big thing. With everything readily available at your fingertips it all comes so easily that it loses any context. What makes it unique to you, the listener? This uniqueness can be attached to the physical artifact or the effort that was made in finding it or, most importantly, the memory of the circumstances you were in when you first heard it. When your wellspring of discovery is something as cold and unmemorable as a computer screen, it’s no wonder that it all becomes meaningless wallpaper.