It was just yesterday that Kirk looked across the street and said, “Remember when we used to go to Tower Records?” I stared at the garish ketchup-and-mustard sign and nodded. “When was the last time we were there?” He paused, paging through years of his mental calendar. Finally, he settled on a date, “A long time ago.”
We’ve been to places like Amoeba more recently, of course, but even that journey was a long time ago. Poo-Bah’s, an independent record store in our region, moved to a new location — we hadn’t been to the old one in a long time and unless Kirk is keeping secrets, haven’t visited the new one.
In a way, record stores are inefficient ways to buy music. You must locate the right item in dusty bins. If you’re lucky, you can test drive the thing — yes, there was once a time when you’d just buy the music and hope you got lucky — but that’s not always easy, given the corporatization (a long time ago) of listening stations.
Knowledgeable clerks? They disappeared from chain stores so long ago, it’s not worth mentioning. Knowledgeable clerks in independent stores? I am somewhat convinced they’re a myth. I want to develop a trusting relationship with the people who recommend music to me. You have to be a regular customer to find that certain something sympatico with today’s clerks. I am simply not the regular type.
The New York Times talks about the “graying” of independent record stores. There are going to be a lot of articles about this in the coming years. In way, it’s because today’s stores are locked into a past that baffles today’s shoppers. And in a way, it’s because today’s stores simply don’t meet the needs of other shoppers. You can add cappuccino, a wine bar, foot massages, anime, manga, even listening clubs, but the tricks of attracting and maintaining regular customers are expensive, and the types of stores we’re talking about are low margin.
It isn’t iTunes that is shouldering the blame. This started a long time ago, about the time CDs dawned. About the time that dusty, downtrodden city neighborhoods became high-rent districts. About the time that video games really surged.
To survive, record stores need to offer something unique, something different. I’m not sure they’re ready to go there.
In other news, notice how very few people are lamenting the loss of their neighborhood video stores? It’s like the whole idea came and went so fast, it never had time to build sufficient cultural zeitgeist.