What We Loved About Record Stores Back In The Day

Culture | April 24, 2019

Left: Shop founder Geoff Travis in the Rough Trade Shop, London, circa 1977. Source: (Photo by Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns/Getty Images) Right: browsing in a record store. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Are we witnessing the death of the record store? Disappearing, sure -- there are certainly fewer local record stores than there once were. And that's a loss -- the independent mom-and-pop record store was once a gathering place, where music sages and enthusiastic newbies could converse and convince; knowledge about musical careers and legendary vinyl was handed down in record shops. Record stores aren't dead, and with new interest in vinyl LPs and 45s there's some hope that they will survive. But we can all name some great old shops we used to frequent that have ceased to exist, can't we?

Cast yourself back: Jangly guitars play over an immaculate stereo system, the smell of coffee and cardboard sleeves, a sneering shop owner who eyes you suspiciously even if it’s the hundredth time you’ve walked into his shop, even as the clerks seem friendly. (The owner was always kind of a jerk, wasn't he?) The familiar feel of the record store is all but gone these days. While there are still brick and mortar record stores around the country -- just 1000 are left, according to Forbes -- sales of new and used vinyl have been rising steadily. A lot of buyers or collectors of vinyl do their shopping online, through auction sites and discogs.com.

Whether you liked shopping for new music, or you liked to peruse the used music section, there’s a welcoming feel to the opening arms of a record store. If you spent your teenage years combing through bins of vinyl LPs (or maybe scanning the racks of cassettes) then you know the allure of the record store. 

The Tactile Experience Of Holding An Album Can’t Be Replicated

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You hold the LP in your hands – maybe the cover art is coarse with wear or it’s slick, having just come out of the shrink wrap. It’s not exactly heavy, but there’s a heft to it. When you’re holding an album you can actually feel the music in your hands. Rather than clicking a link, taking a trip to a record store gave you the opportunity, or maybe just the excuse, to flip through hundreds of albums in search of something that spoke to you.

Even if you didn’t know a band’s music, one seductive cover was all it took to turn you into a lifelong fan, or maybe even full you with lifelong regret for spending your hard earned cash on a Herman’s Hermits record. 

There’s A Serenity To Endlessly Walking The Aisles

Inside a vintage record store, where a band is setting up. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When was the last time you slowly walked the aisles of a record store, running your fingertips across the tops of the LPs? It’s possible to get lost in a record store. Regardless of the genre you’re drawn to, record stores offer the promise of endless discovery. Aisles of wax, all there for the music fans of the world to devour.

If you’re a real vinyl hunter then you know that some of the best finds came about when you weren’t looking for anything in particular. Whether it was something you were searching for and forgot, or a completely new album, this kind of serendipitous find is only possible in a physical location. 

Everyone Loves A Record Store Clerk

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Even if you didn’t actually buy any music that day, a good record store with the right people at the counter (whether employees or now) could spark music conversation that would be enjoyable and sow seeds in your brain. If you happened to take on a famously ornery store clerk and find some common ground, you might even send him or her into the back room to fish out something obscure because, man, you just gotta hear this, it'll blow your mind. In a way, record-store conversations were confrontational, involving people who think they're the smartest guy in the room. And yet, the subject of the conversation was music, so there was always a happy resolution. You might not agree with a clerk or fellow customer, but in the end, a needle was dropped onto spinning vinyl, the volume was cranked a little higher, and everybody knew well enough to shut up and enjoy the sound. And respect must be paid to the sages -- for a young LP collector, there’s nothing more helpful than the advice of a record store clerk, no matter how sarcastic it was.

If you spent enough time in a record store you’d end up hearing something that you’d never pay attention if you came across the tunes on Spotify. Without record stores, that tactile sense of discovery would never happen. 

The Excitement Of Finding Something New

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Pacing up and down the aisles of a record store, the most exciting possibility was finding something that catches your eye that you’ve never heard of before. Whether it was because of the album art, or maybe a track from a new album was playing over the stereo, there’s a joy in finding new music, regardless of whether it’s really new or just new to you.

When going to a record store was a normal occurrence it wasn’t out of the question to pick up an album by a band that you’ve never heard of before. Record stores, with clerks who approached their jobs like wise sommeliers, made music fans feel emboldened to take a chance on new artists in a way that people just don’t do anymore. 

Record Stores Were A One-Of-A-Kind Experience

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Unlike online shopping, you never knew what kind of experience you were in for when you went to a brick and mortar record store. Some stores were a casual affair, offering a chance for shoppers to browse and fondle until their hearts were content. However there were also shops that had in-store events, and some of them were just straight up weird.

We're thinking of a particular record store in Austin, a place where misfits and weirdos hung out -- there were plenty of LPs for sale, but most people went to see punk shows or just chew the fat. More often than not, if you were in one of the local bands that was playing in the shop, the guys working behind the counter would throw lit firecrackers at you as you tried to play. When was the last time that happened to you on Amazon?

Tags: Record Store | Remember This?... | Vinyl

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.