Friday, May 28, 2010

Final Vinyl, Racks of Wax & Platters that Matter

Saw that Theresa Kereakes over at Punk Turns 30 posted this morning that the fabled Rhino Records is open again, if only briefly, at 1740 Westwood Boulevard in LA.

Rhino the record store, a direct offshoot of Rhino the record label, was neither the first nor the last of the independent records shops, but it certainly set forth many of the ground rules by which such vinyl havens played from the mid-70s on. Being an easterner who has never been farther west than Colorado, I never had the pleasure of shopping at Rhino Records. But, from my earliest days as a discerning record buyer with my own paycheck to spend, I've not only always preferred the indy shops, but often found them to be the only places to track down some of my more obscure want-list items.

There was a time when the record shop was a fixture in every town. Usually housed in narrow, musty storefronts, interiors plastered with flyers for upcoming local concerts and littered with copies of Goldmine, these were nothing like the sterile cookie-cutter mall chain stores or "record departments" in larger stores like Sears or Penny's that stocked only the best-selling records of the moment. These were record shops: slatboard floors and rack after rack after rack of records, often crammed in so tightly you had to pull a fistful or two out before you had enough slack to actually flip through them. Cheap, tinny speakers hung by fraying wire in hidden corners blasted out music that only the coolest of in-crowd seemed to know ("Oh wow, what is that song? Gotta have that record!").

You knew the shop owner by name; he knew you by the music you liked: "Hey, Violent Femmes Guy! I got a record in you need to check out!" He'd pluck some obscure disc from a stash behind the counter, drop the needle, and a minute into it you were sold. Those shop owners knew their regular clientele well, and it paid off. Most shops had the record wall, with insanely-priced, impossibly rare pressings and high-dollar long-out-of-print singles calling to you from well beyond your budget's reach.

You could find anything there. You might try to play Stump the Shopkeep, but he seemed to know every record the moment it came out. Hell, he usually had the pre-release since a week ago Tuesday! And the real joy: if the store didn't have a copy of the record you were looking for, they would order it for you.

Over the past quarter century, thanks to the CD age, the record shop has slowly faded into history, with fewer and fewer towns able to claim a local indy. Those that do have enough of a local crowd of vinyl enthusiasts to keep them afloat treasure their shops. I'm fortunate to live in one of those places. Here in Lancaster, Stan's Record Bar is still tucked into it's Prince Street storefront where it has been since my mom bought Elvis Presley singles there as a kid herself. A half-hour's drive from here is The Record Connection in Ephrata, another long-lived example, although in recent years the vinyl has yielded more and more space to the compact discs. But even these stalwarts of the indy record shop heyday are shadows of they once were.

I wish I were able to get to LA this weekend, just to take that step back in time and set foot in Rhino Records. If you happen to be in that area, stop in for me and let me know what it was like. And wherever you are, if your town or city has an independently own record shop still in business, please patronize it. Spend some time flipping through the crates of albums and boxes of singles. You just may be pleasantly surprised at what you might find.