When I was in my early teens, I could always find someone I knew at the mall on a Tuesday afternoon. That was when Sam Goody put out the new releases, each $16 CD locked in one of those anti-theft devices that tripled its size. Though we were still separated by clique ¾ the skateboarders swiping up punk rock, the grimy-haired latch-key kids finding escape in hip-hop and the teens with black clothes and sour expressions devouring heavy metal ¾ we all met down there and often stopped to exchange gossip and badmouth teachers. (Whenever someone like Green Day or the Dave Matthews Band put out something new, the more well-adjusted, popular kids would join us.)
By the time I could drive, I had given up on music with a release date that hadn’t gone by decades ago and had a thick binder full of CDs from the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and Sam Goody was no longer acceptable to someone as culturally advanced as I thought I had become. A handful of friends and I packed into a car and headed to Oakland to make the rounds of Dave Music’s Mine, CD Warehouse and other used places. Finding a copy of Highway 61 Revisited
for six bucks less than it cost at the mall was just an excuse to go for a ride and try to be mistaken for a college kid, of course. Maybe I would have never gone to Pitt if I hadn’t absorbed so much of its atmosphere on those stupid Saturdays.
A love of music used to be something that got you out of the house and into some new experiences. That Sam Goody is now gone, so is Dave’s in Oakland (though the South Side store remains). The CD Warehouse has been replaced with another second-hand franchise, The Exchange, which does sell CDs but can hardly be called a music store, with DVDs, video games and novelty items like Kiss shot glasses taking up most shelf space.
In 2010, Americans spent $223 million on CDs, a third of what they spent in 2004, according to Soundscan, the system that tracks retail music sales. This is due, of course, to digital downloads, both legal and illicit. The effect has contributed to the deaths of Circuit City and Borders, closed the iconic Virgin Megastore in Times Square, halved the number of FYE outlets (from about 1,000 stores in 2006 to 390 today) and obliterated countless independent stores.
Are stores that sell music a thing of the past? What would be lost if these cultural spaces were no more, if a kid’s entrance into the communities of rock or hip-hop or whatever was a message board and not a brick and mortar space? To find out, I stopped by three independent Pittsburgh music stores, still at it in despite of a decade of predictions of their demise.
720 Music, Clothing and Café
If suburban kids get their music on iTunes (or from some seedy torrent site run by an Austrian hacker) and socialize on Facebook and therefore consider record shops to be, like, totally for old people, 720 Music, Clothing and Café
stays afloat by skipping the musical newcomers and going straight for the diehards.
When the store set up shop in 1999 (first in East Liberty and then briefly in Squirrel Hill before moving into its current Lawrenceville location), it was mostly a supply shop for DJs, says Andrew Burger who co-founded the business with Jim Selecta. Both are DJs themselves.
“There was a brief scare in 2000, when some DJs when digital, so they didn’t have to carry around a crate of records,” recalls Burger, “but overall they’ve been loyal to records.”
They aren’t the only ones. There is a segment of music snobs, lovingly portrayed in the Nick Hornsby novel High Fidelity
and the movie based on it, that never accepted the CD as superior to vinyl, and they sure as hell won’t accept the MP3, a format that even further compacts sonic dimensions for ease of transfer. That segment is growing. More than 3.9 million new records were sold in the U.S. in 2010, a 20-year high and a 39-percent increase over the previous year. Strangely enough, 720, , may have increased its staying power by dealing in a format once deemed obsolete. Burger says it sells upwards of 200 records a week.
The store’s inventory veers into a variety of genres and subgenres. “We know our audience and the people who go for vinyl wouldn’t go for whoever won on last year’s ‘American Idol,’” says Burger, who lists funk, soul, jazz, Afro beat, house and indie rock as 720’s specialties.
Chances are if you grab a random album at 720, you won‘t recognize the artist, and Burger says that’s OK. “When people shop on the internet, they usually go for something specific. The thing I like about record shops is that you can still pick up something random.” 720 still hopes you can be enticed into checking out an album by some weird spaceship on one of those 12.5-by.12.5-inch covers.
And lastly, 720 doesn’t just hope to become a cultural space by selling cultural items; the store insists on it with poetry readings and occasional yoga classes. It also redoubles its coolness with a coffee shop in the front of the store and a boutique of the urban hipster variety in the back.
“I think the loss of record stores would mean a loss of collaboration to the community,” says Burger. “People have collaborated after meeting here. I don’t think they would be able to get the same feel for each other on a message board.”
