I’d like to talk about something you’ve never thought about. In fact, it’s probably something you don’t even care about. This is unless you use terms like “white hot stamper,” and you obsess over the writing in the run out groove of Sticky Fingers.
Before I start on this jag though, let me contextualize. Let’s go back to the early 90’s. It was a great time if you were into vinyl. Everyone was ditching their record collections to buy CDs. I was given thousands of records for free from friends, co-workers, and families who were looking to purge. This is not hyperbole. Literally, people gave me thousands of records.
The most I ever spent on a collection was seventy dollars. In that collection, I got about 10 original Bowie albums, T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, and an import copy of Pink Floyd’s Meddle. At the time, seventy dollars was half a week’s paycheck. This purchase set me behind on bills for at least three months, but I had to have them. There were two record stores within driving distance from my house. The first was a record and used CD store. The records were between one and three dollars, no matter the title or the condition. The second was a vinyl only store.
Prices were higher, but everything was cleaned and put in a fresh outer plastic sleeve. The selection was also much better at this store.
My favorite part of the record stores were the guys that hung out there. You have to remember, this was the 90’s, and records weren’t cool. I never saw any of my classmates in a record store. I didn’t talk about buying records with anyone at school. A few of my friends knew, but they didn’t care. The guys in the stores were outcasts. They were nair-do- wells. They were curmudgeonly. They were the anthesis of cool. The term uncool doesn’t even do them justice. Their clothes were worn, their hair was shabby, and they struggled with personal relationships. These were either guys who had spent a life building a music collection on wax and refused to transfer to CD, or they were guys who were poor and would spend a buck on a record versus eighteen dollars on the same CD. I know it sounds like I’m being broad and pejorative in my description, but it’s not my intent. I am trying to be factual. I also know that I’m describing my small corner of the world, but I’ve been in enough record stores across the continental United States to know these guys are everywhere.
I loved these guys. They were hard to get to know. They held the world at an arms length. You had to buy one or two of the right titles to even start a conversation. Before that, you were addressed with grunts and finger points. My friendship with Gary started when he saw me buying Coltrane’s A Love Supreme; with Rich, it was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; with Don, it was some Hawkwind LP; and the list goes on. Once you’d shown a genuine interest in music, you were let into the club, and once you were in the club, you got a free education in music.
These guys broadened my musical perspective in the best sense of the word. It got to the point where if I was handed a record and told to buy it, I bought it without question. Gary once handed me two Bob Seger System albums and suggested I buy them. They were about twelve bucks a piece, which was pricey, and it was Bob Seger, which was the kind of music my folks listened to. I couldn’t hide my apathy, but Gary assured me. There was no arguing. He had never steered me wrong before. Like always, he was right. This is how I built my record collection.
Fast forward to 2017. There are at least seven record stores within driving distance from my house. The Bob Seger System albums I once paid twelve bucks apiece for, now easily fetch a hundred dollars each on eBay. My collection has grown exponentially. This is all due to the current vinyl boom. If you’re reading this, you know about the record boom. In fact, it’s been discussed multiple times on this very site.
Overall, I like the vinyl boom. I like that I can get new albums on vinyl. I like that the number of record stores I can visit have tripled. I like that audio fidelity has come back into the peripheral vision of society. I like that I can pick up stereo equipment at stores in my area (instead of random sites on-line). I like that sites like Get It On Vinyl exist. I like that Dust and Grooves is a legit coffee table book. I like that words Techniques, 180 gram, and original pressing have worked their way into the popular lexicon. In general, I like that that record collecting has worked its way back into the zeitgeist.
There is a downside to the vinyl boom. Prices are up, but that’s the supply and demand of limited second-hand marketplace. While I can’t verify this, I’m sure the same kind of thing has happened to or will happen to all collectables: baseball cards, comic books, or hell, even Beanie Babies. If we can use the small resurgence of tapes as an indicator, we may even see this second-hand fascination happen with CDs one day. I have mixed feelings on Record Store Day, but it’s my choice if I participate or not.
