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Saturday, April 21 2012 14:30

Report: RECORD STORE DAY 2012... a personal tale of record stores past

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I miss record stores. There was a time when they were abundant, and I would visit many of them on a frequent basis. At one point, I took what I call the 'corporate detour,' and entered the world of big business and big box retailing. My 'dirty little secret' is that from 1996-1998 I worked for Walmart, after which I defected to Super Kmart, lured by headhunter to higher pay and better opportunities. Walmart was not happy. You see, not only was I very good at my job, but I'd just returned from their yearly 'Rah, Rah!' company meetings (held in Kansas, City that year) and revealed my departure about a week later. They paid me out for all remaining vacation time, and I was able to enjoy some relaxation before starting the new gig. You might wonder why I'm telling you this today, and the answer is simple: Rock was involved. Actually, more than just Rock... but all music. Record Store Style.

Having spent my impressionable years in Iowa (the Quad Cities, along with frequent visits to Iowa City) and in the South Chicago Suburbs, I was spoiled by the sheer quanity of Independent Record Stores to choose from. Over time, you'd learn the ins and outs of them all - which ones had the best selection; the best staff; who was overpriced; the snobby ones; etc. And then they started folding up. Slowly, even before the digital boom and the movement toward the perception that music was a loss-leader or a free commodity, they just started to disappear. 

dogeardwtsI'd really missed some places like Record Swap in Tinley Park (where my old band Odlid! once performed an in-store) and Hegewisch Records & Tapes in Richton Park and Calumet City, part of a small, yet mighty chain that started it's slow decline after the suspicious (and I believe, still-unsolved) 1991 murder of it's owner, Joe Sotiros. When I made it up into the North Suburbs in 1998 (moved by Kmart), I sought out some indie shops here, and nothing really fit the bill. The best store I'd run across was a combination indie record store/video-rental emporium called Dog Ear Music & Movies in Libertyville, IL. By the time that I'd discovered Dog Ear and become friends with owner Nat Dykeman, the store was more known for being a champion of independent film.  Sadly, it closed a few years ago, but I've since immortalized it in comic form as a location in DEATH WALKS THE STREETS, and in music video cinematic form with an "alternate reality" version of the store constructed in Ohio for the filming of PRODUCT OF HATE's UNHOLY MANIPULATOR. 

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At one point in my time with Kmart (as an Asst. Super Center Manager, Garden, Music, and on-the-road store set-up and design badass), I pitched some ideas to revolutionize how the big box would handle music. Corporate bought it, and my store not only had a killer music section under my control, but we had the ability to order and stock properly. In under a year, we became the #1 store in the company for music sales and for late music distributor Handleman. Making money was certainly important to me, but I was more interested in helping people discover and experience music. We did midnight sales, special events, everything a good record store would do. Oh, and when Kmart broke the Walmart trend and started stocking Parental Advisory titles again? You can thank me for being a part of that movement.

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*Caption: In Detroit to set up another concept store. 

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*Caption: Look closely on the right. See how much metal and "nu-metal" is there? How many Kmarts had that?

In 2001, I abruptly quit working for Kmart. By "abrupt," I mean I was scheduled a very common 8am-10pm shift, and just said "to hell with it." I rolled in at 10am wearing shorts and a t-shirt, dropped my keys on the Store Director's desk, and politely let everyone know that I was done. I was headed back to school for some new film classes - a refresher. A couple months later, I ended up taking a job as an Asst Mgr, and then became the Store Manager of the Sam Goody in Gurnee Mills. It took a little arm-twisting, but the company overlords finally started listening, and let me run the place my way. A mall store being run like an indie shop. We were artist friendly, got those prices in-line, and eventually got "shrink" (theft) down and sales and profits up.

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*Nearly 100 feet of releases from Victory Records, Fearless, Hopeless, Epitaph, and local bands? How many Sam Goody mall stores had that? Mine did.

