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Why record shopping in D.C. is becoming a dying art

This story is not for all of you. I know who you are: the khaki wearers at the Gap, the lunchers at WrapWorks, the culture clubbers in Georgetown, the sweater-vest set at the Pottery Barn. You are not my crowd. If you watch TRL and haven’t thought of drawing pubes on O-Town just ’cause it might give the band the confidence to stop singing like that, then this article doesn’t concern your book of business. If you own any works by the Dave Matthews Band, Limp Bizkit, Nickelback, Natalie Merchant, the Gipsy Kings, P. Diddy, or Sheryl Crow, you can stop reading now. If the jazz you own can be summed up in three words—Kind of Blue—you can stop, too. If the hiphop you have pressed to your ears extends only as far as all three Beastie Boys, please Bob Seger this thing and turn the page.

You see, this is a sad, sad story about a simple thing: record geek vs. record store. It’s about lust and loss and the feverish daydreams of the record collector. It’s about people like me, the ones to whom gatefolds are centerfolds, 180 grams is the perfect measurement, and Blue Note album covers are something to be drooled over. It’s about the ones who argue that High Fidelity’s soundtrack wasn’t obscure enough. It’s about the ones who make mix tapes for any car ride that lasts longer than an hour. I promised a sad story, and this is about the fact that our city has no decent record stores. This is about unrequited love.

It was a Friday night. My girlfriend and friends were all away. There was no booze to be had. No pot to be smoked. All my brother and I had to look forward to was a movie rental that we wouldn’t watch anyway and boredom. We went to DCCD.

I wanted vinyl. I was looking for anything: freakout jazz, obscure glitchcore, sweet pop. I just wanted to stop being depressed. A new record always cures my depression. It’s the one thing I can depend on. The one thing that can settle my mood swings.

The record store was empty; I had the pick of the place. But I had been there a few days before, so I knew what was on the shelves. I was just hoping. Maybe. Maybe the distribution gods had smiled on this Adams Morgan shoe box and delivered something righteous. But no.

No. DCCD is a record store where the posters taped to the walls are cooler than the actual products. The jazz selection has been the same for months. It consists of four albums, two of which are by the Chicago Underground Duo. Reggae? Forget it. You might find something by Marley once a year. You want King Tubby on vinyl? Forget that, too. It’s the same deal: maybe once a year. You want to hear Rush on the stereo, this is your place.

My money stayed in my pocket. After a good half-hour of puttering among the stacks, I left with nothing. Unrequited. Being a record geek in the District means never getting any.

Walking out of a record store empty-handed is one of the loneliest feelings in the world. It’s as if you’ve discovered that the entire test-marketed and polled entertainment biz couldn’t give a crap about you. And you are alone. This wasn’t my first weekend unrequited. This wasn’t my first night walking home without some sacred vinyl find. I have burned days looking hopelessly for EPs without any luck.

But that’s unrequited love: never getting what you want, a chase without an end, a race without a finish. And I blame you, D.C. record stores.

“It’s never certain how these things will be carried on, but mysteriously it happens. Every night, somewhere on the outlaw side of some town, below some metaphysical 14th Street, out at the hard edges of some consensus about what’s real, the continuity is always being sought, claimed, lost, found again, carried on. If for no other reason, rock and roll remains one of the last honorable callings, and a working band is a miracle of everyday life.” —Thomas Pynchon

If Pynchon is right, then record collecting should be a real way of charting a city’s bohemian heart. Does it contain a cool cosmos of intrigue? Or is it simply where we live and work or the dull place we commute to? D.C. has never particularly served its population well, whether it’s protecting us from exploding manholes or providing low-income housing. Outsiders are the ones who get fat off the District—the tourists who get to marvel at our marble, the lobbyists and politicos who get to expense meals and shack up with interns.

Flipping through my records, I don’t see D.C. anywhere. My collection has been culled from a vast network of stores outside the city: Pete LaRoca’s Basra and the Jam’s Setting Sons (City Lights, State College, Pa.), U Roy’s Version Galore and the Upsetters’ Super Ape (Jammyland, New York), Love’s Forever Changes and Ornette Coleman’s Change of the Century (Princeton Record Exchange, Princeton, N.J.). I could go on to other destinations, other treasure chests in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and even Hoboken, N.J. These are record stores to get wide-eyed over, to max out the credit card in.

As a record collector, you are constantly finding new holy grails. For me, it’s the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds on vinyl. (I know, Olsson’s Books and Records in Dupont, I know you have it. It’s underneath the new CD releases. But it’s a stereo version, not the original mono.) It’s also Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Music. Neither are out-of-print. Neither are obscure. Neither will ever be found inside the District.

The District may as well be blank tape, a cultural void. It may as well be all Towers. Those don’t count. I won’t shop at a place where the clerks don’t know the Mekons from the McTells. It’s a sad truth that the city’s two greatest musical innovations, punk rock and go-go, have been best served outside of the record stores. I’ve found the biggest punk-rock surprises from indie mail-order kids selling records out of cardboard boxes. And go-go bands become legends through bootleg vendors.

In desperation, I head across the river to Now! Music and Fashion. But this Arlington joint is the most anorexic of record stores. Its bins are skeletal. It has more clothes (the “Fashion” part) than records. Its stock almost never changes. Once something is sold, the place never seems to get another copy. The store’s stock just keeps on shrinking. Orpheus Records down the street is just as depressing—a lot of overpriced records anyone could find at a decent thrift store.

Driving back into the District, I stop off at Smash! in Georgetown. It’s not really a bad place. In fact, it’s a perfect place—if you’re 15 and have just discovered Minor Threat. At least the employees are nice and the vinyl selection has expanded a bit. Still, I have no trouble keeping my money from the clerks.

