City Paper is not for tourists
Contrary to popular belief or High Fidelity author Nick Hornby, record stores are not for slackers. Ignored by critics, bombed by Best Buy, and forgotten by rock historians, they midwife the culture across their dusty floors, through plastic sleeves, and into active ears. While the kids give the artists credit for creating, the artists give the kids props for listening, and the critics pump themselves for discerning, no one remembers the stores that had the guts to sell the stuff.
Tuned into the street rather than the tube, they are our underground post offices. They are meeting places for punk pickups, band breakups, and scene shakedowns. Slouching toward the millennium, teens may be hooked up to Microsoft’s Great Society, but it’s still the stores that truly celebrate rock culture on its own terms.
Go! Compact Discs has spent the last three and a half years trying to find its own route to that culture. Having moved three times in as many years, Go! settled into the Black Cat at the end of November for what would two months later become its final resting place.
The store had always staked its name on being Arlington’s and the area’s best place for indie pop. Catering to the ‘burbs, Go! was a dysfunction junction where kids could meet and trainspot the latest genres from comfy couches. The shop certainly played up the vinyl Romper Room motif. What looked like a valentine to Calvin Johnson, complete with Kitschwerk devoted to Slumberland and TeenBeat rosters, soon embraced a measure of community outreach. But between Lois strumming to kids hushed at her feet and the sweaty indie-rock flea markets, Go! never managed to find stable ground.
While the store’s racks swelled with underground comix, its employeesjust as confused as the music scene, come to think of itlooked eerily like the Peanuts gang. You could see the end of this strip coming months ago. Go! may have marked a time when indie pop was king.
11/30/96 Dressed up for its opening night, Go! Compact Discs lays itself out like some space-age bachelor pad. The record bins are sprayed rocket-ship silver to match the tin light fixtures. Hogging the back wall, the Go! neon sign sits unblinking. At its lip, the counter is embroidered with white plastic cupcake grooves. “It’s very Jimmy,” offers Vicki James, referring to owner Jimmy Cohrssen, who is conspicuously absent. Bunkered in the basement of the Black Cat, this latest effort looks like a practical attempt to ignore the drunks urinating a few feet away.
As it is, the party plays decidedly casual. Customers stumble in, looking as if they’ve come too early, surprised to even find a record store here. Most just stop and stare, knowing they didn’t bring money, while the more ambitious flip through the vinyl finger food. And waiting behind the counter, James and Sohrab Habibion fidget nervously, as awkward as wrongly placed utensils, hoping to field their first customer.
“Is it OK if I bring a drink down here?” a customer asks, clutching a half-dozen discs.
Habibion looks around and says, “Sure. Why not? You can drink here.”
James looks a bit frightened by the possibilities. “I’m a little afraid of rowdy people,” she explains, checking over the crowd. “If we need anything, we can always call the bouncers. But I think most of these kids are cool.”
The guy comes back with a pint. After a few gulps he heads upstairs, leaving his CDs and the glass coolly on the counter.
12/10/96 “I didn’t open the doors yet!” screams a Black Cat bouncer barreling down the steps, cigarette in hand. “I can’t have people running around, coming down, smoking crack in the bathrooms before the show.”
Once at the bottom of the stairs, he notices that his would-be crackhead intruders are just Go! employees Jimmy Askew and Laura Teeler trying to open the store’s door. It’s 8:10 p.m., and the Black Cat opens at 8:30. The only problem is that Go! was scheduled to open at 8:00. “It’s cool,” the bouncer says, apologizing. “I come down at 9, and then I get hyper at 1.” Everything under control, the pre-hyper bouncer flips his hair and quickly scampers off.
Ten days after Go!’s opening, Askew and Teeler admit it has been hard adjusting to living under someone else’s roof. The store still lacks a direct phone line and UPS servicenew orders get delivered to employees’ homes. As a crowd starts to gather, Teeler discovers a more pressing shortage. She realizes the CD player and cash register won’t turn on. Askew checks the wires. “None of the switches are off back here,” he yells.
“Are you going to page Jimmy?” Cohrssen is again conspicuously absent.
“Will you watch the store for a second?” Teeler asks me. I make my way behind the counter. She and Askew page Cohrssen and get no response. Finally, Askew switches on the sockets, and Go! is back in business. He celebrates by spinning Rocket From the Crypt.
“It’s still a new thing,” he explains. “It’s a tough crossover. It’s going to be a while for people to come downstairs and go, ‘Oh, this is interesting. Wow, there’s this bright space.’”
Both Askew and Teeler realize the move was a must. After a Best Buy moved in near Go!’s old location, customers became scarce. On a Friday night, the old Go! could expect fewer than 10 sales. The expectations here are anxious at best. “We’re hoping the crack addicts in the neighborhood don’t steal the CDs and sell them back,” Teeler jokes, adding that the Cat’s crowds will be tough to assimilate. “I think people are still getting used to it. Like I said, this is a very punk crowdwhich we haven’t done well with.”
Even before Go! opened at the Black Cat, there were more troubles than simply crossing over and attracting customers. Employees, who wish to remain anonymous, admit the store held a “substantial debt” and that the move was a last-ditch effort. Although Cohrssen insists the store’s woes were caused by poor sales and that the debt was nothing unusual, the employees saw the problem as a major burden. The debt was big enough for Matador to refuse to sell Go! its catalog, and Dischord was forced to arrange a payment plan. Many distributors demanded cash up front before selling to the store.
