When I was a child, along with the television, the family gathered around the stereo system to spend time together. It wasn’t as if we had a choice; the apartment was small and a record playing in the living room could be heard throughout the house. The record player was one of those that had a tall spindle from which records could be suspended and dropped onto the platter when the previous record ended (remember those?). We’d listen to Sgt. Pepper, Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Jesus Christ, Superstar not to mention more singles than I could mention (though I’ll mention a few: Badfinger’s Come And Get It, The Beatles’ Hey Jude, Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die, Queen’s We Are The Champions, Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, etc.). Sensing my love of music, my parents bought me a Disney record-player that had a tone arm in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s hand. I loved that thing and I loved the records that my parents got me to play on it. At first, they were the typical children’s stuff (songs from Sesame Street, Grover Sings the Blues), but I eventually progressed to an adult record player and grown-up records; first Kiss and then the Beatles (yeah, I know how that sounds, but the truth’s the truth). And once I’d gone from having all my records bought for me to having to save my money to make my own choices, that’s when I began seeking out the places where records could be found.
Looking through my collection today, I’m not only struck by the records themselves but by where I found them. For most of them, I can recall the stores. It’s difficult to explain to people who are in their twenties and younger the special qualities of finding, purchasing and owning a record: in a world where a song is nothing more than a series of ones and zeroes, downloaded over a wire without the encumbrance of a physical form, the collective joy of record-collecting is all but an oddity. Another oddity is the record shop, all but extinct in this day and age, where the thrill of discovery was only a flip through the stacks away. Let’s take a walk through the shops, now mostly only a memory, where these joys were once felt.
The Place: Central Music, Brockton, MA (Fredrick Douglas Ave)
“Watching The Wheels” was the first single I ever bought. In the aftermath of Lennon’s murder, the radio stations were full of “Starting Over” and “Woman,” but when Casey Kasem played “Watching The Wheels” on his top 40 radio show, I knew I had to own it. Central Music was a sixty second walk from my school, but my parents didn’t like me going there because Main Street – not the place for an eleven year-old to be – was just a few more steps away. But it was the only place that sold records in walking distance for me, so I went anyway.
Central Music was a full-fledged music shop; they not only sold records but instruments and had practice rooms where they gave lessons. It was a fascinating place for a child with interests in music to be. On the day that I bought “Watching The Wheels,” I walked to the shop with a purposeful stride, excited that I had actually saved the two dollars that I needed to buy the record, only to become crestfallen when I discovered that the record was $2.10. The clerk took pity on me and let me have it for the $2.00 that I had. I still have that record.
The day my family moved from the apartment in Pleasant Street to our own home on Pearl Street, I stopped off at Central Music to buy Yesterday… And Today! by The Beatles, but the record player had been packed up when I got home. It was the first record I listened to in our new home.
Central Music is still in business, although they moved their shop to Pleasant Street and they deal exclusively in instruments and sheet music now. No real money in recorded music, I guess.
The Place: King’s Department Store – Brockton, MA (Torrey Street)
My mother had a part-time job there and the junior high and high school kids would go there and hang out in their record department. I used to love flipping through the albums, wrapped up in shiny cellophane, and agonize about what I could spend my limited funds on. I didn’t buy many records there (it was more of a hang-out joint, as I said earlier), but my favorite of all of them was Gene Simmons’s solo album from the late seventies. It came with a flyer to buy more Kiss Merchandise and a quarter of a mural (you had to buy the other three solo albums to get the whole thing).
King’s went out of business after a while, although the building is still there and several new department stores have come and gone in its walls. But none of them had a record department.
The Place: The Norton Flea market – Norton, MA
In my teens, when the weather turned warm, my mother and I would spend some Sunday mornings trudging through the aisles of booths that made up the Norton Flea market. Why did we trudge? Think Woodstock. The Norton Flea market was an outdoor bizarre situated in what can only be described as a field of mud. Dealers of all kinds would set their tables and exhausted hunters would stagger under the hot sun to see what was being offered. Did we mind? Not one bit. The Norton Flea market was a treasure trove of bargains. And there were more record dealers than you could possibly believe. My mother would tell me weeks in advance when she was planning a visit to Norton to give a chance to save up a bit of cash. With a bit of careful picking and choosing, I’d come home with anywhere from five to ten records, making sure to play them all before the sun set (My old superstition – which usually proved to be true more often than not – was that if I waited longer than twenty-four hours to play a record, there would be a skip on it).