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It was fun while it lasted, seriously - probably the most fun job I'd ever had (despite low pay), but I had bigger fish to fry. In September of 2004 I walked, and that was the last "normal" job I'd ever had. Since then? A lot. 

fyedirgeWhile there's a few record-sellers scattered around, I don't have time to keep running around on a "hunt" for music.  Honestly, most of my music comes free these days via labels and publicists looking for reviews. When I do want to buy something, there's one physical record store left - F.Y.E. in Gurnee Mills. Speaking of which, when I worked at Sam Goody there over a decade ago, there were FIVE record stores in that Mall, not counting Circuit City. Even F.Y.E. was at one point housed in a much larger location. I'd love my daughters to experience a "record store" in some capacity, and thus far, F.Y.E. is it. In fact, my little one and I were just there last week to grab the new DIRGE WITHIN album (doing my part to support!). Curiously, I wonder why they stock "adult" DVD's directly on the other side of the rack that houses Children's titles like CAILLOU and SCOOBY-DOO. Weird.

Which brings me to Record Store Day 2012. For the fifth annual celebration of Record Store Day, finally some stores in relative closeness to me popped up on the list. The closest, being 5.5 miles away - the next closest, nearly 20 miles. I opted for the closer one, which I'd heard of but never visited. Like it's name would indicate, TRACK ONE Vintage Stereo in Antioch, IL is largely a repair and sales establishment for record players, turntables, hi-fi's, etc. Per it's listing on the Record Store Day website, it touts thousands of LPs, with CDs, stereo gear and more. Hungry for the Record Store experience and lured by a massive list (download PDF) of RSF-exclusive releases, I set out to buy some new vinyl. 

Upon approaching Track One, I noticed the owner (David, I'd learn) putting out a sandwich board touting the products held inside. On the door, an large "RECORD STORE DAY" banner invited shoppers to the store. I was pretty excited. That was until I got inside and found the musical equivalent to the inside of a JAWA's Sandcrawler. Vintage stereo gear was in abundance, while bits and pieces could be seen here and there. That's not a bad thing at all, especially if you're seeking stereo gear - but for me, these weren't the droids I was looking for. I wanted a FANTOMAS  EPONYMOUS TO ANONYMOUS box set. Perhaps that EMPIRE RECORDS soundtrack re-issue, some WHITE STRIPES, or that MASTODON single that FEIST appears on. "Record Store Day," I say. "It is," says the owner.

Me: "Did you get any of the special releases?" 
Owner: "I only carry used vinyl. Those are too expensive for a record. Nobody wants to pay that."

We had a somewhat awkward exchange, peppered with a hint of defensiveness from the owner. We discussed what RSD was all about, the past decade of the industry, etc. He asked "What do you do?" which always seems to be questioned of late. I told him about The Rock Father™, my video work, and my mission of spreading the Sonic Gospel. And then everything was cool. The veil had dropped, and I ended up in that store for about an hour, sifting through vinyl for a RSD "special," of "Buy Five, Get Two Free" on single albums. Honestly, the selection was average, but I snagged some cute collectibles for my wife - the CABBAGE PATCH KIDS' CABBAGE PATCH DREAMS album, CABBAGE PATCH KIDS CHRISTMAS (which I blogged here last year), STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE: SWEET SONGS, MUPPET BABIES' ROCKET TO THE STARS, and for me -  the quality funk of ZAPP II, A JOLLY CHRISTMAS FROM FRANK SINATRA, and BLUES BROTHERS' BRIEFCASE FULL OF BLUES. 7 albums for $16.04 out the door.

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During my visit, the phone kept ringing and I kept hearing the owner say the exact same thing: "No, I only carry used vinyl." 

A trio of other customers strolled in, all of which asked that same question: "Any Record Store Day releases?" All to leave empty-handed. I spoke with another guy in the parking lot that had visited several stores listed on the RSD website, which to be fair does include a "Disclaimer" that stores may not have what you want. "Aside from a midnight release in Chicago last night, we haven't found anything." he said. I'll go back to Track One, but I still feel like I got played by a bit of unintentional "bait-and-switch." I appreciate what the guy at Track One is doing, but it's not the same.

While I'm all about supporting local businesses, to me, Record Store Day should be an event for Independent stores that are still carrying the torch for NEW music. Those stores are keeping the industry going, and truly keep the spirit alive. I'm all about used vinyl, and continue to buy it. But anyone can sell a used record. There's stores out there that still harbor a knowledgeable staff that can blow iTunes "recommendations" out of the virtual water. Places where people care. Unfortunately, in my area - the true Independent Record Store is officially dead.

To find a proper store in your area, visit http://recordstoreday.com 

James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade as Publisher of The Rock Father Magazine, he joined Adventure Publishing Group as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider—a destination for all things pop culture. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 25 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

James and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, WGN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, BusinessWire, Babble, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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