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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Record Store Days

Remembering the hi-fidelity era

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If Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo’s book were written more carefully and with more extensive and better research, it would be an important historical work. However, Record Store Days; From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again (Sterling) is a charming popular account of record stores and, in essence, a proclamation for their last stand. And it emphasizes the centrality they once enjoyed and that—what with National Record Store Day—they are trying to reclaim in the 21st century.

There once was a vast, diverse clientele that kept record stores viable. Independent stores specialized in certain kinds of music and even the larger ones had much of what was sought by vinyl fanatics numbering in the millions. By the 1960s and the cultural prominence of the LP, these stores saw the future and moved into real estate within metropolitan areas that was close to where specialized record buyers lived.

Before this era, sheet music stores and musical instrument shops had little areas set aside for some 78s or 45s. At first, there was no significant difference between the independent and chain stores as the album rose to prominence. Even department stores sold LPs and by the mid-’60s one had many options for record shopping, including hardware stores.

But it was in the ’70s and ’80s that record stores began to create specialized buying groups and the split began between chains and locally owned stores. Record StoreDays concentrates on this era and cites various districts in major cities, with Brady Street among them, where music fans gathered and went to the nearest record store for a day of seeking new sounds by familiar and unfamiliar artists. Often, albums were bought by virtue of cover artwork alone. Owners of stores, even in the chains, were music fans and only too pleased to let a customer break the shrink-wrap to expose the music to customers.

By the ’90s, this kind of service was dwindling but still in place until the CD arrived. Artwork obviously diminished in size and so did browsing. Re-packaged catalogues were the thing at first, and people began to replace vinyl collections with the newly minted disc format.

Record Store Days is full of wonderful anecdotes from rock musicians remembering buying their first records at their favorite store, including a delightful photo of a young Jonathan Richman. There is a story about one store owner who forgot to lock up one night and arrived the next morning to find his customers sleeping in the store on guard duty. When the Patti Smith Group did an in-store, Lenny Kaye reports that “I was playing to all these records I love” and that this was the audience for him. “You felt like you were part of the universe of people who made records before you.”

Were it not for a closing segment that feels like it has been paid for as a Record Store Day promotion, this book would be better. It’s a fan manual celebrating a world that is trying for a comeback but is surrounded by an unseen enemy. In your computer, look through the wiring and try to see a song. If you do, try a different prescriptive drug, for music is no longer in the sound object, the store or even permanently in your possession. It is physically gone, but you can hear it.

Record Store Days shows where music once was and does so with naive enthusiasm. It is a wistful, hopeful but funereal account of something that cannot be unburied. Ownership of sound is dead.