Very few great places remain to buy records. I’m sure it’s true in your town, but I know that it’s true in Sacramento. Physical media are something of a fetish item in the iTunes era. CDs still have a bit of life left in them thanks in part to older shoppers, but more likely due to the number of CD-equipped cars still on the road.
But vinyl — albums, LPs, records — that’s another story. The LP as a commercial commodity has been dead for over twenty years. It’s never actually gone away, though; rather, vinyl now appeals to a few niche markets.
There’s the DJs for whom records are something to sample, mix, and cross fade. Then there are the hipsters, who buy records because they are better than you and see this proves it here’s my Kitty Wells collection I’ve been listening to her, like forever. Audiophiles still covet vinyl for its depth of sound. This comment usually elicits eye rolls, and in the right company inspires heated debates. I’ll stay out of that fray other than to tell you that if your listening experience is limited to ear buds and MP3 players you’ve missed a lot of music.
The last category of vinyl devotees is the record geek – the collectors. Some are motivated by money, others by passion/obsession. There are those who are in it for the cover art, some are chasing white whales, some just enjoy belonging somewhere.
Belonging somewhere. What a great feeling. I went through a comic collecting period as a teenager. Back then one could still find comic books on spinner racks at convenience stores. The local used bookstore — really a romance novel exchange — kept a small stack of collectible comics behind the counter, too. I bought off of the spinner racks and stood among the Harlequins debating whether to shell out five bucks for a John Carter Warlord Of Mars #18 (first Frank Miller Marvel art), but the only place I really wanted to be was my friend Tom’s comic shop. I’d say conservatively for every five dollars I spent at the Romance Exchange I spent $95 at Tom’s.
There’s magic in the clubhouse, a place where people share your frame of reference. Once an item slips from its intended purpose (stamps, coins, comics, Edwardian jelly jars) into the realm of the fetish item that magic is important. In Sacramento we have The Beat, which is an outstanding record store but it lacks that magic. It’s a bit too pricey and the staff maintains a friendly but disinterested distance. They could care less about my still sealed Mom’s Apple Pie album. Occasionally a little store pops up with varying degrees of douchiness depending on whether they are gunning for the DJs or the hipsters (the upstarts rarely target the geeks and the audiophiles).
The one truly great record store in Sacramento was Dimple Vinyl, a completely self-contained shop tucked behind the Dimple Records on Arden Way. Twenty years after the death of vinyl this place still had the vibe of a real record store. The guys who worked there, Ryan and Steve, knew their shit, and one could clearly tell that they took a lot of pride in the place. There was always something interesting on the turntable — so interesting, in fact, that people bought records right off of the turntable.
“You’re going to take this and ruin our fun?” Ryan once said to me as he slid Rhino’s Teenage Cruisers compilation back into its sleeve and handed it to me.
“Sorry, buddy. It’s mine now.”
“That’s okay,” he laughed, but the joke was on me. Ryan was just doing what Steve The Manager taught me thirty years earlier — selling with the turntable.
The place was well-lit, intimate, packed with good vinyl at reasonable prices. I truly looked forward to my Saturday visits.
Now, in case you haven’t been outside in the last four years I have some bad news for you. Not only is it so hot now that small children instantly vaporize when they touch pavement, but every retailer except Wal-Mart and that self-loathing gay chicken place is struggling. Borders Books recently went out of business, liquidating everything but the stucco on the walls. So did the Kelly Paint Store located next to the Dimple on Arden. Retail abhors a vacuum, so Dimple purchased Borders’s fixtures and leased the empty paint store. After a few months of remodeling and purchasing used books through their Dimple Records outlets, Dimple Books finally opened its doors.
It is a fine store, and the employees seem nice. Almost everything I’ve said in the previous seven hundred words about records and collectors holds true for books. E-books haven’t completely killed the paper book, but they’re trying. I’m as geeky about books as I am records, so I was thrilled to have a new used book clubhouse.
But this is where it gets ugly.
I don’t know whether is was a cost per square foot decision or some corporate dullard thought he was creating “synergy,” but the great Dimple Vinyl was shuttered, its inventory jammed into the back of the new Dimple Books like a grade-schooler at the Thanksgiving kiddie table. Ryan and Steve are still there, thank goodness, but the great turntable is silenced — the only sounds in the former paint store whatever vanilla crap the bookstore happens to be playing. Steve The Manager, patron saint of record retailing, would have a coronary. You sell with the turntable.
That problem seems easy enough to fix. Let the bookstore side of the shop benefit from Ryan’s and Steve’s turntable prowess. They’re smart guys with good taste — it’s not like they’re going to be rocking some Scandinavian death metal while Miss Nancy browses the Christianity section at 10 a.m. That hypothetical corporate dullard just might get the synergy that he’s after. It’s much more likely that a bookstore shopper — if he or she notices the music at all — will say, “That’s cool, what is that?” rather than “The Blasters? You, sir, have lost my book buying business.” On the other hand, force record geeks to listen to Enya and the villagers might come at you with torches and pitchforks.
But even with that little snag fixed the bottom line is that Dimple has torn down the coolest clubhouse in town. Shopping there now is like buying comics at the Romance Exchange: I’m sure I’ll still do it (some is better than none), but I won’t enjoy it.
My guess is that financially the company will do just fine. They’ve been doing this for thirty years — surely they know their business better than a record geek-writer-customer does. I hope so, at least. Right now all I can do is stare at all of those liquidated Borders fixtures and wonder if they thought that they knew better than their customers, too.