My best buy was Ringo. I’d already had a reissue copy of it that I’d gotten at one of the local mainstream stores, but the copy I found in Norton was an original: it had a gatefold sleeve, the original Apple label (featuring a picture of Ringo laying in a star pattern), and an illustrated lyric booklet. And the dealer only wanted $3.00 for it. I was over the moon with joy.
I don’t know when the Norton Flea market went the way of the Dodo, but it did. Ask anyone in my age bracket who lived in the south shore area about the Norton Flea market and note the wistful look of their face. You can almost smell the nostalgia.
The Place: Strawberry’s – Brockton, MA (Torrey Street)
Strawberry’s was a local record chain in the same strip mall where King’s (see above) used to be. It was small but packed with good, affordable records, just at the time when CDs were introduced into the market. By this time, I was in high school and much of whatever money I’d earned at part-time jobs went into the register at Strawberries. It was a golden time to be a lover of music, so many titles to choose from and money in my pocket to actually start building my collection with. Sure, they had a lot of cheap reissues, but one day I saw a five-inch package behind the counter with a familiar image. I’d already had the Magical Mystery Tour album for a few years and wanted to know what this smaller package was. The clerk didn’t know; he said it was CDs. I bought it anyway (I’d had no CD player at the time) and found the original vinyl EPs enclosed, just like the original British release.
Like all local chains, Strawberries made their money, times changed, and one day they didn’t open their doors at ten o’clock.
The Place: Side One – Brockton, MA (Oak Street)
Side One was an independent shop on the North side of town, one of those large stores that could’ve put a lot more shelves in, but instead had a lot of empty space. Still, they had record shelves on the walls and a center area for cassettes. They may have dealt CDs during the days when they were being packaged in the cardboard longboxes (remember those?), but it didn’t surprise me when they were forced to close shop by the death of vinyl. What did surprise me was finding a copy of John & Yoko’s first album, known as Two Virgins for short. This was that controversial album that had the happy couple posing nude for the camera, its sleeve covered by a brown paper bag. Inside, the package got no better; the album was a series of barely audible squawks, instrumental passages and sounds on tape loops, made by John & Yoko (probably stoned out of their mind) in preparation for sex. The best moment is at the end when John finally says “I’ve had enough of this now” and Yoko acquiesces with a listless “Ok.” So why do I still hold on to it (and even put it on every once in a while)? Sentiment, of course, the same reason every collector holds on to every piece of his collection.
The Place: The Taunton Flea Market – Taunton, MA (Route 44)
Vastly different from the Norton Flea Market but brilliant in its own way, The Taunton Flea Market was a mostly indoor affair and more comfortable to visit, but it had several less record dealers than it’s Norton counterpart. Still, I remember one in particular who was in the same spot every week; I could’ve walked to his booth blindfolded. What impressed me most about him (and all the other dealers mentioned in this article), was the fact that he always managed to read my mind about what I would like to find amongst his stacks. Such is the case with She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina, an album I was already familiar with from its CD release. Even amongst Sainte-Marie’s fans, it’s not thought of as one of her better releases, but it happens to be my favorite of her albums and definitely her last good one. It was a joy finding a twelve-inch version of it in an old cardboard box with a sticker price of under ten dollars. It was good taking it home and discovering a couple of subtle differences between it and it’s CD release (a longer fade-out on “Rolling Mill Man” and a different segue between “Moratorium” and “The Surfer”). Buffy’s voice may be an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, this album was a complete joy.
