In honor of this year’s Record Store Day, Andee Connors, our metal and punk curator, reflects on a life spent in record stores…
The original version of this piece was first published in the WhatIsInStore zine, included with the Records Toreism compilation LP, featuring Tortoise, Mountains, Double Dagger, White Hills and Trans Am, and released by Thrill Jockey in 2009 for the second annual Record Store Day. I no longer own a record store (R.I.P. aQ), but I still buy a ridiculous amount of records and spend as much time as I can in as many record stores as I can find.
I can barely remember a time when my life wasn’t all about record stores. From the moment I first realized there was music beyond top 40 radio and tromped down to the local Licorice Pizza to spend hours digging through the racks, I knew I was hooked.
But even before that, there were signs of what was to come. When I was young, one of my favorite things was to lie in the living room with headphones on, listening to the four or five albums from my parents’ collection that I considered to be actually mine: that Beatles record where they’re all standing on the stairs, the one with the blue border, the 1977 self-titled Shaun Cassidy record, the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer, Kiss Alive… To me, they were all magic in their own way. And it wasn’t just the music, but the album covers, gatefolds, inner sleeves, lyrics and liner notes, too. I was entranced by the summery psychedelic painting on the cover of Endless Summer. I spent hours looking at the crowd on the the back cover of Kiss Alive, wondering about the various metalheads, their friends and girlfriends, wishing I had a cool leather jacket or a badass denim one with KISS written on the back in magic marker, wondering if I could someday have long hair, or if I’d ever be cool enough to hang out with guys like that and maybe even go see KISS (for the record, I was eventually cool enough, for both long hair and KISS shows!). But unlike most childhood pursuits that fade over the years, this one never did. The records may have changed, but the joy and thrill of buying a new album — of poring over the liner notes or discovering some hidden figure or mysterious shape in an album’s artwork — that part stayed exactly the same.
I spent ages trying to figure out what the strange rune on every Iron Maiden record actually meant before finally discovering that it was the artist’s signature. I marveled over the various bizarre and beautiful Hipgnosis covers, whether I liked the records or not. The Blue Oyster Cult sigil fascinated me, as eventually did the back cover of Cultosaurus Erectus, which seemed like a page from some obscure scientific journal about a dinosaur-like beast that somehow, incredibly, shared a name with the band.
Every and every record was magical and mysterious to me. But the stores in which I discovered them were just as special, each one like a whole other world. Licorice Pizza was my first, and although now it seems like it was a total cookie cutter, shopping mall record shop, for me, it was the gateway to what would eventually become my whole life. That’s where I first discovered Prince, Blue Oyster Cult, Van Halen, Devo, and a bunch of top 40 that still seemed pretty dang cool to me.
But it was metal that changed everything.
One night, my very favorite babysitter brought over the Scorpions’ Blackout. I was almost more intrigued by the garish forks-in-eyes cover art than I was by the music, which at the time was way too hard and heavy for my wimpy ears. A school friend whose parents were in the music industry would bring me promotional cut-out LPs for my birthday. One year, it was the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal. The only songs I could handle were Devo’s “Working in the Coal Mine” and the synth-y almost-ballad “Veterans of the Psychic Wars” by Blue Oyster Cult. The rest were just too heavy. I think I even borrowed some parental lingo and referred to it as “acid rock.” In retrospect, it’s pretty embarrassing that Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Black Sabbath and all the rest ever seemed too ‘heavy’ for me. But finally, about a year later, a friend of mine from school who I barely knew, and with whom my parents had already forbidden me from hanging out, got me Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast for my birthday. And that time, it stuck.
Not knowing where to get more, I searched for local record stores and decided to bravely explore one I had been too intimidated to check out. I finally made it inside, but even then, I never spoke to anyone. They all seemed way too cool and old and scary. But I did become a permanent fixture, lurking amid the racks every day after school and sometimes all day on the weekends. I would buy any record that looked cool or crazy, metal or otherwise (still one of the best ways to discover new music), until eventually, I worked up the nerve to ask for some suggestions. There was, of course, no shortage of suggestions and recommendations from the staff. Every employee had a seemingly endless number of “you-gotta-hear-these” and “this-record-will-blow-your-mind.” Ever the willing student, I took it all in, absorbed as much as I could and spent every second I could listening to music. And whatever time was not spent listening to music, was spent looking for even more music to listen to!
Eventually, I started making music myself: playing in bands, making records, touring. But my love of record stores never waned. In fact, the more I traveled and explored, the more record stores began to define those explorations, or at the very least determine the places we absolutely had to visit. When I was on tour, aside from food or weird roadside attractions, it was all about finding record stores. They were where the people we wanted to meet hung out. Want to know where the cheap, cool restaurants are? Wanna find the cool movie theaters, swimming holes, house parties, whatever? All you had to do was find a record store, and invariably, you would end up with not only a bunch of new music, but a list of places to go and see and eat, and maybe a new friend to visit the next time you rolled through town. It was also the place to see folks you met at the show the night before, bump into other bands and just kill time until you headed to the next city.
Record stores were (and still are) like community centers for the punk rock set: an invaluable resource in the form of flyers, bulletin boards, boxes of 7-inches, email newsletters, websites, in-store performances and even the clerks themselves. Some of my favorite stores even had couches and video games and coffee machines. Unlike most retail establishments, hanging out wasn’t just allowed — it was encouraged. Record stores remain one of the few places that shy music nerds, reclusive musicians and random passersby could end up in the same passionate conversation about music or art or really anything at all.
The landscape has definitely changed. Record stores are closing at an alarming rate as more and more people get a million ones and zeros from a computer instead of a big slab of wax or a little chunk of aluminum. Recommendations are read and written electronically rather than discussed and argued about with other human beings in the flesh. The medium may not be the message anymore, but to many music lovers, the medium is just as special as the music. And securing the music, the “purchase” itself, is only a tiny part of the experience — the record store experience.
I thought long and hard about what to write here. My first record maybe? The records that changed my life? My favorite record stores? But in the end, I decided to just sit down and write whatever came to mind when I thought about what exactly record stores mean to me, how important music has been to my life and how different that life would have been if it weren’t for all the records I’ve loved. Record stores have supplied me with a never-ending source of inspiration. Browsing their shelves over the years, I’ve discovered records that would get me through every hard time in my life, records that would eventually convince me to make records myself. Just as importantly, the records in my life helped convince me that without record stores, the musical landscape would be forever altered, which then inspired me to help keep record stores alive by spending more than two decades working in, running and eventually owning one!
So there it is. I’ve basically spent most of my life in and around record stores. As I write this, I’ve now worked in record stores for more than 20 years. I still play music, make records, run a label, build playlists and curate stations, but my heart belongs to the record store. What can I say? I still love them — all the people, the music, the CDs and tapes and 7-inches and LPs, the in-store performances, all the crazy, music-obsessed nerds who come in and want to talk about music as much as they want to buy it, all the bands and little labels and every single person who in some way has filled my life with glorious sound.
Check out this playlist I made of some of my favorite Record Store Day releases from the last decade, and be sure to celebrate and support your local record store… on Record Store Day and every day!