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Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music

Andrew Gilstrap

You Owe It to Yourself by Andrew Gilstrap - A quick check in the free-weekly ads for the local mom and pop shops reveals pretty much what I expected: the lowest price for the U2 is $12.99, which means that, at most, if they got a decent price from their distributor, that store might be making a buck profit for each disc sold.

It's Thanksgiving morning, and I'm pretty sure that if I listen pretty closely, I can hear my body shutting down its adrenal glands and any other non-essential, excitable functions that might interfere with tryptophan laying siege to my body later in the day. But at the moment, my stomach's rolling a little bit -- I'm reading the holiday sales papers, the ones from the big electronics chains, and my heart sinks a little at what I see. Tons of good prices on music, with the brand spankin' new U2 disc on sale for $7.99! Even for loss leader pricing, that's an amazing sale. A quick check in the free-weekly ads for the local mom and pop shops reveals pretty much what I expected: the lowest price for the U2 is $12.99, which means that, at most, if they got a decent price from their distributor, that store might be making a buck profit for each disc sold.

Having once owned my own record store, I can sympathize. Often, it was the case that the big chains sold new-release CDs for less than I could get them wholesale (and believe me, there's few things more demoralizing for a small business owner than buying stock from your competition, just so you yourself can sell it cheaper than you otherwise could). But the struggle between local businesses and corporations is well-documented in papers, Lou Dobbs broadcasts, and blogs across the land, as are breathless odes to the rack-combing glory of locally-owned stores.

This isn't so much an ode, as it is a State of My Region, and an argument for indie stores in your shopping experience, even if they happen to suck, and even if they do cost a little more. In my particular corner of the American Southeast, there are at least ten worthy stores within easy road-trip distance, so I am spoiled beyond belief. In my hometown, the only indie store has retreated into a popular-titles-only niche, which doesn't serve it well in the shadow of Best Buy and Circuit City, but the owner has little choice in a town that displays fearsome levels of apathy towards anything new or different. Athens is a short drive away, as are Atlanta, Columbia, and Charlotte. This is also the former domain of the late, venerable Manifest chain, and in its wake are a handful of former store managers going it on their own, as well as former Manifest locations that have been bought out by other groups (one has become such a soul-sucking hellhole that it literally makes me heartsick on the rare occasions that I pay it a visit).

Be that as it may, wherever you are, you owe it to yourself -- if you're halfway interested in music buying as an experience -- in visiting these types of stores. Sure, there are the clichéd, surly clerks straight out of High Fidelity; the six-foot tall posters of Frank Zappa sitting on a toilet in the windows to intimidate passersby; and the vague sense that a cleansing flood of Biblical proportions might be the best thing that could happen to the dying strip malls (usually the dried-out husk left behind by a relocating Wal-Mart) the stores usually inhabit.

But when's the last time your cookie-cutter superstore had bi-annual yard sales to clear out fringe stock, oddities, and forgotten discs found behind the owner's filing cabinet (as Greenville, SC's Horizon Records does)? When's the last time you found half the Elvis Costello catalog in the $3 dollar section (Manifest's Florence, SC location -- never underestimate the power of a cool store's bargain bin if it exists in a town that's never heard cool music)? How many stores can you walk out of with a genuine Califone record player (just like the ones in grade school!) with your eclectic CD and vinyl purchases (Acme Records, Columbia, SC)? When's the last time you found the CD you were looking for in the used section, only it's being used via the magic of packing tape to provide structural support for a flimsy divider by an employee who's never heard of Bardo Pond (name withheld)? And as for witnessing a Saturday afternoon bust by the RIAA for bootleg live CDs, as the local good ol' boy sheriff loudly proclaims that Sheryl Crow's The Globe Sessions must be a boot because he's never heard of it? Just try to experience that in Best Buy.

And heck, no offense to public libraries and book stores, but it seems like the local record store is the last refuge of the idiosyncratic crank -- and I don't mean behind the counter (though they're definitely there, too). Sure, at the time he's invading your personal space and locking in on you with his "crazy eye," you might not enjoy being bothered by Uncle Jimmy (who'll tell you ad nauseum that he has three warehouses of vinyl, including five colored picture discs of Prince's Purple Rain -- for which he "paid 50 cents apiece, yes sir, 50 cents apiece!"); or Staring Tim (who, well, stares at you all the time and talks about wrestling); or Sally and the Returners (a mother/daughter/son team who seem to return everything they buy because they don't like it). Or the kid who has to call his grandmother on his cell phone and read out the lyrics of used CDs before she'll approve the purchase (personally, I'm waiting on this guy to snap any year now)? But over time, you come to expect it and miss it if it doesn't happen. And, of course, there are the fetishists like me, who make little eye contact and who burrow like rats into the disintegrating cardboard boxes under the racks, hoping to find the lone remaining Gomez or PJ Harvey CD single (this one's Australian, with a different cover!) that we don't yet possess, and who casually saunter over to the counter whenever someone brings in a stack of CDs to sell ... you know, just to see ...

Stock-wise, the indie store's appeal exists on two levels: the new stock and the used stock. The new stock's arguably what gives the store its personality, and if you're surrounded by the same stores as me, you know before you get in the car who has the best chance of stocking the new Spoon CD, the new Del McCoury disc, or that Goodbye to Babylon box set you'll spend months salivating over, praying that Santa thought you were extra good this year. The used CDs, though, are where the treasures lie, and you really have to hope that at least one person in charge of pricing the things is fairly clueless. A store where everyone knows what they're doing -- well, that has its value in spots, but it doesn't really help you snag a pre-loved copy of the new Mark Lanegan CD for five bucks. But ask that clerk who's grooving to some vintage Warrant how much he wants for the as-yet-unpriced copy of the Pogues' If I Should Fall from Grace with God, and you're golden.

Extend that to the bargain bin, and it can get even better. Crowded House, one of the best bands, like, ever, thrives in a good bargain bin (lord knows how many of my friends own out-of-print Crowded House CDs because I just couldn't let them languish beside Relative Ash and Kingdom Come). It doesn't take long to figure out a store's bargain bin strategy. Some stores operate on a calendar and move unsold things there after a certain period of time. Some stores use it for the mildly scratched CDs. Others use it as a promo dumping ground. Again, a store that's too-informed is trouble; Grimey's in Nashville is one of my personal shopping meccas, but their buying of used CDs is so informed and restrained, that the true steal is rare. Nashville's Phonoluxe has a decent section, but I think they'd raised the prices a buck or so last time I was there, which makes a big difference when you're considering repurchasing that Satchel disc that you lost to your ex-girlfriend in "the property settlement" (if you're a music freak, dating another music freak is a double-edged sword).

Are indie stores perfect? Nah, everything you hear about them is pretty much true. Music freak clerks who intimidate you (and, in the case of one store, a cooler-than-thou jerk who looked like Ron Jeremy on a bad day who openly scorned my purchase to my face with the comment, "God, it's a stupid world."), musician employees and customers who want to extol the virtues of Dream Theater to anyone who'll listen, quirky organization for music genres, you name it. But at the heart of it, the best indie stores are owned by people who love music -- these days, it sure isn't because there are riches to be made -- and at some level, that comes through. If you go in knowing that the hipsters are as full of shit as anyone, and you really enjoy the experience of buying music, a local store really can't be beat. Besides, it's Christmas-time, and the perfect chance to get those Rick Springfield reissues (I admit it, I'm a fan!) -- everyone will assume it's a gift, especially if you clutch a little piece of scribbled-on paper in your hand.

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