Jerry’s Used Records
“So how much do songs go for online?” Jerry Weber asks me. He wouldn’t know. The squat 64-year-old owner of Jerry’s Records
doesn’t own a computer. I tell him around $1 each.
“That’s nonsense,” he says. “I’ll sell you a record with twelve of them for five bucks.”
At a second-floor retail space in Squirrel Hill where he has been since 1993 (following 16 years in Oakland), Jerry sit’s a front desk always cluttered by his latest intake of records. Whenever someone dies and his family clears out his attic or a baby boomer parts with her childhood collection (which Jerry sadly sees them do more often for food money), they come to Jerry. He’s now amassed a collection of 2.5 million pieces of vinyl.
Jerry’s record obsession was enough to get him featured on the A&E psychological disorder sideshow “Hoarders,” but the show’s expert concluded Jerry was not mentally ill, just a highly ambitious second-hand retailer.
The “best sellers” --- which in this store still includes The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison --- are displayed in a rack in the front. The rest of the cavernous store houses show tunes, opera, classical, children’s music, folk, bluegrass, reggae, gospel, blues, polka, Zydeco and mountains of obscure pop music.
“All the guys who never made it, who never got written up, I have them,” says Jerry. “Most of the stuff in here is not available on CD.”
Jerry’s customers are all diehards. Some come in from across the tri-state area on weekends to binge, buying two dozen records at a time and taking them back to locales where the only store that sells music is Wal-Mart. Others come in practically everyday, hoping to find a gem in the latest hodgepodge Jerry purchased before anyone else gets it.
As for what would be lost in a world without records, Jerry is more concerned about the economic implications than the cultural ones. “When you get everything you need to have the new Bruce Springsteen album from a computer what happens to the guys at the CD factory? How about the truck drivers? And then how about the guys in the stores? They all lose their jobs.”
But Jerry might be safe from the threat of iTunes because, if you only count music put out in the 20th century, his collection might, insanely enough, be larger than Apple’s. “If you love music, you need a turntable,” he says. “It’s still the deepest source for 60 or so years of music.”
Sound Cat Records
If 720 represents the future of record stores and Jerry’s the past, Bloomfield’s Sound Cat Records is an attempt to stay in a holding pattern. Up until last April, the storefront was home to Paul’s Compact Discs (and before that Jim’s Records). Karl Hendricks, a former Paul’s employee, is trying to maintain it as the same type of business that existed when he started working there in 1989.
The posters for Devo and Siouxsie and the Banshees that have hung above the register since the days of Jim’s still loom there. Hordes of CDs sit alphabetically organized in rows, all in their ’90s-style security devices, with the pop music in the middle of the store and the specialty genres, like jazz and blues, off to the sides. Up front are the new releases and scattered throughout are the records, which Hendricks says now make up more than half of sales.
But don’t mistake Sound Cat for a store for music snobs, like 720. “We sell a lot of Adele albums,” says Hendricks.
When asked why he bought a CD/record store in 2012, Hendricks says simply. “I needed a job. I have a masters in education and have never been able to find work in that. This place has always been there for me.”
Hendricks has been going to the store since he was a kid and got a job there while a struggling musician. (The boss was apparently impressed by the way he hawked his own self-recorded tapes.) When he started, the aforementioned Adele was an infant and no one had ever heard of Beyonce or Eminem or Radiohead or Alanis Morisette or even Nirvana.
The pre-MP3 idea of what a record store should be lives on at Soundcat. It is where you can go when 96.1 Kiss FM finally coerces you into buying the blockbuster album of the year with umpteenth spin of some catchy single or when an old favorite has a new release you want to snatch up on its first day out or you just get a hankering to flip through a stack of David Bowie discs for a few used at a discount price. It’s also a great place to go to loiter at the cash register and talk music.
As part of his daily duties Hendricks, who seems comfortably still wearing a Van Halen t-shirt to work into middle age, entertains several long-timers. It’s them, and their reliability, on which he is counting; he knows how many copies of a new CD to order because he knows which of the regulars will buy it.
I ask Hendricks for his sales pitch, this reasons I should come into Sound Cat in an era when I can have virtually any record I want (except for the strange stuff in Jerry’s vaults) in seconds over the internet (and get it for free if I have no moral qualms about what is, for all intents and purposes, stealing).
“I don’t know. I have never been too good at sales pitches,” he says, “but I would encourage you to come out and have a real experience in the real world.”
Captions: Jerry Weber; vinyl at 720; Jovon Mitchell, co-owner of 720; Jerry's Records; Karl Hendricks at Sound Cat.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen