I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and among the ads for skin cream and ergonomic cat bowls saw the San Diego band, The Jade Shader, was releasing a limited amount of the album “Sea Stacks and Sleestaks” on vinyl at Lou’s Records in Encinitas, California. If it had been any other band my reaction would have been composed but because this band is no longer together and they started to mysteriously release their music online my interest was pretty high. I checked the Lou’s Records website for the album but it wasn’t showing even though Lou’s was mentioned as a place where it was being sold. Although it crossed my mind, booking a flight to San Diego so I could pick up a limited edition emo record was not practical so I knew I would have to employ a two pronged plan to make sure the album was secured. The first part of the plan was to text a friend in San Diego to pick up a copy, enter Sean, a long time friend and trusted audiophile.
“If you’re by Lou’s can you pick up the new Jade Shader album for me? I’ll pay for shipping.”
Easy. The next part of the plan would be to contact the record store and ask how I could get a copy and hope the message didn’t disappear into the customer service ether – not so easy. Why, you ask? Wouldn’t a business want to assist someone interested in one of their products? The short answer is – it’s complicated. But the reasons (that I will get into shortly) shouldn’t have been a deterrent because this was Lou’s Records. Located two doors down from my mom’s childhood home, Lou’s Records was where I had a breakthrough in my music education, where I learned how to flip for CDs and vinyl in an efficient yet exploratory manner, and how to hold my own shopping for music “while being female”. This was the place where I spent my hard earned Pizza Hut money on a bootlegged VHS copy of Radiohead’s headlining show at Glastonbury and a boxed set of recorded Beat Generation poetry both of which I still have to this day and both of which contributed to shaking me out of my Southern Californian suburban sleepwalk – I was grateful for this place but still weary of dropping these folks in Encinitas a line. But when I realized I could support this small business that had always been there for me when I needed it the most and an old school local band without physically being anywhere near the store I fired up the old email and wrote the two sentence inquiry.
My commitment to supporting records stores has been pretty consistent – saving these establishments and independent coffee shops from oblivion seem to be the hills I’ve designated myself to die on and, if possible, I try to bring this consumer activism to the things I spend my time doing. A few years back I founded a writing group who used music as inspiration for writing plays. When we first started meeting, I made a request that we buy the music we listen to as opposed to listening for free on the internet. The group replied nodding their heads in agreement that we should support artists. I then went on to ask that we buy this music in a record store at which point the nodding heads paused for a minute and were followed by a slow “sure” and “yeah, I think I can do that”. Think? What was there to think about? I realized how behind the times and hardcore nostalgic I was for this, apparently, archaic platform to purchase music. I didn’t see the red flags waving when Easy Street Records closed its Queen Anne location in 2013. I didn’t hear the alarms sounding when one of my nephews asked me blankly what I meant when I used the word “album” or when another nephew looked at me with some confusion when I gave him a CD as a gift. Lastly, I wasn’t fazed when the maudlin record store community felt that a day – Record Store Day- had to be dedicated to the fledgling business enterprise to remind us how awesome they are and, yes, we should spend our money there. No, those moments were only filled with denial, pretension, and some smiling and nodding. The big moment was when I was surrounded by my peers who grew up in the same era as I did looking at me with a “You want me to buy what, where?” expression on their faces did I realize that one of my favorite things was following drive-ins and roller rinks into a shallow grave of “things people too busy looking at their phones have decided they don’t want anymore”.
I understand not everyone has the time to flip lazily through the new used albums from A-Z and then go look for the music they actually came in the store to buy. I get that not everyone has the time to show up on the designated vinyl delivery day eagerly awaiting store staff to distribute records, acting like they just happened to be there on the right day and time. Available stock is also questionable in a record store and if you’re hurting for time, your search for a Matador Records compilation circa 1999 that you sold for beer money in college might prove to be a mission impossible and, at best, foolish. A fun search for an album that might have been feasible to find fifteen years ago turns into a moment of sad desperation with a little soul searching about what the hell you’re doing with your life. As you dig through the crates below the CD racks while asking if there’s any more stock in the back room, you realize a light hearted rummage has turned into a full assault on the things you know to be true. Mixed feelings of nausea and a sense of creeping middle age set in only to be cured by some hard liquor or to run away from it all fast, speeding past the guy in the skinny jeans and Converse who absolutely has to walk out of the store with the vinyl he purchased under his arm to show the world he knows who The Stooges are. I get it! Not everyone has time for this nonsense.
With the question of whether or not you’ll actually find what you’re looking for hanging overhead, there is also the sad and honest-to-god fact that record store employees rarely win awards for customer service. While I have to say the employees of Easy Street Records in West Seattle and Light in the Attic Records located in the KEXP Gathering Space break all stereotypes of typical record store employees, I have seen and experienced “Barry” from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity all too often. While working at the now closed downtown location of Rasputin Music in San Francisco, I experienced co-workers treat well-meaning and good natured customers like they had committed a crime against humanity because they wanted to know if we sold the latest Coldplay album. Depending on the staff working, a homemade sign reading “Buyer beware if you are not enlightened by the history of Sub Pop, the fanfare of the Madchester scene, or display the right amount of subdued enthusiasm for the B-sides of the Stone Roses” should have been hung at the entrance. Though horrified by this attitude, I found myself taking on this role of “Record Store Barry” one day when I was pushed to my limit by a Abercrombie-dressed teen girl and her mom while I was working on the fourth floor jazz section. Ugg boots dragging, she flipped her hair, smacked her gum, and asked if we had the Love Song single. Since we were standing in the jazz section I was confused by the request and after some back and forth about if “Love Song” was the title of the single she was looking for and her singing the chorus to me, I asked if they had checked The Cure in the rock section. The girl looked at me with vacant eyes while her mom looked like she wanted to burn the clothes she was wearing after having dared walk anywhere near Powell and Ellis streets. I went on to tell them that I wasn’t sure if we currently had singles by The Cure but before I could turn to a computer and check the girl stopped me, “No. It’s not by…whoever you said. It’s by that punk band – 311!” After her assertion that Love Song was not sung by The Cure she asked where she could find Ok Computer by “that one band Radio-something”on vinyl. I told her I’d check that out for her and took my lunch break instead.
If these places are black holes of customer service and unmet consumer needs, why go? Why go to these places if you might have to deal with some recluse with thick rimmed glasses who will use their newfound exposure to The Velvet Underground’s Loaded as a tool to prove superiority? Why go to a place where you might find yourself in a conversation about the remastered version of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures when all you want is an 80s compilation CD for a last minute white elephant gift? Why go to a place where your human status as you know it is determined by whether or not you can drop “Thrill Jockey” in a casual exchange with the cashier? Why elect to be anywhere where an opinion about James Murphy is expected? For me, it begins with the feeling that these stores – while full of opportunities to be shamed by strangers for inane reasons – offer me weird rolling moments of Zen. The second I walk in my mind blanks and I have no idea why I stepped foot inside in the first place but I’m compelled to move forward and start discovering. The only time I share the same brain waves and the spike in adrenaline with people who repel into ice caves or volcanoes is when I enter a record store: there’s a rush, a sense of ambiguity, and the knowledge that a majority of people wonder what the hell is wrong with me. While I walk through the aisles, there are moments when I start to remember my wishlist but just when I have it under control, everything goes blank. I remember. I go blank. Remember….blank. And on and on until I suddenly have about ten CDs in hand and an urge to look for some Gil Scott Heron spoken word and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass on vinyl. I’ve received continual and unsolicited advice to “make a list” during my excursions – well, I have made lists and I don’t follow them because, damn it, what’s the fun in going down a list and checking off items? That’s not music shopping – that’s completing a task! As I peruse, I know that the employees won’t ask me what I’m looking for and what some people see as lacking in customer service I see as being afforded some space and freedom from algorithms that tell me what “other people like me” have purchased in the last 48 hours.
Less than 24 hours after I sent them a message, Lou’s Records got back to me with a question about my email. It turns out my two sentence email was a little too hasty and failed to mention pertinent information, like, the title of the album. It wasn’t like I asked “Do you have that one Ty Segall album?” but the band I was asking about now has two albums and clarifying which album I wanted would have been helpful. (You got me, Lou’s. You got me. And your ability to craft an email that delicately included snark normally reserved for a live person in their store was truly impressive.) Since I try to have the basics covered when I’m music shopping, my head hung a little lower than a normal shoegazer and I remembered the girl in the Ugg boots and started to wonder what made me so annoyed during our encounter. Was it because she didn’t know a piece of knowledge that was so obvious to me? Was it because I really wanted her to walk away with an album by The Cure and begin a whole new chapter in her life? (A whole new non-Abercrombie, black eyeliner and faux crushed velvet Hot Topic-inspired chapter in her life?) I can’t help but wonder if what I really wanted, what I couldn’t articulate at the time, was to make sure that the connection she felt to that song was a whole one. I wanted her to know that this song was loved by millions worldwide and there was a whole movement behind this kind of music. Cultures were shaped and lives were saved because Robert Smith’s lyrics have the capacity to speak to a large swath of people from lonely goth kids in Russian suburbs to jockish nu-metal types from Nebraska spanning from the late 70s until now. Beyond that, I wanted her to know there is a ton of music out there beyond the clatter on the radio she hears when her mom drives her to school. There is music out there that is so loud that it’s beautiful and so tragic it’s funny. There are stories of people’s lives woven in between chord progressions and silence between notes that could never be understood without a privileged auditory experience; a return to the basic kinship of storytelling shared by all humans throughout all time. I started to understand where this “record store guy” attitude came from and for some it could come from a sad, scorned, human who wants to get back at the world by holding esoteric music knowledge over people’s heads but for others, it could be quite the opposite. It could come from caring about something and loving it so hard that protectionism is a natural reaction and the instinct to connect with another person about this thing is real and requires attention. A vulnerability that can be seen as vulgarity; take a moment and think about those things you love so much and how that love can be displayed so peculiarly, so awkward sometimes…
“Purchased the album via email!.”
“So you don’t need me to pick up a copy for you?”
“Rad! Happy listening!”
After the rigmarole of ordering the record, Lou’s Records wanted to know how I found out about the album and I told them I saw it on Facebook and they should prepare for more requests and they responded gratefully. I laugh at myself thinking about how nervous I was reaching out to the people who work in a bungalow on North Coast Highway and have been slinging music for the love of it since 1980; people who love music and are fellow audio scavengers and should be considered friends. Comrades. Associates. Simpatico. However, if you need some reassurance before going into a record store after a long hiatus of purchasing music online, just walk in with confidence, glide past the faded promotional posters for Bjork, Pearl Jam, and “that one band that sang about Buddy Holly”. Ignore the weird stains on the industrial carpet below and start at the A section remembering how much you love music because that is enough reason for your entry into the store. But in case you’re having any second thoughts, you can always keep the following in the back of your mind: