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Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music

Dave Dierksen

Do You Remember Rock and Roll Record Stores? by Dave Dierksen - I know a long-winded rant on the importance of the record store sounds a little bit shallow. Maybe you would prefer it if I told you to get out and do some damn exercise. Fine. But if you're out running, and you happen to pass a record store, go in. Go in and be reminded that there's often more to rock and roll than just the music.

I was watching TV on the day after Thanksgiving when my stomach was plagued with a wave of nausea. It wasn't the hefty meal from the day before. It wasn't even the Aggies running a Texas Longhorns fumble back 98 yards at the end of the half. Nope. It happened during the newsbreak, when I was bombarded with images of war. And I'm not talking about that fiasco in Iraq, folks.

I'm talking about the near riots country-wide occurring at a retailer near you. Maybe you were even there, throwing elbows as you rushed to snatch up that last discounted DVD player or whatever item it was that happened to float your boat that day. While you got yourself out of bed at a ridiculously early hour and drove out to the mall with your cash and credit cards gripped tightly in your fist, off to brave the winter chill while pacing in place in pre-dawn lines -- while you pushed and shoved at 9 a.m. to get into the doors of the store -- I chose to sleep in. And when I awoke, I stayed inside the rest of the day. I avoided you. At all costs.

Maybe you can tell I'm not a big fan of the shopping. And it's not just on the insane sale days. I'm a year-round hater. I mean, I like to buy stuff; I just don't like to look for it, or try it on, or compare prices. And the only thing worse than shopping alone is shopping with other people. Maybe it stems from the days when my mother would drag me to the grocery store, with the interminable lines and the crowded aisles -- arrgh -- there are few places I'd rather NOT be than the grocery store. Hell, I don't even like shopping for things that guys are supposed to like shopping for -- sporting goods, cars, power tools. Hey, I appreciate a fine automobile and I could use a new tennis racket, but these are things that I just wish were mine without the hassle.

I shop out of necessity, not out of desire. And the more convenient, the better. Find me a service that allows me to download a comfortable pair of pants, and I'll sign up for that.

Except ... well, I kind of do have this thing when it comes to music.

Right now, some friend or family member -- hell, anyone who has ever unwittingly followed me into a record store -- is screaming at their computer screen. Let me put it this way. That whole hating-shopping-with-other-people thing that I've got? Well, the feeling's mutual for most folks I know when it comes to me and my kind of shopping.

Following me into a record store may very well mean an end to your day, I kid you not. I browse. I hover at listening stations. I flip through magazines. Sometimes I just wander around, tortured by the 15 albums I want to buy. Of course I can only afford to buy the used copy of that one-hit wonder from '95, and that's only if my friend loans me a buck-fifty. I shop for music like rich chicks shop for shoes.

Here's the thing, though. It's not all about the music. I know tons of music lovers, and they're not all like me. They know what they want, and they'll hit up a Best Buy because that store's got cheap prices and the selection's not half-bad. Those who are in no hurry to get their tunes and want a better selection hit up Amazon. And those that want it right now pay to download.

These are last resorts for me. Best Buy or Circuit City or the like -- these places are cruel and clinical. They all look the same. The lighting is bright. The air is cold. There's something wrong with buying art in an environment so sterile and false. Even the people that work there are straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. "May I help you sir? Well let me see if I can find that for you." I know they don't really want to help me. They'd rather be getting high behind the store.

The guys at my record store? They probably are high. And they rarely smile. If you want help, you have to ask, and it better be a damn good request, too, or else you'll get the dreaded look of disdain. They're the football coaches of the music industry; they push me to want to be a better and more knowledgeable music lover. You hate them sometimes but still work to impress them. Then one day, the check-out counter guy says, "Oh, you're getting the new Lyrics Born record. Right on, man." A small victory but victory nevertheless!

And to close the door on the Best Buy issue, I know you think that you're saving money by shopping there. But nine times out of ten, the Best Buy or Circuit City, for some inexplicable reason, is going to be on the outskirts of town. That extra couple of bucks you're worried about? That's going in your gas tank, buddy.

Now, the Internet issue. Amazon's got an amazing selection ... seemingly. But how hard is it to show the cover of a record and provide a track list? It fools you into thinking they have it in stock. But if they don't, be prepared to wait for a while until you get that CD in the mail. You might as well at least check out your local record store to see if they have it in. And you'd be surprised how many stores will order that sucker for you. You'll probably get it faster that way.

