On Saturday, April 19, nearly 500 independently owned record stores across the country are celebrating Record Store Day. Hundreds of artists are giving in-store performances, and many stores will commemorate the event with giveaways to thank loyal shoppers.
Here, singer-songwriter James McMurtry shares a few memories of hanging out — and awkwardly self-promoting — in record stores.
I'm sure there must have been record stores in Houston in the late '60s, but I don't remember ever being in one. I was a small child then, and my father bought our records at the drug store on Bissonnet, where we also ate cheeseburgers and drank malts. The drug store carried what records we thought we needed — Johnny Cash at San Quentin, Batman, The Beatles' Revolver.
I still have a couple of old mono LPs purchased at the Bissonnet Drug Store, including Bob Dylan's self-titled first album, on the back cover of which are the italicized words, "This Columbia High Fidelity recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old. If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true to life fidelity. In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete."
I remember my father installing a stereo needle in our mono record player so that the new stereo records wouldn't skip. Of course, we couldn't hear them in stereo, but he didn't care; he just wanted the damn things to play.
The day my second record, Candyland, was released, I was playing at The Bottom Line in New York City. It was 1992; CDs were marketed in the environmentally unfriendly but highly visible long box, and they had just become the top-selling format, having finally overtaken the cassette.
I walked a block down the street to a huge Tower Records and tried to find my record. It wasn't in the rock section where I thought it should have been. I searched every nook and cranny of the store and finally found the country section, a space smaller than the kitchen of a typical Chelsea walk-up.
In one of the bins, there was a card that read "James McMurty [sic]," but no records. I walked to a pay phone, called my manager at his Upper West Side office, and asked him if he could prevail upon someone at Columbia Records to please get some CDs down to Tower before my show. I checked back three hours later and found a half-dozen or so copies of Candyland behind the same misspelled card, but now in the rock section, right between Don McLean and MC 900 Ft. Jesus. It pays to know the right people.
I may have spent as much time in record stores hawking my own wares as buying music. I used to have to do in-store performances in nearly every market. The bright side of the demise of the record store is that I don't have to do as many in-stores as I used to. Record stores are uncomfortable venues for live performance, too brightly lit, and in-store performances are attended almost entirely by day people who won't be at the show later.
When I toured solo, in the early '90s, I would often race to the in-store to find that there was no PA. I would be expected to stand there, in front of a stack of my records, singing to an acoustically dead room that completely trapped what little sound I could put out. People would carry their Michael Jackson records right by me on their way to the register, as if I were a mime on the street.
Once, at Albums on the Hill in Boulder, Colo., I was told to play in front of the store. In the middle of a song, a guy came down the sidewalk, listened for a second, and threw a quarter in my case. I finally learned to insist on being allowed to stand on the counter next to the cash register. That way, my voice could project over the bins, and commerce would have to come to a halt for the short duration of the performance.
I don't miss the big chain record stores. I found them to be sterile places. A few of the independents are still hanging on despite the competition from downloads. I hope they make it.
We are losing all manner of stores, not just record stores. My father has been an antiquarian bookseller for more than 40 years. His trade has died. The old shops, with collectors and book scouts shuffling to and fro between dusty stacks, are gone.
When the stores go, the community goes. Those scouts, collectors and dealers all knew each other. Over the decades, they learned each other's tastes and wiles until the trade took on an aura of sport, complete with friendly rivalries and bitter feuds. It's hard to imagine such an interesting culture evolving in cyberspace.
Record stores are physical locations where people actually meet face to face and interact. To remain human, we need that interaction: Conversations that aren't recorded, transactions that aren't automatically entered into a database for purposes of future commerce, facial expressions that convey shades of meaning one could never express with a key stroke. Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.