Krista Schmidt, a distribution and sales representative at Touch and Go, agrees mismanagement was a constant impediment. She says she isn’t surprised by Go!’s closing. “I think they were a great store. It just seemed like managing money was their biggest problem,” she explains, adding that the store still owes the label money. “They could sell what we sold them. That was not a problem. They just could never pay us for it.”
One unpaid local distributor says he feels used. “I saw it as, we were being taken advantage of,” he says. “They knew about us for a long time, and then they ordered from us around Thanksgiving. I felt we were preyed upon. We gave them the benefit of the doubt.”
While Go! burned a few bridges, independent record stores nationwide have suffered from a much larger problemindie-rock’s own crumbling infrastructure. A survey of the three biggest mom-and-pop-store distributorsAlliance, Valley, and Universalshowed that more than 1,000 indie stores have gone out of business during the last two years. Although some suggest the emergence of stores such as Best Buy and lack of local radio support as primary causes for this loss, the D.C. area’s troubles stem from diminishing stability.
Vinyl Ink’s owner, George Gelestino, says mail order now makes up more than 60 percent of his sales. He first saw a dropoff in in-store sales about two years ago. He has since had to cut back on staff, continuously update his mail-order catalogs as well as online services and sell CDs at break-even prices$9.55to stay afloat. “I think that D.C. is a very conservative town; it’s also a very transient town,” Gelestino explains. “By the time you get a customer base, they’re gone. Punk is just not as strong as it used to be. I think that maybe it stagnated.”
Indeed, the major labels’ post-Nirvana signing binge certainly diluted the market. Counterfeit punks and labels set up by the majors made things confusing. Dominant indie labels such as SST or even Merge could not compete with the backing behind Sony’s 550 and Madonna’s Maverick.
Jenny Toomey, co-owner of Simple Machines, sees this as a frustrating sign for any indie business. With “punk rock” available at any Tower listening station, the scene as well as the product has dispersed back to the ‘burbs and beyond. “I don’t think you’re going to get the kind of community sharing anymore,” Toomey says. “Before you had to talk to one another; you had to go out to the show to see a band. We were represented in a lot of channels.”
12/25/96 Askew feels at the moment like switching channels himself. It’s Christmas, and there’s a Make-Up show at the Black Cat. The crowd is huge. All the notables are out, including Calvin Johnson. Cohrssen appears to be conspicuously absent, but it’s hard to tell with this
many people here. What should be a big night for Go! prompts some soul searching from Askew. After the show, he tends the register looking depressed.
“I just graduated from college, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” Askew explains. “I’m 21, and I have a degree in philosophy. This is not my field, plus the scene sucks. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do personally. I don’t know what I want.”
As the crowds continue to comb through the racks, Askew stares into space. He needs to get out. “Hey!” he shouts, silencing the customers. “Because I want to go home and have something to eat, you all have a half-hour.”
After a meeting a few days later, Cohrssen tells his employees he is closing the store for good.
1/23/97 People are looking for Cohrssen, the conspicuously absent owner. Straddling the space between the counter and the phone, Askew isn’t sure what to do. “He’s supposed to be here,” Askew says. “If you want to page him, you’re just as likely to get him as we are. I’m really not trying to give you the runaround.” A label guy or a distributorno one is surehas crashed tonight’s closing party hoping to collect some cash.
As the crowds get bigger and a line forms, extending to the back of the club, almost nipping the neon Go! sign, DJ Stella Neptune struts in, dressed in silver Daisy Dukes, studded bra, and blond bouffant; she looks like Patsy from Ab Fab. And she’s pissedshe can’t find Cohrssen. “I’m just going to put on Saturday Night Fever and just leave. That will show him,” she stammers between silver-lip-glossed pouts.
Cohrssen finally shows up, and Neptune marches over, probably to belt him. He should be here, I think, as the crowds are the biggest since Go! first opened here. While clothing and vinyl prices are greatly reduced, the record buyers, ex-employees, and once-hip indie-popsters come to pay their respectsmainly to Go! but also to an era that’s history.
With Mark Robinson and Phil Krauth doing solo performances as well as ex-Egg Evan Shurak unveiling his new band, Laconic Chamber, the feel is definitely nostalgic. There were even rumors of a possible Unrest reunion. Shurak confides that all of it makes him feel old.
Askew, feeling reckless about his unemployment, cranks up Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and “Check Yo Self.” Although he has already started temping, he gets a lot of job-hunting advice. One leathered-up woman, sizing him up, offers him a tip on a job measuring radio towers around the country. “They’re looking for road-warrior types,” she snaps.
2/12/97 With the party now dragging through an extended hangover, Askew and Teeler squat and sort out the mess. On this late afternoon, the clothes sit dusty on the racks, the bins’ silver is tarnished, CDs litter the floor, tripping out of boxes, and Cohrssen is conspicuously absent. The Golden Palominos’ Dead Inside still hangs on the new-release rack, sharing space with Scrawl’s Travel On, Rider. Although Askew and Teeler are readying most of the gear to be bought by Flying Saucer Discs in Adams Morgan, there may just be another record store in the offing.
With the green neon sign still illuminated and waiting in the back, Askew ponders the possibilities. “You can’t believe that a record store couldn’t exist and be successful,” he says.CP