IT WAS A RECORD TIME
I guess I can move now. My local record store has closed.
The store, AKA Records, closed suddenly a few months ago, and with it, one of the few remaining sources for one of my great pleasures bit the dust: visiting record stores and combing through the bins, looking for must-have records, take-a-chance-finds, and old discs to fill out my collection. And, with unmitigated joy, finding vinyl cut-outs (discounted unsold records with the corners physically cut out) and later, deeply discounted used CDs.
I’ve spent incalculable hours doing just that since I was a teen. As a result, I developed an utterly useless talent, although it worked out great for me: finding terrific records at cheap prices. One I remember stumbling upon was Ducks Deluxe’s Don’t Mind Rocking Tonight at Philadelphia’s long-shuttered Third Street Jazz & Rock as a cutout, which were $2.99, sometimes $1.99, if I recall correctly, when records were $5 or more.
I subsequently got the CD, paired with another of the band’s records, Taxi to the Terminal Zone. I now have five Ducks Deluxe discs and I’m confident that I have the largest collection of their music in Philadelphia, if not the state. If not the East Coast. Maybe the country. The U.K. might be stretching it. The discs are nestled right between those by the Drive-By Truckers and Doris Duke.
When I went to check out the Ducks Deluxe album in my frozen vinyl collection (I only buy CDs now), it was missing the telltale cut-out corner. But I’m confident that I got it on the cheap. I bought it when I was a broke college student and bargains were a necessity. And I’m fairly certain that it was at Third Street. In any event, right next to the album was Ian Dury’s New Boots and Panties, and that had the corner cut out. A back in the day score!
It wasn’t just for the cheap records that I haunted record stores. It was for being around music and a way to keep up with what was new at a time when music meant almost everything to me. It was for the thrill of discovering something new or being reminded of a band or song I’d forgotten when I’d go through the racks, with great deliberation when I had time, or whisking through them when I didn’t. It was for the anticipation of bringing home new music, maybe an album release I’d been anxiously waiting for, or perhaps an impulse buy.
It was for endless possibilities that were in front of me when I entered a record store and for the magic I knew I was going to leave with.
For most of the fifteen or so years AKA was open, it was three blocks away from my condo. I was in there at least once a month and usually more than that. Shortly before closing, it moved even closer, about a block away, almost in my living room.
When AKA closed I was able to pick up records on sale as the store worked to get rid of its inventory. I did the same thing with so many other record stores, now casualties of a changing, declining business, where I had whiled away many wonderful hours.
There is a small satisfaction in being able to pick up records on sale when a store goes out of business. But I’d rather not have the records and have the stores.
I’ll be able to get my fix at the few remaining stores around, but none, certainly, as convenient as AKA. I’ll continue to make my annual holiday-time trek to the Princeton Record Exchange where I sell unwanted discs and spend a few hours deciding which new ones to pick up.
There’s a book I’ve never read, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman, in which she recounts her life history through clothes. I could never do that. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday and I live 90 percent of my life in jeans anyway.
But records are another story. It’s a given that certain songs evoke memories. But I can recall where I bought so many records and often the circumstances. Maybe not as accurately as I thought, as demonstrated by my not being certain about my purchase of the Ducks Deluxe disc. Nonetheless, I think my memory is mostly sound. But reader beware.
It started with 45s. I was a teenybopper with teenybopper tastes. If a song was popular on the radio, I had money, and my mom would let me go into a record store or a store that sold records after dragging me shopping with her, I’d buy it.
I’m not exactly sure where I got these 45s (which I no longer have), but I know there was record store at Pembroke Mall in Virginia Beach named, I think, imaginatively enough, Records. I know I did buy singles there, if not these two.
When I first began working for my dad during the summers, I was 14, had dumped my transistor radio and was listening to FM radio. I was making $2.50 an hour, which worked out to a $100 dollars a week, minus taxes, for a 40-hour week. It was a fortune for a young teen on summer vacation who was no longer buying singles. I was buying cassettes!
Bachman-Turner Overdrive II was one of the first cassettes I bought, maybe the first, at Variety Records in Military Circle mall in Norfolk. The store was probably the first one where I started my record store-haunting habit. I distinctly remember lingering at the locked cases filled with cassettes, staring at their spines, trying to choose which ones to purchase. The mulling-over-music-deciding-what-to-buy was a position I’d adopt many, many times over the years at many, many record stores.