My only real issue with the vinyl boom is the changing demographics of the local stores. This isn’t hipster bashing, though it may be a subset of it. I don’t mind hipsters. I like that kids are getting into vinyl. Let’s put a finer point on it: I don’t like that the guys who used to frequent record stores are being squeezed out of the record store. I know they are allowed to be there. I know it’s probably a choice. These are the guys who hung out in record stores because they were a sanctuary. They were shelter from conversation that got too personal. Record stores were places where impersonal conversation about the best Dylan album forged life long friendships. As record stores have become cool, these guys have remained uncool. These are the guys who are ignored and left out of conversations that take place out of the front counter because they look like your dad’s weird cousin, even though these guys know more about what’s being discussed than anyone actually participating in the conversation.
I’m sure I’m coming off as an elitist baby, and you’re probably right. Let me get personal here though. I’m not cool. I’ve made this assertion before on this website. Here’s the thing; being uncool is very defining in my life. I’ve always listened to the wrong music, watched the wrong movies, read the wrong books, and worn the wrong clothes. On a good day, I’m am an average looking guy. I don’t mind this. This is my life, and I really enjoy my life. I have a beautiful family, a good job, and a killer record collection. These guys, these outcasts, these weirdos that hung out in record stores, they mean a lot to me. They were my friends when I didn’t have many. They were father figures when I had no responsible male in my life. They gave me an education in music, and eventually movies and books. Underneath the unconventional looks, they were great guys. My longest lasting friendships are with these guys. I talk to them regularly, I seek their council, and I buy records from them.
About three years ago, I was in one of my local record stores. I found a copy of The Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack. It was something I had been looking for, and I was stoked. I took my pile to the front of the store to pay, which I did successfully. As I was getting ready to leave, a second employee got off the phone and asked where the soundtrack had gone. The cashier explained that I had just purchased it. The employee looking for the album explained to me that it was his album and shouldn’t have been out for sale. He didn’t know who put it out on the floor. The cashier, who seemed to be in charge, told me he’d give me my money back and apologized. I was bummed, but I didn’t put up a fight. As much as I wanted the album, I didn’t want to take something out of someone’s collection. I returned the record, took my money, and returned to the racks and looked for something else to buy. I can’t leave a record store with extra money in my wallet. Within the next fifteen minutes, an attractive girl came in. She was wearing a black skirt and a white Black Flag t-shirt. She was the kind of girl I found attractive but the kind of girl I could never find the courage to strike up a conversation with (even though a mutual love of Black Flag seems like a good conversation starter). The Decline of Western Civilization was brought out from behind the counter and sold to this girl. I have no idea the context of the situation. I assume the employee had agreed to sell it to her previously.
The part that really stung though: she paid ten dollars less for the record than I had paid no less then fifteen minutes before. I felt burned. I know it’s not rational, but my perception is I had been wronged. It’s those perceptions that build our realities. I’m more petty than I would like to admit. I never went to the store again.
I’m no Chuck Klosterman. I’m not supremely engaging and layered in my writings about pop culture and music. Thus, I’m sure, you’ve broken the code if you’ve read this far: I am one of the weirdos I’m talking about. The story about the Decline of Western Civilization made me feel marginalized in a setting where I hadn’t felt that way before. The bottom line is that I find it heartbreaking to see these guys come into record stores, flip through a stack and quickly leave because they feel out of place. The clerks fawn over the cool person who is buying The Eagles Hotel California while not giving any props to the awkward dude who is purchasing Soft Machine’s Third.
So what am I getting at? Next time you’re in the record store and see that oddball reach out to them. Yes, they will write you off. They will treat you, the way they feel society has treated them: rudely. I know you weren’t rude to him, but his reality has been formed by his perception, and he feels like an outcast. Be persistence though. This guy needs a friend, and will turn you on to some of the best music you’ve never heard.