Saturday, August 26, 2006

Record stores

The news that Tower Records has filed for bankruptcy has made me think back to my record-buying youth. (I still buy records, only now they're called CDs.)

My first record stores were in New Jersey — The Relic Rack in Hackensack and Sam Goody's at Garden State Plaza in Paramus. The Relic Rack, a long narrow store on Main Street, carried mostly oldies (which back in the 1970s meant 45s from the 1950s, and the Cruisin' reissue series) and a small selection of interesting then-current LPs. I still remember records that I bought there — a Columbia compilation called The Story of the Blues and Taj Mahal's The Natch'l Blues (I still have both). Sam Goody's, perhaps twenty times the size of The Relic Rack, was one of the great culture spots of my teenaged life. Nowadays, the name "Sam Goody's" denotes the sorriest sort of mall outlet — with black-light posters, lava lamps, and oh yeah, some CDs. But thirty years or so ago, Sam Goody's was a record-buying dream. The jazz and blues sections were enormous, with all sorts of offerings on small and foreign labels — ESP-Disk (I bought my Albert Ayler LPs there), French RCA (the Ellington Integrale series), and the various labels that put out music by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other avant-garde jazz musicians. The Sam Goody's classical section had its own staff, who could offer recommendations — quite helpful when I bought Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, my first classical recording. Mind you, I didn't know whether the recommendation (Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony) was a good one, but it was at least something to go on. The ideal Sam Goody's experience was the all-label sale, advertised via a coupon-ad in the New York Times. That sale could allow one to make a killing, as when I picked up the Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces (a 13-LP set) for $49. I can still tell which of my LPs are from Sam Goody's — the cashiers always sliced the plastic wrap in the bottom-right corner of the back cover and wrote in the purchase price.

[One such corner, from the Albert Ayler Trio's Spiritual Unity, ESP-Disk 1002 ($4.49). If you strain your eyes (or click for the larger version of the photo), you can see the mark of Zorro (i.e., the cashier's razorblade) across the price.]

I also spent a fair amount of time at J&R's jazz outlet, on Nassau Street in lower Manhattan. I'd drive in from New Jersey on a Saturday morning, when the financial district was deserted and parking spaces were to be had. I was always amazed to see so many people shopping for jazz on a Saturday morning. J&R had bins and bins of cut-outs, and I bought many an LP simply to satisfy curiosity — the prices were so reasonable that I could afford to experiment. Nowadays, I rarely buy a CD without having some idea of what I'm going to be hearing (the exceptions, matters of irresistible curiosity, include Nellie McKay, Wilco, and Bob Dylan's Love and Theft).

What I most miss about record stores is the joy of browsing. I miss the soft thunk of flipping through LPs in their bins. Used LPs, minus their plastic wrap, aren't the same, and CDs, which spell out their contents on their top edges and clatter like a drawerful of junk, lack all magic. I miss the chance to read liner notes while trying to make up my mind. And (save for the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago) I miss the feeling that a great record store always held — of containing, just like a library or museum, things I wanted to know more about.

While looking around online today, I learned that Sam Goody's filed for bankruptcy in January 2006. I hadn't noticed.

[Endnote: My wife Elaine tells me that the Solti/Chicago Rite of Spring was an excellent recommendation.]

Link » Relic Records, with background on the Relic Rack

Link » The World of Sam Goody, Part One, Part Two, Matthew Lasar's recollections of working at Sam Goody's flagship store in Manhattan, with a great story of shopping with Rahsaan Roland Kirk (from RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities )

comments: 2

Jason said...

Ah, yes, the Jazz Record Mart is a great place to still catch the excitement of hunting for records; heck, even buying CDs there has a different feel.

Not that long ago, sorting through used CD bins was equally thrilling, but now, with MP3s and so much e-music, there is less thrill-of-the-hunt AND less willingness to try out new music (aside from Wilco, yes!, whose sound is always new).

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comment, Jason. Yes, the transformation of music into files has removed much of the magic of the hunt, along with some of the opportunities for "close reading" that albums invited (studying the cover, reading the lyrics, looking for clues that Paul was dead).