…is something we’ve never enjoyed doing. First of all, it implies there’s something wrong with them. And us. But worst it misses the whole point. Why do people make them in the first place? Most bands we know and love (even the really awesome ones) struggle to find the time to practice together and get to gigs that hardly pay, let alone the challenge of raising thousands to put together what they’ve created on an album. Why buy records? Because these people worked really hard to make them.
There’s some things we don’t love about Record Store Day: the gimmicky, novelty feel of some of the releases, the esoteric nature of others. The enormous risks we must take in ordering either. Over the four years we’ve been hosting a block party on 39th Avenue to celebrate the occasion, the quality has improved — earlier Record Store Day releases were often felt shoddy, ironically disposable. Not so with the stuff we’ve been unpacking this week. Could the price be lower? Yep, we think so and thanks to the indie labels who have heard folks on that. Could the special releases just be more awesome? Yep, again we think so, but this year is the first that we wish we could steal a couple of the special releases for ourselves. [Laura covets the Cake box set that collects all their albums and more, Dave really wants the reissue of the Litter’s 1967 single on Scotty Records — in case you feel like shopping for us]
The cartoony microphone at the left represents for us, as owners of an independent record store, the best thing to come from six years of Record Store Day marketing. Holding it is a reporter from MPR (whose voice was instantly recognizable!) who spent a morning in the shop recording sounds and what we had to say about running a business, about the role our shop plays in the neighborhood, and about trying to balance small business with family.
Every year we have a few of these visits — local TV, radio stations, newspaper writers. We spend the first couple of weeks of April answering emails full of questions or doing telephone interviews while also trying to help the folks who come into the shop — it all adds up to an enormous marketing campaign, a blessing. Other folks are reporting stories about other record stores and it’s happening all over the country. Sure, those really big shops probably make a killing off the Record Store Day releases, herding people like cattle to troughs filled with colored singles in still plastic sleeves and reissues of albums you could just hunt down — but smaller shops like ours benefit the most from all of the unexpected attention. It’s the best advertising in the world. It’s why we’ve outlasted the chains, it’s what makes record stores totally unique in American commerce. Small is better.
The months after get more fun each year, with new people trickling into the shop. New collectors, old collectors we won back from the internet, and folks cleaning out attics and basements filled with dust-draped albums that haven’t been touched in years.
Record stores like ours aren’t going anywhere, not like they were six years ago when this shop might have been liquidated. Look! Two new shops have opened in St. Paul this year. Record Store Day and its special releases may have jumped the shark, but we hope this annual tradition will not disappear. We appreciate the attention that comes from outside of the local music scene, the collectors’ community, and the neighborhood which has, by the way, been awesomely supportive of us.
The interviews are all fairly similar — not because the people assigned to report on Record Store Day are lazy or unprofessional, but because their job is to explain something apparently mystifying to most people. It’s a question that eventually comes up, one we are asked in a different way every April. Each year we offer different answers, never as eloquent as we’d like. It happens at other times, whenever we are introduced as owning a record store in a setting outside of a record store…
Why do people still buy records?
Some people just do it — who knows why. Probably the same reason that people out there, somewhere, have collections of everything from the glass insulators on powerlines to the AOL cd’s that you found in your mailbox for years. There’s no underestimating the collector impulse — we wouldn’t run a record store if we didn’t love records and enjoy the really narrow and specific of collecting them. Mono or stereo? Is this a reissue? The original cover? Does it have the inner sleeve, the liner notes, the inserts? There’s no underestimating the allure of the postcards in a Pink Floyd or the panties in an Alice Cooper.
But that simply doesn’t explain it — we’re not all collectors like that, though bless them for being the keepers. So many of us write on those original covers and send those postcards. It is surely a smaller number who wore the panties inside original copies of School’s Out, which of course were doomed once teenage boys (believe it or not this was Alice Cooper’s core audience in 1972) discovered they were instantly and awesomely flammable. This is why things become rare and valuable.
Records, let’s not forget, are essentially a disposable product. They were never intended to be heirloom pieces — that’s the “Record Store Day record” mentality talking. Astral Weeks may have been a masterpiece but it was pressed on the thinnest, cheapest piece of plastic Warner Brothers could get away with marketing, and shipped in the cheapest package possible. Did you ever wonder why nearly every original copy of Nashville Skyline has a jacket that’s split open — because it was poorly made, the glue that held it together was no good. Nobody at Columbia Records cared that tens of thousands of people had to fix the latest Dylan album with packing tape. We’ve always thought the Sundazed Records reissues of this album fail in their otherwise accurate reproduction in that the jackets stay securely glued together.
The 45 is an even more extreme example: today an object of collector fascination and lust, but originally designed to be the most disposable of all. They were meant for teenagers to stack on portables while they boogaloo. They arrive here in water-stained cardboard boxes and old cookie tins, sometimes packed tightly and sometimes dumped without a care — most have been damaged in at least some way. They often contain stickers, initials, are moldy, are warped, or simply so scratched that they won’t play ever again. Still, every box is worth a look.
And the 45, bless it, is a very durable thing. It’s remarkable how well they’ll play, even in the poorest of shape, and how good it will feel to play them. The tactile experience of holding a record has, for us and for so many of our regular customers, an enchantment we couldn’t possibly express in words.
A nice copy of “Just One Look” by Doris Troy is surprisingly uncommon. We understand, having worn out this copy a good deal ourselves in the ten years or so it has been in our collection. That is, of course, only a fraction of this single’s life, which began its long journey to our living room in (presumably) the Monarch Pressing Plant in Los Angeles, based on the marking in its matrix. That was 1963, meaning it was around forty years old when we captured it and filed it next to Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” in a box in our house. It has spent around twenty percent of its long life with us, and will likely find its way into another box in another home one day. You don’t own your record collection so much as you’re taking care of it for a while.
Replacing our record would be as simple as a handful of clicks. A nicer copy could be on its way to our door for five or ten dollars in less time than it took to listen to the song just now — for some this is the only way to buy records: Nearly everything you can imagine can be found online — for a premium, of course. Would you like to hear Sidney Poitier read Plato over west coast jazz arrangements? You could by Friday. Would you prefer a track for track synthesizer re-make of Ringo’s third album (Ringo!) — there’s one out there somewhere online waiting for you.
One thing that keeps us open is that the people who bought those two albums when they passed through Hymie’s almost certainly didn’t walk through the door looking for them (who on Earth would?) — they were looking for something interesting. A question we’re always asked by interviewers is “Which records are we trying to find?” Is there something we dream about, besides a grocery store opening across the street?
We’ve never had a good answer. We’d love to see a few rare gems, if not necessarily own them. Jethro Tull’s first single mistakenly named them Jethro Toe — we think they should have kept the new name, and one day we’d like to see a copy of that single. Both sides (“Sunshine Day” and “Aeroplane”) are on the 20th Anniversary box set so we could hear them anytime, but to hold a little artifact like that in your hand would be a pleasure.
Several of our favorite groups in the world are working on their next records: Southside Desire is mixing their second album, Wizards Are Real recording their third, Narco States recording and re-recording and re-recording their first. And Whiskey Jeff… Lord knows what he’s doing with that album — when you hear him play here with his awesome band on Record Store Day you’ll understand why we so much hope he’ll have an album we can hold, take home, hug and kiss, and never take off our turntable. Maybe the record we’ve always been looking for hasn’t even been made yet.
Record collectors love the unexpected. It keeps us digging in crates, it makes it impossible to pass a garage sale, and for some it takes them not to a single record store but to several over the course of an afternoon. Who knows what new surprise will be in the next bin? For instance just this week we brought a large collection into the shop which included this delightful version of “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” by Joe Bonsall and the Orange Playboys:
This is why we’ve never had a good answer when asked about the records we wish we might find — who knew a cajun cover of Jim Croce existed? Some collectors may be looking for a big score, but most of us are looking for something no one has heard in years. A lost treasure. Every one of us wants to be Harry Smith in one way or another. When you put a record on your turntable you are, after all, bringing to life a frozen moment of the past through a nineteenth-century technology that, while easily explains, is endowed with an enduring magical aura.
What comes out of your speakers is both a link to the past and a moment in the present, for that record you’re playing will never be quite the same with each new listen, each new owner and each new turntable. It could be something as stupid as a musical version of the Bible in which Thurston Howell III plays the part of the Almighty Creator, or it could be a moment of sublime beauty: there is a recording of Johannes Brahms playing the piano, made in 1889. This is the impulse that has driven many posts here on the Hymie’s blog — one day what is beautiful, the next what is joyously absurd.
There’s a poem by Charles Bukowski where he describes a three-legged cat he adopted, called “The History of One Tough Mother.” You can hear him read it here, but you’ll have a hard time finding any of the Bukowski records. Here’s how it ends:
and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look
but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up,”by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.
Our interviews go a little better than this, and Irene still has all four legs and her tiny tail, but the ending sometimes feels similar. We walk someone around the shop and show them the listening stations, peculiar records. We show them the picture of Hymie above the jukebox and pose for another ourselves behind the very same counter. And at some point we find ourselves in the very same position as Bukowski, trying to explain this extraordinary and inspirational thing to someone who just doesn’t understand.
This year it was Pennyroyal‘s second album, Baby I’m Against It that was our cross-eyed, three-legged cat. And these folks can appreciate a good pop song, they’re good people. But they don’t understand. Here’s a band that runs down the Velvet Underground and Lucinda Williams, sometimes in the same song, that out-discos the new wave bands that found that happy medium, and has written some of the best new songs the Twin Cities has produced in the five years we’ve been hosting Record Store Day events. Not to mention the best female vocalist in the Twin Cities, no matter what the dumb old City Pages says.
What the reporters hear is another “rock band” on another record, and marvel at the fact that somebody is still making records, let alone buying them. And the same story always appears in print, on the radio. Presumably on the nightly news too, because somebody always comes in the next day and says “I saw you on the TV!” We learn that vinyl sales are up some remarkable percentage over the past year or decade (though we never learn they are still a fraction of the massive music entertainment industry). Specifically we hear what people come in and tell us all the time: records are coming back!
We have always said that around here they never left.