The Place: Bill Clarke’s Music Heaven – Easton, MA (Route 138)
Ah, Bill… where are you now? On route 138, not far from my Stonehill College (my alma marta) was a large white building. On its first floor, was Bill Clarke and his Music Heaven, and the name of the shop was no lie. Although Bill specialized in doo-wop singles, he had a selection so vast that it brought tears to the eyes. During my first year after college when I was making good money (the only time in my life when I actually was making good money), my Friday evening, after-work ritual always included a trip to Bill’s place. Rarely did I walk away from him empty-handed, and I became one of his favorite customers. The diversity of my collection comes chiefly from my trips to Bill’s place, and nearly all of my Phil Ochs records were found there. The first one I found was I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore, not an original release, but a good-looking reissue nevertheless. I’d only ever heard an Ochs compilation before (The War Is Over which had only one song from Marchin’ in its lineup), and listening to this album was discovering an incredibly talented man just at the beginning of his career.
I moved away from Massachusetts to go to filmschool in Florida. I still visited Bill’s place whenever I came back home for a break, but the days when I could drop twenty to thirty dollars at a time were over. One day, I drove down to his shop to find that he was gone.
The Place: Yesterday and Today’s – Miami FL (Bird Road)
You gotta love a place that’s named after a Beatles album. And Evan, the proprietor , was the Bill Clarke of the Florida peninsula. Stuck almost unnoticed amongst a dozen other stores in a bust stripmall, Evan’s store was a breath of fresh air: the money I wasn’t giving to Bill Clarke was going to him (not that there was a lot of money to spare). Still, perusing Evan’s bins was a joy, and buying a copy of Beggar’s Banquet – still my favorite Stones’ album- was an even bigger joy. It was the white “censored” cover and I remember the label of side A hadn’t been applied properly: it was a bit wrinkled. Evan had also stamped his name – Evan Churn – on the back cover. Playing that album for the first time was like getting out of jail. I’m still playing it to this day. Evan also had an impressive collection of Apple singles that are now part of my collection, more than 30 of them; not just the Beatles or the solo Beatles, but also James Taylor, Badfinger, Mary Hopkin, Yoko Ono (Yes, even Yoko), Billy Preston and all those weird groups they signed up who released one single and disappeared (Chris Hodge or White Trash, anyone?).
I haven’t been back to Miami since I moved away in 1998 so, for all I know, Evan’s wonderful shop might still be there. I prefer not to find out one way or the other.
The Place: Collector’s Jungle – Valley Village, CA (Magnolia Blvd.)
In the dictionary of American Slang, under the phrase “Hole-In-The-Wall,” is the address of this place. Located across the street from North Hollywood High School, just behind the Taco Bell, is Collector’s Jungle, a place that somehow remained in business during the twelve years I lived in walking distance from it. As its name implies, they dabbled in everything – clothes, baseball cards, comic book, used videos and DVDs, movie memorabilia and, of course, records. Their stock wasn’t what I would call the finest in town, but I did find a few interesting titles that grace my collection to this day. One of them was the soundtrack to Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point, which I already owned on CD. During that time period, I was literally starving and found that I had to sell a portion of my CD collection (which has gone unmentioned until now but was also quite vast) for food money. In an effort to protect my collection from myself, I traded several CD titles for their vinyl equivalents at Collector’s Jungle, figuring that I would be less likely to sell the records (which tended to not have the resale
value of a used CD) for groceries. Zabriskie Point, an album that I loved a treasured, was one that I acquired in this business deal. It’s a strange mishmash of an album and I wouldn’t part with it for the world.
I used to enjoy spending hours at Collector’s Jungle, chatting with Bo, one of the tellers, but once Bo moved on, I found myself drawn there less and less. Despite always being on the brink of bankruptcy, the store remained open and I wouldn’t be surprised to go back to Valley Village and find that it’s still there.
The Place: Atomic Records – Burbank, CA (Magnolia Blvd.)
The first proper record store I discovered after moving to California was this place, a full sixty-minute walk from my home. How did I discover that? With the uselessness of the public transport system of L.A., I found myself quite adapt at taking that walk, often lingering near bus stops in the case the perpetually late 183 bus happened to be coming. They had their prize albums (“incredibly rare and expensive” in layman’s terms) – including an original Beatles Butcher cover – in plastic sleeves on the wall. Never once in twelve years did that album move from its place and never once in twelve years could I afford to buy the wall records. But there were plenty of others in the bins to choose from. One of the best finds was an album that I can’t describe as a classic, but I can describe it as rare in America: Gunfight At Carnegie Hall was Phil Ochs’ last album and it was only released in Canada. It was recorded during his “Gold Suit” period and contains mostly covers of old Rockabilly songs and only a couple of his old songs. It is also just a fraction of the three hour concert he performed on the night it was recorded. It was the album that I had been searching for to complete my Phil Ochs collection. It is a hallowed part of my collection.
