In a few weeks, the area’s premier punk-rock marketplace will be shutting its doors—this time for real.
Skip Groff was in the wrong place at the right time.
In September 1977, Groff opened a specialty record store on the Rockville Pike, in a strip mall with the painfully unhip name of Sunshine Square. Back then, the western leg of the Red Line stopped at Dupont Circle, and the area’s newest music scene was germinating in central D.C., not Rockville. Yet people nonetheless found their way to Groff’s Yesterday & Today Records, which quickly developed a reputation as the area’s best store for punk releases, especially imports from Britain.
“Those were very, very exciting days,” Groff recalls. “You could come in a store like this and every week find 10 new records by great bands.”
Now, 25 years later, Groff is closing the shop—although not his company, which has been mostly a mail-order concern for years. The closing, scheduled for the end of next month, will leave only two local stores that specialize in used vinyl: Joe’s Record Paradise in Rockville and Orpheus in Arlington. A friendly competitor in Baltimore, Music Machine, went bankrupt in April.
“I’m not going out of business,” stresses Groff, who’s wearing a T-shirt advertising another local mail-order business, Metro Music. “Yesterday and Today will continue, hopefully, as long as I’m alive. But I can’t stand here seven days a week waiting for someone to come in.”
Walk-in traffic has declined significantly since the days of the Pistols and the Clash, for a variety of reasons: Y&T continued to emphasize vinyl even after most music consumers switched to CDs. New competitors, first in other area locations and then on the Internet, claimed Washington-area customers who found the trip to Rockville inconvenient. And “alternative” music fragmented into a dozen different specialities, including many that the store never attempted to serve.
“He really lost track of the market,” says one local music-retail veteran who asked not to be identified. “It’s not the same as in the early ’80s, when he was doing really well.”
There’s one other reason why Y&T doesn’t draw many nonvirtual music consumers these days: Twice before, when the store’s lease was up in 1992 and 1997, Groff speculated publicly that he would close it. “I’ve said so many times that I was going to shut the store down that people think I already have,” he admits.
This time, though, he means it. “I’m 54,” he says. “Signing another long-term lease just isn’t in the cards.”
Groff actually got his start in record-selling not at Y&T but at Kensington’s Hit and Run, which he founded earlier in 1977 with partner Al Ercolani. Groff stayed there only two months, because he and Ercolani, he says, “just didn’t agree at all. It was the beginning of punk, and he wanted to be carrying more Hawkwind and Isotope.” Ercolani bought Groff out, leaving him with enough money to start another shop. Hit and Run closed the following year.
Y&T’s first employee was musician and rock writer Howard Wuelfing, who played with the Slickee Boys, the Nurses, Half Japanese, and other local bands in the ’70s and ’80s and now lives in Pennsylvania. “I just cruised by the shop after Skip had split with his partner,” Wuelfing remembers. “He hadn’t opened, but I stopped to chat and probably asked about part-time work, and wound up sitting on the floor cutting old price labels off Stooges albums so he could re-price them. Oddly enough, he was looking to drop the price compared to what would have been charged at the old store.”
Wuelfing recalls the fledgling punk icons who were regulars, including Henry Rollins “coming back after his first tour with Black Flag and asking if we had anything by the Velvet Underground and Nico.” Among the punk stars on tour who visited, Wuefling says, “I think I remember Glenn Danzig buying Amanda Lear picture discs, and Jello Biafra expecting a special socialist-hero discount.”
During and after Wuelfing’s seven-year tenure, Y&T hired members of such local bands as Minor Threat, the Tommy Keene Group, Edsel, Velocity Girl, Fire Party, and many others. Not all of them were exactly job seekers, Groff notes: “So many people came here and hung around and talked about music, and then something needed to be done and it turned into a work situation.”
Inspired by his friendships with local musicians as well as his love of Britain’s groundbreaking Stiff Records, Groff soon founded his own imprint, Limp, which released local punk singles and sampler albums. He also encouraged some of his part-time help to start a label that turned out to be longer-lasting: Dischord. He produced some of Dischord’s early sessions but soon decided that his employees had left him behind. Upon hearing Minor Threat’s In My Eyes EP in 1981, Groff recalls thinking, “I can’t top that. They know everything they need to know. I’ve never produced anything since then.”