I joined Columbia House Record Club, where I bought the Grass Roots and Bread cassettes, to feed my growing obsession. I’m not sure where I got the Lynyrd Skynrd and the 10cc cassettes from, only that while I do sell some CDs, after I’ve loaded the music on my iPod, I can’t get rid of some of the cassettes that were my first musical loves.
I grew up with a guy, Barry, who has a record store in Virginia Beach, Birdland Music. When I was home on summer vacation in 1978 he gave me a promotional copy of Bob Marley’s wonderful Babylon By Bus, which of course I later bought on CD. More than 30 years later, I was still prowling around at Birdland. When I saw the James Kirk record for a couple of bucks, I snatched it up. I had heard Kirk’s catchy song Nilsson (which has nothing to do with the musician as far as I can tell) on a Mojo or Uncut magazine compilation disc and that was motivation enough to buy it.
Birdland also carries music from the home state and sometimes I’ll pick up music that I am unlikely to find anywhere else, like discs of rare soul music from Virginia.
Two other stores that I used to frequent while growing up in Tidewater were Peaches and Tracks. I spent countless hours in Peaches going through the racks. I’d be home from college hanging out with my friends with no particular place to go.
“Want to hang out at Peaches?” (Probably asked by me.)
“Sure!” (Enthusiastically answered by me if asked by a friend.)
The funny thing is, I must have bought records there. Many. I know I did. But I can’t remember any of them. The same applies to Tracks. What I bought there, I can’t remember, with one exception. I stopped in to Tracks (although it may have been its successor, Wherehouse Music) when I was home and found the Country Joe McDonald CD on sale.
I used to hear songs from Paradise with an Ocean View, which came out in 1976, when FM radio was at the tail end of its heyday but still adventuresome. You would hear Country Joe McDonald. And Ducks Deluxe. And Poco. I love the Poco record, which I had to buy after hearing songs like Flyin’ Solo and Georgia, Bind My Ties. I can’t remember where I bought the Head Over Heels CD, which was on sale, but I’m going to say it was at Tracks / Wherehouse Music because of a vague recollection and because I associate the record with Tidewater.
Besides Birdland, when home, I also like to visit what was Planet Music and is now an FYE. Like many record stores, it has shrunk in size, but when the music industry was thriving and hadn’t been decimated by the internet, the store had a vast inventory of new and used discs, and I took advantage of it. Often.
To no big surprise, when traveling I visit record stores in other cities.
I was delighted when I came across the used Tommy Womack disc at an electronics/record store in Charleston, S.C. I had bought Womack’s There, I Said It! album based on a great review and thought it was fantastic. So, I was interested in hearing more of his music and I’ve become a fan.
That record store radar that allows me to detect record shops wherever I happen to be visiting is what led me to the used Joey Molland’s The Pilgrim at a record store in Florida when I was visiting my Aunt Mignon. Pre-smartphone, as I drove along I recognized a record store among the many shops in the strip malls that dotted the road, hit the brakes and then the stacks.
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia …
At a certain point, probably in the early-to-mid 90s, as my love affair with rock and soul music continued, I began looking for a combination of the two. I wasn’t looking for blues, but, maybe … rocking soul music?
I flipped through the bins at the Tower Records on South Street and came across the Otis Clay, Soul Man Live in Tokyo album. It just looked right, even though it appeared the record company spent maybe $1.79 on the design of the album. I went with my gut and my gut didn’t fail me. It is a great record and another one that I put on cassette so I that I could listen to it in my car. And I did, endlessly.
It was the same story for the Solomon Burke record. I went back to Tower Records hoping to find a record as good as the Otis Clay disc. Man, did I. Like the Clay record, I bought it on spec and it was another awesome find.
Now I have virtually all of the catalogs of both Clay and Burke.
Tower Records was also my go-go place for box sets.
As these things go, Tower Records closed, as did other records stores on and around South Street. Now Repo Records, as far as I know, is the last store hanging on in the area. Blood Meridian was another of those bands I was exposed to on an Uncut compilation with the song Oh, Oh, Oh. When I saw the used disc at Repo, I snatched it up. Ultravox is the only band I saw at Philadelphia’s punk venue, the Hot Club. I have the vinyl and when I saw the CD at Repo, well, you know the story.