I’ll bet you anything that Atomic Record is still there. They’re that good.
The Place: The Vinyl Frontier – Burbank, CA
I can’t remember the name of the street that this amusingly named shop was on. It was a good-sized shop and I was, rather unfortunately, there only a few times before the owner closed its doors to concentrate on online sales, but it was there that I found Ad Nauseum. It wasn’t my first Derek & Clive album – I’d found Derek & Clive (Live) a year before at Atomic, but I was pleased as punch to find another one and it is my favorite of Cook & Moore’s three Derek & Clive albums. Packaged in a cover the a plastic bag that can be used to be sick in, Ad Nauseum has Cook & Moore’s classically funny twenty minute piece “The Horn,” a long improvisation about things that get them sexually aroused (such as dead popes, toilet paper, Lord Longford, and the biblical book of Paul). On top of that, we get a horse race with horses called “The Prick,” “Vagina” and “Asshole,” Peter finding Barking Toads in his underwear, his attempt to set a world record using snot, the marvelous healthcare in Russia (“As soon as you’re ill, they kill you… no fucking about with cures”) and liberal use of the word “c**t.” Dudley grunts a lot, speaks up when he can get a word in edgeways and laughs like a hyena. I loved every second of it.
The Place: Amoeba Music – Hollywood, CA (Sunset Blvd.)
A block away from Sunset and Vine, you’ll find Amoeba music, a veritable assembly line of product dedicated to the audio and visual arts. Walking in the first time, your eyes will pop out of your head: a huge space filled with records, CDs and DVDs and excited-looking people flipping away through the bins. Like Atomic Records, their most expensive and rarest items live on the walls and, like Atomic Records, I was never able to afford any of them (and did I really want to plunk down $80.00 for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music). Instead, I found a steady stream of much-sought-after items of all kinds, one of which was Syd Barrett’s second and final album (1988’s Opel was a outtake compilation). I knew the album well, I’d had a CD copy of it for years, but there was something wonderful about holding that cover in my hands, staring at Barrett’s cover design in its proper twelve inch format. It wasn’t just hearing the songs that I already knew so well, it was holding that cover and absorbing the image while the music played, something that just doesn’t work with the smaller CD format (and something that doesn’t happen at all with downloads). This is the way to listen to music, something that we, as a society, have let slip away. I had many moments like this over the years, much of it courtesy of Amoeba Music.
There is no doubt in my mind that Amoeba Music is still doing incredible business on Sunset Blvd, but they were quickly phasing out their vinyl collection the last time I was there. I also have bittersweet memories considering that I had to sell half of my collection to them in 2010 when I was moving back to Massachusetts (I got great prices for my records, but it hurts just the same). I hope they still have some records there, but I can imagine much of that trade had gone the way of the dodo.
The Place: Newbury Comics – Norwood, MA (Route 1)
And here we are back in Massachusetts, south of Boston where nearly all of the book shops and cinemas have closed and record shops are extinct. But the New England chain of Newbury Comics keeps the flame flickering with their impressive collection of used vinyl (amongst many other items for sale) and it’s Norwood location is magnetic North for south shore collectors, especially on National Record Store Day (better than Christmas for me). The copy of S.F. Sorrow I found was not an original (I did see that once years before, but the price tag gave me premature gray strands), but it was a good-looking reissue that I was proud to have in my collection. And I’m glad that I can still find a store like that and dealers at local flea markets that still whet my appetite for the warm sound of vinyl. I will never get tired of flipping through dusty, musty record bins until my fingers smell of mildew because with records we find ourselves in an older, better time when music was not something that was simply in the background of whatever else you were doing, but a moment to sit back, listen and focus on the wondrous sounds pouring from the needle and speakers. When you listen to a record, holding the cover in your hands, you are communing with the artist and his or her experience. I will never tire of it.