With every announcement that a once-thriving record store has shut its doors for good, the vinyl devotee exhales a slow sigh of resignation and mentally pours out a little in homage to the lost. Sadly, it’s a ritual we’ve grown accustomed to as more and more record shops continue to disappear.
In just the past year alone in NYC, the roll call of closed record stores reads like a city shopping guide from days past: East Village funk and soul connoisseur spot, Big City; Myrtle Ave. house and electronic mainstay, Dope Jams, gateway to the Great White Way, Colony, notoriously barbed former Village punk rock HQ, Bleeker Bob’s—all casualties of sky-rocketing rents, and digital downloads, Serato, and other technological innovations in music consumption.
For regular folks who have no real use for them, record stores are pretty anti-utilitarian curiosities; music retailers where you probably can’t even purchase the most popular songs of the day unless it’s been special ordered in advance in some obsolete format. It must be like food shopping at a supermarket that’s pretending that whole refrigeration thing hasn’t happened yet.
A download provides you a service, and an efficient one. But it doesn’t give you an experience.
But for the few, the admittedly touched, the vinyl-obsessed, record stores are our diversionary sanctuaries; our places to unwind a little on the way home from work the way some will stop into their local watering hole for a pint and a shot. It’s about the records, no doubt—out of print rarities, slept-on cheapies and limited reissues. It’s about their presentation—album covers and gatefolds, company and inner sleeves, and lavishly designed deluxe editions. It’s about expressing an appreciation for a physical item that isn’t as readily disposable as that digital file somewhere on your desktop. (An appreciation that will, on the flipside, likely require the torturous task of assembling an Ikea Expedit shelf or two at the crib when space inevitably becomes an issue.)
For myself and others, though, more than anything the value of record stores is that they give us something that’s fundamentally and necessarily human: the feeling of being part of a community. We record nerd types are admitted weirdos. We need to know we’re not totally alone in the world. Right-clicking and letting the MBs flow? Way easier and more convenient than making a special trip to a shop. iTunes’ or Amazon’s algorithm will even recommend other music you may enjoy in the same way the local record store proprietor familiar with your tastes might.
But an algorithm’s not asking you about your family, sharing jokes, engaging in some friendly debate about the musical worth of this or that album, or letting you take a look through the new arrivals before they’re grazed by the price gun. Its story-telling skills are pretty weak. It’s not introducing you to a record in a genre you’re not up on that you didn’t even realize you wanted till you heard it “now playing” over the store’s stereo. Nor is it providing any probability that you’ll run into friends content to kill time casually surveying what’s new on the walls and in the bins. A download provides you a service, and an efficient one. But it doesn’t give you an experience.
That, you get from the record store. Enjoy those still standing while you can.
Written by Jefferson Mao (@chairmanmaonyc)