For a brief period, in the mid-90s, there was an HMV in Center City, right around the corner from where I worked at the time. The store was huge, beautifully renovated, with DJs and a deep catalog. Little did HMV know the era of the big record store was ending. I regularly spent few lunch hours there and one of the gems I found was Soul of Vietnam.
It wasn’t just record stores where I was compelled to search out music. It was any place with a record department. I was shopping at Strawbridge’s for one thing or another and, naturally, I had to stop in the record department, which at that time sold only CDs. By chance, the department was going under and I picked up the Paul Westerberg CD on sale.
At the Gallery mall there was what was primarily a games and DVD store. It had a limited record section and when, yep, it went out of business I picked up the Little Steven CD.
One of the last remaining stores in Center City is Long in the Tooth. I traded in some discs there and I put the buck or two I received for them toward one of the few Graham Parker records I didn’t own.
Jaz Sound was a great Center City independent record store. It sold stereo equipment on the first floor, jazz and rock on the third floor, and hip hop, gospel, blues, soul and r&b on the second.
The store was another one with deep catalogs, so you could spend a lot of time in the place, and I did, on both floors. Better yet, they had a frequent buyers card. If you bought, I think it was, 30 discs you got a free record. I walked in one day to find the first floor had been taken over by a vendor selling beauty products, head shop items and other sundries. The handwriting for Jaz Sound was on the wall.
When it was closing I picked up the Gwen McCrae and Facts of Life discs on sale. Earlier, I had bought enough music there that I was able to use my frequent buyers card toward the Malaco box set.
The Gallery also had an FYE store that was on my path home from work. When the store was closing, how could I not stop in a couple times a week to cull the deeply discounted CDs. I don’t think I paid more than $10 for these records. Sure, the savings were nice, but going through the racks, looking for gems, that was the real pleasure.
When I first moved to Philadelphia to go to college, the record store where I spent most of my time was Third Street. They had the deepest catalog of punk and new wave music, which was what I mostly interested in at that time, and boxes and boxes of cutouts in the basement.
I rushed down to Third Street to get the Sex Pistols album. I probably hadn’t heard one song. But they were THE punk band, with so much buzz and notoriety, that I had to hear them. Thirty or so years later I was still buying punk and new wave music from Third Street, like the box set from Stiff Records.
As I transitioned to CDs from vinyl, the first disc I bought was Come Out And Play, at Third Street.
One time my back went out at work, so badly I had to leave early. The slightest movement the wrong way sent a crescendo of pain throughout my body. I walked home oh-so-gingerly, desperate to take some aspirin, fire up the heating pad and get very carefully into my bed. But I wasn’t so distressed that I couldn’t stop in at Third Street, which was on the way home, and pick up some music to listen to while convalescing. And that’s how The Isley Brothers disc made its way to my collection.
Once Third Street closed, AKA Records became my go-to record store.
It was also where I went on Record Store Day. It was great fun anticipating Record Store Day and browsing along with other music addicts when it arrived.
It was just so easy to pop in at AKA and check out the “new” used CDs. Why not take a chance on Robbie Fulks, who I became interested in after hearing his song, I Just Want To Meet The Man? Or pick up discs by Pete Townshend or Billy Preston? And so many others. I mean, I just could not resist.
Am I taking money out of the pocket of these artists by buying their records used? I guess, and I feel bad about that. But the record was already bought once, so record company corruption be damned, I would hope they were paid for the original purchase. And it’s likely that my enthusiasm for and proselytizing for the musicians brought them some new fans.
But I also bought plenty of new discs at AKA.
Over the years I picked up so many discs at AKA. I wish that store had had a frequent buyers card.
And then, AKA closed.
Over the years I’ve bought plenty of records online. I’ve also borrowed discs from friends and from the library and put them on my iTunes. On balance, though, I think I’ve sustained record stores more than I’ve contributed to their demise.
But closing they are.
So, so long AKA Records. And Tower Records. HMV. FYE. Jaz Sound. Third Street Jazz & Rock and so many other record stores long gone. It was fun, lots of fun, while you lasted.