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Why Record Stores Are the Greatest One-Night Stands Ever!

Whenever I’ve walked into a great independent record store for the first time — from Wax ‘N Facts in Atlanta to Wuxtry in Athens, Georgia, to Charlemagne in Birmingham, Alabama, to Aquarius or Amoeba in San Francisco to Village Music in Mill Valley, California, to Waterloo in Austin, Texas, to Dusty Groove in Chicago to Pier Platters in Hoboken to Birdell’s or Beat Street in Brooklyn to Music Factory or Finyl Vinyl or Vinyl Mania or Fat Beats or the old Times Square Record Mart, or dozens of others in Manhattan — I’ve been intimidated to the point of speechlessness.

But it wasn’t because I was afraid the one asshole clerk was gonna embarrass me for asking a stupid question — though that has happened occasionally and isn’t an irrational fear. It was more that I was hoping so intensely that this experience — which so many people have taken for granted over the years (and now, sadly, many may never have) — wasn’t going to be a crushing disappointment.

As is true for probably everyone reading this, music is one of the few things that gets me utterly emotionally unhinged — love and ACC basketball are others — and perhaps the main reason is that one of the only places I ever felt completely, and almost giddily, at home growing up was in a record store. When, as a bewildered brat, my dad took me to the Record Shop on North Church Street in Asheboro, North Carolina — with its towering (to me) counter and cramped entryway that opened onto a vast (to me) collection of vinyl singles and albums — I remember an immediate rush, not just of exhilaration, but also palpable relief, as if I’d found some comforting hideout that was like the best of school and afterschool combined. You could goof off for hours and learn all this potentially dangerous secret knowledge that might, possibly, unlock the mystery of how to keep the universe from designating you as a detainee in some neverending playground Gitmo.

I mean, they even let you spin 45s on the turntable to see if you liked them, for as long as you damn well pleased! And it was symbolic too, since it was just down the block from First Baptist Church, which as I got older, had come to feel less and less like a sustaining refuge, for a variety of reasons.

So over the years, when that initial intimidating fear and anxiety would recede, and I’d eventually feel kicked-back relaxed in a new record store — even enough to talk to other human beings (customers, or God forbid, buyers or owners!) — I’d fall hard, and wanna keep going back and bringing lists of obscurities to look for and making random discoveries (and spending money I didn’t have), and wander out onto the street afterwards feeling totally disoriented.

I remember buying certain records at certain places — a Townes Van Zandt album at Waterloo after I saw Steve Earle refer to him during an in-store; or my first Ultimate Breaks and Beats boot off the wall at Music Factory, because Stanley Platzer, the bespectacled Yoda who sat on a stool with a giant notebook/scroll of breakbeat history, said that was probably the only way I was ever gonna hear “Black Grass” by Bad Bascomb or the Winstons’ “Amen Brother” without them being sampled on a hip-hop record. And those interactions undoubtedly gave the music a more lasting value and gave me a connection (however tenuous) to a music community that I wouldn’t ordinarily have had (not to mention the fact that the Beatnuts’ Psycho Les once checked my bag).

The only feeling I can relate it to, from beginning to end, is the nerve-wracked anticipation you feel on a first date with someone you’ve heard is cool and smart and fun and your friends think will be a great match for you, and because of all that, you know that if it turns out to be boring or a disaster, it’ll be your fault. But then it works! And unlike actual romantic relationships, you can travel to other cities and visit other stores and have transformative experiences and leave with no feelings of betrayal or regret. Or you can flake out and vanish for years and come back and nobody’s pissed or needs an explanation. Record Stores: The Greatest One-Night Stands Ever!

Unfortunately, in the past decade, like too many relationships, these objects of affection have been disappearing altogether, due to factors both avoidable and unavoidable. And I’ve gradually spent as much (or more) time online buying music from anonymous sources (or downloading music from even more anonymous sources) as I have in stores hanging out and enjoying the familiar comforts.

But not all those homes away from home are gone (my current local way stations are Manhattan’s Other Music and Brooklyn’s Academy Annex and Sound Fix), and the ones that remain are perhaps even more intensely social than before — with in-stores by bands and DJs, special offers and giveaways, and owners/employees who actually want to be there and need the experience to be as rewarding as possible for everyone.

And that’s why Record Store Day is such a heartening, and yes, emotional time. It’s honoring a ritual that has meant a lot to us in the past, and we know that if it disappears, it absolutely will not be replaced by something better (just something different, and maybe a little bit more convenient on a surface level), so it’s worth the effort to testify to others about what they don’t have to miss.

Now, of course, one could argue that a record doesn’t sound any better simply because you got it at an indie store rather than at a chain or online or from some graying critic liquidating his promos at a flea market. Then again, as Ice Cube put it, I ain’t tha one.[EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay will appear as the liner notes for the limited-edition Record Store Day compilation “This LP Crashes Hard Drives,” featuring tracks from top reissues/rarities labels Numero, Jazzman, Now-Again, Light in the Attic, Vampi Soul, Timmion, Daptone, Finders Keepers, Honest Jon’s, and Sublime Frequencies.]