Thursday, November 21, 2013

Back to Black Friday (aka "An Ode to the Record Store")

Next Friday (November 29) is, of course, Black Friday. Personally, I've never set foot anywhere near a shopping mall on that day, but judging by the hordes of people who descend on major stores to fight over fantastic deals, I guess I'm in the minority. Still, for those of you like me, here's an alternate way to spend Black Friday.

If you followed that link, you know it took you to a news item regarding a special "Record Store Day" Black Friday promotion. While we're on the subject, I thought I'd re-run the most viewed post in this blog's history (below, or click here to add to the aforementioned post's hit count).

An Ode to the Record Store

My first favorite record store was Record World in the South Hills Mall in Poughkeepsie, New York. As a young teenager, I also sometimes purchased records at department stores such as Caldor, but Record World definitely had the best combination of price and selection around.

It was at Record World that I'd flip through the discographies of bands like Blue Öyster Cult, Rainbow and Judas Priest, trying to determine which of their older albums were worth taking a chance on.

It was at Record World that I would purchase a mediocre EP by a band called Cintron, after seeing them as an opening act at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center. But, of course, purchasing records that didn't live up to your expectations was all part of the process back in the pre-Internet days.

It was also at Record World that I hemmed and hawed over paying $8 for a full-length LP, rather than a more reasonable price of $5 to $7.

Record World is now a pet store, or something like that. It hasn't been in the South Hills Mall for years...actually, decades. In fact, the South Hills Mall has basically been rendered obsolete by the nearby mega-mall, the Poughkeepsie Galleria.

I've moved around a lot since those days, and I've had plenty of new favorite record stores, and eventually those record stores became CD stores, but I've continued to call them record stores.

Even long after I stopped buying new records—I'm not one of those music collectors who's remained a vinyl junkie, although I admire those folks—I still maintained a relationship with old-fashioned record stores.

First, I went through a phase where I scoured countless used record stores—fairly successfully, I might add—in search of every record that Neil Young never released on CD. Then, these stores became my destination for the purchase of albums so that I could frame and hang the covers on my wall. I suspect I own at least a dozen records that have, in fact, never been listened to by my ears.

But, over the years, there's only one record store I've held in as high esteem as Record World. That destination would be a place called Rock Bottom Records in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I lived in New Hampshire for only one year—from spring of 1996 to spring of 1997—but after moving to Boston, it still remained a frequented destination when I was in the area or just passing through.

Long before music stores came up with the idea of in-store listening stations, Rock Bottom had an area with racks of hundreds of used CDs and a few portable CD players with headphones that patrons could use to preview albums.

I remember vividly in April of 1997 when both Son Volt's Straightaways—their eagerly anticipated followup to Trace—and The Jayhawks' Sound of Lies—their first album of the post-Mark Olson era—came out on the same day. I previewed and purchased both of them at Rock Bottom, and, for some reason, hearing them in the record store for the first time was a goose-bump-inducing moment.

On another occasion, I was going about my business, listening to various used CDs there, when the album playing on the in-house stereo system caught my ear and really grabbed my attention. I asked the store clerk what it was, and he responded with such enthusiasm that it was the solo record by Smashing Pumpkins' guitarist James Iha. Let it Come Down may never have become my favorite guilty pleasure album if not for Rock Bottom Records.

Another night, as I was leaving the store, I was overhearing a discussion between the store clerk and another customer, as he tried to explain who England, Dan & John Ford Coley were. He was trying to identify their most recognizable song, showing a little frustration as he admitted he was drawing a blank. As I opened the door to the street, I turned in his direction and said, "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." After a several second double-take, he realized I was identifying the song rather than asking him out.

Unfortunately, Rock Bottom Records has been out of business for quite some time. Other than Newbury Comics, a regional chain of stores that remains a model of success in a fading industry, I haven't had a favorite record store since.

And, as that previous sentence reminds me, I really hope this post is more than just an ode to a dying breed.


  1. A great post, nice to read it again.

    Take heart knowing that the great record stores of San Francisco (Ameoba) and Austin (Waterloo) are alive and kicking. And just the past weekend the WFMU record fair in Manhattan featured over 30,000 square feet of vinyl. Opportunities for serendipitous discovery remain, it's just that now one has to seek out the experience. As you note, it once defined record shopping and many of us grew to embrace the experience. I encourage you to find an excuse to get to Austin or San Fran, or at least come on down to the FMU fair next November.

    1. Oh, and this...