Record Store Day is coming up tomorrow, and although that doesn’t mean a lot to most people, it’s continued evidence of a growing love for a dying American institution, The Record Store itself. It’s easy for me to understand why record stores are vanishing from city landscapes. First, we have so many other ways of purchasing, listening to, and sharing music that a record store can honestly seem like a waste of space. Secondly, and probably more obvious, is that records themselves have been eclipsed by newer and improved technologies, with higher fidelity and even a lack of physical existence, making storing thousands of songs on a button sized device a real possibility.
So why Record Store Day? Who cares about records anymore? You may be surprised to learn that there is a growing demand not only for records, but record stores themselves. Thankfully, in many parts of the US record stores have managed to evolve and survive the ever changing industry of music distribution. Some that have managed to survive competition with Wal-Mart and Amazon have found a niche in getting back to their roots selling vinyl LPs in large quantities along with tapes and CDs. I’ve been fortunate to have recently moved to a neighborhood in Cincinnati that is home to one of the region’s best record stores, Shake It Records. When you enter the doors of Shake It, you immediately recognize why “Records” is part of its name. Even the brightly colored vinyl toys on the walls seem to pay homage to the classic music media. (Ironically vinyl? Who’s to say?) Browsing the store is an experience not unlike being a kid in a toy store, the offerings are abundant and varied. But what’s really great about Shake It records is that it is truly a place for everyone. They carry music in all forms of media and of nearly any genre you desire. And if you can’t find what you want, the staff is not only friendly, but immensely knowledgeable and may even suggest something new you might enjoy. It’s not uncommon to go to a record store like this and see a familiar face, or strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met over similar interests.
Record stores go beyond just selling music — they serve as a cultural hub for a community. Just a few blocks away from Shake It is a similar but equally unique record store called Black Plastic Records. Black Plastic opened about a year ago, riding the growing wave of vinyl sales that has recently attracted many younger people as well to whom it never lost its attraction. It is one of those few scenarios today that we might describe as the American Dream. The store itself is essentially the owner, Steve’s immense collection of records laid out in a semblance of organization in modestly constructed plywood racks. There must have been a special on sea foam green paint because this beautiful turquoise tone is splashed over counters and walls, lending a simplicity and identity to the store. Despite it’s simplicity, Black Plastic has established itself within the community and Steve is a constant presence in the local music scene. You can find him at local gigs, and his store will host musical acts both large and small, all equally willing to cram onto a tiny twelve foot square stage and play to whoever want to hear it. Places like Black Plastic provide people an opportunity to have a sense of place and community. I’ve personally met many wonderful people through the music scene here in Cincinnati, thanks to stores like Black Plastic.
Thus, Record Stores, even small independent ones, have the power to be more to a community than just a place for bands to play. Though they had a small beginning, Shake It Records has gained a foothold in the music world, and their years of passionate music promotion have granted them the ability to be a bullhorn for promoting local Cincinnati artists to the rest of the world. Just this past year, a few friends of mine formed a band called Tweens. Like many independent local bands, they recorded some demos and gave them out to friends and record stores in the area. Since they were nearly neighbors to Shake It, they decided to drop one off and the owner of Shake It recognized real potential. He shared their recordings to Kim Deal who plays in a band called The Breeders, and is the former bass player for The Pixies. She agreed about the potential talent of Tweens, and asked them to open for The Breeders at a few shows. Since then Tweens have signed to a big time label, toured the US and are soon headed to the UK.
A record store is more than a brick and mortar retail operation providing and experience and much more than what meets the eye. It’s something that I never would have believed had I not been a part of the experience and seen what I was missing out on. Record stores are more than just stores, they’re places that foster humanity in some sense. They give people a chance to share and experience something we love, music, and allow us to continue to create and enjoy the music within our own communities, and hopefully to help share that with the rest of the world. So this Saturday is record store day and if you can get to a record store, do it. Go enjoy the live music, check out the new releases, ask the employees questions, meet new friends, and see how it’s possible for a 180 gram piece of vinyl to bring a community together.