And then there are the diehards that not only want convenience; they want their music now. I'm talking about the downloaders here. I respect the need for immediate gratification. If you're paying to download some singles, I can even support that. (Sigh.) I just don't understand what compels people to pay to download complete records.

This needs to stop. This dependence on computers is getting out of hand. Didn't you see The Matrix? Seriously, when was the last time you went to your local record store? Am I the only one who appreciates the sensory delights of shopping for music at a location that actually has a physical address? When was the last time you really appreciated an album cover? Just the cover art alone can make me giddy (this goes double in any store carrying vinyl). Think about the feeling of the CD in your hand and the frustrating suspense that comes with prying open the shrink-wrap as you exit the store. And sometimes -- sometimes -- you get lucky, and the band opted to use that thicker stock of paper instead of the typical glossy. Then you get that smell. That new record smell. Cassettes used to have that smell all the time, and while I don't miss the format, I miss that smell.

Let's also not forget the social ritual that goes down at the record shop. While you're on your computers, you're missing out on the perfect chance to carry out those voyeuristic tendencies in a live setting. I love peeking over the shoulders of the patrons, hoping to be surprised by what they hold in their hands. I could people watch for hours. The intimidating indie cutie in the red fishnets who stands alone, looking sultry. Those 20-year-old dudes with disheveled hair yammering on about how great the sixties were. That smiling middle-aged hippy couple who you imagine are off to the blues club later that night. That smiling middle-aged yuppy couple who are holding on to the newest Wilco record, so you figure they're probably all right.

And then there are the normals -- the meat and potatoes of the young human race, with the white t-shirts and loose fitting Old Navy slacks. What could they be listening to? Maybe the Arcade Fire? Ben Harper? Otis Redding? The Stones? Ol' Dirty Bastard? What about those who are there alone? Are they like me? Do they surround themselves with CDs because it's the protective garlic against whatever evils are out there trying to suck their blood (metaphorically speaking, of course)?

Call me a geek, but the perfect beginning to a first date is going to my record store early on a winter Saturday night, right around 6, as it's getting dark. The store's called Waterloo Records, and you should check it out if you're ever in Austin. It's at the corner of two busy streets, and it can be a real pain in the ass to get in the parking lot. Once you're in there, good luck finding parking. For some reason, the lot spaces are ungodly close together, so if you're not in a compact, get ready to exit your vehicle out the sunroof. Pray that between you and the guy parked to your right, you get back to your car first because he's going to be pissed when he can't open his driver-side door.

So you're with this girl (or boy) that you're into, and you're a little nervous. You look around and see the place is buzzing. There are other couples in there, and this boosts your confidence. But you need some inspirado to get the conversation going. The new releases case the wall to your left. Bang! The new U2 record catches your eye (is there a more romantic band? I think not). This is instant conversation: What's your favorite U2 record? And you're off. She says The Joshua Tree, predictably. You say Pop, pretending to play Devil's Advocate, even though you know in your heart it's true. From there, you direct her attention to the wall of local artists next to the new releases, and you start talking about your favorite local bands. How many memories can be triggered just by seeing the name of a particular band? Those aisles aren't just filled with CDs. There are stories hidden in there too. You tell her about the in-store where Jurassic 5 freestyled like no one's business while you sipped a complementary beer by the keg. Later she points out a record that looks interesting. You take it to the counter, and the check-out guy hooks you up with a private listening booth. At this point you could care less about the guy you parked so close to. He can get in on his shotgun side ... hopefully.

I know what you're thinking. "Dave, the independent store in my neighborhood is the size of my living room, and not only does its selection suck, but Jurassic 5 never stops by to do any in-stores." I realize I'm spoiled here in Austin. But there's no reason why more places like Waterloo can't survive elsewhere. It's a matter of giving people something that the other stores can't. Ambiance, atmosphere, vibe. These things are not impossible to achieve, even in a chain store like Hastings or Tower. If these stores are your only source for music, then I urge you to shop there. Work to make the place unique. Make it your home. Talk to management. Arrange events. If it's a small joint, that's even better; it's a lot easier to get to know people when the staff is small.

I know a long-winded rant on the importance of the record store sounds a little bit shallow. Maybe you would prefer it if I told you to get out and do some damn exercise. Fine. But if you're out running, and you happen to pass a record store, go in. Go in and be reminded that there's often more to rock and roll than just the music. And sometimes a record store can be so much more than the place you pick up your tunes. Or maybe that's just me.

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