Today, when young music fans make the pilgrimage to Y&T, it’s often because they’ve heard that one of the members of Fugazi used to work there. (In fact, three of them did.) “Nine times out of 10, when that happens,” Groff chuckles, “they’ll look around a little bit, and then say, ‘I heard that “Ian MacKay” used to work here.’ They always say ‘MacKay,’ not ‘MacKaye.’”
A longtime D.C.-area resident, Groff started his music career at the University of Maryland’s student radio station in 1966. “I was music director right from the get-go. There was no one there who knew as much about records as I did,” he says. After an Army stint ended in 1972, he worked as a record promoter and then as music and program director at Rockville’s WINX. “The only gold record I ever got was for breaking ‘I Am Woman,’ by Helen Reddy,” he recalls. “I added it because my girlfriend liked it, and it got crazy phones”—radio-industry lingo for lots of telephone requests.
When Groff left WINX in 1977, “radio was starting to turn into its disco phase,” he says. “I liked playing things that the other stations wouldn’t play and making them hits. I wasn’t able to do that anymore, because I had no affinity for the disco thing.”
The emerging punk scene excited Groff because he loved catchy tunes, garage rock, and 7-inch singles. “I think the 45 is the cornerstone of recorded music,” he says. “What sounds good on a 45 is what matters in music. Two-and-a-half, three minutes and you put it all on the line.”
Ironically, Y&T’s vinyl sales have improved recently, and the store’s LPs are selling not just to DJs looking for obscure grooves to sample. “There’s a lot more domestic stock coming in on vinyl in the last year-and-a-half than in the eight years before that,” Groff notes. “A lot of young kids are getting into vinyl. They think it’s hip.”
In addition, he insists, “the sound is better on vinyl. No one in their right mind doesn’t think the sound is better. I get people who dumped all their records and bought CDs, and now have dumped the CDs and bought it all back on vinyl.”
Still, most of the LP and 45 fans who shop at Y&T do so via the Web. The store is a major player in the minor business of vinyl singles, selling them to collectors worldwide. “I’ve sold a couple hundred copies of the new Elvis Presley single, lots of them to people in Britain and Italy,” Groff says. “Those countries don’t have any vinyl at all. I sold lots of U.K. vinyl in the early ’90s. Now there’s less vinyl there than here. I used to order 40 singles a month from England. Now it’s about four.”
Britain has always been important to Groff’s business, but in ways that have shifted several times over the last 25 years. At first, he simply sold imported punk and art-rock records to local buyers. But by 1979, he and his friend Howie Horowitz, who ran Music Machine, had begun traveling regularly to Britain to scour collectors’ record shops. “I probably went to England 31 times,” Groff estimates, even though he was, he says, “deathly afraid of getting on the airplane.”
In 1992, on what would have been his penultimate overseas trip, takeoff was delayed so long that the effects of Groff’s pre-boarding cocktail wore off. Then came a loudspeaker announcement that there was something wrong with the plane. “I just blew a gasket,” Groff recalls. “I said, ‘Let me off.’ The stewardess said, ‘You can’t get off.’” But he did.
“What I did that day, they’d probably shoot me today,” he adds.
Groff made one more buying trip after that, but enthusiasts from then-booming Japan were plundering the bins of Britain’s collectors’ shops, buying up most of the rare releases Groff was in search of. “I haven’t been on an airplane since 1993,” he reports.
Still, Groff remains an Anglo-rock-phile. “I just don’t think Americans produce records as well as the British do,” he says.
One recent afternoon, Groff plays a range of vintage material over the store’s PA, from ’60s sunshine pop to unreleased tracks by ’70s D.C. punk band Razz.
Like a lot of fans of ’60s garage rock and ’70s punk, Groff doesn’t care much for today’s hits. On his car radio, he has five stations programmed: two country, one oldies, one news, and one Top 40—the last not for him but his 12-year-old daughter, who’s named for Y&T favorite Kirsty MacColl.
It’s not surprising to learn, however, that there’s one current musical movement that pleases Groff: the latest garage-rock revival.
“I’ve listened to the Hives CD maybe 40 or 50 times,” he says. “I just love that kind of stuff.” CP