High monotony

I love rock ‘n’ roll — so I spend a lot of time in a record store, baby
Friday, May 6, 2011 | 2:57 p.m. CDT; updated 3:47 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 8, 2011

I have listened to “Africa” by Toto five times in the past hour. The only thing preserving my sanity is the fact that the ’80s jam was buffered on either side by the Cher anthems “Dark Lady” and “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves.”

This is not the first time this has happened. By now, my co-workers and I have choreographed claps for key drum parts, and unless we’re sneezing, we never miss. Our customers are judging us. We are judging ourselves. This is my job. This is my weekend.

This is my life.

Cut to: When, almost two years ago, I interviewed for a job at one of the city’s “record” stores, my thoughts were filled with scenes from “Empire Records” and “High Fidelity.” I would be Liv Tyler, and I probably thought I’d soon be dancing on the counters or in the aisles to Sonic Youth or Pixies or, for extremely angsty occasions, Bauhaus. People would ask me, beg me, for band recommendations, and I would spend all my time listening to music, talking about it, selling it and occasionally having intense and pretentious arguments about it. I would, of course, always win. I had a (regrettable and painful) lip ring at the time, and my dreams were as swollen as the right side of my mouth.

There are two unsightly plot holes in these visions: 1) Record stores have customers, and 2) they depend on money. If this column had a soundtrack, you would now hear the scratch of a record needle being stopped, and New Order’s “Blue Monday” would start playing. The sole record-only store in Columbia is now defunct, and those vinyl venues that remain sell DVDs, video games and other more financially viable products in order to survive an arts economy that is both overwhelmingly depressing and increasingly digital. Why put another dime in the jukebox? Just press "download" — and then play “Call of Duty.”

The results are mixed. In the past two years, I have dressed up as Princess Peach for work functions more times (OK, twice) than I have dressed as, say, Nancy Spungen (zero, but still hoping). Today I received a text message from my boss asking how I’d feel about dressing up as Poison Ivy for Free Comic Book Day. I would feel pretty OK about that.

As much as I’d like to quote Nick Hornby or argue extensively about the merits of Auto-Tune (there aren’t many), my particular music store, like an increasing number of them, is not the Mecca of yore. In some ways, it’s better: No one I work with is Jack Black, people let me listen to the same song on repeat, and I learn something new and obscure every day. Barbra Streisand went to high school with — and had a crush on — Bobby Fischer. Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar. In an equal number of ways, it is worse: Sometimes I have to answer highly specific questions about “Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong's Quest."

Perhaps the single most exciting day of my work year is Record Store Day, a celebration of analog music in particular and music in general that has happened five times annually as of April 16. On this day, music lovers of all genres and levels of obsession flock to the remaining independent record stores to listen to, talk about, purchase and argue about music. Although I am rarely awarded the chance to combine all of them in a single day, I did all of these things this year. The fact that one customer asked me what was up with the “giant CDs” (See: vinyl records) did not even bother me because, after all, that was only one person. The same person later bought the CD of a band playing inside the store, and though he might be upset it wasn’t oversized, the key idea here is that he connected with it.

Record stores are mythologized to the point that it’s tough to remember the basics: Working inside of one is still working in retail, and while the customers and the pulls of the economy are often the worst parts, they can also be the best parts — and the best stories.

Today, as I occasionally do, I had to face the music: I work in a store that currently has more Aaron Carter CDs than Rolling Stones LPs, and I am weirdly OK with this. This fact changes daily, and that balance might change. I now know what a “hickster” is (think NASCAR + Joy Division, and then believe it). Thanks to a funny co-worker, I have listened to the same Toto song five times today and around 30 this month, and that, too, did not make me combust. The phrase "record store" itself implies a niche that no longer applies to most of them. Whatever the definition is, it's still better than iTunes.

Once, a customer buying “High Fidelity” on DVD pointed at the cover and playfully asked me if that was my life. I simultaneously grinned and grimaced (grinaced?) and shrugged before answering. If this column had a soundtrack, you would now hear something cheesy (Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”) or angsty (Pixies’ “Debaser”). The music would fade for a few seconds, and you would listen carefully, and you would hear me saying the closing words, my answer, which would be something to the effect of this:

"Not really." 

Kelsey Whipple is the editor of Vox. The first thing she ever purchased at the store that is now her second home was the single for Moby and Gwen Stefani's "Southside." She still listens to it.

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