Joe’s Record Paradise is the only store in the area that’s a true disposable-income vacuum. But that’s only if you want stuff that’s pre-1993. If you’re looking for new IDM platters, forget it. And it’s 40 minutes away in Rockville. There should be four more stores like this one, only in D.C.

Back in my room, I put on Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music (bought at the Princeton Record Exchange). Coleman’s alto sax buzzes and beeps between Charlie Haden’s thick bass, electric and intoxicating. I’ve played this album so many times that I worry about the grooves. Will they keep? Coleman’s music has never sounded so angry and so lonely. This was once a holy grail. Now it spins atop a cheap Panasonic record player.

I know there are many more great records out there. I just doubt that I’ll ever find them here.

I once worked in a place where you could discover something new and cool every day. The store was situated in a central Pennsylvania college town with a population of 50,000 and two major streets. And the store was one of five along those two streets. Despite all the albums by the Jam and Superchunk and Fugazi and Mingus in the stacks, keeping the store alive was a big-time worry.

The owner wouldn’t let an afternoon pass without daydreaming about relocating to a different town. Working an empty store could be brutal. And when some pathetic kid paid $50 for Phish’s live version of the White Album, we couldn’t help but chuckle nervously—and thank rich hippie kids everywhere.

We had to stock crap. We had to take in all the Dave Matthews bootlegs and deal with the freshmen who needed to know when Mariah Carey’s next would be coming out. So I know it’s hard work.

You have to deal with distributors who are fickle. You have to guess that stocking six copies of the new Modest Mouse instead of 10 is the right move. You have to be willing to take a stack of CDs and go to the popular chain store down the road during a midnight sale and hawk them to customers waiting in line outside.

There is almost no harder retail business than the record store. You make like 50 cents on every CD sold. You have to lure customers in with special sales, listening booths, and in-store gigs. You have to know about that one Anthrax single that some metal kid asked about a week ago. You have to order that Anthrax single just in case he shows up again.

The record-store owners in the District will all make those hardship arguments. They will say that the competition is stiff, with those megabox stores in the ‘burbs and the Internet providing an infinite back catalog. They will cite dead stores such as Silver Spring’s Vinyl Ink, Wheaton’s Phantasmagoria, U Street’s Interstellar Disc, and Arlington’s Go! Compact Discs as victims. Or dying ones, such as Rockville’s Yesterday & Today.

The city itself—if you look hard enough—is a great music town beyond the Fugazi and Rare Essence axes. There are good hiphop, bluegrass, and electronica scenes, as well as worthy salsa and alt-country contingents. But despite the intensity of these subcultures and the fierce loyalty they engender, you don’t get anything that amounts to a passionate dialogue about music among the local newspapers.

D.C. is a town full of secret obsessions. There are many of us who have them. You just wouldn’t know it from walking around the city. This is a town thankful for chain burrito places that pipe in Muzak. A town that has a full-on reggae label, RAS Records—and a handful of global-music stores that contain about three CDs and a forest of incense.

So it makes sense that when you walk into the local record shops, you get Wes Montgomery records but no Grant Green reissues. Or you get the typical big indies, Touch and Go and Drag City, but you don’t get Morr Music or 555. Or you get Björk, but not other IDM experimenters such as Lali Puna or Múm. You may not even get Sleater-Kinney’s first album. And don’t expect to see any P-Funk or Prefuse 73 or Blackalicious on vinyl, either.

For the local stores to get better and not end up in their own cut-out bins, they should seek out a personality, a vibe, and stick to it. Make it a point to specialize in something—garage rock, ’50s bluegrass, the freshest hiphop, all-indie, whatever—that you can stock alongside all the other stuff that helps pay the bills. Take a stand, adopt a style, grow balls. Do something bold beyond the racist move of putting only the hiphop CDs in lockboxes. Think: If Iggy Pop walked into your store, would he dig it? If Kim Gordon browsed your shelves, would she buy anything? If Mos Def thumbed your vinyl, would he walk away empty-handed?

To paraphrase our president, area stores should stop succumbing to the politics of low expectations. When was the last time you were ever inspired? Saw something, heard something so amazing that you felt grateful to be alive? That made you glad you had ears and eyes and working hips? Made you giddy that you had discovered something you never heard before? Made you feel a part of something?

Thank God for cars.

Four hours from the District, kids are dancing to the Electric Prunes. And to the Eyes and to the early Who. They try hard—flapping their arms, wiping the sweat from their brows, jerking their hips, looking like they’re trying to fart. They sing along—loudly.

Much beer is spilled. A few records skip because the dancing gets so frenzied. It’s not 1965. It’s not even the Vespa squad that congregates at the Black Cat for Britpop nights. It’s high school kids, college kids, post-college kids in the middle of nowhere—in the valley of central Pennsylvania—getting hot and baked and bothered to the rawest, jammiest shit. The records D.C. almost never hears. The records you can’t buy in the District.

All I could do was lean into the DJ’s ear and ask, “WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING?”

The DJ was my old record-store manager, Ken. I had come up to visit him and to check out the old store—where I spent $164. That night he was spinning records at one of the local bars. It was a lame joint that usually drowned itself in cheap booze and cover bands.

But tonight, Ken got to play all those old mod records: stiletto-sharp soul, slashing guitars, big-beat drums. He had spent months stocking the store with these sounds, playing them for kids and getting them interested in something not on MTV, something they weren’t pre-programmed to like.

It was such a goofy scene: People were actually smiling and whipping out their air guitars. There were no self-conscious poses. Just carnal love of the music. By the end of the night, two kids light a TV on fire and get themselves arrested.

It could never happen here. I wish it could. CP