Love at 33 1/3: Reflections on a Year of Writing About Record Stores

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Editor's Note: See Randy Fox's story this week on Grimey's Too, and his past stories on Phonoluxe, The Great Escape, Ernest Tubb and The Groove.

A little less than a year ago I began writing about Nashville’s record stores. It all started with the idea of doing one story about just one store: Phonoluxe Records on Nolensville Road. I’d been shopping at Phonoluxe since they opened in 1987, and for a short while in the early 1990s, I worked there part-time when my day job was just up the street. I knew there was a great story to be told. Owner Mike Smyth was a treasure trove of great stories and knowledge about early rock music and rhythm & blues, but his aversion to self-promotion meant that few knew his background or how the store came to be. And even though used CD sales had taken a nose-dive in the past 10 years, the store’s sales were still good since Phonoluxe had gotten back to Smyth’s original vision: a quirky shop that catered to record collectors.

That first story ran in the Scene last March, and I had such a good time writing it that my next thought was to tell the stories of Nashville’s longtime survivors and newer upstarts of the record biz. After all, if you looked outside Nashville, the story everywhere was that brick-and-mortar stores were prehistoric creatures that had long since sunk into the digital-sales tar pits. And the few that remained were just struggling to gulp air before sliding down to their doom.

Meanwhile here in Nashville, we still have a number of great record stores, despite the dire prognostications of music industry doom emanating from Music Row. Almost all the chain stores were wiped out by the mass extinction events of the past decade, but three longtime shops celebrated significant anniversaries in 2012 — 25 years, 35 years and 65 years respectively for Phonoluxe, The Great Escape and Ernest Tubb Record Shop — and the younger kids, Grimey’s and The Groove, are both going gangbusters from the revival of interest in vinyl records.

What I found was that all of these stores were continuing to thrive by simply focusing on what had initially drawn them into the record retail biz originally — whether it was putting the love of music first or just being the store where you could almost always find the hard to find. Sure, some had made lots of money during the crazy CD days of the '90s, but once the waves of cash from used CDs, box-set mania and music fans replacing their LP collections with the “rich man’s 8-track tape” had ceased, they still knew how to engage with their core customer base. It was also a matter of knowing your customers on a one-on-one level and understanding that at its core, music is a human social activity, whether it’s getting together with others to play or listen to music, or sharing the knowledge and love of music through random conversation in a record store, or finding that one record you’ve been looking for in a dusty bin and rushing to tell others about it.

When I was in college in Bowling Green, Ky., during the early 1980s, the center of the small alternative rock scene was The Record Bar at Greenwood Mall. This was when chain stores had first started to squeeze out many independents, but all it took was a savvy and hip manager to transform a chain store into a locus for a local music scene. In this case that person was Jeffrey Sweeney, who Tommy Womack immortalized in his book The Cheese Chronicles. (There was also a guy named Mike Grimes that worked there; he wasn’t known as “Grimey” yet.)

The Record Bar in Bowling Green was where I bought my first records by Suicidal Tendencies, Redd Kross, The Replacements, The Long Ryders and Jason and the Scorchers and discovered many other bands that become favorites. It was also the place that I could special-order obscure records and be greeted with a, “Oh, that’s a great album!” instead of a blank stare and a “How do you spell that?”

Beyond Bowling Green, every time my friends and I would travel to Nashville, we’d make the “record store tour” of the Elliston Place-West End-Broadway area. Even though it’s been 30 years since we first started making those trips, I can still remember buying specific records at specific stores: The Kinks' Preservation Act 1 at the Discount Records on Elliston Place, X's Under the Big Black Sun at Cat’s on West End and a rare first-pressing copy of The Ramones' Leave Home with “Carbona Not Glue” at The Great Escape on Broadway.

Even after I moved to Nashville in 1986, those few blocks between Elliston, West End and Broadway were special to me. The specific stops changed as some stores closed and new ones opened, but the overall vibe remained. I discovered so much music in that triangle of real estate over the years, met friends that I still have today, and gathered scores of great memories of the absurdity one can only witness when frequenting places where like-minded obsessive types gather. (And it’s interesting to note that WRVU’s studio was located at the direct center of the triangle.) Today, however, all the record stores have departed from the area, and I can’t drive down West End or Broadway without feeling a sense of loss for those landmarks of the past.

It’s no coincidence that the revival of interest in vinyl records has also led to a new life for independent record stores. While some vinyl freaks can blabber on endlessly about the sonic advantages and “warmness” of analog music over digital, the true edge that records have over CDs or downloads is the experience. If all you’re concerned with is convenience, then pulling a record out of its sleeve, making sure it’s dust-free, putting it on a turntable, placing the needle down carefully and then flipping the thing over in 20 minutes or less is a lot of bother. But when you’re looking for an “experience,” that long list becomes part of the appeal of vinyl.

And when the experience is what you’re really after, it extends far beyond just playing a record or holding the cover art in your hand. It’s rummaging through bins and bins of vinyl. It’s the thrill of having someone tell you about a record you never heard of and handing the physical object to you. It’s that rush of immediate gratification that comes when you hand over the money and the record is tucked under your arm right then, instead of showing up in the mail days later.

That social interaction, sense of community and real-world gratification that develops around great record stores will never be replaced by any type of virtual experience or social media. Sure, the majority of people who view songs as commodities to be consumed until you’re bored with them may never set foot in a record store again. But as long as there are people who desire the human interaction and social aspects of music nerd-ary, there’s going to be a place for the record shop.

As for which Nashville record store is my favorite? The answer is all of them. What makes all of them great and has enabled them to survive are their unique personalities. The endearing curmudgeonly what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude of Phonoluxe, the get-'em-in-and-move-'em-out hucksterism of The Great Escape, the hep music boosterism and marketing moxie of Grimey’s, the laid-back check-this-out-dude vibe of The Groove, and the y’all-come-back-now helpfulness of Ernest Tubb’s — all of these are different paths to the same destination.

It’s been said that you can judge a city’s music scene by its record stores. If that’s true, then despite whatever complaints grumblers may have about our current “hot” status and the perceived influx of hipsters into the scene, there’s ample evidence that Nashville continues to have a future as a lively, diverse and exciting music town. The evidence can be found where it matters, where the needle hits the groove.

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